Thursday, December 18, 2014

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

The universe is still and complete.  Everything that ever was, is; everything that ever will be, is--and so on, in all possible combinations.  Though in perceiving it we imagine that it is in motion and unfinished, it is quite finished and quite astonishingly beautiful.  In the end, or, rather, as things really are, any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others.  All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is.

Brittany hated this book, writing it off, it apparently, because the descriptions of women were too perfect and she didn't like the writing.  Because it was so long (making me feel bad for subjecting her to 750 pages of...well...of novel she didn't like) and because her review so dismissive, I felt an obligation to revisit the novel to make sure it was what I remembered it to be.

Turns out, it was even better than I remember.

As Brittany noted, this novel has multiple inter-related storylines, which I'll describe in turn.

The apparently most important is that of Peter Lake, Pearly Soames, and Beverly Penn.  Peter Lake and Pearly Soames are enemies, in a kind of exaggerated super-hero, super-villain way.  For example, this is the description of Soames:
In all the universe there was only one photograph of Pearly Soames, and it showed Pearly with five police officers around him, one apiece for each of his legs and arms, and one for his head.  They held him spread-eagled on a chair to which his waist and chest were firmly strapped.  His face was clenched around tightly shut eyes and it was possible to hear, even in black and white, the bellow that emerged from his throat.  The enormous officer behind him had obvious trouble keeping the subject's face toward the camera, and he grasped Pearly's hair and beard as if he were holding an agitated poisonous snake . . . . Pearly Soames had not desired to be photographed.
It's the last line, in particular, that I love.  After spending an entire paragraph showing, Helprin tells the reader the point, in an apparent redundancy.  However, because Helprin's writing is consistently clever, his concluding sentence reads like a clever understatement (for me, anyway).  Pearly is the bad guy; Peter Lake is the good guy.  The first 200 or so pages are about Pearly attempting to kill Peter Lake while Peter Lake tries to avoid him.  Meanwhile, Peter Lake takes up with a magical white horse and meets Beverly, who he falls in love with.  After Beverly dies, we shift focus.

The other story lines occur a couple of generations later, just before the turn of the millenium; they inter-relate more closely and are harder to distinguish.  In one, Hardesty seeks the meaning of a line on a mystical salver: "For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone."  He meets Virginia, gets a job at a newspaper run by Beverly's younger brother.  Hardesty and Virgina fall in love and have a child.

The newspaper run by Beverly's brother is another story line, and serves as a focal point for a number of the characters (some of whom I'm leaving out).  This newspaper, The Sun, is in competition with another newspaper, The Ghost.  Where The Sun is a paragon of journalistic integrity and wisdom, The Ghost feeds the hedonistic mob its superficial news.

Finally there's a plot line involving Jackson Meade, a bridge maker, the Reverend Mootfowl, and their assistant Cecil Mature.  They are trying to build a bridge to the perfectly just city, which, ostensibly, is some form of Heaven or utopia.

I go through all these plot lines because it's the complexity of the novel, it's large number of plots, that makes the novel special.  This is not a novel about characters, necessarily; it is a novel about the human condition, that seeks to describe that condition on the scale of an entire city.  That is, Helprin attempts to portray a theory of humanity--that humans are capable of great acts, but only through cooperation so sophisticated it is nearly impossible for a single person to understand it.  Thus, most of the characters have their individual plot lines without any awareness of how their plot lines are contributing to the humanity meta-narrative.

This meta-narrative is that each person contributes to the life of a city.  This life involves small and large battles between good and evil (although, Helprin does not use the words "good" and "evil," as far as I can remember).  As the city gets closer and closer to being more good than evil, the more the city becomes a hospitable place for it to bridge the gap between our human reality and the perfectly just city.  Jackson Meade, who is an immortal, is constantly trying to build the bridge that will bring about the perfectly just city, but this bridge is dependent on a city reaching a certain level of goodness.

The other characters in the novel serve as examples of the battle between good and evil.  And, with the victory of good comes the possibility of miracles, both big and small.  So it is that children are brought back from the dead.  So, too, it is that Helprin does not explicitly tell us whether Peter Lake is reunited with Beverly.  But, I don't believe the ending is meant to be ambiguous--because the novel conveys a theory of humanity and miracles, Helprin is telling the reader to decide for himself because readers who buy into his theory of humanity/miracles know whether Peter Lake is reunited with Beverly.

This is not to say I understand the logic of miracles and life that dictates Winter's Tale.  I think I'd have to read it about eight more times to feel like I really understood.  However, for me, understanding is not a prerequisite for enjoyment.  And I enjoyed this book thoroughly.  I enjoyed the writing and I enjoyed the plot and I enjoyed the act of thinking about what's going on and being puzzled.

Brittany's problem with the descriptions (particularly of the women), seems to me to be a stylistic choice Helprin employs: hyperbole.  Yes, all the women are described as excessively beautiful; however, every description in the entire novel is excessive.  For me, Helprin's excessive descriptions showed off his writing talent.  I found them to be clever and consistent with the book's title, which self-diagnoses as a tale.  The hyperbolic descriptions help to give this novel a sense of it being a tale, as though it could be told in pieces around a fire as well as it could be read.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes magical-realism, "puzzle" books.  I'd also add, on a personal note, I liked reading a novel wrestling with the concept of Justice as a metaphysical ideal.

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