A couple of weeks ago, there was a conversation going on about favorite authors and whether you can call an author your favorite if you’ve only read one of their books. While I’m still not really sure about the answer to that question, it did lead me to finally get around to reading another book by Tim O’Brien. I’ve long called him one of my favorite authors, but I’ve only read The Things They Carried, which is one of my favorite books. I’ve also seen Tim O’Brien speak and he was amazing, which adds to the fact that he’s one of my favorite authors, not just the author of one of my favorite books.
So what happens when you read a book by your favorite author and you hate it? I knew going into Tomcat in Love that we were going to have issues. I tend to dislike books about older academic men who prey on young women. I slogged through Tomcat in Love, but at the same time, I found myself understanding what O’Brien was doing. I’ve long prescribed to the idea that you can hate a character, but not the book. I also believe in abandoning a book when you are not enjoying it. Those two beliefs were at odds here. I really did not enjoy Tomcat in Love for the majority of the time I was reading it, but it is also one of those rare books where the ending made the slog worth it.
Thomas Chippering, a linguistics professor, is left by his wife for a small lie, at least according to Chippering. And that is the key line in this review – Tomcat in Love is all according to Chippering and where O’Brien’s brilliance comes in is the way his story slowly unravels. He masterfully shows the reader glimpses of how Chippering’s story is a fabrication, picking and choosing how he shows us these women. That’s really what Chippering’s story is: a history of this time in his life, as told through the women he encounters. But it goes further than that: all the women are caricatures, he sometimes can’t even call them by their first name. He writes down their information in a ledger of sorts, but nothing about who they actually are, just the details that make them up.
The more you read, the more Chippering’s story unravels. Like The Things They Carried, Tomcat in Love brings together the possible layers of storytelling. I love it when an unreliable narrator exposes us to the process of telling a story and how much we really rely on the person telling it to do a good job. So when that confidence is shattered, it’s kind of refreshing.
I think that Tomcat in Love is a book that a lot of people will find repellent. There are times when Chippering reminded me of a Humbert Humbert kind of character; there were certainly echoes of Lolita here. Chippering is similarly disgraceful and disgusting, placing a similar blame on all the women in his life. His own transgressions are minimal compared to the way women are constantly trying to destroy him. I don’t think that Tomcat in Love is perfect in the way The Things They Carried is. There are parts of this novel that seemed superfluous and perhaps it could have been 100 pages shorter, but I do think it successfully creates this strange world that, horrifically, echoes our own.
So go read this: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve read everything else
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