Discussing a book we’ve both read in preparation for another episode of The Men Who Explain Miracles, Dan made reference to some key event in the narrative that I simply did not remember…and this got me thinking: how much of a novel do you have to recall in order to be able to have an opinion on it? And in a plot-heavy undertaking like GAD, should you be expected to remember more, or less?
I have previous here. It emerged in the comments somewhere on this blog that there is a shooting towards the end of what I have called the greatest novel of detection of all time that I do not remember. Equally, were you to ask me to recall any detail of the plot, actions, characters, or motive of, say, E. Charles Vivian’s Evidence in Blue (1938) I’d be stumped without that there review of mine…and even then, it’s hazy (there’s a bit with an amusing railway porter where someone gets on or off a train, or is hit by a train — I appreciate those are very different things). Given my admitted flaws in recollection, do my opinions of either of these books stand up?
I do okay in the broad strokes of genre and detail: I’m not conflating Enid Blyton and Raymond Chandler, nor am I infuriated that no-one in St. Mary Mead seems to use their mobile phones or think of looking up anyone’s suspicious past on the interwebs. I have Fundamental Recall — the basic level of operation and contextual appreciation required to make the task of reading a book in the present a non-arduous task — sorted, but I think that’s a low bar. Slightly higher, I don’t recall every element of every page that passes in front of my eyes: I read over 100 books a year, including several long-running and involved multi-character SF undertakings where it is rather important to recall the gist of the previous 650-page tome before commencing the next one, and some stuff will of course get lost.
My question concerns the fact that — as, I’m hoping with, like, everyone — it’s between those two extremes where I go awry; it doesn’t concern me, forgetting is what we do, but I’m interested because many of us go online or go to book groups and have heated discussions about books we’ve read, loved…and probably forgotten a solid 15% of before even sitting down to talk about it.
My good friend Brad always makes me feel this very keenly whenever he writes about any Agatha Christie novel. He’ll graciously disdain “Well, I’m not totally clear on the details, but…” and then give a note-perfect recap of every character (by name!), every relationship, every meaningful clue, every red herring, and tie it all off with the coup de grace of the guilty party’s key mistake. Meanwhile, I can remember the general setting — archaeological dig, dentist’s office, aeroplane, etc — possibly the details of the crime therein — a man repeats the dinner at which his wife(?) was killed several years before only for someone else to die in the same circumstances, say — and typically some aspect of either the mechanics or, broadly, who the killer is — someone impersonating someone, usually — …and that’s it.
Me, after every Christie post Brad writes.
At best, I retain a general impression of a book once it’s read: I liked this, I hated the verbosity of that, the central misdirection of this is genius, hairy Aaron that detective is a moron. A certain amount of stacking the deck means that I can be reasonably sure I enjoyed something, because if there’s a book I read that I didn’t enjoy I typically pass it on; thus a glance over my bookshelves broadly incorporates only those books I liked (the few exceptions — where, say, I’m keeping something only to complete a set of an author’s work — really stick out in my brain). I know I really enjoyed Christie’s Murder on the Links (1923), but apart from it concerning Poirot and a rival detective competing in the investigation of a man found dead in a golf bunker wearing his father’s overcoat I remember staggeringly little else about it (there’s a shed at some point, and, uh…here endeth the lesson).
I’m not unduly worried, and I’m not confessing to anything — it’s hardly as if my reviews are full of pretend recall because the details fly out my head the instant I’m done, and in my discussions online with my better-informed others I frequently have to hold my hands up and say “Well, I’m not too clear on the details, but I seem to remember…”. I guess I’m just curious: the types of novels I read and discuss are usually heavy on plot, and so how much can one reasonably expect to forget and yet still discuss or defend such a book in any meaningful way? I imagine most of us have had that experience of rereading a book we thought was brilliant/terrible and discovered it’s actually terrible/brilliant, so how do you feel when that happens?
In short, do we just accept that we’re going to be hazy on the details, and that the plot-heavy structure gives us enough of an impression to hang our flawed opinions on? Or should we — because of the intricate nature of some of the books under consideration — be more mindful of how much/little we know, or set a termination date past which we gallantly decline to comment in any depth? Also: Ben, if you’re reading this, I’ve finished The Problem of the Wire Cage and emailed you some thoughts…if you’re able, we should get on with discussing it before I forget everything!