Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

I don't read fantasy books. Or - rather - scratch that, I don't very often do so. When I was younger I read Tolkein, and that was good - good enough that the endless parade of imitators seemed less amusing than merely pitiful. I think because he's such a damnably popular writer he doesn't get enough credit in certain regards - The Silmarillion is my favorite of his, and whereas I can't really see myself going back to read The Lord of the Rings anytime soon (the movies kind of soured me, honestly), the former remains a singularly dense and allusive experience in my mind. Tolkein's work had a depth of conception and solidity of purpose that simply mooted all but the most perspicacious of his followers. I'd wholeheartedly recommend Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series, but honestly I haven't read them in decades so I have no idea how they hold up.

One of Donaldson's most significant achievements, in any event, was upending the same fantasy tropes that had been accepted so uncritically by legions of Tolkeinistas. I just didn't have a lot of appetite for the genre after reading these, and a smattering of others too - Roger Zelazny's Amber books were good pulpy fun, and I enjoyed Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality series (even if those fall rather definitely into the "guilty pleasure" column!). Some of Gene Wolf's books might be considered fantasy if you squint at them funny. But seriously, life is too short, and not a lot in the field holds my interest.

But then there was Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. I wouldn't exactly say I was proud to have these books on my shelf - in fact, I sold them to the used bookstore last time I moved. I resisted them for the longest time. I had a couple friends, however, who swore by them, and they kept pushing them on me - try the first one, it's free, they'd say. Life is short, as I said, and the prospect of a series of two-inch thick fantasy novels stretching indefinitely into the future filled me with . . . well, not necessarily terror, but I wasn't exactly keen to start. But finally I did, on the second or third try (the first book is notoriously difficult to begin, which was perhaps in retrospect not a smart move on Jordan's part). And sure enough - at some point, around halfway through the first book, things just click. You find that you cannot stop reading. Jordan wasn't a great writer or even, let's be frank, a particularly good writer - one of those same friends who originally suggested the books to me once tried to read some of his many Conana novels, and said it was one of the worst pieces of shit he'd ever tried to choke down. And yet . . . there was something there, something fiercely pulpy and unrepentently old-fashion in the way he doled out his plots and elaborated this incredibly intricate fictional tapestry. The characterization was barely above the level of rudimentary, the dialogue painfully earnest and endlessly expository - his idea of a character trait was a perpetually repeating verbal trope, usually with heavy-handed comedic irony added in to the bargain. He wrote like a sculptor chiseling granite, and I don't mean that as a complement.

At a certain point, reading the series, I felt the unmistakable touch of purgatorial excess. You know how about halfway through the run of the X-Files (maybe a bit earlier, I don't recall specifically), you got the unmistakable feeling that they really didn't have a clue what they were doing, and were in fact just sort of stringing the viewers along? I wouldn't quite say that Jordan had that problem, because he definitely had an ending in sight - it's just that the longer he proceeded forward, the further away that ending seemed to be.

Now he's dead. The ending is apparently extant, and will be published in some form, in the series' twelfth and final book. I don't think, from what I've seen, the eventual finale will face the same kinds of legitimacy problems that Tolkein and Frank Herbert's "posthumous" works have faced - I think in this instance the fanbase is simply too desperate for a conclusion. If I had invested enough of my life to read all eleven previous books (and various ephemera), I'd be pretty anxious for an ending as well. (Brian Herbert was able to construct a final conclusion to the Dune series from his father's notes, but whether or not it actually holds up is a question I can't answer - I've had people tell me the various Brian Herbert-spearheaded spinoffs have been "not bad", which isn't exactly a ringing endorsement.) In any event, the series deserves an ending. I may not have had the patience to tough it out, and in all honestly I doubt whether I will ever have the time or inclination to go back. But it will please me to see it finished, because regardless of his many faults as a writer, Jordan was still a hell of a storyteller. That's got to count for something, right?

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