I expected to like The End by Salvatore Scibona. It was a National Book Award finalist. The paperback edition comes with laudatory reviews:
"The End is a throwback modernist novel. Scibona's subject is the meaning of place, time, consciousness, memory and, above all, language. Think not only Faulkner, but also T.S. Eliot, Virginia Wolf, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce." —The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Engulfing. Entangled. Fate-laden. Flinty. Dry-eyed. Memento meets Augie March. Didion meets Hitchcock. Serpentine. Alien. American. Ohioan. McCarthyite (Cormic). Bellowed (Saul)." —Esquire
"Set in an exquisitely rendered Italian immigrant community in early twentieth century Ohio and does not open up so much as catch and slowly reel in...The title itself points overtly to the novel's heart: The final chapters carry more than their share of emotional heft." —Los Angeles Times
I'll never know about those final chapters because I gave up around page 200. This is one of those (fortunately few) times when you wonder if the reviewers are talking about the same book you are holding.
True, individual sentences are remarkable and wonderful. Examples chosen at random: "She came from Lazio; however, her enunciation of the Italian language was barren of regional influence and pitiless, as though each word were a butterfly she was shooting out of the air with a pistol." (p24) "She loved him. His suffering and shame (he had little schooling, and the accent of his English was inept, and he desired a son with every breath; he was thirty-three) were almost invisible and therefore were to her mysterious, perhaps infinite, and he approached, wanting her and no one else." (p109) "The vineyard under snowfall looked like a sheet of paper on which a dingle word had been typed, and typed again, and again, and again; until the ink in the ribbon had failed and the word, at first so distinct, could hardly be read." (p187)
But Scibona plays with time moving backward and forward with no clear reason. Characters appear and disappear. We are given pronouns with no clear identifications. After reading—plowing through—two thirds of the book, I could not tell you clearly what it's about. Who most of these people are. Or what any of them want.
And I have a personal problem: The book purports to be set in Elephant Park, the Italian community in Cleveland, Ohio. I grew up in Cleveland, and to my knowledge there is no Elephant Park; there is (or was in the 1950s when the book is set) a Little Italy between Mayfield Road and Cedar Hill, and there is enough internal evidence to suggest this is what Scibona is writing about. But why play games with the reader? Why invent street names? He calls the Public Square the Public Square, but then calls the Terminal Tower on the square (at the time I believe the tallest building between New York City and Chicago) the Erie Station Tower. Why?
Once into the book, I did not believe in the characters, their motivations, their personalities, or their histories. The fine writing became cloying, and I became impatient with whatever Scibona was trying to express. Which, I'm afraid I have to admit, I never understood.