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September 27, 2010 | by  | in Books |
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Heartbreak by Craig Raine
(Atlantic Books)

Let me preface this by saying that Heartbreak has been almost universally panned. But being a fearless go-getter, I read it anyway. Heartbreak captures the melancholy of an early Woody Allen movie and then dilutes it with sweet-tasting poison. It’s a set of short stories loosely connected by the title emotion, but really, it’s a sequence of Polaroid-like moments and memories that make you almost care about the lives of people you wouldn’t ever want to meet.

The characters are unusual—Wagner’s mistress, a disfigured academic, a Pulitzer winner, lesbian journalists, and a beauty with Down’s Syndrome are among the many headliners. Some of the stories are continuations, but readable in spite of their inconsistent structure, a plus considering that short story writing is all about creating the feel of a world, and character depth using only the few pages allotted to the lifespan of the plot. In an attempt to achieve this, Raine confronts us with situations and people that are at once foreign and familiar, passionate, yet doomed, reminding us that heartbreak and joy are kissing cousins. His writing interests the reader immediately, but as soon as the story passes its memory becomes vague, and is gone before the reader even knows it was there, although the sense of how good it could have been depressingly lingers on.

The real problem here is the pretention behind the stories. Raine is an Oxford-educated academic and boy does it show, courtesy of countless highbrow references and artistically literate characters. Artistically literate, sexually confused characters. For all Raine’s hedonistic writing, he can’t compensate for the exorbitant amount of needless sex included in almost every (thankfully brief) story. The critics may have been right this time, so unless you want your intellectual snobbery pandered to, don’t even bother reading the back cover.

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