My review of Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country ran today in the Boston Globe.
In college, I once received a note from a professor: “Embrace the beauty of the simple sentence.” I laughed. I knew what he meant. I also had no intention of taking his note. I love rich, complex sentences that pack a lot of ideas into a single thought.
I like them in the literature I read, and, perhaps unwisely, I like to use them in the writing I do (though in recent years, I’ve tried to be more mindful of my professor’s words).
Ben Metcalf clearly loves thick, complex prose. And he’s pretty good at writing it, too. Looking back at his essays for Harpers, they’re full of the same kind of long, elaborate sentences and descriptions that make up the core of his first novel, Against the Country. But it’s one thing to make that style (and its accompanying cynical tone) work over the course of a 5,000 word essay. It’s quite another to keep it up for several hundred pages.
Against the Country is the story of an unnamed narrator’s difficult childhood in Goochland County, Virginia, a rural backwater depicted in the most hyperbolic manner imaginable, to better express the protagonist’s belief that it is hell on Earth. Metcalf’s prose is the star of the book. Far more so than the main character, who comes off as relentlessly grim and unlikeable, or the general thrust of the narrative, which is that rural communities are full of barely human idiots.
But after two-hundred pages or so, it becomes tiring to fight your way through his admittedly fascinating prose only to end up at some dismal dead end, rewarded only with another sullen conclusion that someone is a moron. At least in the beginning, the examination of Goochland’s strange folkways is interesting, in much the same way that gawking at a car crash has some macabre appeal. Once the book narrowed its focus, however, to the relationship between the narrator and his father, the stylized prose wasn’t enough to maintain my interest.
The book closes with a ponderous appendix that gives short biographies of all the dogs owned by the narrator’s family. I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a parody of Faulkner’s appendix to The Sound and the Fury, but I figure it must be. It felt really superfluous, so I found myself reaching for some rationale for its inclusion. That’s the best I could come up with.