Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Reading by the bucket

When I say I like long sagas, I am not kidding. (That's also why I write them.) It's always disappointing to me when a series seems to peter out under the weight of its own vast universe or the exhaustion of an author who just needs to crank out another formula book to make the payments on...well, whatever.

Rarely, a series seems to just enthrall me so much that I can't bear to read the final book. I put off reading Colleen McCullough's The October Horsebecause I dreaded the murder of Caesar. Finishing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallowswas painful, although I respected the vision of the author very much.

But as I am in a stage of recovery, I found reading the final two books in the Thomas Covenantseries *excruciating.* Just..wow. I could not take the relentless doom, gloom, confusion, frustration, impotence...the miasma of bad questions and bad answers and "hey, didn't we do this already?" scenes of artificial peril.

Now, a logical person would ask, why did I bother? Well, I first read the series as a teenager, and lemme tell you, the self-absorbed stubborn, rapist, anti-hero *leper* was about as aimed at a teenage audience as any other way to wail about how unfair the world is and how alone you are in a sea of pain. It was, in fact, the antidote to a spate of mild Tolkien rip-offs that filled the fantasy shelves at the time, lots of magic swords and dragons and unlikely teams of wiseass adventurers who were seeking the Golden McGuffin. Not that I minded those - but you know, candy is for snacking. And if you looked at my fantasy collection *now* you'd see very little from that time.

But I held onto the Covenant books, for two reasons. One was that I always felt I was not getting a complete picture of the story, I needed to know more, reason more, to be able to appreciate the full spectrum of the tale. After all, the first one was really good; the second and third not that bad, etc. What could I be missing? And two, his amazingly turgid language.

When I read Steven Donaldson, man, I need my dictionary handy. I like to think I have a pretty good working vocabulary and a better reading one, but whew, this guy wears me out. Reading a few days ago, I was amazed to find three words in ONE SENTENCE that I didn't know. In one sentence! Now sometimes, I look a word up and find it's a really cool word to know. Penumbra was one of those. (Lord Foul has one around his form as he becomes real.) I looked that up and thought, oh, that is a good word, I gotta use that somewhere. Things like that make me happy.

But there is a line between learning a new word, phrase or concept and feeling stupid. There's also a part of me that thinks, "couldn't you have just said the forest was dark and creepy? Just a thought."

So there I was, feeling ill and tired and slogging through this morass of cold, uncomfortable things - and I mean this, his main character is always cold, bathes in cold water, scrubs her wounded body with SAND, sleeps on slabs of rock...in 30,000 years, no one in the Land invented SOAP? Running water? The idea that maybe a bathtub closer to the fireplace might be warmer? I dunno, have they all been sitting around muttering cryptic, dire warnings to each other and forgetting to, maybe...write shit down?? Come up with a warmer outfit than a thin belted tunic? (Which everyone wears, regardless of weather.)

The Despiser doesn't have to ruin this world - it's stuck in a massive dysfunction already. (Hm. New thought. Maybe that's WHY he's so desperate to get out. The place IS a prison, of unimaginative, rigid, short-spoken people who wouldn't know a happy day if it came wrapped in rainbows and unicorns. People who never invent things, never grow, never question, and above all, never get freaking WARM. I'd be ready to destroy the Arch of Time myself after a few hundred thousand years like that.)

So...I couldn't do it. Couldn't finish the final book in the series. It has my place marked and I think I will put it on the shelf for a while, maybe hit it up one last time in the future. I still think there's something I am not getting. Or, maybe I am just not that teenager any more.


Mad said...

You're one up on me. I picked up the first installment of the "final" series a couple of weeks ago, because the rest was available to pick up, and I couldn't finish it. Bob saw me with the book in hand and laughed "feeling a bit masochistic, love?"

Bleak and pretentious is a heady combination. I don't know how I read it the first time through!

As Bjorn said...

I read Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series when they first came out and thought, why am I wasting my time on this bummer? I did read all three of them, then, never again. And he's just not that great a writer. (So you ask me, who do I like? McMurtry is the best, but I've read lots of people and lots of fantasy. We all like Harry P.'s mom and her vision. And I love William Gibson's remarkable novels, the sci fi guy. Whatever.) I just think if you want gloom you should read Malamud's the Fixer. That will bring you down and tell you something absoutely true.