The Streetsweeper by Elliot Perlman

Monkey on a typewriter has to agree with the NYT now and again.

Not that the NYT doesn’t pretty much state the bleeding obvious, but then, nobody else much in the professional world of book reviewing has done so, that I have noticed.

The bleeding obvious being that by the standards of now, this is a really badly written book. It is didactic, it moralises, it is teachy and preachy. Odd things happen – or don’t, in the story where the reader thinks something is going to be important and then it is just dropped. Most peculiarly the side theme of Brown vs The Education Board, which is not only historically inaccurate, as far as I can tell regarding the present status of the case, but simply stops for no reason whatsoever. There are other lesser examples: the academic who is one of the main storylines of the book might have a thing going with an ex-student, there’s stuff about her in class, then he starts seeing her outside uni, then nothing. The idea is simply completely abandoned with quite a lot of the book to go; and racial abuse starts on campus, the book makes a meal out of it for a brief period and then – it just stops. Again. Going back to more major issues, I’m not sure that it is satisfactory that Perlman includes a section on the end of Border’s life, but not his daughter’s. His daughter had been a major part of the story, I wanted proper closure.

One is reminded that this sort of novel sold spectacularly well in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the time it was an eminently acceptable way to enter the literary canon. That, however, is the constantly fickle composition of fashion. Changing fads mean what is considered ‘good literature’ changes with it and subsequently there was a long period when it was completely unacceptable for literature to do these things. To contain messages, political and social lessons. Has that changed again? Is a literary work allowed to harass and hector the reader, imprinting correct ways to think as it tells its story?

When I read Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, I was not only prepared to overlook his sorties into the legal procedural, the English academic procedural and the mental illness/national health procedural, but I actually enjoyed them, nodding my head in agreement along the way. This time around I started to wonder. The book closes with the longest bibliography I’ve seen attached to a novel, but does that mean it should read like there’ll be that at the end?

Then, moving on from technical questions to practical ones, it made me feel ill the entire time I read it. Not to give anything away, but it deals with the Holocaust and the history of black rights in the US, the former sickeningly harrowing for every moment, the latter, not exactly a barrel of laughs either.

Yet the fact is, having expressed all these doubts, criticisms and objections, that I couldn’t put it down, read the entire too-wordy thing over a few days. I just don’t know. I’m giving it three stars. I have no idea what the right number is.

2 thoughts on “The Streetsweeper by Elliot Perlman

    • It isn’t incoherent….just because things start and don’t finish, that doesn’t mean things don’t make sense. I guess he’s done it on purpose. He seems to think he can do precisely what he wants in his novels.

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