ranters and ravers

Rushdie, Burroughs, Palahniuk: Whose ‘TBR’ Review Was the Worst?

Photo illustration: iStockphoto; Courtesy of Random House, St. Martin’s, Doubleday

It was a busy week, apparently, for whichever intern is in charge of hatchet-sharpening duties at The New York Times Book Review. The magazine — often accused by critical observers of being soft — ran three highly entertaining, impeccably written, overwhelmingly negative reviews of major books this weekend, and the only question is this: Which of the three victims suffered the most over the course of his execution?

David Gates’s evisceration of Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence was the last thing that book needed, after the pan it already got from Michiko Kakutani last week. The former Newsweek book reviewer, who took a buyout from the magazine last month, seemed excited to write at length and with maximum scorn about Rushdie’s new novel, which Gates finds self-aggrandizing and dull. “No writer — and no reader — doubts the transformative power of language,” Gates writes exasperatedly. “Now can we shut up about it?”

Meanwhile, New York’s own Hugo Lindgren has had about enough of Augusten Burroughs. “Another dark and twisted tale,” Lindgren writes of Burroughs’s new memoir, A Wolf at the Table, although unlike Running With Scissors, “this one is rarely entertaining … If there is a single comic moment, I was too depressed to notice it.” More pointedly, Lindgren — like other reviewers — calls out the diminishing returns Burroughs’s fifth memoir delivers. “Such is the problem with serial memoirists,” Lindgren writes. “If all this material is so important and personally illuminating, how come we never caught a whiff of it before?”

But the gold medal goes to Chuck Palahniuk’s Snuff, which as it happens is the target of — and there’s no nicer way to put this — a snuff review by Lucy Ellman, one that offers the queasy-making sight of a book being shot dead by a reviewer bent on mayhem. The review begins in a state of fury — “What the hell is going on?” is Ellmann’s lead — and just gets better from there. “Not only has America tried to ruin the rest of the world with its wars, its financial meltdown and its stupid stupid food, it has allowed its own literary culture to implode,” Ellmann rants. And then she gets down to it, ravaging not only Palahniuk but his readers — “Have they no pride?” she asks — and then pulls the trigger for the kill shot:

The risk in objecting to all this is that you look like a fuddy-duddy. But the problem is not the moral turpitude that Palahniuk pretends to promote or tolerate; the problem is his lack of artistry. He has allowed the failings of the culture he criticizes to infect his own work. The feeble irony employed here isn’t up to the job of processing all the detritus he hurls at us. Who will de-trite us now?

Whew! The entire review is well worth reading; it’s the rare book review that makes us actually want to read a book not by the reviewee but by the reviewer. Lucy Ellmann’s a feisty one!

A World of Marvels [NYTBR]
Life With Father [NYTBR]
Love the Ones You’re With [NYTBR]

Rushdie, Burroughs, Palahniuk: Whose ‘TBR’ Review Was the Worst?