Baxter, Charles (2000). The Feast of Love. New York: Vintage.
In a group of interwoven short stories, Charles Baxter explores the vicissitudes of love, with plenty of sex. Chapters rotate among a handful of characters, all ordinary people living in contemporary Midwestern America. The characters in different stories often know each other, and their stories intersect as their lives do.
While the stories, and individual sentences, are well-constructed, and the writing in general is descriptive, witty, and often unexpected, the result overall is boring because the characters are so ordinary and their interests and concerns so incredibly quotidian. An example is a story about a man who buys a dog and asks his sister to keep it for a while, to give him time to convince his wife that they should have a dog. After a month, the sister won’t give the dog back because she, and her kids, have fallen in love with it. Infuriated, the man contrives to kidnap (dognap?) the pet by bribing the oldest child to let it go. That’s it. Humorous? Slightly. Charming? Maybe in a Norman Rockwell sense. Sentimental? Of course, with plenty of dog hugging and dog-licking-face moments. Worth my time to read this story? No.
A good comedian can make mundane events like that sing by using them to call out a general observation (as Wanda Sykes might do for race relations), or by exaggerating certain features of a story in a self-effacing way (as Kevin Hart might do), or by drawing ironic implications about society (as George Carlin might have). Baxter is not a comedian, and he simply tells the stories straight on. They are just ordinary stories, perhaps slightly wacky, the kind of humorous or poignant anecdotes you might hear at a party, but far too close to realism to be art or parable. There is simply no point to them. Nothing is illuminated. They’re like Seinfeld episodes.
I am perplexed by the high level of sentimentality in recent novels I’ve read. I have nothing against sentiment – good writing must convey characters’ feelings. But sentimentality is about superficial, clichéd feelings in response to stereotypical situations – lost dogs, sunsets, relationship breakups, and the like. One senses glibness reading about such common feelings, which do little to reveal the psychological depths of a character, less the human condition. All you’re left with are some clever situations and some admirable sentences. That’s enough for many readers, but it didn’t work for me.