Even though this will be posted on the other side of spring, I read today’s book in the winter that was not a winter and then all of a sudden became intensely a winter. March started out like a lamb and became a lion, so hopefully kitty goes back to being a lamb by the end of this month. I can’t wait to do yoga on my patio like a hipster. I want to see lambs this week. Lambs! I want tulips to come up at a time that does not give me intense anxiety that the planet is melting.
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin is long enough to have its own cold and magical realist post. It is my second book over 500 pages of the year, the snow read, topping out at 768 pages paperback and 27 hours of listening at normal speed, but I listen to books at 1.25 and so it was closer to 23 hours for me. And I wanted to read it for awhile but I am going to be honest, it kept getting pushed down the list because it did not have awesome reviews on Goodreads. I used to have a friend that did not want to come to the movies to see something that was not highly rated, and I used to think that was absurd, but here I am, doing it with books ten years later. My excuse is that books are more of a time commitment, 23 hours over 2.
Reading the reviews to gel my own thoughts for this post, I felt validated in my dislike for it. Sometimes I read something that I don’t like and wonder if there is someone out there who is way smarter who thinks that it makes the most sense in all the world. If there is such a person I have not read his review on Goodreads (well in full disclosure a five star rating of the book by someone who has miraculously read it more than once was discovered but then I saw more interesting disdainful entertainment. I focused on that so I could continue to cradle my delicate ego). Someone put it on their dumpster-adjacent shelf. Someone else shelved it as meh. Someone else posted a picture of a taxidermy small rodent that looks like a horror movie creature come to life to eat your brains because they feel that reading this book is an accomplishment warranting such a statement. I mean, sometimes when I have a patient that has a serious breakthrough (and I do get to see them) I could use an animal like that.
All right though, I do intend to be “productive” (a therapist word) with this post and talk about why it felt like chewing concrete. I love turn of the century NYC. I read all kinds of books about the grime and the prejudice and the immigration and the hard life of those times. So I was attracted by that. I have a book on the history of the city itself that warrants my attention. Helprin is long winded but it is beautiful to listen to if you get into it (one reviewer called it narrative fearlessness). I loved the initial story of Peter Lake and Beverly Penn, and I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler, but after Beverly dies this thing falls apart into nonsensical further plot threads whose later interweaving is wholly unsatisfactory. I thought the whole thing would have it some Beverly Penn, but the consumptive rich woman who was straddling two worlds before she died pretty much stayed on the other side of the veil after she died. I really thought she was going to come back more than she did.
And, it was shelved as Magical Realism, and it was, with the author messing with time, and epic snow and winters, and a horse that is the size of a barn who practically flies. And it was cold magical realism in the north, where people are more private and don’t have sprawling, messy inter-generational families. It was all very proper to have magical realism in the winters in NYC. With the added element of time, where it was not like characters would not stay dead, the did not die in the first place, hanging out over a century in the underbelly of the city like it would always be the turn of the century. It dabbed magic into the usual world.
But ultimately, it did not have a lot of plot and it did not come together at the end, which I was really rooting for. I read David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, and he can get really dense and you don’t know where he is going, but at the end he pulls it together in a really gratifying way that makes you glad that you followed his lead when you were not sure that it was going to lead anywhere. (I felt The Bone Clocks was more gratifying than Cloud Atlas but I would give Cloud Atlas another go.) Barbara Kingsolver is another who can wind out threads and then weave them, although she does not make you wander as far out into an unknown and seemingly pointless land before pulling you back in. She keeps you tighter the entire time, which is why I love her, even if she writes about the environmental preservation themes that make me intensely anxious. So, the fact I go back to her even when I know she will say something that freaks me out is high praise.
I potentially considered abandoning it, but I didn’t want it on my dead soldier shelf that haunted me until I picked it up again. I read other books in the meantime, my Sarah Addison Allen for one, that was enough of a break for me to be ready to wrestle another long winded chapter with events whose purport evaded me. Writing advice I have seen over and over emphasizes that you can have the most exquisite turn of phrase, but you need plot, too, to cull the masses. We should all be writing for ourselves, I agree, but if one really wants to write a big hit with the populace it has to be more than beautiful language and unwinding backstories. It just has to.
Do I regret reading this novel? I don’t. Syfy ruined my faith in books turned into miniseries with The Magicians, so I won’t be looking into the movie anytime soon, but I was intensely curious about this epic that involves many of my reader’s kryptonite. What is a better magical realism turn of the century NYC book? The Golem and The Jinni, which I know I have mentioned before but has never gotten its own post. Talk about winding together the magical plot threads with some twists to knot you up in the end. Damn.
A thousand words and 23 hours later, I would love comments, shares and likes on this post. I wanted to add The Master and Margarita to this post but I feel that that one will have to be waded through at another time. The devil comes to Russia. We don’t need to talk about that with a huge horse, a dead woman and an orphaned immortal amnesiac mechanic with occasional psychotic symptoms.