Marisa Silver's The God of War (Simon and Schuster) is yet another mediocre novel that unaccountably has sent reviewers into raptures of praise, larding it with adjectives such as "beautiful," "stunning," and "exquisite." Such praise for a thoroughly drab, utterly undistinguished work of complacent realism, a novel that reinforces the most retrograde notions of what a "serious" novel should be like, leaves one lamenting not just the persistence of the kind of formulaic "literary fiction" this novel represents, but also the inability of so many critics to evaluate this fiction in other than the most vapid, critically submissive terms.
The God of War is essentially a coming-of-age story, perhaps the most frequently invoked subgenre in the history of fiction. In order to justify yet another novel employing this plot convention, one would hope that its author would at least offer something more distinctive in the way of style or voice, something to enliven an otherwise familiar narrative (as done, for example in The Catcher in the Rye). But, unfortunately, Silver does not provide such aesthetic compensations. Even though she has chosen to let her protagonist tell his own story, the resulting narrative voice is at best bland and perfunctory. The story is told in retrospect, creating a tone of earnest detachment that fails to engage the reader with the narrator's younger self and makes his story read like an indifferent chronicle of the recent past: Here's what it was like in this small part of the world thirty years ago. When the narrator's language isn't just colorless, it strains after effect in badly wrought figures: "Her cheeks were puffy at the bottom as if she were storing two caramels or some other secrets there"; "The air felt exhausted, as if it had finally given up its day work and had flung its spent self across the land."
About the only plausibly original feature of The God of War is its setting on and around California's Salton Sea, a man-made body of water created as an accidental consequence of a water diversion project in the early 20th century. Here, enduring the stench of periodic fish and bird kills, among the detritus of failed efforts to make the area into a resort, and facing what is otherwise an unforgiving desert environment, the adolescent protagonist lives with his mother and his autistic brother. Clearly the elemental bleakness of the setting is meant to reinforce or counterpoint the boy's encounter with the harshness of life, but, considering the indistinct impression we get of the Salton Sea and its environs, the novel could just as well be set in any other struggling, off-the-beaten-track community where young people are forced early to confront adult problems. The peculiarities of the Salton Sea are summoned to provide a kind of exotic backdrop, but since we really learn very little either about it or about the way it has conditioned the lives of those who live near it, it ultimately does not play a very meaningful role in the story. It seems something of a gimmick, a way to differentiate this novel from all the other novels of "local color" competing for attention in the literary maketplace.
The story mostly concerns the narrator's efforts to protect his brother from those whose misperceptions might do him harm, including his own mother, whom the narrator feels never really accepted her autistic son's condition. (In an ironic twist, his younger brother winds up protecting the narrator from danger, although even here the latter finds it necessary to conceal his brother's responsibility for the act of violence involved.) The novel's core situation, single mother barely able to support herself and her two sons, one of whom is severely mentally disabled, provides inherent possibilities for both melodrama and sentimentality, and it doesn't fail to exploit most of them. It especially fails to avoid sentimentality, as almost every time the younger brother figures into a scene the reader's heartstrings get tugged:
. . .He didn't take his mouth from the straw the entire time he sucked, not even to breathe. There was no end to his appetite. He ate whatever food was offered to him even if he had just finished a huge meal. Laurel and I learned to tell him when he was done eating and we were expert at distracting him so that he could tear his mind away from the food and land on a new obsession for a while. More than any other of his traits, this hunger upset me, made me feel unaccountably mournful. It filled me with a great nostalgic sadness for lost things, the way a rich person might feel if he had to live as a pauper, always remembering the fancy cars and clothes of a bygone life. . . .
It is perhaps inevitable that such a character will evoke cheap emotion, but Silver does little to mitigate this effect. Indeed, her decision to include such a character in a novel narrated by a family member almost ensures sentimentality, and the final chapter relating the younger brother's premature death in a group home only lays on the sentiment more thickly, suggesting to me a deliberate strategy to create pathos and evoke pity.
In both its conventionality and its sentimentality, The God of War is representative of a certain kind of "literary fiction" that mainstream reviewers just can't seem to resist. Realistic, mostly humorless, but full of "human emotion," these novels seem to appeal to critics and some readers as adequately "serious" to be elevated above popular potboilers and genre fiction, without violating the presumed need to be "accessible." They shield these critics and readers from more formally and thematically challenging fiction, which can be safely marginalized, and thus ignored. As long as the "literary" in "literary fiction" continues to be associated with novels like The God of War, the word will become only more accurately defined by such other words as "tedium" and "pretense."