I'm not sure at what point the publishing industry decided that "literary" was synonymous with "depressing," but Kaui Hart Hemmings' debut novel The Descendants is a prime example of this philosophy. What begins with a seemingly quirky premise and a clever-sounding first-person narrator actually results in little more than a failed, middle-aged version of the classic bildungsroman. Consider the thud with which The Descendents begins:
"The sun is shining, mynah birds are chattering, palm trees are swaying, so what."
How clever, I first thought. Hemmings has kicked off her novel with a traditional haiku, then dismantled her lush Hawaiian setting and its peaceful, tropical sentiment with just two words. She has given us Matt King, a bitter but satirical narrator of a story that will surely live up to the reader's initial expectations. But rather than delivering a novel that treads fearlessly on convention as promised, Hemmings left this reader asking that same question for the next 300 pages: so frigging what?
Matt King is a sad-faced lawyer who spends most of his time at the proverbial salt mines, and very little time with his wife and younger daughter Scottie (the older daughter, Alex, had been shipped away to boarding school). So little time, in fact, that his wife begins sleeping with another man and devising a real estate scam against Matt -- right up until a boating accident that leaves her in a coma. At which point our narrator -- who surely never made the finals in the Father of the Year competition -- is left to manage these two daughters he hardly knows. On top of that, it's his responsibility to go around the island telling all of his wife's friends to come say their goodbyes, because she's definitely going to die.
And it's at this point that I'm checking the back cover for a warning to keep away from sharp objects. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind a real tear-jerking sad story -- and I'm certainly not opposed to a dark story (see: Cormac McCarthy). But I find no redeeming literary quality in depressing stories -- they are devoid of emotion; they are just painful and laborious to read. Depressing stories are the equivalent of that long Monday at work, which seems to meander up until 4pm, then slows to an almost impreciptible crawl until quittin' time. Just like that, except there's no more coffee, and your company has firewalled your favorite blogs. Oh, and your iTunes keeps randomly shuffling to your ex-girlfriend's favorite songs. (Damn you, Regina Spektor!)
Anywho: so Matt King sort of meanders through the novel, never really defining himself as a character or showing much emotion beyond a general, befuddled malaise. Though on the whole, Hemmings does a fantastic job at capturing the male voice (no small feat for female writers, and vice versa), he's not in the least a dynamic person. What has been perceived by other readers as bold wit seemed to me mere exasperation. In short: Matt King is kind of a pussy about everything, and by halfway through the novel I was begging for him to show some sign of life. But no such luck.
That said, Hemmings' novel is not an altogether terrible read. There is plenty of evidence of a very talented writer here: the other characters are intrinsically strong, even if they never really develop; the setting is beautifully rendered; and the dialogue is sometimes witty and charming. Matt King's daughters are fun to read, the Hemmings does a great job at illustrating Matt's relationship with his now-comatose wife through flashbacks and proper storytelling. But on the whole the novel lacks a sense of motion -- and even more notably, emotion -- and the final product left me unsatisfied in my search to discover the answer to that powerful initial question: so what?
In spite of the fact that he often reviews them negatively, Chris Steib really likes books. A lot. Check out www.voidmagazine.com, too, while you're at it.