Tuesday, March 20, 2007

BOOKS: Sick of Pomo? I've Got Your Cure.

I am about to do a book a great disservice. Or maybe not.

The Sea
by John Banville (#6)
See, the problem with this book is that I read it about a week after finishing The Year of Magical Thinking. Oh, sure, I read 44 Scotland Street as a breather in between, but still. How do you go from a psyche-wrenching memoir about the loss of a spouse to a (sorry) relatively less wrenching novel about the loss of a spouse without the latter getting hosed in the deal?

You might think that Didion's memoir would have primed me for Banville's Booker-winning effort, but no such luck. My brain had developed a huge, thick scab -- one of those toughies you can poke with a pin and not feel a thing -- to cover the gaping wound where my grief-and-loss sympathies are housed.

Though maybe The Sea just wasn't that good. You tell me. On that note, you may question my judgment even more after what I'm about to tell you.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke (#7)
Guys! I loved this book! Why did I wait so long to read it? Why didn't someone tell me? (Okay, I remember some of you telling me. Why didn't you tell me HARDER?)

Now, I can sense public opinion about my taste shifting even as I write this. For example, I know for a fact that my pal Raincoaster absolutely reviles this book. And I know that a lot of otherwise right-minded souls didn't care for it, either. Which, you know, fine.

But! The Thackeray-esque wit and attention to descriptive detail! The magic! The footnotes! These all touched me in a special place, a secret place only accessible by a fizzy magical cocktail that includes the nineteenth century and -- someone hold my hand while I say it again -- footnotes.*

Admittedly, the story takes a while to get moving. In fact, for the first hundred or so pages, it's just stage setting and character development. You could be fairly convinced that absolutely nothing is happening, especially if you're of the opinion that the footnotes aren't worth your time. But the footnotes are essential. While they aren't especially germane to moving the story forward, almost every one is its own powerful, self-contained, awesomely original tale of magic, reminiscent of old Russian and eastern European folk tales. Regarded as a whole, these hundreds of little storytelling gems are a staggering achievement in and of themselves. They create a gorgeous tapestry of magic, a backdrop that makes the dearth of magic in the story's present all the more stark and depressing. These little tales also form the breadcrumb trail that lures you into the heart of the book, where the action finally starts to unfold. And when it does start to unfold... well, I can only speak for myself, but my reading pace picked up considerably, to the point that I was lugging this massive book around with me so that I could read any chance I could get.

And the payoff was worth it. The ending was absolutely perfect. How many books can lay claim to that distinction?

I was saying to Rusty that I can't remember the last time I read a book that was so utterly satisfying. It's not like there was a lot of subtext or moral ambiguity or any of that stuff we generally expect of serious books written for serious people. Instead, it had the ability to push the same buttons as the very best children's books, such as The Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia, while at the same time possessing a caustic, intelligent, grown-up humour that, as I've said, reminded me of Thackeray. (The section of the book dealing with the Napoleonic wars probably helped that comparison along, too.)

It's wonderful to know that there are writers like Clarke out there: smart, funny people who care to revive older storytelling traditions and make them fresh. We don't want to risk pomo-ing ourselves to death, do we?

*Oh my stars and heavens above! The footnotes! I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven. A deliciously tangential heaven.


Anonymous said...

You’ve Read the Novels (Now Read the Footnotes)

Anonymous said...

I quite enjoyed the footnotes. It was the thousands upon thousands of crispy-dried, bloodless paragraphs above the footnotes that I felt were the waste of time.

The last time I encountered a plot this good with execution so dull was in Brian Lumley's Necroscope series.

landismom said...

I generally agree with you on The Sea. I read somewhere that it was Banville's consolation Booker, and I kind of buy that. Guy does have one hell of a vocabulary, though. I can't remember the last time I had to run to the dictionary while reading a novel.

As for Jonathan Strange..., I actually took this book on a plane. In hardcover. Because I couldn't leave it behind. My seatmate said, "that must be a really good book, if you lugged that thing on a plane." I barely looked up to acknowledge that she had spoken.

SB said...

I am SO GLAD you enjoyed JS & Mr. N! When I try to explain to some why I like it so particularly, I usually end up sputtering to a halt somewhere between "'Vanity Fair' meets the Brothers Grimm" and "OMG TEH FOOTNOTES!"

On a serious note, I thought the little details in the midst of such a sweeping narrative are what made it for me. Like the bad dream the soldier has about a chop that chases him up a tree. And the canal water nipping hungrily at Drawlight's heels. And the fact that the gentleman-with-the-thistledown-hair (although clumsily named - why not just call him Jareth? ;) was first innocuous, but then more and more frightening as the novel progressed.

And the ending - for it was one of the best I've read in recent times.

:) Take a look at "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" for some engaging short stories from the same world, and a look at Mr. Simonelli.

Regards from your long-time reader, first-time poster,


(PS Have you read "An Instance of the Fingerpost" ? If so, I'd love to hear what you think.)

Rachel said...

EEE! I loved JS & Mr.N! When I read it, I was doing some temp work and every time, no matter what, I'd be sitting at lunch and someone would come in and go "Whoa! I could never read a book that big!" Which explains SO MUCH about why I found it so impossible to make friends at any of my various jobs.

Now that I'm a Professional Mom, I thought I might re-read it, but I need a good solid hour or so to get into it and I just don't have that right now. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the heads up about the slow start in JS... I'm still stuck in that part and will push through to the end. I was enjoying the footnotes, but the plot is taking its time in showing up.

Kristina said...

I need to reread it because I remember being so pointedly upset that the book (that 600+ page book!) had ended where it had. I was, in fact, frantically upset.

And my word, yes to the slow start - it took me three tries before I got to the good part, despite the footnotes. But I love love loved the butler. Forgot his name, but oh how he (and his story line) rocked.

SB said...

Forgot his name? Well, that's because he has cast off the name of his captivity - it is gone ...

... ahem. In other words, I completely agree with you. His storyline was fantastic; its resolution amazing. And the images that portrayed his enchanted state were lovely (as well as horrifying) weren't they? The tunnel through the falling snow, the silent dream, etc.

Don't mean to hijack the comments. I will go now, and undoubtedly walk straight into a fat lady in a purple pelisse.

Unknown said...

I'm glad someone liked Jonathon Strange..., everyone I've tried to convince to read it gives me funny looks when I start to wax rhapsodic about the footnotes.

Speaking of footnotes, though, I recommend Ibid by Mark Dunn. The premise is that Dunn has written a biography about a circus performer with three legs, but through a series of mishaps the biography is destroyed--except for the footnotes. Very clever.

Anonymous said...

I looooooved that book... I started it on a weekend when I sent the baby to my mom's and my husband was away, and I FINISHED THAT BEHEMOTH by the time everyone was home. I read it everywhere-- took it to breakfast, the nail salon, in the car at stoplights... sigh. I was disatisfied with the book I started after it.

Quillhill said...

Okay, it's on my shelf, and you and the other ravers have convinced me to pick it up.

White Trasherati said...

Must read it! Footnotes! FOOTNOTES!!
I kept old middle school lit texts for love of the footnotes. I still can tell you the origins of the "coals to Newcastle" quip in - wait for it - Walter Mitty (not the complete title, duly noted), due to the lovely, lovely, educational footnotes. LOVE. THEM.
And thought I was a lone freak all these years - thanks, DG!

Marissa said...

I loved JS & Mr. N for the same reasons you did. I also enjoyed (though not nearly as much) The Ladies of Grace Adieu, which I reviewed in my bookblog here.

Rustybelle said...

It also took me a while to get into Jonathan Strange but once it gets going it's well nigh impossible to put down. I think I stayed up until 5am to finish it.

caitlin: I loved Ibid, such a brilliant concept. Ella Minnow Pea (by the same author) is also very good.

subtilior: Although I'm not the fabulous Doppelganger, An Instance of the Finger Post was one of those books I though was fairly ordinary until it changed points of view and then it blew me away.

Anonymous said...

I've got The Sea on my bookshelf, so far unread, so maybe I won't bother...

Jonathan Strange is one of those books that I keep meaning to read when I see it at the library, but something else always comes in the way. Sounds like I should give it a go!

Heidi Schempp Fournier said...

Ooops, tried to leave a comment and must have hit the wrong button. ANYWAY, I agree with everything you have said about JS & MN. I have given away copies of that book so often. Everytime I see it in the store I pick it up and smile. I have also managed to convince quite a few people to read it, but I know a few got mired down at the beginning.

Unknown said...

Loved it. Loved it SO HARD. It was my beach reading book on last summer's family vacation, and I got a horrific sunburn because I was so engrossed that I forgot to reapply sunscreen.

I have to say, though, I'm tempted to give away the paperback copy my sister got me and search out a hardcover, because it's also just a lovely physical object of a book.

Elizabeth said...

Yes! I remember you asking whether you should read this lovely lovely book, and I rarely comment but I think I encouraged it.

I was completely convinced of its genius when there was a fairy tale set into a description of a gate. So glad you read and enjoyed!

BabelBabe said...

all RIGHT already, I'll go get it off the shelf where it languishes and push through the first hundred pages. fine. if you insist.


Anonymous said...

I loved Jonathan Strange so much... but I think you killed it for me when you compared it to Tolkien. I don't think there's a single writer in all of history--and I've read Pamela--that I find dryer, or less capable of writing convincing people in compelling situations.

Anonymous said...

I loved Jonathan Strange! I "read" it in audiobook from audible.com, and the reader is excellent. This book was my companion every day when I went to the gym to ride the bike (BO-ring) and walk the track. I laughed out loud and felt bereft when the book finally ended. AND they include the footnotes in the audiobook version.

swatcher, polish-ranger said...

I appear to be in the minority but I did not at all enjoy JS & Mr. N. I found it long and plodding and, while parts were interesting, I felt it could have been shortened significantly. It's one of the few books I know I will never reread so I got rid of it at a work book exchange.