Tuesday, February 06, 2007

When To Throw In The Towel - A "Gormenghast" Groan

It’s been eating at me for a while now, this great shame of mine. I thought I was tough – one of the toughest, but I’ve been confronted with an adversary I just can’t overcome. I’m not normally a quitter, but this is just too much. It’s time to throw in the towel. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” novels have gotten the best of me.
Now, I don’t admit defeat easily. In fact, up until now, I’ve never failed to finish a book. Oh sure, I’ve been known to take breaks in the middle of books sometimes when they were bogging me down: half-way through Homer’s “Iliad”, after what seemed like the hundredth roll call of the names of each of the six hundred zillion warriors trudging out to the field of battle for another day’s slaughter, I grew a little weary and put the epic down for a month or so. Not that I’m saying that it was a bad story, far from it, rather that the endless name-dropping interfered with the pacing a bit. But I picked it back up and finished it with relish. When I was a teen and blown away by Herbert’s “Dune” after reading it for the first time, I was so enthralled that I went out and bought all the other books in the series and tried to go through them all back-to-back. Bad idea. “Dune” was great. “Dune Messiah” and “Children of Dune” were good. The back three, though, were an exercise in suffering. So much so that I halted in the middle of “God Emperor of Dune” for several months and went on to other things before resuming. But I picked it back up and finished the series eventually. And those are the good ones. As an English major back in university, I had to slog through a fair amount of insufferably dull stuff as a rite of passage. I mean, if you’re ever looking for a cure for insomnia, having to plod through Mary Anne Evans’ “Middlemarch” is a pretty good start. I did manage to get through it though.
But “Gormenghast”, oh “Gormenghast”, that’s a whole other kind of beast. The first installment, “Titus Groan”, drags on for endless pages about the utter dank entropy of the great slouching hulk of a castle/fortress/uber-basement and the mouldering grotesques within. It drags us on an unending tour to meet this cast of wretches (like a carnival boat-ride tunnel of terror that you can’t climb out of) as they find out about the birth of a new baby and react to the news and the intrusion of other characters into their routines.
Sixty pages in, I’d had enough. I could take no more of this immense ode to decrepitude. I threw the book down in disgust and grabbed something, anything else off the shelf.
That was about eight months ago.
Since then, I’ve tried to pick the sucker up again a couple of times, but with no success. I’ve tried to keep an open mind (“Maybe it’ll get better in a couple of paragraphs. All I have to do is keep on plugging!” ) – I mean, after all, I like all kinds of SF and other types of literature, and a wide variety of narrative styles; I should be able to adapt to this presentation. But it only takes a page or two before I start to feel like I’m being mummified at the bottom of a peat bog.
I don’t think I can do it again. I fear I have met my match.
There are some who would say on a purely mechanical basis of reading that this is enough justification to put the book down. Some have a “100 pages rule” where if they’re not interested in the story by the time they hit that benchmark, it gets put down. Some have a similar 1/3 rule. Others are even more mercenary, pointing out that if a person has a backlog of other reading material which could in all likelihood be better, it’s okay to turn one’s back on a book at any point where one feels unreasonably overwhelmed with boredom. All of these approaches agree on a central premise: why waste time with something you don’t appreciate it, like it and are not getting anything out of it.
Nonetheless, the idea of retreat still annoys me to no end. Part of it is ego – I don’t like to admit failure when it comes to a book. Part of it is fear – I worry my literary spider-senses are getting near-sighted and that I’m missing something terribly profound that would be the key to understanding and enjoying this sprawling tome. And part of it is respect for the canon – how many respected elders have called this book brilliant? How many have raved on and on about the detail of Peake’s world-building or characterization? And what does that say about me as an SF critic if I am found wanting in my ability to wrestle my way through a classic of the genre, no matter how big and boring?
But the obeisance to canon argument is fraught with peril, because a person’s opinion isn’t worth much if they’re always following the pack, especially if the commonly-held opinion is flawed or flat-out wrong. It also demands that an individual’s literary preferences (no matter how heartfelt or rationally justified) kowtow to the dictates of some elite that were themselves based upon an individual preference. I’m not saying that a canon doesn’t have a purpose as a starting point for discussion, but to give it status as an absolute authority on quality is unwarranted hubris. We have to be wary of the canon, because it’s this kind of establishment snobbery that’s unjustly relegated SF to the literary ghetto for decades.
Which brings me back to my original position, which is that in my opinion, “Titus Groan” is so insufferably boring that it’s not worth finishing.
But my guilt still makes me reluctant to toss this omnibus onto the donation pile.
Help me out here folks. Please.
Tell me if I should be giving the “Gormenghast” novels a reprieve. Tell me what I’m missing. Tell me if it’s worthwhile to persevere. Tell me if there’s a wondrous new land waiting to be discovered beyond this ghastly mountain range of literary drudgery that’s reared out of the opening chapters. Or am I right to pass this pulp wad on to someone else who might enjoy it?
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