Thursday, August 4, 2011

Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing (wow!!!! go me and shakespeare :))

Agghh!!! It's August!!!!! There are a few reasons for me to panic about that, but as promised, I did finish that substantial item on my bibliogenda, and am now ready with a review.  This one was quite a while in the waiting even before I started the book about a month ago (was it that much? Almost, at least).  I really enjoyed Mark Helprin's Freddy and Frederica, I remember laughing out loud more than once (which is surprising for a book that looks like some fairly literary goods).  So I assumed he was one of those "good" authors whose books are actually enjoyable, and I chose Winter's Tale, which seems to be his masterpiece, as my next of his reads.  I got it from Pikesville, returned it six weeks later, got it out from Towson, returned it six weeks later, put it on reserve at the NYPL, let the hold expire, got it out from the NYPL, returned it two weeks later... maybe that wasn't exactly the sequence, but this book is over 700 pages long and there were always holds on it in NY.  It just wasn't happening.  But, you know, fifth time's the charm, and maybe it helps that it's summer, but I was finally able to keep the book out for more than two weeks - which gave me time to actually finish it!

From the beginning, this book was... well, not Freddy and Frederica, that's for sure.  Maybe I was supposed to take that one seriously, but I don't think so, and I certainly didn't - the whole book was a magnificently composed farce, but with a redeeming ending.  Winter's Tale isn't farcical at all - at least, it doesn't seem to be.  It takes itself all too seriously.  At first, I withheld judgement - there was pronouncement after high flown conceit after dramatic foreshadowing, but I figured maybe this was one book that had a right to comport itself in such a grand fashion.  After all, wasn't it supposed to be an epic tale? And at the beginning of the second section, it seemed like my faith was not misplaced - the prose seemed a little less florid, the events a little more everyday, the characters just slightly more sympathetic. That lasted... well, not too long.  Most of the rest of the book alternated back and forth between moments I found myself caring, and passages I was just like, whaa?  The plot made some progress, but for every new development, there were three high flowing descriptions of the city, or of nature, or of some mystical force, or who knows what.

I got less and less patient with the non-story part of the book, but I still held out hope that the ending would be spectacular, rewarding me for slogging through.  There was definitely some potential for it - there was an almost Dickensian complexity of relationship among the characters (like that? :)) and there was a setting of events going a hundred years back.  But to counterbalance that, instead of seeking to tangle things up as much as possible so that we could be stand back and admire as the knot came undone, the book advances more by "magical" elements than anything else.  You wouldn't think I'd be so bothered by the lack of self empowerment in this book, but if felt like the author was some omnipotent being throwing plot twists at his hapless creations.  Now of course that's exactly what was happening, but can you let us forget that for a second? Instead, we are continually reminded that what we are reading is an epic tale, a tale of great scale and grand power, and how do we know that? Because we are told that, flat out pretty much.

And when we finally slog through that momentous build up, here's the shocking part - NO twist.  Or almost no one anyway - we knew Peter Lake would be important, we knew the city of justice would be revealed, we knew the dead would be brought back to life.  What we didn't know was *how*.  And guess what *how* was? It just happened! Peter Lake killed himself, Abigail came back to life, and the city was filled with light.  Huh? Where did that come from? Well the author's head, that's for sure.  It's possible he wanted to write a description of the Messianic era, that's really what it reminded me of more than anything else (or more like a pagan/Christian rendering of one).  But, putting aside that it's not like we can ever know or even imagine what that era will be like, it really doesn't make for very compelling reading.

I actually have an impressively literary explanation for why I didn't like this book.  One of the important elements of narrative literature (thanks yet again, Mrs. Janney!) is conflict.  It can be man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself... but it's got to be man vs. something.  In the 700+ of this book,  I really couldn't find a central conflict.  So despite the impressive build up to the final "Golden Age" of the ending, the plot just had no footing.

And what about the writing itself? I suppose it was good, if you go for that sort of thing (condescending or what? :)) I mean full beyond of extended metaphors and descriptions of nature, man, time, elements, whatever you want.  Paeans to New York, which were mildly interesting, since I do like New York.  But all of it just seemed like someone trying to make things sound more significant than they actually are.  Trying, and, at least in my book, not succeeding.  Occasionally, there was an impressive turn of phrase, but for the most part, this is the writing parodied by the Bulwer Lytton Content (look it up, and then the Little Lytton Contest - it's even funnier).

I was so confused by how ungood this book was, I went and read the Wikipedia entry.  I found out that 1) it's not considered that amazing and 2) Mark Helprin is really full of himself and more than a little unusual (and that's not because he's a Republican :)) So I guess I just had the wrong impression of the book's place in the American fiction canon.... but it didn't live up to my expectations after Freddy and Frederica either.  Oh well... a month wasted (not really of course, I don't usually regret reading things :))

Verdict: 2/5

PS - we do go back far, me and this book :)

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