Wednesday, September 03, 2008

I suppose it isn't summer any more. Officially.

It's noticeable that it's getting dark sooner, and it's a little cooler, and the quality of the light in the late afternoon has just subtly changed, proving (I guess) that the sun isn't following quite the same path in the heavens as it did a few weeks ago.

So I suppose it's time to start the transition from summer music into fall -- Dressy Bessy or The Essex Green or The All-Girl Summer Fun Band into Belle and Sebastian and the Tindersticks, winding up with the Field Mice and (appropriately enough) the Decemberists.

It brings on melancholy. Which, like nostalgia, the Elizabethans properly diagnosed as a form of self-indulgence and disease. Such thinking always reminds me of Basil Fawlty in the "Basil the Rat" episode of Fawlty Towers.

So enough with it.

I finished reading Eldest not long ago, and I was fairly disappointed. The sort of disappointed you often get from reading lazy students' work: that from from undelivered promise.

Paolini is not particularly original -- for all intents and purposes, his works are set in Tolkien Middle Earth. Which isn't the worst thing in the world (it worked well enough for Christopher Tolkein), but it does sort of insist that your work either be suitably beholden to the original maker of the world and hold strictly true to his/her style. This is what C. Tolkien did most of his life, and while he never created anything truly memorable, he also never made people throw down his novels in disgust.

What worked in Eragon was that it showed the promise of not going down this road. If he chose to create a carbon copy of Middle Earth, he at least escaped a lot of the tiresome traits that keep people from taking the genre of fantasy too seriously. He didn't, for instance, much try to use a sort of cod-archaic English to convey (in the cheapest possible terms) the seriousness and old-fashionedness of his characters. Eragon let slip a few "okays" in the first book, and there's no better word in English to drag someone kicking from a medieval setting.

But somewhere in the hundreds of pages of Elder, that disappears. The dialogue slowly spirals down into the tedious "thees" and "thous" of yore. If it's an effect to make the dialogue seem old, I don't think it works because often enough, it's used incorrectly (and whether that's a fault of Paolini or his editors, I can't say -- there's a reason William says "to thine own self be true" and not "to thyself be true"...) And just for the record, if you insist on using the verb "to wend" you really ought to know its simple past is "went". Yes, it not coincidentally is the same as for the verb "to go" , but that's the English language for you.

I think it might also be an attempt to add a sort of faux-Tolkien sense of gravitas. If it is, then that fails, as well. The prose of The Lord of the Rings moves along at a snail's pace, but its tempo matches the weeks and months and years that the plot covers. Elder is a long book, but it has a pretty small a mount of plot. It isn't equal to the amounts of verbiage potted on top of it, and you wind up with a story overtold.

If LotR is a sort of lumbering giant, it's one that is bulky and muscular rather than flabby. Eldest is flabby, largely for the same reason people are: a lack of discipline and of understanding. Considering Paolini's age, the novel would have been served by a far more exacting editor that would foster a more practical sort of creativity and a hone the author a little more in his basic writing skills.

Not that many people since Truman Capote have cared that much about being a writer rather than telling a story. (I suppose Stephen King thinks he does, what with his book and all, but like a lot of authors, from Zola and Hugo to Brecht, he has trouble putting theory into practice. There's a reason anyone with literary pretensions should be forced -- forced -- to read Pope's An Essay on Criticism regularly and prove they understand it. Writers like Sarah Caudwell, who write as they do naturally, are vanishingly rare.)

There are some good points to the novel, and some signs of improvement from Eragon. Paolini wisely chooses to paint with a broader palette this time around, and includes sections from the perspective of people other than Eragon. This is a sound choice, since it allows for a much larger scope for the novel and does a good job of providing an international(ish) view of the situation. In the hands of another author, it might also allow for more than one narrative voice to come through, even in third person, which would be an ideal way of underscoring the use of the device, but if Paolini intended to do so, then it just doesn't come through. Which is a shame, because it would prevent some of the drag in the middle.

In the end, there's one good way to judge the quality of this book: Am I going to read the sequel(s)*? Probably. Well, I will give the next one a chance. If more isn't better in the third novel, and disappointments out-weigh promise, then I certainly won't bother with the fourth.

Also: Is it just me, or is that picture above Portrait of a Melancholy Young Man by Isaac Oliver (c. 1590-5) alarmingly similar to the Corpus Christi portrait, allegedly of Christopher Marlowe?

*The fact that what started out as a trilogy is now a tetrology (at least) should speak volumes.

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