Monday, December 03, 2012

Like a locust

Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale is big, really big, with a big heart, and a big vocabulary. It starts off as an adventure — gangs of criminals, New York's immigrants and destitute. But before you know it, it's a love story, very possibly a tragic one. Oh, and there's a magic horse. Then suddenly you're jumped forward in time to what appears to be a more contemporary setting, and you're very sad that you won't be spending more time with the characters you came to love in part one. But there's this crazy old lady who keeps a rooster like a cat and whom you need a dictionary to keep up with, and her charming daughter. Some more new characters, and it slips into slapstick. A couple chapters later you're back in New York, and then it's a newspaper novel, you can smell the ink rolling off the presses as the wit rolls off their tongues. But lo, there appears to be a rift in the space-time continuum. And it's mostly very lovely and uplifting, even when people die.

It's all a bit fantastic, in every sense. See, there's this thing with the dead, who've returned, or who just keep on, and the eternal city, and the bridge of pure light that need be built to get there. I don't think anything directly offended my atheist sensibilities, but till the very end I was afraid it might give way to something more overtly religious than the vaguely mystical. I'm pretty open-minded about what I read, I read broadly, and I'm generally happy to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story or an interesting idea; but I was never fully comfortable with where I felt this book was trying to lead me, even though I ended up a little to the side of the destination I'd anticipated. But it is a good story, and very well told.

The love in this novel for New York and for winter, for New York in winter, for language, for life, is immense. I loved reading Winter's Tale a lot, and I feel it deserves to be loved better than I was able to. Which is a pretty powerful thing for a book to inspire. I'm curious about Helprin's other novels, and I'll be happy to read this one again in my old age.

A warning: if you can help it, don't read this as an e-book. The proofreading job on the OCR to digitize this book was atrocious, far past distracting and well into confusing; e.g., "haifa" for "half a", "mat" for "what", "silendy" for "silently", and many others, including some permutations which I abandoned as unsolvable. And the apostrophes are missing.

"A benevolent act is like a locust: it sleeps until it is called."

3 comments:

kiss a cloud said...

"Big heart," "fantastic," "New York in winter".. you had me. Plus all the other quotes you've posted before this. Sad to hear that it didn't live up to quite what you expected, but it feels like something that might live up to mine, thanks.

Isabella Kratynski said...

I really didn't mean to sound down on this book and can't quite pin down why it feels less than something. Maybe I just wish it had gone on for a few thousand pages. Seriously.

Ted said...

My book club tackled this one (it was the 3rd reading for me since it came out). Their reactions were mixed by I continue to love the breadth and enthusiastic creativity of this book. Certain scenes are seared indelibly in my imagination. He has never equaled it.