Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Cleaving, by Julie Powell
Just before I started reading Cleaving , Julie Powell’s second book after the very successful Julie & Julia, I received the sad news that Gourmet, the magazine that first sparked my love of cooking, had folded. It was not the only dire omen, either: the back cover of Cleaving contains nothing but “Praise for Julie & Julia.” How unfortunate.
A good book does not have to be all things: a less-than-well-written book with a compelling plot can still be a great read (Twilight). A brilliantly written book needs rather little in the way of plot (Ulysses). Unfortunately, Cleaving is neither well-written nor a compelling narrative, and I simply could not force myself to finish this book.
Before I began to write this review, I checked around to see what others were saying about Cleaving. Many commented on how unlikeable Julie Powell is. I don’t dispute the fact – I wouldn’t have her to dinner and if she had my phone number, I’d probably block her calls. She is whiny, unremittingly self-involved, and carelessly destructive to the point of cruelty to her husband, who I hope did well in their divorce settlement. But being unlikeable is not a bad quality in a protagonist – it is used to great comic effect in Help! A Bear is Eating Me!, and to great dramatic effect in Gone With The Wind. All good protagonists are flawed in some way; I wouldn’t want to be friends with Scarlett O’Hara, either, but I do love reading about her.
The problem, for Julie Powell, is that she doesn’t use the flaws to good effect – rather, they are what hinder her writing from being good. She is so self-involved that she does not seem to see that simply the fact that she has done something does not make it interesting – and a lot of times her writing consists of telling you why she couldn’t be bothered to do this or that. “I don’t know why,” is a recurring phrase in Cleaving.
The basic premise of the book is that Julie decides to learn butchery, for reasons that aren’t really explained. At the same time, she is having an extra-marital affair that is ruining her marriage, also for reasons that aren’t really explained. In fact, she goes out of her way not to explain any of this, “I’ve not really been able to explain to Eric why I want to be doing this. Hell, I can’t really explain it to myself.” In other words, I did stuff and then stuff happened. And, that stuff made me sad, so I cried. It is quite apparent that the reason she attempts butchery, at least, is that she needs material to write a new book. It doesn’t seem like a hard thing to say or a reason that the average reader would have a problem with. Go learn butchery, and then teach something to your audience, or entertain them with it. Seems like a good idea. I've discovered another book on that very subject, Heat by Bill Buford, which got some good reviews and is now on my to be read list.
The problem is, Julie Powell hasn’t done the research that would make this book at all interesting, or useful to someone interested in food. She mentions early on that meatpacking is a dangerous industry, and why this “probably” is, going on to add, “I’m guessing about all of this.” Really? I’ve never been inside a meatpacking plant either, but I’ve read Fast Food Nation and the descriptions in that book are compelling, to say the least. A teensy-weensy bit of research would have gone a long way. Maybe she could have asked someone who read Fast Food Nation to give her a Cliff Notes version. It was on the bestseller lists for months, I'm sure she could have found someone to help her out.
Unfortunately, examples of her laziness abound: Butchering a pig, she asks, “Do pigs have hooves, is that what you call them?” In another scene, she is making sausage, and the other butcher adds a great deal of ice, and although she’s “not sure of the reason for the ice,” she doesn’t bother to ask him, either. When she goes to a pig slaughter at a culinary school, she witnesses the event with a group of other students who “presumably are thinking the same sorts of thoughts” as she is. Why not ask them? They’re standing right next to you.
The narrative is disjointed, lurching from one event to the next in a sort of stream of randomness – this is what happened I wrote it all down and nobody edited it – which might work, except the quality of the writing is so poor. Descriptions are thrown in that add nothing to the narrative, provide no context, and I was often confused as to why they were included at all. In one memorable scene, she describes her husband’s feet in the midst of an argument. In another, her husband calls her just as she has driven “off 213, south of Rosendale, onto the twisting road to Rifton.” Great, thanks, can you tell me what kind of mileage you were getting at the time? And please, enough with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, already, unless you can somehow connect it to the subject at hand. Whatever that is.
(Powell also has an unfortunate and, to my eye, lazy tendency to throw in parenthetical asides. Which are fine, here and there, but when done to excess, annoying.)
In lieu of good writing or narrative, Powell unfortunately falls back on that old staple, shock value. It is clear she thinks butchery will be a controversial subject (of course it will), and she begins by taunting the vegetarians who might be in the audience, making sure they know of her contempt. Later, we are treated to a gratuitous scene of sex with a stranger, making me yearn for an appearance by Mr. Goodbar*, and in another scene, a bit of bondage with her lover, who I despise for untying her. Thanks for sharing and all - but the seeming randomness of the events and lack of thoughtful narrative around them leave the reader more confused and irritated than provoked.
Not long ago, I read an article in which the author observed that the problem with talent-contest tv shows is that the winners become famous too quickly, without having honed their skills through years of work, and thus they did not learn the skills they needed to cope with the pressure of success. It was an interesting point, and I think describes the fundamental problem with Julie Powell’s writing: having achieved rapid success with her first book, she does not appear to have done the hard work necessary to excel at being a writer, whether of memoirs or food literature. She simply has not learned the craft of writing. I hope that she will, because given her past success, we are likely to see more from her, whether or not it is worth publishing.
It is just as well I didn’t finish the book, since I realized I already counted Julie & Julia towards my 50-book total, so I couldn’t count Cleaving anyway. I'm not bitter (yes, I'm lying), but now I’m behind – hopefully my next book will be great and help me catch up.
Oh, and ps: If you want to defend Julie Powell in the comments below, by all means do, I love a lively discussion. But if you start your remarks with "I loved the movie Julie & Julia...", I will laugh at you. The movie was written by Nora Ephron, drew heavily on Julia Child's own memoirs, and was wonderful. You cannot defend Julie Powell the writer without having read at least one of her books. Feel free to try, but you were warned.
*I might be dating myself on the Mr. Goodbar thing. I "borrowed" my mom's copy when I was in the 5th grade. "Mr. Goodbar" kills the promiscuous narrator of Looking for Mr. Goodbar.