Friday, April 27, 2012

book review: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

The backstory: Train Dreams, originally published in The Paris Review in 2002, was published in book form last year. It was one of the three finalists for the un-awarded Pulitzer Prize this year.

The basics: "Robert Grainer is a day laborer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century—an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Buffeted by the loss of his family, Grainer struggles to make sense of this strange new world. As his story unfolds, we witness both his shocking personal defeats and the radical changes that transform America in his lifetime." (from the publisher)

My thoughts: I'm starting to think Denis Johnson and I just don't get along. After not loving his most recent novel, Nobody Move (my review), I was actually looking forward to Train Dreams so I could see why everyone seems to love him. Sadly, I liked Train Dreams even less than Nobody Move.

I settled into my couch with a glass of wine expecting to read this 128-page novella in a single setting. It took me two days, and it wasn't because I wanted to savor it; I simply failed to connect with it on any level. As I read, I found my mind wandering endlessly. Johnson's writing is good, but it didn't engage me. I didn't find myself pondering passages or marveling at sentences. I found the writing perfunctory, but also somewhat abstract, as the narrative was far from linear. Some will love this style, but I found its meandering distracting, and it distanced me from the narrative. I can love simple, descriptive writing, and I often love nuanced, challenging prose, but I found Johnson's prose dull.

This novella centers on the character Robert Grainer, and while I loved the setting of the west and the expanding railroad, I never connected with Robert. As a character, he never felt real to me. As wonderful as the setting was, I never had the moment of magic that made it feel real and made me forget I was simply reading and not experiencing.

The verdict: While Johnson is a talented writer, this novella seemed interminable. I can appreciate, from a clinical point of view, why it's a good work, but it isn't one I enjoyed, liked, or would recommend. Perhaps one day I'll read a Johnson novel I like. Until then, I begrudgingly agree with the Pulitzer Board: Train Dreams didn't deserve to win.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 128 pages
Publication date: August 30, 2011 
Source: library

Want to read it! Buy Train Dreams from the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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  1. I haven't tried this author, but I have had the same experience with Paul Auster. I try and try to connect with his stories, and my mind wanders and I just cannot connect with his characters......sighhhh sorry this did not work for you.

    1. Diane, I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one with a 'difficult' author! I haven't read Auster yet but plan to later this year. I'll be on the lookout for mind wandering!

  2. I've heard good things about this one, but like a lot of "critically" liked books, I don't really get what it's about. I don't have a good sense of story. It's one I probably won't pick up.

    But Diane! We must be soul sisters because Auster. Ugh. People rave, and I just...shake my head. I've never wanted to physically harm a book until I read his New York Trilogy.

    1. Picky--my taste is quirky too. Sometimes the critically acclaimed books are right up my alley, but other times, like this one, I just don't get the appeal. I'll definitely be wary of Auster, but I haven't read him and plan to later this year.

  3. I had never heard of this book, but it's crazy that of the three they couldn't at least rule one out, LOL... like maybe this? I hate when a book takes me forever to read because I can't get into it.

    1. Yes! A 120-page book should not take long to read. I so wanted to abandon it, but how can you abandon a book that small? Oh well, at least I've moved on to things I like better:-)


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