Negative Review Example
Here is a great negative review. Now, this is from the Washington Post, so we don't necessarily expect this caliber of professional writing for our humble pages. However, please take note of the basic elements.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Say this much for Paul Cody's lugubrious, portentous and manipulative novel "Shooting the Heart": It has found a way to make the feckless pontification at your average American studies academic conference even more irritating, by piping it into the meandering confessional musings of a would-be sociopath. Earl Madden, our protagonist, is a English instructor at a private high school and now a heavily medicated patient at a Boston-area mental hospital; he has formed the vivid conviction that he has killed his wife, Joan. As he struggles to conjure this and other traumas to life, Earl manages to construct a sort of master-narrative for the meaning of it all. He gives us obsessively detailed accounts of the careers of notorious serial killers (never named in full, for the apparent reason that they are to serve as ominous American Everymen), patched together with stray references to the sin-and-death-haunted European settlement of North America. Here, for instance, is how he describes the twisted coming-of-age of a hippie cult leader-cum-monster whom he coyly calls "Charlie" (one note of caution -- Earl often speaks in disjointed fragments. They illustrate. His disjointed state of mind. In mercilessly gimmicky fashion):
"We think of him as a West Coast kind of guy. Beach Boys, Hollywood Hills. Cover of Life magazine. That stare, that glare. Little guy too. But this started, the all of it, in the East and Midwest. Heartland. Or started far earlier, with John Winthrop on ship Arbella. Poor frail boat on mighty ocean. Huddled, cold, sick. For we must consider that. Sermon on board. Scared three-quarters to death. Heaving, rising seas. Tossed boat like toy. 1630. . . . We shall be as a city upon a hill. . . . The eyes of all people are upon us. In sermon. On board."
The suspense in the dreary plot of "Shooting the Heart" is supposed to derive from guessing whether Earl did in fact murder Joan, or managed merely to delude himself into believing he did, with Joan understandably availing herself of the nearest exit. (As Earl himself offers in a rare moment of unenraptured self-awareness, "Why would some dumb [expletive] insist on telling these stories to his wife?") Yet Cody strews so many menacing bits of American ugliness through the novel, the real mystery is why Earl doesn't snap a whole lot sooner. His careworn father gets laid off at the supermarket one day and takes to the living room couch for about a year of drunken muttering, until Earl's mom has him institutionalized. Earl's mom is a reasonably saintly, hardworking single parent -- very much in contrast to the usual profile of serial killers' family histories. But there's another single mom in the house next door, bitterly resenting the demands of caring for her Down's syndrome son, and Cody seizes upon her as the requisite older female monster. She is perpetually baking, and as the boy Earl is visiting one day, she abruptly grabs the back of his head, tightly yanks his hair and thrusts his head toward the open oven door, announcing, "This is what they did to the Jews." For good measure, she calls Earl's house in the dead of night to tell him she intends to "smash your disgusting, snotty face," to inquire about the state of his boyish genitalia and regale him with graphic descriptions of the Irish potato famine, all the while appearing to work herself into a heightened state of sexual arousal.
And so on. Plenty of writers, from Jim Thompson to James M. Cain, have made insightful use of the normal-seeming sociopath as the basis for provocative and lively works of fiction. "Shooting the Heart," on the other hand, is so eager to impress with its edgy ingenuity that it completely neglects the first rule of such explorations: The characters propelling a book like Thompson's "The Killer Inside Me" are creepy precisely because they are entirely in thrall to their surface-level sunny normalcy, not because they're harboring some grad-school hunches about the nation's rapacity. Once you foreshadow your central character's murderous urges in such blaring, relentless fashion, they become as flat and unpersuasive as, well, a reading of the Manson family murders back into the mists of colonial history. Earl may or may not be a violent criminal, but "Shooting the Heart" is a lot like the aftermath at a crime scene, and as such, it prompts me to second the sage counsel that cops offer to rubbernecking passersby: Move along. There's nothing to see here.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company