Once in a generation, a rare book will arise above the shoulders of its contemporaries, a book chosen from inception to be in a dark world a shining beacon of all that is loathsome in the aesthetics of the American bourgeoisie. All nations stand agape before it, astonished that any entity can be such a paragon of triteness. They bow down before its insensate mass, hoping to be spared the spiritual emptiness that enters into all that it touches; but like a sphinx or some ancient chthonic deity, with monstrous indifference it continues on its way, afflicting all it passes with cultural blight and gangrene of the soul. “Stella Bain” is that book. Anita Shreve is purportedly its author, but this title is too humble for her. She is a prophetess, a vessel through which the utterances of the dark gods of mediocrity are conveyed to a helpless humanity. It is impossible that “Stella Bain” is a work of human origin; its trashy perfection is attributable only to a divine architect. The creationists must be right after all, except in this: their higher power is benevolent, whereas “Stella Bain” is not the work of any being that has the best interests of man at heart.
It is difficult to distinguish the worst aspect of this work, but it is expedient to begin with its plot, which is so far-fetched as to be laughable. In the midst of World War I, a woman wakes in a French field hospital with almost total amnesia, a medical condition of such rarity that it strains the reader’s suspension of disbelief from the very first page. This fact would be bearable, if it were not also coupled with the ludicrous circumstance that she remembers how to drive an ambulance, a somewhat unusual skill for a woman in 1916. This fact is presented with little wonder and without any irony or humor. The only character who expresses any reasonable incredulity is the English nun running the ward in which the woman awakes, but she is soon dissolved into the irrationality enveloping the other characters. The woman’s mysterious ambulance-driving skills are accepted at face value for the rest of the book.
The woman decides that her name is Stella Bain for no apparent reason and suddenly is discovered to be such a talented portraitist that all the orderlies request drawings. Needless to say, this occurrence is conveniently timed so that within two pages Stella has made enough money to pay for passage to London. She feels that she must seek out the Admiralty for no good reason besides some obscure internal impulse piercing through the confusion. In London, the intrepid amnesiac-ambulance-driver-portraitist is taken in by a surgeon who, in a set of the most agonizing scenes in the book, practices pop-psychology talk therapy on her. The rest of the plot cannot be conveyed without spoilers, but it contains such cartoonish figures as an evil husband, an obnoxious custody lawyer, innocent and helpless children, and a noble, sensitive, aesthetically aware, tennis-playing conscientious objector ambulance driver. As is the case everywhere else, they are all presented as completely serious characters in spite of the fact that their proper context be would a Lemony Snicket novel.
If “Stella Bain” had a redeeming prose style, perhaps some of its contents’ fatuousness could be excused. However, Shreve displays a true mastery of the whole spectrum of awkwardness in the English language. The main narrative is given in the historical present, an annoying modern stylistic tic. This jarring tense is punctuated by bizarre efforts at profundity and cleverness. For example, in the description of field-hospital work: “The surgeon’s job is beyond belief, a hell on earth worse than any hell imagined.” As if the sentence were not already a stylistic cripple from the trite modifier “beyond belief,” Shreve mercilessly finishes it off with the lamest comparison that comes to hand. Shreve also has latched onto the idea that ending chapters mid-thought is clever and attractive. A sample: “She moves forward until she can walk no more, but still she keeps trudging. She walks until she comes to a stop against a wrought-iron fence. A woman in a rose-colored suit asks her a question.” Then the chapter ends. This technique does not produce a cliffhanger effect, but irritates. Similarly, Shreve has tremendous control over awkward litotes: “Dr. Bridge is not an unhandsome man, and she puts him in his late thirties.” There are other tics that one could mention, but from the few presented it is clear that “Stella Bain” may be the clunkiest book published not only in 2013, but also in the past decade.
Two choice examples speak for the considerable problems with Shreve’s dialogue. During Stella’s talk therapy: “‘Who is with you in the garden?’ ‘No one,’ she says. ‘Well, maybe someone else is there, below eye level—a gardener, perhaps, but I can’t see who it is. But… oh… it’s going. The garden is going….’ She reaches out a hand as if she could pull it back. She looks up at Dr. Bridge. ‘How did that happen? Where has it gone?’” Rather than conveying vividness, the ellipses merely convey the impression that Shreve cannot control dialogue rhythm and the reader’s visualization of the scene without relying on punctuation to do her work. Worse, she makes Stella look like a fool with her unironic treatment of a mental image as something concrete that could have gone somewhere. In another instance, a conversation Stella has about being an artist, a stilted effort at a conversational tone supersedes all other flaws: “‘Can you do that?’ he asked. ‘Just decide to become an artist?’ ‘Well, you could. It’s better if you feel you have some talent.’”
Nevertheless, perhaps Shreve should listen to her own character on this last point. In any case, the verdict is clear: “Stella Bain” possesses less literary charm than a CVS sales circular. The most alarming aspect, however, is that Shreve is considered a person of some literary importance, with an O. Henry award under her belt and an elevation to the pantheon of the Oprah Book Club. These are dark times. All one can do is hope for a better, less baneful future.
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