Every so often, I find myself curious about a piece of formerly popular fiction that I had, during the height of its popularity, assiduously avoided. I don’t know if my tendency to avoid bestsellers stems from a perverse instinct to avoid following the crowd or an instinctive understanding that anything that appeals to a large number of people is likely to be underwhelming, if not unpleasantly odiferous.
For example, I had not read a single Stephen King novel until I found myself ensconced in a hotel room for a weekend with no other reading material about eleven years ago, and while I found that he was clever enough with a plot, I also felt he badly needed an editor to weedwhack about forty percent of his overstuffed prose. I didn’t start reading Harry Potter until the fourth one was out – same deal there, actually, it’s telling to compare the size of the first book with the size of the fifth one – and I will probably continue to avoid Dan Brown for at least another decade or two.
I’d downloaded a bunch of novels written by authors whose names begin with “A” some months ago, and with no other knowledge than a) her big fat books were very popular some years ago, and b) a memory of a friend’s fond recounting of the scene in which Daryl Hannah gets banged in the movie, I decided to read Jean Auel’s “Clan of the Cave Bear”. Although, come to think of it, b) may have actually been “Quest for Fire” and not involved Miss Hannah at all. Anyhow.
It wasn’t entirely awful. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t the grunting Anita K. Hamilton-style sexfest with Neanderthals in the place of vampires and werewolves that I was expecting. It was actually an occasionally touching tale of a lonely outsider doing her best to fit into a place she didn’t belong, and the construction of Neanderthal society was more fully fleshed out and credible than most alien constructions I’ve read. There were, however, more than a few signs of problems to come, the most notable of which is that “Clan of the Cave Bear” is the most overtly Nazi book since Mein Kampf. While “feminazi” is usually little more than a jibe, it is a literal description of the worldview in this book, even if it is apparently an unconscious one. (The author seems to have realized this later and threw in a sympathetic black character in a feeble attempt at some sort of balance two books later.)
After finishing “Clan of the Cave Bear”, I managed to slog through two and one-quarter more books before finally abandoning Mrs. Auel with a snort and a roll of the eyes. I’m not sure which I found more tiresome, Ayla’s discovery of the theory of relativity or her accidental creation of the game of chess. Or perhaps it was that dreadful Jondolar – the original Sensitive Progressive, who will stick around for an entire year living in the same cave as the love of his life and watching her get pounded to shrieking orgasms every other night by the aforementioned non-Aryan rival – uttering what appear to be the only four words in his vocabulary for the ten thousandth time: “Ayla, you’re so amazing!”
(This varied occasionally. Sometimes it was “Ayla, do you know how amazing you are?” Or, “Ayla, you’re so beautiful” and its variant, “Ayla, do you know how beautiful you are?”)
I usually stop reading a book when I realize that I have begun actively rooting for the protagonist to die. I was so depressed when Jondolar couldn’t even successfully wander off in despair to get eaten by a cave lion without getting saved by the amazing, beautiful Ayla, thanks to her timely invention of the Maxim gun, that I knew I wasn’t going to get far into “The Plains of Passage”. I made it with them to the Big Water on sheer literary momentum, but there I left them. I think they’ll be okay, though, since he’s always stimulating her “hard little node” and she is the only woman on the Neolithic planet amazingly deep enough to take the fullness of his gargantuan “manhood”. Perhaps it is a mark of my own shortcomings, but I had no idea that women seek to be appreciated for their depth….
Anyhow, I now understand the reason for Mrs. Auel’s literary success. The books are nothing more than romance novels, disguised by virtue of their length and paleontological trappings. What I found particularly revealing is what books like these reveal about the average reader’s psyche, namely, that the fantasies of women are every bit as shallow and embarrassing as those revealed by books favored by men. Men harbor adolescent dreams of saving the world, killing hosts of bad guys and racking up a sexual conquest or seven, women, on the other hand, apparently dream of being lauded to the skies for every word and deed, being ardently pursued by the most handsome man and still being able to get it on with another, albeit lesser admirer without being held responsible for it and losing the primary devotee.
Seriously, most of the popular women’s novels I’ve read in the last five years feature a woman torn between two admirers and somehow getting to have both of them without any cost to herself. But whereas Auel’s protagonist can only dally with the secondary devotee for a time before eventually being forced to choose between them, Hamilton’s, appearing some twenty years later, is miraculously able to retain the continuing affections of both. It’s an interesting psycho-literary evolution and one that any writer with a desire to write bestsellers should definitely note.
By the way, I have a theory to explain Mrs. Auel’s motivation in writing these books. I see them as being an anguished woman’s cry for help, as they are all dedicated to her husband and feature pages upon pages drawing attention to where the Center of Ayla’s womanly Pleasures can be found. Sadly, after 25 years, Mrs. Auel has announced that two more books are required to complete the series, so it would appear that despite the impressive book sales, her undertaking has been unsuccessful.
To read a hilarious and, as far as I can tell, accurate description of the movie, check this out. It serves as a fair summary of the book as well, which to be honest, isn’t quite that bad.