Wally Lamb — The Hour I First Believed

October 2, 2008 at 3:43 pm 5 comments

Wally Lamb began his new novel about the Columbine school massacre, The Hour I First Believed (follow-up to 1998’s I Know This Much Is True), on the day of the shooting itself. Nine years later, here we are. A 750-page brick with a preface, afterword, notes, bibliography and a list of Columbine-related charities. Don’t say this man doesn’t take his work seriously. It will sell millions of copies, so enjoy the world’s forests while you can.


The Columbine setting gives the book spray-on seriousness (Lamb even includes real journal entries from the killers), but it struck me as a cheap trick. Lamb doesn’t tell us anything new about the killings. He hasn’t unearthed new details (this is unequivocally fiction) and he doesn’t try to empathise with the killers — his analysis extends as far as “Oh God, wasn’t it tragic?”. For Lamb’s oddly named narrator, Caelum Quirk, the massacre witnessed by his wife kickstarts an interminable odyssey through his family history.

“Caelum”, by the way, is Latin for “Heaven” — I think this is what Lamb calls “symbolism” and I call “corny”.

Can a work of this enormity really be bad? The answer, tragically, is yes. The length is unjustified by the plot, which rambles on and on and on, as though Lamb lacked the confidence to send a shorter, punchier work to the publishers. This is one for speed readers. And not because of its length, but because of how it’s written. Slick, neat, professional, functional, events-dialogue-events-dialogue — poetic as a patio, evocative as Aldi. Reading this dull and humourless book at my usual 30 pages an hour, I nearly lost the will to live.

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Entry filed under: Book Reviews, Lamb Wally. Tags: , , .

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John Self  |  October 2, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    “Spray-on seriousness” – heheh!

    I must admit I toyed with a Wally Lamb once – She’s Come Undone, though I can’t now remember what made me interested in it. Anyway I never bought it or read it.

    For an effective, timely – and most of all, short – look at a Columbine type scenario, I recommend Douglas Coupland’s Hey Nostradamus!, which I think his best book by some way.

    I wonder if Lamb got caught up in a story which had long since lost its immediacy, and felt that he were in sentiment stepp’d so far, that … returning were as tedious as go o’er. Meanwhile Coupland, Shriver, and even – Christ – Jodi Picoult have stripped that particular carcass of its bones.

    And when you say “Can a work of this enormity really be bad?”, don’t forget the original meaning of ‘enormity’!

  • 2. thewritingrunner  |  October 2, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    Oddly named narrators do not help me get into any book…!

  • 3. Jonathan Birch  |  October 2, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    Thanks John — fascinating… I always thought it was an odd word. Maybe I’ll use “enormousness” from now on. Interesting tip on Coupland, I will investigate.

    I think you must be right in inferring there were some problems in this book’s genesis. I can imagine that when you write such huge books it’s hard to go back to the drawing board halfway through. But all the Columbine stuff really is unnecessary.

  • 4. Jonathan Birch  |  October 2, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    thewritingrunner: indeed! It annoys me enough in Annie Proulx. What’s the guy in the Shipping News — Quoyle? But even that’s nowhere near as odd as “Caelum Quirk”!

  • 5. lynn byrd  |  December 3, 2008 at 2:54 am

    The Hour and All That is unwieldy and awkwardly written. I skimmed through many pages of fat in my search for the meat. Not recommended, and that hurts my heart.

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