[20 March 2007]
Nineteen minutes is enough time to become disenchanted with an author. Sometimes, it doesn’t even take the reading of an entire book, though I made it all the way through Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes.
When I’m engrossed in a novel and author-error yanks me out, I feel cheated. It’s like watching an historical film, like Last of the Mohicans, and discovering a jet comtrail marring the ancient prairie sky. But we’re all human. I usually shrug and read on.
However, it’s impossible to get past a laundry list of troubles with Picoult’s 14th destined-for-stardom novel. Clearly, Picoult knows how to write. She sells books. She sells graphic novels, to wit—five Wonder Woman comics issues. She’s been writing a long time, postulating aloud in magazines recently about how difficult it is to churn out best sellers while remaining true to your own principals.
Her Nineteen Minutes has a sensationalized plot. A question: Should movie makers and book writers profit from national tragedies like school shootings 911? Picoult’s novel draws upon both. And I guess the answer is—sure, it’s free enterprise. In droves, we buy the books and see the movies. You can’t keep us away.
But this book is disturbing. What should be a ghastly tragedy, a high school boy coldly walking into his school building one morning and graphically blasting away at teachers and students, comes wrapped in a tawdry chick-lit romance between female judge and crime investigator.
Story begins, steeped in teen angst. Bullied boy, Peter, is mired in the depression of life-long harassment by cool kids. One cool kid, Josie, whose mom is a judge, was Peter’s best friend, first crush, and patron saint from early preschool and beyond. She protected, befriended, defended him—spent every spare moment with him.
But Josie becomes cool, and not by her own wish. She’s just sort of carried on a wave because she is, evidently, undeniably…cool. She dumps Peter. Like everyone else did. Meantime, Pete’s family is plagued with grief. His only sibling is, on the surface, a wunderkind that no one, including Peter, could ever match in reputation or shine. Sibling dies in a car accident. Mother discovers her angel kid had feet of clay. But that doesn’t help Peter, still perceived by all as a substandard human, apparently because he’s a computer geek.
But we have a computer genius who, Picoult tells us, is “programming” incredibly lifelike and complicated games with HTML code. In fact, he plots his crime in HTML coded virtual action. HTML is a markup language for controlling the appearance of text. It’s been replaced in Web design with so many iterations of coding that even a novice must be expected to know it cannot do what Peter does with it.
Then, in a pivotal scene, our computer guru hits “control, alt, delete” and his computer screen snaps to a black, blank screen, saving him from seeing something terrible. Hit those keys. Unless you use Windows 3.1, you will not see a blank screen of salvation from your demons. Next, Josie’s football-hero-boyfriend, a cool guy, pulls down Peter’s pants in the crowded high school cafeteria, and a love letter from Peter to Josie is mass-emailed by another cool guy to “every student” in the high school population. Peter gets really, really angry. He sets off a pipe bomb in the school parking lot. His rampage begins.
The story continues through investigation and trial, bogged down for many pages with romantic interludes and sexual encounters for both Josie and her mom. If Nineteen Minutes was just a hot-topic novel, we could dismiss it, and move on—if you read newspapers or follow cop-and-court lineups on weekly television, you’ve already been fed everything to be digested from this book.
But author and publisher sell Nineteen Minutes as a “complex, deeply emotional book,” filled with insights seeming to promise catharsis. Closure.
The insights, though, aren’t insightful -– we can draw conclusions by the first section’s end. Lonely, aggressive, man-hating, single mom female judge clearly lays out her personal conviction that she doesn’t need a man to complete her. She got pregnant and purposefully had her now 15-year-old daughter without the shallow, rich father. What’s next? A few chapters later, after bumping into the crime-solving love-interest for the second time, she is smitten. Her principals gone, she practically falls off her bar stool to leap joyfully into his bed.
With respect for Picoult’s demonstrated talent and past successes, I must say there are inconsistencies and bloopers throughout her book. A Picoult fan since book one, I’ve struggled with her failures to respect detail. How is it, I’ve pondered, her main character in Plain Truth drives through a corn field in Northern Illinois, in May, watching tall plants rippling and corn tasseling? Try that.
I trusted her skill. I looked forward to a great read, I even overlooked my personal trepidation with her subject matter, hoping she’d be respectful of a people traumatized multiple times since that awful day at Columbine. Paragraph after paragraph, here, the main characters change their most basic beliefs, wheel 180s, and have no apparent reasons for doing so. Confusing dialog has no basis in earlier conversations –- the defender fervently hopes Josie’s mom gets the case because the only other judge hates defenders, and always sides with the prosecution. Then, with no explanation, he’s delighted that Josie’s mom recuses herself.
Most difficult to understand is the trick ending. Without spoilers, I’ll say only that Josie does something that simply cannot be believed in her character’s context. A cardinal rule of writing fiction is, you can create a world and make it anything you want; but the story must happen only within the physics of that world. In other words, you can only write what is believable, given the set up. Picoult broke that rule, then called a Greek chorus to explain and employed a “God machine” for a “surprise” ending that forces its own logic right down our gullets.
Further, in a sentence about 300 pages into the plot, Josie sits outside the school (post shootings), musing that “grownups” have torn down the gym and all other venues of the tragedy. She scoffs that adults think what is out of sight will remain out of mind. One hundred pages and a month in time later, the detective stands in the gym, which is magically intact, and finds a bullet-fragment on the floor. He figures the rest of the bullet must have traveled a particular path, through an open transom window out to the schoolyard and embedded itself in a tree. He finds the other fragment in the tree. If this investigator had had, say a nail clipper and file, or a toothpick and comb, or any other common tools in his pocket, he’d have been sunk. He happened to have a laser pointer and a pen knife.
Case solved. Twist revealed. Reader out in left field, blinking—shaking her head, confusion.
Distressed and disillusioned by errors and coincidences and disconnections, I emailed Ms. Picoult. With respect, I asked the Harvard/Princeton graduate how these inequities survived into the printed book. She said, basically, errors happen. She felt certain advance copies, by their nature, are filled with inconsistencies.
Okay, but still I have trouble recommending this book. Isn’t there a promise, from author to reader, of integrity within the construct of fiction? From her choice of topic, to unsubstantive treatment of a tragic situation, to staccato stabbings of inaccurate detail, I felt used. Perhaps it was marketingly urgent to get another Picoult on the shelves in less than a year since her last book. Maybe publishing in concert with her March Wonder Woman comic gig made speed essential.
Regardless, Nineteen Minutes hands readers, at one point, a list of things that can be done in 19 minutes. You can mow the lawn, color your hair, watch the news on TV and so forth. Those might be better uses of time.