Certain books I've read recently have troubled me. They're well-written, even brilliant in their prose. Their plots are intricately crafted, their characters intriguing. Thoughtful reviewers have applauded them. Their authors are highly sophisticated fellows. But, somehow, these novels lack a soul — they're works of genius, but not of humanity.
I've struggled to put into words the problem that I have with such books. Then I remembered a scene from the movie version of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club. During an airplane trip the nameless first-person narrator is seated next to Tyler Durden. Their conversation concludes:
Narrator: Tyler, you are by far the most interesting single serving friend I have ever met. See, I have this thing: everything on a plane is single serving, even the people.
Tyler: Oh, I get it, it's very clever.
Narrator: Thank you.
Tyler: How's that working out for you?
Tyler: Being clever?
Tyler: Keep it up then.
The authors of these books are too clever — like a tightrope walker 20 meters above a pit of tigers who also insists on reciting Hamlet's soliloquy while knitting a scarf, blindfolded. Hold it to one or two slick tricks at a time, please! Too much simultaneous smartness makes for mere distraction ... a lesson that I should keep in mind too, eh?
(I debated listing titles of some candidate too-clever books here, but finally decided not to — perhaps someday I'll be clever enough to appreciate them; cf. CutTheVolume (5 Mar 2004), CloudAtlas (7 Apr 2005), ...)