New review online: The Path to Ardroe by John Lent

August 3, 2012 by · 5 Comments 

My review of John Lent’s new novel is up on the National Post website. This is an interesting case for me, given recent online discussions of the nature and function of reviewing in our culture. The debates I’ve seen tend to break reviews down into opposing camps of positive (generally perceived as desirable) and negative (generally perceived as undesirable, and often prompted by spite or envy). In my experience, most books refuse to accede to this kind of reductivist thinking, and this is certainly the case with Lent’s novel. It’s a book that lingers, even weeks after writing the review. (There aren’t a lot of books I can honestly say that about these days.) One of the misapprehensions people seem to have about reviewing involves the assumption that a review is the critic’s final word on a book. My response to Lent’s novel is complex and, I admit, still evolving. The review in the Post represents a jumping off point, not a destination. Whether that is apparent to readers of the review is not up to me to determine.

Thematically, The Path to Ardroe involves a reckoning with Boomer nostalgia and the transformations that have accrued — most specifically in the areas of sexuality and aesthetics — since the 1960s. Longtime readers of Lent will recognize familiar elements here: the ever-present alcoholic fathers, the obsession with landscape, the devotion to music, and a narrative exploration of consciousness and being. Lent’s approach is resolutely interior, and in certain long passages of the book not a lot actually happens: The narrative is more concerned with contemplation about the march of history and the place of individual consciousness in the world. Although the book as a whole disavows the notion that the idealists of the sixties vanished into the self-absorbed yuppies of the 1980s, Lent generally allows his characters a nuanced view of progress.

Comments

5 Responses to “New review online: The Path to Ardroe by John Lent”
  1. theresa says:

    Thank goodness someone is reading carefully, beyond shades of grey and zombies and the latest technology, and giving a book such a considered review.

  2. Finn Harvor says:

    Steven:
    Good review. Balanced, fair-minded, convincing and beautifully articulated. However, when you state about reviewing generally that debates you’ve seen “tend to break reviews down into opposing camps of positive (generally perceived as desirable) and negative (generally perceived as undesirable, and often prompted by spite or envy)”, you lose me a little. Apart from Andre Alexis’ now-notorious article in THE WALRUS (which might have been more appropriately titled “The Long Decline of Anglo Literary Criticism Almost Entirely Restricted to the Major Dailies in Toronto”), I have not seen anyone with any kind of critical credibility actually say this. Is the distinction one between amateur and professional? And if so, what is the definition of “amateur”?

    Theresa:
    Nice comment. However, if you’ll forgive me for playing devil’s advocate, when you decry books about “shades of grey and zombies and the latest technology”, aren’t you really decrying the sort of commercial fiction that US and UK houses these days earn a substantial portion of their bread and butter from? And if so, is that really so wrong (I speak here from that point of view where the ideals of the culture have to be sustained by the realities of the economy)?

    I should add, I don’t like this sort of writing either … usually. However, there was an interesting article in Canadian Notes and Queries by Patricia Robertson that you might want to check out if you get the chance. Robertson argues for less domestic fiction and more politically/environmentally engaged work. At first, I felt uncomfortable with Robertson’s argument; she should have cut some of her digressions since on more than one occasion they veered dangerously close to the territory of the non sequitur. However, I now think she’s on to something, especially from the point of view of cultural production in Canada, which tends to eschew grand themes.

    IMHO, it wouldn’t hurt if CanLit was a little more daring on a *thematic* level. I don’t mean this as an either/or. However, it’s worth noting that Canadians are actually quite prolific readers — yet most of this reading remains the sort of commercial writing that supposedly is damaging literature. Put differently, Canadians book buyers continue to do what they have historically done: read a lot of American and British work, apart from CanLit.

    What are the Americans and British doing right? More: what is the relationship between crass commercial fiction in all its hearty, crass plenitude and literary fiction in its more rarefied, more solitary — yet also more fragile – state of being? And is part of the success of commercial fiction (say, thrillers) the result of *thematic* choices these writers are making?

  3. Barry says:

    It seems to me that the debate about book reviewing depends on assumptions about the job of reviewers. Is it to tell us what we should or should not be reading? Are book reviewers the arbiter of cultural quality and value ie. whether a book is important? Well, I used to think that as someone who writes and reviews books that was precisely my role. It made me feel good about myself to think I knew what was important and could have an influence. Feeling good about myself was about the only return on the time and effort I invested reviewing books (remuneration certainly held no enticement). Lately, I’ve come to the opposite conclusion: I am in no better position the judge whether a book is ‘important’ and should be read. To assess the ‘importance’ of a book is a fool’s game, akin to fortunetelling. The only legitimate and honest assessmment of a book that I can make as a reviewer is a personal one. I can say whether I like or dislike a book and state why. And the fact remains that there are thousands of reasons for liking or disliking a book, many of them idiosyncratic and most of them deeply personal.

  4. theresa says:

    I’m in favour of all kinds of books. I read everything. I don’t think commercial fiction damages literature and of course the line is kind of blurry anyway. Readers can make choices — if they know they have them, if someone provides a cogent and intelligent review in a place where they can see it. I have to say that I wish the books like John Lent’s new novel (and his previous books) received serious attention in the newspapers and other reviewing outlets which tend to make news of books like the zombie novels and the shades of grey (and of course by now there are the knock-offs, if you’ll forgive the pun). They don’t make news of The Path to Ardroe for the most part (though this review will garner readers, I’m predicting…). I’m not an economist but surely the absence of reviews and low sales figure into the larger equation that is part of what gets published, where the marketing dollars are spent, how long a book is kept on a bookstore shelf, all that.

  5. Finn Harvor says:

    “I have to say that I wish the books like John Lent’s new novel (and his previous books) received serious attention in the newspapers and other reviewing outlets which tend to make news of books like the zombie novels and the shades of grey (and of course by now there are the knock-offs, if you’ll forgive the pun). They don’t make news of The Path to Ardroe for the most part (though this review will garner readers, I’m predicting…).”

    Okay. But please remain mindful that it was the NP review, and not this blog addendum, that most people will see. Also, it’s worth noting that Steven’s main point about reviewing generally is that reviews — including thoughtful albeit negative commentary — are a necessary part of the cultural ecosystem. He’s repeatedly called for elite reviews; these will tend to be rather nuanced and, to the average reader, less than effusive sounding.

    Speaking personally, if I had just read the NP review, I would not be prompted to buy Lent’s book; I would pick it up in a bookstore, yes, out of curiosity. But unless I was really bowled over by a few passages I read in it, I wouldn’t be buying it. On the other hand, I won’t be finding Lent’s book in a Seoul bookstore any time soon. But that’s another issue. Which brings one back to the question of what it is that makes a book (i.e. the kinds of bestsellers that UK and US publishing houses regularly produce) an international success. Sure, pandering to junk taste is part of the formula. And you make a good point when you comment on the knock-offs that will arise when a certain cheesy genre (vampires, SM-centric vampires, SM-centric rich, handsome bastards, etc., etc.) succeeds. But there are other novels these houses are publishing that are succeeding internationally, too. And one reason these latter books succeed, I think, is because they tackle the current age, they tackle big themes. The books are *written* to stand out.