Friday, September 16, 2016

Unfinished, not unread

I firmly believe that writers should be readers, that reading is an act of faith in writing and essential to the craft.

And while I dislike leaving a book unfinished, it sometimes happens that, due to work, writing, or other contingencies, a book has to be set aside. Sometimes, this is because a book is dull, unreadable, or impossible, but mostly not.

At the moment, I'm coming close to the end of a revision of A Hangman for Ghosts, and so I have less time than usual for reading. But, as a record of my efforts, here are three partial reviews of three books started and left behind, through no clear fault of their own.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

I owe a significant debt of allegiance to this, an historical novel, also a literary mystery, by a New Zealand author. It is a considerable work, with a deep and complex narrative, rich structure, and sensitive voice. It probably deserves greater attention that I could spare at the time.

Catton's model for the Victorian multi-plot novel, however, is not Dickens but George Eliot. Middlemarch springs to mind, for the breadth interaction and the close attention to the minutia of human interaction. The danger here, for Catton, is that much like Eliot she often describes the secret key, the inner nature of her characters, in subtle terms, but – unlike Eliot – she cannot quite reflect the inner character in their outer actions.

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

A literary fantasy by a significant author. Certainly there is something haunting and evocative about his post-Roman Britain, a land where fantastical beasts and terrors are real, and where the culture is as contained and occasionally fearful as the upper-classes of England before the Second World War, or in 1930s Shanghai. But there is, I think, a limit to the effectiveness of Ishiguro's rigorously affectless prose. His characters may have fenced off their memories and feelings, but in a world of magic and looming strangeness, should their feelings also be fenced off so effectively from us?

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Completing the move to more commercial fantasy, The Name of the Wind is engaging, highly readable, a perfect traveling companion (which is how I started reading it). The fictional world suggests depth and interest, and the work is well-written, occasionally poetic, which serves it well. Unlike Ishiguro, however, Rothfuss does not quite grasp the mindset of the pre-technological, mythic era he describes, and occasionally lapses into odd anachronisms, or drops modern phrases ("Okay" is particularly jarring) into his dialogue. If Rothfuss has embraced the need to make his imagined world coherent and believable, it seems to have been imposed from the outside rather than growing from an inward imaginary.

But, as the book moves on, it begins to solidify some of the cliches that it appears at first to eschew, and attention wanes. The hero at first becomes a Harry Potter-esque magical prodigy, complete with a visible physical tell, is then violently orphaned, then finds his way to the University (of magic – which operates more like a modern American college than a medieval school), and then teaches a lesson to the stuffy and insular faculty, and so on. This may indeed be an "adult Harry Potter", but others, such as A Wizard of Earthsea or The Magicians sequence, have made more original work of this.

Since this book is still unfinished, the summary is partial and unfair. My biggest hope is that eventually Rothfuss will begin to unwind the tropes he summons.