Yesterday I started reading Mike Madison’s Blithe Tomato, and found it richly exciting. I was 80 pages into the 199-page book when I wrote my entry, and looked forward to spending many more evenings with it.
As it turned out, it didn’t take me quite that long to finish the book — just until 10 last night. Madison’s writing remained fresh and clear to the end, and I enjoyed the reading, but somewhere around page 125 I began to get a feeling of unreality as well; I became skeptical, and wondered whether Madison could really be as balanced and philosophical and good as he sounded. I remember the same thing happened to me when I read David Mas Masumoto’s Epitaph for a Peach — and that slight cynical flavor has made me never want to read the book again, though I remember enjoying it deeply the first time. I guess what this feeling really translates to is: “Is he putting me on? Is this all a show to make me feel warm and fuzzy, so I’ll buy more books and more organic produce?” I can’t believe I’m so pessimistic as to have this thought about both these beautifully written books, but there it is.
I’m thinking about what could have prompted these thoughts, and I’ve come to two conclusions. The first is that one of the stories in Madison’s book made me uncomfortable: it made me wonder whether he was writing about the farm from which we get our CSA box. Madison changed names and identifying details, so I have no way of knowing whether he’s really describing Eatwell, but certain details just made me feel really uneasy: the farmer has an English accent, he spends a lot of time updating his website, the farm is a large organic one not far from Madison’s own, they sell primarily to the SF market. I love our CSA and do feel quite warmly and fuzzily devoted to it, so I hate to even think that it might be an overpriced sham (which is what Madison’s story suggested). So this story started a little seed of discomfort in me that persisted for the rest of the book, and persists still, since I have no way of ever knowing whether my suspicion is correct.
The second is that I’ve noticed a pattern throughout the book. The book is a collection of very short essays, most of them only two or three pages. As I said yesterday, they are all little gems, but I wonder whether it isn’t, on some level, wearying to have such a collection of gems all in one place. The thing is, while the details are rich and colorful, many of the stories can be boiled down to a pithy, heartwarming/philosophical message: “You have to take the bad with the good,” “Life has become more complicated and less happy than it used to be,” “People are generally okay once you get to know them,” “Farming helps us get back in touch with our natural roots,” etc, etc. These morals-of-the-story make the book seem repulsively maudlin; it is not. But there are 61 essays in the book, and nearly all of them do end in some kind of message, and nearly all of these come in a few eloquent lines at the end of the essay. After a while, one sees a pattern: get to end of essay, story winds down, message appears. I think it’s the constant recurrence of this pattern that makes me feel like there’s something unreal, something deliberately crafted and therefore potentially spurious, about the book’s peaceful tone. And I bet if I went back to Epitaph for a Peach, I’d find the same kind of pattern. Essentially, it’s a problem of too much of a good thing. There’s no one story that’s worse than the others, so I don’t know where you’d want to cut, but taken all together, it just might be too much.
Come to think of it, this is a problem that undermines a great many heartwarming books. I’m thinking particularly of stories about rescued animals, and bestselling travel books like Under the Tuscan Sun and A Year in Provence. The details are wonderful, but eventually the reader can predict the message of each chapter as it comes, and it’s always fundamentally the same: heartwarming, philosophical, universal, humble-and-yet-not-because-after-all-you’re-writing-about-yourself. The reader knows that difficulties will always straighten themselves out, cantankerous characters will become likeable, and the narrator/protagonist will come away having Learned Something Deep They Could Never Have Learned If They Hadn’t Rescued This Kitten/Moved to Europe/Started Farming.
Augh! I hate writing this because I sound so callous and cynical, and I’m really not… BUT I do have a fondness for the lovable and sentimental in both my reading and my writing. So it’s good for me to recognize that sweetness becomes cloying after a time. I just wish I didn’t have to lose some of my affection for this book in finding this out.