Friday, February 21, 2014

Book Review: Winter's Tale

How can I review this book? I have to give it four stars because depending on the moment I could give it five stars or three stars. It's a sprawling, Dickensian work that jumps across time from the early 20th century to the turn of the 21st, as lush and romantic as any novel ever was, yet ultimately a love letter to the city of New York and the wonder of mechanism. There's a flying horse and a mysterious giant ship in the Hudson. There's hard-nosed suffering and celestial perfection and dare I say virtue. And it made me laugh out loud more than any book I've listened to. On the one hand, you just have to experience it. On the other hand, I think that for all its complexity there is some complexity that it leaves out. It's an account of faith that is solid and wondrous except for holes and inconsistencies that I think real faith fills in. But I can read this and fill in the gaps for myself. It's almost like natural theology in that sense.

If my review seems incoherent it's because the book itself whirls manically about and verges on incoherence itself. I think it steps over the line just a few too many times to get five stars. On the other hand, some passages, such as my absolute favorite when Virgina writes newpaper columns (for that to be my favorite is strange in such a vividly concrete book, but, yes, it is), inspire my work and my entire stance toward life. And I think Helprin even thinks about thermodynamics although I'm not entirely sure.

Winter's Tale is a deeply moral work, and though at the end I think it frays just a bit in this regard, there's still absolutely nothing like it. I think the movie may fail because it keeps the surface events but 1.) the interior balance of the book is edited out in favor of exterior, visual, movie cliches, 2.) the morality and virtue of the book are subsumed as poster slogans such as those mocked in The LEGO Movie, and 3.) the main thrust of the book is the power of the written word which cannot be adequately portrayed in a medium where most of the written words scroll up the screen as the audience walks out, read as closely as a Genesis geneology.

As the saying goes, don't judge a book by its movie. This book is an amazing experience and has to be read by any lover of books. It does have flaws but there is nothing else like it, and it is both beautiful and hopeful in an age that prizes ugliness and pessimism. So can I give it four and a half stars? Please?

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