You remind me of a cheesy movie: When plot is not enough

By Gesse Stark-Smith

Generally speaking, I like books better than movies. I appreciate the visual power of movies, the way they can evoke a sense of place or tell a story with a few concise shots. And I’m willing to admit that movies serve a satisfying social function: when I’ve asked people out to dinner and a novel, it hasn’t gone especially well.
So why is it books all the way? Mainly, because I’m obsessed with language. Every book posits its own theory of how language can describe reality and I want to collect these theories, compare them, and cherish them.
So what do I do when a novel is overtly cinematic? Complain, apparently. This brings us to Dan Chaon’s You Remind Me of Me. It is a lovely book, really. It is fluidly evocative of a mood (depression with a faintly beautiful tinge of hope) and a place (dusty small Midwestern towns).
The novel chronicles the lives of Jonah, Troy and Nora, who are all trying to become versions of themselves that they can stand—trying without much success.
The chapters shift in time and perspective as they slowly reveal how these three characters are connected. The plot is constantly twisting and, really, I don’t know where to start in explaining it. Suffice it to say that it includes: a near fatal dog attack, serious drug-use, a couple of arrests, an irreverent scattering of ashes by the road-side, adoption, long lost family connections and a lot of other intricacies which I won’t mention in case you want to read it. I’ll leave you with the assurance that the narrative arc is decisive and dramatic. It will probably make you scoot towards the edge of your seat.

Chaon explores interesting situations but the switchbacks of his story lend it a clinging taste of melodrama. The characters are so well developed that they hardly seem real and the narrative is so clear-cut as to be predictable. Without other elements (oh, you know, like dense language) to distract me, the plot was drawn into too sharp a focus. My disbelief mounted a stiff campaign: a sharp refusal to be suspended. What does that remind me of? Oh, right, movies. I don’t need realism but I need something.

To make matters worse, I didn’t underline a sentence in the entire book. Maybe that is just me being lazy. If so, powerful language is required to shock me out of my laziness. No such thing occurred during the reading of this novel.
I was stirred emotionally, my sympathies were extracted and I easily finished the book but I was not satisfied. I like some irony with my empathy. I just can’t handle such tightly packaged narratives.
Am I wrong to foist experimentation and subtlety on all stories? Am I too wedded to wordplay to accept classically styled novels? I don’t know, maybe. I’m content to bask in ambiguity for now.