Friday, November 28, 2008

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (literary fiction)

I hesitate to slap a derisive label like "chick lit" on anything, but author Sara Gruen's third novel is a prime example of the worst kind of "women's fiction"; Water for Elephants was obviously written by a woman solely for other women, with no attempt to be realistic from the male point of view. Instead it perpetuates the romantic ideals set forth by Harlequin and its ilk — heights that no three-dimensional male can ever reach. (No wonder it was a word-of-mouth bestseller.)

This is shown most strikingly through Gruen's protagonist, Jacob Jankowski. He does not talk, think, or act like any (straight) man I have ever met. The purpose he serves, it seems, is to stand in for a lot of women's idea of what a man should be. When a man looks at another man and calls him "unshaven" with the implication that what he really means is "unclean," you know you're nowhere near reality. This type of man lives only in fiction.

Gruen even makes Jacob a virgin (though old enough to have a degree from veterinary school) so that when he and the female lead finally make it to the bed (which is inevitable in this world), it more closely match the unspoken wishes of her audience.

(Now, understand, men's fiction is no better from the woman's point of view, with the hero more often than not bedding the female lead, who then conveniently dies so he can have access to a series of new women without guilt for the expense of a succession of prostitutes. I'm not saying it's any better, but at least it's marketed to men and not a general audience.)

Gruen relies so much on stereotypes from romance novels (or even just their covers) and "chick flicks" that none of the characters in Water for Elephants ever feels like a real human being but simply an archetype playing its part in her story. The writing flows nicely, and the story is somewhat interesting if you don't mind melodrama.

Also, Gruen manages to humanize people who have previously been seen as freaks, but this was all for nought when I never believed that the narrator was telling me the truth about his gender. I actually kept waiting for that to be a "twist" in the story, and in fact was disappointed when it never came.

Plus, if a man were really telling the story, he would undoubtedly have recognized the sophomoric unintentional hilarity in the following passage: Teams of men are ... raising enormous poles.... I pass a group of ten throwing their combined weight against a single rope as a man off to the side chants, "Pull it, shake it, break it! Again—pull it, shake it, break it! Now downstake it!" [p. 34].

(Yeah, that's what she said!)


James Reasoner said...

I kind of liked this one for the Depression setting and the circus background, but yeah, the narrator was never the least bit believable.

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks for the confirmation. No one else I've mentioned this to had any clue what I was talking about.

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