Martin’s Amis’s recent review of Don DeLillo’s new story collection is, for the most part, a rather dull book report, but it begins with a wonderful paragraph:
When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less. The vast presence of Joyce relies pretty well entirely on “Ulysses,” with a little help from “Dubliners.” You could jettison Kafka’s three attempts at full-length fiction (unfinished by him, and unfinished by us) without muffling the impact of his seismic originality. George Eliot gave us one readable book, which turned out to be the central Anglophone novel. Every page of Dickens contains a paragraph to warm to and a paragraph to veer back from.
Amis is right, I think, but his Dickens ratio might be a little off. Or perhaps the ratio is an average, taking into account that Dickens’s later work has whole pages of good paragraphs. Because there are certainly Dickens novels with more veering from than warming to, and Martin Chuzzlewit is one of these.
Nearly every common criticism of Dickens in general can be made of Martin Chuzzlewit: contrived plotting, one-note characters who are funnier to Dickens than to his readers, enough unearned sentimentality to cause sore sockets (from all the eye-rolling, of course). If you dislike Dickens and want that opinion confirmed, read Martin Chuzzlewit.
But what about those of us who love Dickens? Is there any value in reading one of his bad books? I’d say yes. A bad Dickens novel is still, well, a Dickens novel: he’s the greatest novelist in the language. But more than that, he’s a writer who works best in small bursts because of his deep flaws and obvious limitations. Look back at the complaints I listed in the previous paragraph. While they’re especially marked in Chuzzlewit, you can say these things about any Dickens novel (except maybe Bleak House, which is not my favorite of his books, but might be his best). Sure, the degrees of contrivance and sentimentality vary, but they never quite vanish from his work. People who love Dickens love him in spite of many of his qualities.
This means, of course, there is something to love: the one-note character who is actually funny (Mr. Micawber); the way that he can convincingly depict characters who are retain the goodness of naivete (Captain Cuttle); the times when the coincidence of his plots yields to some well-crafted architecture (again, Bleak House). You’ll probably notice that his similarities are the close cousins of his flaws. Perhaps this explains Amis’s (correct) tendency to split Dickens in half: he is always doing the same thing, but only sometimes does it well.
A representative ancedote: I was so bored and exasperated that I nearly quit reading Martin Chuzzlewit after about 600 pages. I’m glad I didn’t, because some pages later, out of a mass of dull stuff, comes the real Dickens shining through. For one chapter, at least, he is writing with his full-power, following a murder victim through the woods:
The glory of the departing sun was on his face. The music of the birds was in his ears. Sweet wild flowers bloomed about him. Thatched roofs of poor men’s homes were in the distance; and an old grey spire, surmounted by a Cross, rose up between him and the coming night.
The whole chapter, which slips seamlessly between murderer and victim, plays out like this, alternating between the beauty of the scene and some vivid psychology that seems closer to Dostoevsky than Dickens. And this in the middle of some of the most turgid chapters he ever wrote!
Martin Chuzzlewit has other charms—Pecksniff, for one, is one of Dickens’s best villains—but they don’t outweigh the badness of the rest of it. Still, I’m glad to have spent three weeks on it, and not only for the few great moments. It’s one thing to read Amis’s pithy judgment of Dickens, but another to experience it, and to have all the later, better Dickens novels magnified and deepened from seeing him at his near worst. (For the record, I do like Chuzzlewit better than The Old Curiosity Shop.) As I said, if you don’t like Dickens and want that opinion confirmed, then read Chuzzlewit; if, however, you do love him—as Amis and I do—then read Chuzzlewit to learn how and why you do.