The 2014 Tournament of Books is here, and The Voyage Out will be spending a lot of time over the next month or so talking about this wonderfully book nerdy thing. I hope you enjoy our coverage.
The ‘hook’ is a real thing. We find a premise that intrigues us and we are driven forward by sure want of confirmation. The desire to make our guess at greatness come true may mean that we ignore a few things—until we are snapped back to reality by a very long, very boring, very unnecessary story within a novel of like writing. If unchecked, a really good premise can push us to finish a book that doesn’t really reciprocate for your time spent. Every time a great hook is wasted on a flawed novel, and angel looses its wings.
You can add Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees to the list of books with phenomenal hooks poorly executed. The list (my list, anyway) would include books like Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. All three of these books promise big, life altering family struggles that, from the outside looking in, feel like they just might help you understand something about the way things work. Russell never gets out of her own way, and Swamplandia! is more about great names and cool locations and funny situations, and is as shallow as the Florida swamps it takes place in. Gilead is manipulative. If you tell a really sad story, I will be sad. But that doesn’t make the book dynamic or good. The People in the Trees is about a young, socially awkward doctor named Paul Tallent. Perina gets chosen to go on an expedition to a small island, Ivu’ivu. On Ivu’ivu, Paul discovers the secret to everlasting life. But this life comes with a price. The book is a mystery, and relies heavily on twists–never a good way to built real art–so I won’t give too much away here in terms of plot trot.
Built like an academic text, the book pokes fun at the boring Ethnographies that many of us have read in school. But the problem is, those boring Ethnographies know exactly what they are, and they work hard to be part of the genre or field from which they come. Yanagihara fails to do the work that novels must do to sustain interest over a long period of time. She fails to give us a reason to care. All she really does is take a great story and put it down. Readers should demand more.
I actually think this book might do pretty well in this competition. A strong hook and a solid structural component might just be what a judge is looking for, but the book lacks any kind of subtlety to make it worth your time.