While reading Sara Gran’s Dope, I got to thinking about the variety of baggage that we bring to our reading experiences and how this baggage affects our responses to what we read. Three factors stood out to me:
(1) Our expectations for a particular book, which are a function of (a) any encouragement that we have received to read a book; (b) any knowledge that we have of the book and/or its author; and (c) the book’s packaging.
(2) Our personal likes and dislikes.
(3) What we have (and haven’t) read previously.
I purchased a copy of Dope based on the recommendation of an acquaintance whose opinion I have no particular reason to trust or distrust (1a). His recommendation was enough to prompt me to buy the book, but not enough to give me any sense of urgency about reading it. I have a few friends whose recommendations would have heightened my expectations considerably, but in this case I had identified Dope only as a novel that was probably worth reading.
I work hard to know as little as possible about books before I read them. Ideally, when I start a novel I want to know nothing about it other than its author and title, and in this case, I was successful (1b). When my acquaintance recommended Dope by Sara Gran, I stopped him right there (“Don’t tell me anything else!”), and I managed not to learn another thing about the book between that moment and reading it a year or so later. I could not, however, avoid having my expectations heightened a bit by the book’s front cover (1c). Four newspapers were quoted: “Thrilling,” says the Los Angeles Times. “Astonishing,” says the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Twisted,” says the Chicago Sun-Times. “Totally shocking,” says the Times-Picayune.
But here’s where personal taste and reading experiences come in. I dislike art that makes me feel cozy, and I like art that makes me feel uncomfortable (2). I feel art’s power when it ruffles my psyche, and in choosing books to read, I try to have my psyche ruffled as much as I can, so I am probably a bit harder to thrill, astonish, or shock than the average reader (or the average book reviewer)—and this is doubly true as far as noir novels are concerned given that I have seen the genre’s techniques and tricks so many dozens of times (3). But then again, I read so much noir in part because I like the genre’s techniques and tricks.
On the whole, I suspect that my reaction to Dope was most affected by (3). The newspaper praise gave me hope, but the novel turned out to be surprisingly bland by noir standards. Dope is set in 1950 in the sleazier parts of New York; its heroine, Josephine Flannigan, is an ex-junkie-whore; and its plot involves Josephine searching for a young woman who has disappeared into the New York underworld. The setting and the characters never rise above the generic—indeed, they seem intentionally generic, a sort of homage to noir gone by. I suspect that the newspaper praise was sparked by the twists and turns of the plot, but these left me flat. I do not mean it as a brag when I say that I saw it all coming as easily as I can imagine a jack-in-the-box popping. The critic who was “thrilled” may be better off for having seen fewer noir jacks-in-the-box pop than I have. In any case, neither of us can avoid how it colors our reactions as readers. Grade: C