How do you review something you don’t really understand.
I’m currently trying to review something that is…obtuse and experimental. This is new territory for me. I’ve liked my fair share of experimental books in my time but to review one? Reviewing a narrative is something I can do, it’s easy for me to open up a hood of a car and see the engine. Much harder to open it up and find some cheese wired to a copy of Batman Returns on VHS. That is not to insult the work, more to say I understand it fully.
When reviewing something, or even just thinking about it, especially when I’m unsure about what it’s trying to do, I usually ask myself a few questions. These are not meant to be universal, but they tend to do help me. “What was this trying to do, was it’s aims worth fulfilling and did it succeed?” are these three questions. And I find myself stumped in all three of these here. If the book is just an exercise in experimentation for it’s own sake then that would satisfy the questions, but I’m not sure that’s what’s going on here.
I feel like how a film critic must have felt in 1977 walking out of Eraserhead, dealing with a new artist with a very distinct vision that’s new and so hard to put into a context. Although at least with Eraserhead there are some clear parental themes that can be pulled out of it, this work is a lot more difficult, partly due to being a collection of stories with no clear through-line.
I think have managed to pull through in the end, I think I have found a workable framework for this review. There’s always a way, I’m just not sure this is the right way, if there is such a thing.
There isn’t a straightforward answer to any of these questions. We often think reviewing is about being the expert critic who pronounces on the book, who is able to tell reviewers how and what to think, and is knowledgeable about writers and their literary history. I’ve done reviewing for well on 10 years now and think that this isn’t the only way to review (certainly, it is one of the established ways). I think your strategy of asking questions in order to think about the title is a good one, and is one that I’ve employed of late. It’s much better to have a “conversation” with book, asking of it “why”, “what” and even “how”, than simply blandly praising it. Linda Chown’s emphasis on essaying/reviewing as “intransitive”, taking no object as such but to be part of a process (for “a transitive verb needs to transfer its action to something or someone—an object”) surely must characterise reading as a dialogical process better?