Meek J. The Heart Broke In. HarperCollins Toronto 2012. F; 2/13.
As usual when I’m not completely captivated by fiction and am not sure why, I read a few on-line reviews of this novel, and was I guess relieved that its general reception seems to be about the same as my impression. It isn’t just me.
Meek is a nice and clever writer, he’s usually good with words and sentences and he has put together a complex story dealing with (it sometimes feels like) at least a dozen major moral issues: religion, left versus right, sex and sexual infidelity, philosophy of science, nepotism, betrayal, journalism and media entertainment. But…
The story’s bare bones: we follow an English brother and sister through careers (his as a rock singer and TV producer, hers as a malaria researcher) and marriages, and they evolve as moral opposites (he bad, she good). (PLOT ALERT) An early boyfriend of hers is an eventually psychotic extreme right-wing journalist who runs an internet blackmail scheme threatening to expose famous people’s nasty indiscretions, unless they betray someone else (the bad brother betrays the good sister). The sister later falls in love with a slightly autistic brilliant cell biology researcher who suffers from sterility, and becomes pregnant after intentionally unromantic sex with his ne’er-do-well brother. The original (rockstar producer) brother winds up losing his TV series, his family, and all shreds of self-respect, getting thrown out of karaoke pubs for trying unsuccessfully to attract attention. The sister and her sterile husband lived happily ever after as a scientist and writer in Africa (END PLOT ALERT).
The first thing I noticed was the uninspiring handling of the otherwise compelling lead hook: a man in his 40s having an affair with a 15-year-old girl. We could have been reading about how to fix your bicycle. It seemed to me likely that this kind of thing was intentional in the hands of David Foster Wallace, and maybe it is here too, but I’m not convinced. Next I started to stumble on and get annoyed by strange sentences, but unfortunately I neglected to make a note of any of them and in quickly thumbing through the book can’t find one. They are just inexplicably awkward, mostly sprinkled through the first third of the story before, one supposes, Mr. Meek got the bit in his teeth.
There are some lovely insights. Of secrecy, the poisonous nature of betrayal is avoided as long as deeds and names don’t touch. Deeds and names: just a whiff of ethereal nominalism. There are many more of these.
What’s the matter with Heart Broke In? There’s no coherence. The plot is complicated, there are lots of characters (it was compared to a great Russian novel by one reviewer), but I agree with a non-professional online opinion asking why the book was written. Sure good things and people are good and bad things and people are bad, and you’ve a devil of a time in this modern world of instant communication and tolerance for infidelity to keep it all straight. But there has to be something a little more compelling than that pulling things together. Also it’s a bit derivative. Helped along by one of the reviewers, I did notice a similarity to Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. We’re being Victorian. But Eugenides’s irony saves him from Meek’s ending up deadly precious about it. And finally, just charm. I want to be delighted, to have the art gallery experience that opens my tired eyes and takes me someplace wonderful. No such luck here. 7.7