Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review of "An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England: A Novel" by Brock Clarke

Sam Pulsifer is a self-described bumbler. His bumbling led him to prison when he was a teenager when he accidentally burnt down the Emily Dickenson house, killing two people. When he is released from prison, he discovers that he has received fan mail from people who want him to burn down other writer's homes. After Sam has successfully put his past behind him, these letters and his accidental arson return to destroy his life.

An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England: A Novel is written by Brock Clarke and starts off wonderfully. The first chapter is filled with chuckles and promise. Then it lost me.

It is said that you have to like any book that you've read cover to cover. You've spent so much time reading it that even if you didn't like it you invent justifications as to why you wasted your life. I now know that's not true. This book managed to keep me vaguely interested with the promise of solving a mystery until the very last page. However, the journey was not very enjoyable and the mystery resolved in an unsatisfying manner.

I will admit that my non-enjoyment of the book is partially my fault. As the story unfolds and all the characters who know about Sam's arson unanimously agree that he burned the Emily Dickenson House on purpose, I began to believe that Sam Pulsifer is an unreliable narrator. As in, I believed that he did burn down the Emily Dickenson House on purpose and is in deep denial. As a result I read between the lines, found meanings that weren't there and laughed at Sam's foolish attempts to justify and hide his pyromania. Then, about three quarters of the way through the book, after much frustration and confusion about what was really going on in the story, I discovered that his past crime was indeed an accident and he is not a pyromaniac. It was disappointing and I felt pretty dumb. After that, the story seemed to be shallow. Once again, it was totally my fault for making connections that weren't there, but the disappointment lingers. That's a warning to you if you ever pick up this book: don't make the same bumble I did.

Then there's the other issue, one related to the interplay between humour and drama. I like my comedies a certain way. If a story is comic, I do not want to have too many moments of seriousness. The story of An Arsonist's Guide is ridiculous and that's good. Many of the characters are ridiculous and that's good, too. However, Sam Pulsifer's reactions to the silliness around him are realistic and understandable, even if they are cringe-worthy. The results of the uncomfortable situations into which he is thrust are usually not funny, but painful. When Sam interacts with other realistic characters, there is no comedy: only sadness and loneliness. The book is promoted as a black comedy but I really don't see it. A comedy ought to lift my spirits because I've had several good laughs, even if those laughs are ignoble and mean-spirited. This book left me feeling depressed and sorry for its bumbling protagonist.

Is this my fault again for not having a well-developed sense of humour? Maybe, but I doubt it and in this case I don't care. My book review, my opinion. Fuck off.

Final impressions: this book strikes me as the sort of comedy that a person who likes "literature" would enjoy. One of the hallmarks of modern literature is bleakness and depression. Please pardon the expression, but An Arsonist's Guide seems like a silly story with funny characters that was left out in the literary sun and spoiled. You can look at it and pick out bits that you like but it's sour and leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth.
1 1/2 smoking ruins out of 5