Thursday, March 20, 2008

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

Wow. I finished this book a week ago and was at such a loss for what to say about it that I waited a week to write this review in hopes inspiration would come. I am still reeling, trying to construct coherent thoughts about it. Bridging seemingly incongruous ideas which verge on one another so seamlessly that I am stunned by the breathtaking efficiency and precision of it, Mark Helprin strings delicate beads of mismatched colors until suddenly you are holding a rosary of stars and have not the slightest idea with to do with it. I, like most of the other people who've read this book, have absolutely no idea what it is about. I read all 768 pages and when I finished, I had as much understanding of the book as I did the day I first heard of it. And I LOVED IT. What I have to say about it probably won't make sense, but then neither did the book. Just keep in mind that in deciding what to say about Winter's Tale I have had to scour the deepest corners of my mind to pull together language which can somehow express my thoughts about it at all.

Winter's Tale is what you would get if you poured one part each of-

Romeo and Juliet, Brigadoon, Dickens, the Gaya Hypothesis, Monet's paintings of The Houses of Parliament at Sunset, Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Norman Rockwell, Al Capone, Tennyson, the story of the Tower of Babel, Renoir's color palette, Jules Verne, the characterization of The Simpsons, Robert Frost, Rip Van Winkle, Dorothy Gale, Dowdle Folk Art, Narnia, Brahms' lullaby, Sinclair's Jungle, a fieldtrip to the planetarium and Madeline L'Engle's Wrinkle In Time series-

into a vast lakebed and then watched as the many colors twisted in and around one another until, at last, every part had become one and everything was whole, and the whole was a hole through which you could see the universe and it was beautiful. (See? I told you it wasn't going to make sense.)

For me, the book is about a lot of things. It is about juxtapositions. It is about how everything has its opposite; how justice, balance, and restitution are part of the ultimate destiny of this world and how even though they might be anwered on the tenth generation, they still come to pass. It shows that change is the only thing that stays the same. It is about how time does not exist, how Heaven does, and how Heaven cannot be barged into but may be sometimes right around us, here on this very earth and we just don't see it. It's about how we are not alone. We are all somehow connected in ways that we do not see because the magnitude of these connections is so great that they are beyond our notice at all. They are so all-encompassing that they draw the people whose lives are intertwined to specific places- junctions- over and over again. The book shows that once you are a resident of someplace wonderful, you are always a resident there; no matter where you go or how long you are away. It's about how there is a grand design in place, an enormous machine of a thing, and every person and event and location is an integral part of the plan. The machine is constantly in motion and being part of the design gives us purpose.

What I loved most about this book was that it was beautiful. I don't mean that it was all flying horses and starlit nights and scenes of folk art painted in the loveliest shades from Van Gogh's masterpieces, although those things are there too. I mean the writing is beautiful. Not in the flowery and romantic way, but beautiful in the carefully crafted, hand-carved antique jewelry box way. Every sentence so carefully constructed, every word specifically chosen. The language so smooth you want to run your hand across its face and then open it up to see all the wonderful things therein. The kind of beautiful you want to wrap around you and take a nap in on a cloudy day. Perfect in its descriptions of both beauty and horrors, in its balance between the two. Perfect in its timing- the pace seems to pick up and move along faster and faster- as if you are reading in time with a locomotive steaming down the tracks. Perfect in its Dickensesque, dizzyingly complex, interconnection of characters. Perfect in its descriptive landscapes and portraits. A perfect rendering of perfect moments.

For the sake of a thorough review, I add only that there were a couple sex scenes in the book I was a little uncomfortable with. I think I read the f-word twice. I would highly recommend this book to avid readers. It is not for someone who doesn't read much. It's not for anyone who hates New York City. Most of all, it is not for those who find the feelings of muddled and vague comprehension disconcerting or uncomfortable. For everyone else however, it is truly wonderful. I suggest that when you read it, you read it with somebody because you will wish to have someone with whom to discuss it. Don't bother with what Wikipedia has to say about it. I thought that their article was a gross misinterpretation of all the symbolism in the book. It seemed to me the author wanted to pretend he had found the secret decoder ring. I do not believe for even the smallest instant that the author of the Wikipedia article understood the book any better than every other reviewer who came straight out and said, "I have no idea what this book is about."

I give "Winter's Tale" a heartfelt Something More Substantial.


Kim said...

That was an amazing review. It sounds like I'll need to try this one.

valenzoo said...

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. You captured it, well, beautifully.

Erik Mather said...

It's also about craft and flight and rising Its protagonist, Peter Lake, is a journeyman (and a holy innocent) who knows how to keep the great printing presses running. Those mystical bridge builders, up country Hudson Valley folk living behind the cloud bank in Lake of the Coheeres, and yes the captains of industry who built their urban mansions and Grand Central Station all knew the craft of industry. The chapter called "The Machine Age" signals Halprin's faith in the artist's (and the true mechanic's) time denying craft. In writing about Marko Chestnut who paints (undying)portraits of children, Halprin tells us that "Marko Chestnut thought that, indeed, nature was in the beams, girders, and engines of the city; in all things and their arrangements; in a still life illuminated by an electric bulb as much as in a wheat-colored field in pure sunlight. The laws were the same, and ever present."

Unknown said...

A great review, except for one thing.... I don't read much and this book totally blew me away. It was absolutely amazingly beautiful in so many ways. I am in complete awe of writers of this caliber. I wish my own thoughts were as fluid as his writing. Has anyone read another Helprin book that they would recommend?

Anonymous said...

Read this 21 years ago and have never gotten over it. I read it is being made imto a movie with Colin Farrell as Peter Lake and Russell Crowe as Pearley Soames. Can't wait. I hope the movie is at least half as beatiful as the language in this book.