I have been reading the Lord Peter Wimsey books, by Dorothy Sayers. They are a
time-suck great, if you are into Golden Age mysteries and British nonsense. The best thing about them is that unlike, say, Hercule Poirot, you get a sense of Lord Peter evolving and having his own story over the course of the books, quite separate from the mysteries. He’s a bit of a throwback to Sherlock Holmes in that he isn’t formally a police detective or even a PI, really, he’s just a morbid, rich guy who likes puzzles and often questions his own cold-bloodedness.
I also listened to All The Light We Cannot See, which I thought was so beautifully written. When I finished it, I thought: I enjoyed this so very much, but what keeps it from feeling like a great novel? Reading William Vollmann’s review of it, and also a couple of interviews with the author, I think it’s that Doerr couldn’t quite trust his readers not to need a hook: something thrilling and mysterious beyond his wonderful characters, Werner and Marie-Laure and their loved ones. So he introduces this (ok, irresistable) subplot with a cursed diamond and the Nazi obsessed with it. I’m not saying that it doesn’t work in terms of making the book readable, and moving things along, but it ends up feeling sort of clunky against the more slow-burning and organic main story: Werner and Marie-Laure being drawn inexorably closer and closer. Doerr’s writing reminded me of David Mitchell, another writer who is so good, but also walks the line between literature and popular fiction. I’m always thinking (and rethinking) about the difference between what I think a great novel is–a work of art–and a great story. Sometimes, I think it’s that one focuses on things that happened that were exciting, and the other on how things that happened affected people and how those people allowed other things to happen and what that says about all of us. I really liked this explanation of the distinction, from the NYer’s review of Mitchell’s newest novel:
“As the novel’s cultural centrality dims, so storytelling—J. K. Rowling’s magical Owl of Minerva, equipped for a thousand tricks and turns—flies up and fills the air. Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive. The novel form can be difficult, cumbrously serious; storytelling is all pleasure, fantastical in its fertility, its ceaseless inventiveness. Easy to consume, too, because it excites hunger while simultaneously satisfying it: we continuously want more. The novel now aspires to the regality of the boxed DVD set: the throne is a game of them. And the purer the storytelling the better—where purity is the embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning. Publishers, readers, booksellers, even critics, acclaim the novel that one can deliciously sink into, forget oneself in, the novel that returns us to the innocence of childhood or the dream of the cartoon, the novel of a thousand confections and no unwanted significance. What becomes harder to find, and lonelier to defend, is the idea of the novel as—in Ford Madox Ford’s words—a “medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.”