Have you ever read reviews and praise for a book and wondered if they read the same book as you did? I am not an elitist, and some of my favourite pieces of art and literature aren’t that well known, but there are books which I have read, and cannot find a single good thing to say about them.
This is one of them. My Education by Susan Choi is another, but that at least, had some heat to it in the second act, before the ending shat the bed.
The Harpy is, for the most part, a cover version of a book called The Vegetarian by Han Kang. It is lyrical, disturbing, erotic and sad, much like some of my ex-girlfriends, and a book I recommend without reserve. Han Kang wrote something beautiful and unsettling, with an ending which breaks your heart for its poignancy and verve. If you look at the two covers, then the resemblance is there, and the cover image is as far as it goes in capturing what made the latter so good.
The Harpy is none of those things. This is Megan Hunter’s second book, after an insubstantial and pretentious failure of execution called The End We Start From. That book read like a tweet thread committed to paper, ostensibly about climate change and motherhood, but it said nothing about those two concepts which you couldn’t find delivered with more brio and panache in the most misspelled Facebook post. I read it whilst waiting for a train, and although generally I feel no time with a book is wasted, what got me was that it was utterly Emperor’s New Clothes. A few observations which had the depth of greeting card sentiments, and no concern for consistency, character development, story, theme, any real objects of desire or a ticking clock to generate pace and tension. No, Hunter is TOO FUCKING IMPORTANT, for such notions as story. Then, to make things worse, someone decided the world needed a second Megan Hunter book. I imagine, with difficult second book syndrome, she read The Vegetarian and thought, ‘you know what this book would benefit from?’ ‘Remove all the things that made it a good book and add neuroses over depth and not a single plausible cogent character to sully the pages,’ I imagine once they talked Megan’s editor down from the ledge, they did their best.
I would warn you about spoilers, but Hunter doesn’t seem to care for her audience’s desire for depth nor entertainment, nor that someone would read The Vegetarian and realise, ‘oh yes, this is a MUCH BETTER FUCKING BOOK,’ Ok, so author insert is married with children, in a nice home and an ordered life. She hates it, because that’s what writers like Hunter think substitutes for actual characterisation, you know the thirteen year old’s idea of a twist. Hunter forgets that a protagonist doesn’t have to be likeable, but it helps if they are relatable. Of course, if you’re expecting those things, then you’re not her audience. No, her life is interminable, because she’s comfortable, and let’s ignore the fact that she didn’t marry this man, agree to stay at home and raise his children at fucking gunpoint, no she is SAD and THWARTED. Try working retail, you pretentious sponge then we’ll talk. So, here is where the INCITING INCIDENT happens, the husband of a colleague at the university her husband works at, tells SADFACE that his wife is having an affair with her husband. Oh no, you think, expecting something subtle, tragic and graceful, but FUCK YOU this is a Megan Hunter book so instead you find yourself thinking, ‘how did this man stay with this nasal drip, let alone have an affair’ and that is about as plausible as it gets. Plot, structure, consequences, exposition which is subtle and highlighting the themes, IN A MEGAN HUNTER BOOK? No, instead he confesses, and agrees that she can punish him for his crimes. There’s not a single insightful conversation, and no character behaves with anything close to a plausible motivation. Never mind that after chapters of SADFACE dripping and moaning whilst arranging a party, which apparently is such a cross to bear, and the revelation of the affair, they still hold the party and everyone knows about it. Just like that, it’s the topic of conversation. Of course, everyone is on her side, but no one castigates the husband, privately or publicly. At this point, I was still getting over how she characterises someone having the desire for an affair but not the desire to reject the idea of ‘random punishments’. You can tell Megan studied this, which is so often a place where bad ideas get stitched together and exposed to the lightning of ‘people who are exactly like me,’ in publishing.
None of the character choices make sense, emotionally or narratively and if anything, exposes the paucity of craft the author has, as much because it fails on every level to draw in the reader to empathise with the narrator. Alongside this, we see another of Hunter’s affectations, which is supposed to link the internal struggles of the character to the mythological construct of the harpy. Now, this is done so poorly, it sticks out and undermines the story. It stinks of ‘clever’, which in better hands can be a masterstroke, when done well (Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves is one example)
The narrator even manages, in her desire to punish, to destabilise her own situation, sending evidence of the affair to her husband’s employer, undermining the support which is something an invested mother wouldn’t do without setting it up as a plausible action. It reeks of pretension, of a crippling privilege where no one appears to have sat down and said to the author that they are not constructing a narrative, and their attempt at an unreliable narrator is parodic in the failure of execution. This also goes to expose how thin the relationships are between the characters, without any sense of internal consistency and at this point in the book, I was determined to finish it just to see how bad it got.
The ending itself suggests that the author read a wikipedia entry about myth and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the clumsiest metaphorical transformations and as narcissistic a piece of writing as I’ve had the displeasure to read. When you consider how The Vegetarian manages a far better example of this, with a strong metaphorical through line, consistency and real, genuine emotion, then Hunter is insulting the author through a cackhanded facsimilie. It’s histrionics mistaken for conflict, and I was glad to have borrowed the book, than purchased it.
Writing is a demanding thing, fragile in trying to transfer what is in your head onto the page, let alone trying to get your work out there. The resources wasted on this book and author are an insult, Emperor’s New Clothes, but seeing as this is a symptom, not a disease, then it just falls to me to point out where the book is weak. All the way through, and every affectation, technique and device is a turd in the punchbowl of literature. No one goes out of their way to make a bad book, I am sure, but this reeks of a cynicism which is used to justify immature work. There would have been editors, proofreading, any number of individuals involved who presumably were competent. They all failed the reader, and should be ashamed. There’s no story, no through line which satisfies and not a single character who stayed with me past the last sentence.
The kindest thing I could say about The Harpy is that I never have to read it again. It manages to be even worse than her first book, although there is the illusion of more substance, underneath it is hollow and cold, as loveless and grim, cynical in how it steals from a far better book.
. The Harpy is sure to have a bright future on a charity shop shelf, but otherwise it is shite spat onto trees and not worth your time. If you are a fan of contemporary literature, there are far superior works out there which do the things Hunter is incapable of, but somehow has been persuaded into believing she can. This is part of a vogue for ‘female rage’ literature which, if the genders were reversed, would be unpalatable. Alongside this, is the idea that writing as insubstantial as this, is considered ‘clean and spare’ when in truth it’s undeveloped in the way an egg is an undeveloped version of a chicken.
Read The Vegetarian, it’s a far superior book. Avoid The Harpy, not because it’s controversial, but because it is about as welcome to the canon of contemporary fiction as a wet fart on your wedding day.