Friday, January 27, 2012

Three novels that were too damn long

I've read three novels published in 2011 that were just too damn long. At some point, my interest faded and it was only the desire to see it through that compelled me to continue reading to the end.

A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin, 1040 pages
Reamde by Neal Stephenson, 1056 pages
1Q84 by  Haruki Murakami, 944 pages

A Dance with Dragons is a middle volume in Martin’s multi-volume epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, that began with A Game of Thrones (1996). The current volume is the fifth, yet I dare say even Martin seems unsure how many volumes (or years) remain before the end. This is the sort of series that is really one long continuous story. Each volume offers little, if any, closure. It’s the sort of series that I usually avoid reading until the final volume is published. Reading this series has taught me again why I adopted such a policy. Still, there is much to enjoy. In the current volume, there is a wedding scene that is achingly well written, evoking a spectrum of strong emotions. On the whole, alas, it wanders. Characters travel, deals are made, battles are fought or avoided, and so very little is accomplished. It’s a pleasure to spend time in the world that Martin has carefully created, even if the time spent seems aimless.

Reamde is an exercise in plot, or so Stephenson has said in interviews. Unfortunately, by focusing on plot Stephenson has stripped away many of the reasons I enjoy his novels. While Reamde has a science-fictional gaze on the world, it is not science fiction. It’s set in the immediate future. He is the great explainer of concepts, as I’ve written before on this blog, and here he explains a new massive-multiplayer online game, and the economics of gold-farming within the game, which may seem overly familiar if, like me, readers have played a MMORPG sometime in the past decade. What remains is a thriller involving computer hackers, the Russian mafia, and terrorists. A diverting ride, yet disappointing coming, as it does, after a more thoughtful novel, Anathem (2008). (SF Strangelove’s review of Anathem.)

Murakami’s novel 1Q84 (or trilogy of novels, as it was originally published in Japan) is set in Japan in an alternate version of our year 1984, notably different for the presence of two moons in the sky and a handful fantastic events, such as an immaculate conception. The story exists somewhere on the spectrum of what John Clute calls fantastika, which embraces science fiction, fantasy, horror, and related works. I would call it an example of fantastika-lite, where the fantastic elements are used merely for mood and effect, rather than as concepts to be examined and explored. The underlying story is a boy meets girl, boy and girl are separated, and eventually boy and girl are reunited. This simple structure did not sustain my interest for 900-plus pages. These pages are filled with enormous amounts of repetition and padding. Characters frequently repeat dialog back to each other, then they share, and re-share, and re-re-share the same information and concerns over and over again. Amid the multitude of digressions there are some interesting stories within stories. Not enough to make it worth recommending. I could go on about the dozens of “pervy” references to women’s breasts, or the unconvincing way that female characters talk to each other about their breasts (“like a teenage boy’s fantasy of a woman describing another woman’s breasts”). The quotes are from Charles Yu’s review of the book and he has done a fine job. (Charles Yu’s review of 1Q84. Edited: link updated.)

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