“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Is It Just Us? # 201: OUT STEALING HORSES by Per Petterson

It’s won top prizes and very probably outsold the Mac by now, but seriously folks – why all the fuss over OUT STEALING HORSES? Recommended to your humble hosts by a good friend whose opinion we very much value, the silence-exile-cunning schtick seemed like our kind of thing. And yes, there’s a gamin appeal to the contemporary Grizzly Adams-style retreat to the wilderness, but we made it halfway through the book with only an accidental death and the possibility of illicit affair to sustain the narrative. There’s plenty of walking the dog to be had, and any amount of reverie about how beautiful the Norwegian landscape is, and stout, yeomanly prose frustratingly reminiscent of a callow Cormac McCarthy. But reasons to keep reading in the hope of a unique experience that might justify all the hype? Nary a one. We’re not trying to be obtuse, believe it or not – we just don’t get it. Can anyone help?

10 comments:

Claire Coughlan said...

I've had this on my 'to read' pile for over a year now and still haven't brought myself to dip into it(actually, it's someone else's copy I have - sorry, Sinéad!). Would be interested to read it now to see whether or not I agree with you.

Diane Lawlis said...

I can't help but leave a comment even though I haven't read this book. This topic really tickles one of my pet peeves concerning the American "reading" population. I think that the general public has become terribly uneducated and sheepish. People buy books from the bestsellers list assuming that they must be good if so many people are reading them. They read them, like them, and tell all their friends about this "great book" they read that’s on the bestsellers list. Big whoopideedoo. I think the idea that a book MUST be good because it made a bestsellers list is patently incorrect and is something I discovered to be untrue at the ripe old age of eleven. What kind of judge does our general public make if it is a generally accepted notion that our educational system, to be frank, sucks ass.
In all fairness, I admit that I am making some gross generalizations and I know that there are books which are bestsellers and, in fact, are quite good. Sadly, I believe that those books are the exception. And since I could write about this topic for pages and pages, I will end with one of my favorite quotations from the estimable Dick Cavett.
"As long as people will accept crap, it will be financially profitable to dispense it."

Declan Burke said...

Claire, we're all about the disagreeing on CAP. You go, girl. And Sinead is generally on the ball. Diane - I do hear what you're saying, but I didn't make the "best-seller = good" leap on OUT STEALING HORSES; I had it recommended to me by quite a few people, and the writing style is good. But it's just not an interesting story. I put it down halfway through, which isn't my usual practice at all, and picked up John McFetridge's DIRTY SWEET, which has more story in its first chapter than OSH had in its entire first half. Certainly I appreciate a well-turned phrase as well as the next man or woman, but I'm tired of reading 'literary' novels that are all about style, mood and prose at the expense of a good old-fashioned story that entertains as much as it informs. Or is that too gauche in these po-mo times? Cheers, Dec

Diane Lawlis said...

Dec - I'm a Texas girl born and bred so I'm all for gauche and love a good story as much as the next person. Sorry if I implied that you had gone the "best-seller = good" route. That isn't what I meant. I understand that isn't exactly what you were writing about, either, but it obviously brought that notion to my mind. I think it's all part of a larger trend in which people are reacting to some of the truly awful works that are getting published by doing their damnedest to produce works that are so out of the box they are practically beyond comprehension. I've been thinking a lot about this lately (in case that wasn't obvious) and it makes me wonder if culturally we are moving towards a period of more reactionary art as was experienced in the early 20th century during the Dada movement. Perhaps it would not produce works as extreme as Dadaism did, but it might produce works that are very focused on their literary merits as opposed to trying to write something that is purely entertaining.
Or perhaps I'm full of it.
Did I mention pie earlier? -Diane

Declan Burke said...

Diane - The cherry pie offer was duly noted, never fear. As for OUT STEALING HORSES - it's neither out of its box nor beyond comprehension. Per Petterson is very obviously an expert craftsman when it comes to prose. My problem was simply that I was bored with the story. Perhaps I've been reading too much crime fiction lately, and expecting that every novel should be as relevant as it is well written. Salman Rushdie's THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE being a case in point: a beautifully written page-turner that engages with shifting cultural identities. My current read, John McFetridge's DIRTY SWEET, offers an insight into the issues faced by modern, urban Canada (and by extension the First World) as it comes to terms with immigration and relative cultural values, but it's still an elegant, page-turning read with at least two characters I care enough about to want to know how their story works out. Is that really too much to ask of every book you read? As for the resurrection of Dadaism and an impending period of reactionary art - I'm expecting, given the way the books industry is going, and the technological developments, a revolution akin to that of the punk music watershed in 1976, and a period of simple, direct relevance. It may get coarse for a while, but it should be honest, meaningful and worth your and my time. Cheers, Dec

bookwitch said...

Declan, it's fashionable to be into Nordic heavy stuff. Won't catch me reading it, though.

Good people; read YA instead. I've been laughing and giggling my way through the new Artemis Fowl (out in August) and wondering why people ever bother with "grown up" books.

And, Declan, yours isn't all that grown up, so don't worry.

Declan Burke said...

Harsh words, Ms Witch, but softly spoken. I thank you kindly. Cheers, Dec

Josh Schrank said...

Hmmmm... Diane, you may be onto a new art movement here. Apathetic Dadaism... "Not as good as the first stuff, but who cares."

;) nice to see you around still.

Sinéad said...

I've badgered Claire into reading this, but I thought she had also given up on it.

I loved it for lots of reasons. It's moving and beautifully written but the pacing - which is not for everyone - is perfect. For me the landscape was almost as central a character as Trond. I hear what you're saying about mood/atmosphere over style and story, but I really liked the story. It wasn't crash-bang-wallop stuff, but there was enough narrative touchpaper to keep me reading. Peterson's huge gift is for the way he portrays memory and all its nuances.

Declan Burke said...

Hi Sinead - I do appreciate the quality of Per Petterson's telling, and maybe I just started the book at the wrong time for me ... I suppose I was looking for something special, to justify all the praise and prize-winning, and I didn't find it. Funny you should mention about memory and its nuances ... One thing I did like about it was how he has the narrator qualify one his memories, saying that it's not possible he should be able to remember in that kind of detail, but somehow he does ... It gives a very nice and human touch to that passage. Funnily enough, John McFetridge has one of his characters do exactly the same thing in my current read, albeit in a different context. Cheers, Dec