Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Review: In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin

In Sunlight and In Shadow is both parallel and a counterpoint to Helprin's previous Winter's Tale. Despite the fact that Sunlight's the lesser work and should be read second, I have to give it four stars, I have to say I "really liked it."

Sunlight is set in post-war New York City, while Winter's Tale is set in a mythical 20th-century New York City. Both are about people in that city (this one focusing on a single couple that may wear out their welcome, while the other shares its focus among three or four couples and many more around them), but they are really about the city itself. I would only recommend reading them after a trip to New York itself.

Helprin's prose is sometimes purple, but always vividly colored. He is a Stoic through and through in the ancient Greek sense, sensing the interconnectedness of things and valuing all experience, romanticizing even death and war. For that reason, he's hard for some to take, but I love his writing in the same way that I love The Fisher King as a movie -- despite its flaws, there is nothing else like it, and there is something deeply true in the way Helprin sees the world.

Helprin occasionally oversteps, and antagonists can cherry-pick overbloated or even callous sentences from the 700 pages of this book, but that is patently unfair. In Sunlight and In Shadow is a waterfall of emotion, sometimes sentiment, sometimes even mushy, but sometimes hard and painful as well. I think this is the kind of book Dickens would have written if he was around today.

As a whole, Winter's Tale is more successful than Sunlight because Helprin's hyperbole fits exactly with a fantastic New York which lets the stained-glass colors of his emotions shine. In Winter's Tale, the bad guys are really bad and his good guys really good; in Sunlight they can seem unnuanced when set in the real world. The poetic lyricism of Helprin's writing here clashes with the realism of the world around it. But that's just the point he's trying to make -- that with those for eyes to see, the real world can indeed look like this, even without the flying horse and the cloud wall and the gigantic building project that play major roles in Winter's Tale. The fact that Helprin very nearly succeeds in bringing that sweeping myth into the real world in this book through his language alone is reason enough to dive into it.

Even if it doesn't quite fit at the shoulders, this coat is luxurious and warming, and it does something few other books published this century dare to do -- it looks you in the eye, challenges you to a fight, and knows that the act of reading can still instill virtue in the reader. Helprin wants to transport you, strengthen you, and ennoble you. He wants you to appreciate the heroic element in the everyday choices you make. No, he's not perfect, but even the imperfections highlight the beauty of this world. We need writers like this, and I hope there are more to come.

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