Six. This is the number of consecutive subject-verb-object sentences with which Alain de Botton begins his most recent novel, The Course of Love. It’s the writer’s way of signaling to me, Hey, there are no tricks up my sleeve, nothing sophisticated here.
Best-known for his book on Proust, and his first novel, whose title is taken from a work by Stendhal, de Botton delivers on this meager promise. His novel tells of a love story between two characters whose names I can’t even remember. The male character has a few Michael-Corleone-in-Sicily moments with various women on public transport until he finally meets a Scottish girl, who, after lengthy preliminaries, finally gives him a blowjob in an airplane bathroom—a scene written with less eroticism and a weaker grasp of human sexuality than the snippets of very bad porn I have glimpsed, well, never mind.
The narrative love story between these two characters is frequently punctuated with italicized aphorisms about love that are too trite to even be considered superficial. Suddenly, midway through one of these italicized nuggets, came a frightening realization. Oh, God. Alain de Botton wants to teach me about love. He wants to instruct me on how love really works. Not only that, but he appears to believe that he is writing in the style of the great French psychological novels of Proust and Stendhal.
The result is that I have to spend the next 150 pages getting narrated at about love by someone whose writing would indicate has never actually felt love, or even understood it from the outside. The agitations of the human heart, which great writers try to tease out, are totally alien to Alain de Botton. He focuses instead on only the most adolescent and platitudinous parts: the loathing of rejection, being seduced by someone playing it cool, the disbelief that someone might want to sleep with you, cooling off after a honeymoon period. Things that happen to every human being are passed off as the specific quirks and foibles of his characters. Worst of all, these banalities are delivered with such confidence and in such counterintuitive English that I suspect he is trying to pass them off as genuine philosophical inquiries that took a long time for him to nail down.
(N.B. We don’t need to know about the symbolism of a blowjob. We get it.)
Stranger yet are his attempts at really big ideas, like his description of the three central challenges underpinning romantic love: finding the right person, opening your heart to him or her, and being accepted. How groundbreaking! We could choose a dry-cleaner based on these criteria. Or, better yet: “We tend not to get very anxious when seducing people we don’t much care about.” I.e., we don’t care about the things that we don’t care about.
No writer is a stranger to seeing the words “show, don’t tell,” written on the margins of their work. Reading The Course of Love, I understand these words now with greater clarity.
On page after page, Alain de Botton tells us what he should have found a better way of communicating. He spells out what characters are experiencing, waterboarding us with their feelings without bringing any of it to life. His total inability to think in subtleties leaves him with a need to overexplain ideas as if conversing with the reader in the elevator. And I’d hate to be trapped in an elevator with this guy. His book is basically a laundry list of banal feelings stuck to the fridge beside the torn-out pages of a daily-inspirational-quotations calendar. If you need to tell me directly that a character has “intelligence and kindness, humor and beauty” without being able to demonstrate these qualities, then why are you writing a novel instead of doing something more constructive with your time? Why are you even in the game?
What I love about the great aphoristic philosophers is that they use short maxims to explode outward. It takes Adorno, or Nietzsche, or Pascal three lines to sculpt for a reader new orders of thought. Our world is richer, bigger, more stunning, because of a new and deeply meaningful succession of three, eight, or 17 words that no one ever put in that order before. Alain de Botton does the opposite. He is a writer of silly decrees. “Love means admiration for qualities in the love that promise to correct our weaknesses and imbalances.” All these rules! Every line I read from this book was like un-reading one line of great literature.
Let me guess, does love also means not having to say you’re sorry?
Read Alexander Aciman’s Bookworm column in Tablet magazine on Mondays.
Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.