Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Mr. Norrell is strange ...

For the second book in my 2014 Man Booker Challenge, I picked Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.  This is a 700 page beast, and I wanted to tackle it early in the year.

I'm a little over half-way through.  It's full of British wit and charm..  I can see why some draw parallels to Harry Potter, although its ultimately very far from Rowling's series. 

Three Men in a Boat  is a classic of British humor.  Would it have been as delightful if it were 700 pages, instead of 170?  No, I'm afraid even that book might wear thin.  So one of my issues is that the comedy often wears out before the scene moves on.  

The other is related to the particulars of some events.  It's unsettling to read of decidedly uncharming  to downright frightening activities in a manner that implies there is charm or wit or humor in the situations.  For example, the story of the seventeen dead Neapolitans is chilling.  A gentleman magician won't kill with magic, but has no problem resurrecting seventeen dead men, using them shamelessly, then messing about with them for weeks until they meet a hellish end (again).  Throughout the book there is this strange feeling that you are expected to laugh at things that just aren't funny, it must be intentional.     

Some other thoughts.  Is there a plot to this book?  Kind of.  There's forward motion that gets tangled in literally hundreds of digressions.  Many of which are complete stories in their own.  Where will it go?  Sometimes I glimpse the shape of what I hope is the big picture.  I don't necessarily need much of a plot to enjoy a book, but this one really does lurch along.  If the Raven King chapters don't deliver, then I will wonder what the journey was for.

There's also an absolute overload of imagination.  Delightfully creepy descriptions of eerie magic, mad fairies, etc.  A different author probably would have milked four or five or fifteen books out of this much content.  

But, I'm wondering if Clarke's imagination crosses itself up at times.  Jonathan Strange sends a message to a military officer using a very small rainstorm to spell patterns in the dry dust, and a few chapters later can't figure out how to put out a house fire without resorting to awkward machinations.  He tries to make creatures out of water, but unfortunately, we hear that water is the fussiest of the elements and doesn't hold its shape well when magic is used.  Except, I guess, when Mr. Norrell blockaded French ports for at least a week with ships made out of ... water.  

In fact, the entire presentation of how magic was used in the Napoleonic Wars doesn't sit right with me, but I've gone on too long here as it is.  Back to finishing off this book!   


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