Strange Brouhaha

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

My worst vice, if you can even call it a vice, is buying reading material and then failing to read it. I'm fairly sure that I could dig up, on short notice, magazines that I bought two years ago and have yet to read. I am absolutely confident that I can produce at least one book that I bought myself at Christmas 2003 that I have yet to even open. It may even date back to Christmas 2002. (For the curious, it is the final Quiller book, "Quiller Balalaika," which Adam Hall was in the process of writing when he died. Say, are you supposed to refer to pseudonymous authors by their pseudonyms after they die? Should I have said Elleston Trevor, instead?)

I bought Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" for myself last Christmas. I would have been willing to swear that I bought it at Christmas 2003, except for the fact that the book was published in September 2004--it just seems like I've had the darn thing forever. I just finished it yesterday, after several months of picking it up and putting it back down again, reading a hundred pages and then getting bored with it. No, bored isn't really the right word: this is not a boring book by any stretch of the imagination. What it is, at least for me, is the kind of book you can put down for a couple of weeks without stress, without wondering what's going to happen next.

Clarke's writing is dense and detailed. It's sort of like reading Dickens, but interesting. The prose is very evocative of mid-nineteenth century England, but in the same breath very modern. It's also very episodic, hence my being able to put the book down for weeks at a time. This is a good thing, but a bad thing as well: it makes the book "okay" as opposed to "holy crap, this is great!" There are large swaths of text that, to me at least, could have been excised without affecting the plot or characterization. In fact, there's a parallel here with Hugo's "Les Miserables." When the Hugo work is released in abridged editions, the abridgement is usually the removal of the twelve thousand pages on the battle of Waterloo. When I read "Les Miserables," I read an unabridged version, and those thirty thousand pages were murder to slog through.

It's not that I mind long books, either. It's just that I think most of the Napoleonic war episodes in this book could have been skipped. YMMV of course.

The NYT Book Review said of this book that it was "Harry Potter" for grown-ups. I don't buy it. They are not similar in style, substance, tone or content. Where I see the Potter books as summaries of a larger and more interesting story than Rowling is able to tell, Clarke's world is more fully realized and this novel is actually a novel. Neil Gaiman, quoted on the back cover of the book, says that this is "[u]nquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years," a very strong statement when you consider that it encompasses the works of Tolkien and Lewis. I'm not a connoisseur of English fantasy, so I'll let others debate the point, but I will say that I like this book a lot better than "The Lord of the Rings."

I finished the book with a big smile on my face--the ending was as satisfying as it was abrupt. It's kind of disconcerting, to me, to have a novel kind of meander about for over seven hundred pages before showing any sign of wrapping up, and to have such a short payoff after that, but it actually works well: everything is said that needs to be, everything happens that needs to, and we can be done.

Is the journey worth taking? Yes and no. Like I said earlier, it could have been shorter. It could have been tighter. In some ways, the sprawl works for it, and in others, it works against. On the other hand, it is worth it to see the way that Clarke takes the sprawl that she has created and ties it all together into a neat little package in the last thirty pages: everything flows to that point.

Overall, I'd recommend borrowing it from the library and renewing it as needed. Or waiting for the paperback edition, if you've got some spare dough. It's definitely not "un-putdown-able," and if you're like me, you'll find yourself more than able to put it down for weeks at a time.


  • Hang on a second. Like Dickens, but interesting? Them's fighting words, boyo.

    By Anonymous david adam edelstein, at 12:59 AM  

  • British literature is the reason that I wasn't an English major. Booooooring. (I don't really care for Shakespeare, either. So nyah!)

    By Blogger Robert, at 7:04 AM  

  • Or, alternatively..."Yeah, you can tell that *she* wasn't getting paid by the word."


    By Blogger Robert, at 7:06 AM  

  • It's true--Susanna Clarke and Elleston Trevor are the only British writers Rob actually likes, and he doesn't like Elleston Trevor *that* much. He's indifferent to my beloved Neil Gaiman, actively hostile to my beloved Dickens, and hates Shakespeare and Tolkien. It's like something genetic. (I can't make it through LOTR all the way myself, but page for page, Tolkien is one of the best wordsmiths in history.) I'm not sure what can be done. I haven't even *tried* to spring Charlotte Bronte or George Eliot on him.

    By Blogger Savannah, at 7:42 AM  

  • Wait a damn minute, you hack! How does "You can tell that *she* wasn't getting paid by the word" jibe with your contention that the book could be shorter without affecting the story?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:56 PM  

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