Well, it’s once again been a long time since I last blogged. Sorry about that. I know I know, I keep promising to be more regular about this but shit, you know… life happens, and other cliches. I’ve been crazy busy editing “the novel” – having now transitioned at last out of the “editing phase” and into the infinitely more boring “proofreading phase” – I moved into a new apartment, I got a promotion at work, blah blah yadda yadda busy busy busy. Sorry. I’m sorry, okay? How many more ways can I say it?!
Of course, nothing in this past month+ has kept me quite so busy as Michael Faber’s massive brick of a novel The Crimson Petal and the White.
If you’re in the mood for a rambling shambling shaggy baggy epic of the industrial revolution, full to the brim with whores and mistresses and tormented priests and unfortunate accidents and perfume and death and secrets and drama and weird lapses in tone, then you should probably give this book a shot. If you liked Sarah Waters lesbian romances or Dan Simmons’ Drood, you might get some of those same pleasures from this. Be warned, though, it’s a major investment of time, and I can’t guarantee that you’ll find the payoff at the end worthwhile.
Okay okay. Any book of this size and scope is tough to boil down, but the basic gist is this: There’s this guy William Rackham who’s the resistant heir to his father’s perfume empire, and there’s this woman Suger who’s an unusually clever and odd prostitute. They get tangled up with each other and things go rather well, at least until they go horribly wrong. Still interested? Okay then, let’s talk about style.
If you will be so kind, good stranger, to come along this way – carefully now! These next few lines of text are treacherous, and one must be on guard if one is to notice how I’m simultaneously talking about and pointedly aping the style of the novel. Yes, here, look at this here. You’ve never seen anything quite like this have you? They don’t have paragraphs like this where you come from, do they? Of course not. Well, never mind, I’ll keep going on like this for about two hundred weird and off-putting pages before I just kind of drop it and decide to write in a pretty standard third person past-tense novelistic style because I guess the established tone just got too annoying and difficult or maybe I just forgot? So yeah, the tone was pretty damn weird. The direct address made for a really powerful arresting opening, but then it just… kept going. Which was strange and awkward. Then it ended, which was also strange. I know it’s a big book and all, but JESUS, FABER! would ya just pick a style and stick to it?
As for the plot, well… this is one of those books that just kind of drifts through the lives of its characters, quite content to simply watch and wait, observing with infinite patience as they stumble onward through the events laid haphazardly before them. It’s the sort of novel one must relax into. You have to allow yourself to drift along with it. There are going to be slow spots, and there are going to be crazy twisty-turning spots, but you mustn’t be swayed by them! You have to allow yourself to disappear into the text. Don’t try reading this book when you’re distracted and bored; you have to give yourself over to it if you’re going to get anything out of it.
Most of the time this is quite pleasant and enjoyable. William and Sugar are terribly interesting and well crafted characters, full of breadth and depth and contradiction and personality and conflict. Of course, we must also spend a great deal of time with somewhat less engaging folk. William’s tedious brother occupies a rather vast swath of pages, and never fails to bore. William’s tedious brother’s tedious would-be-paramour is equally dull. And then there’s Agnes Rackham, William’s sickly and insane wife. This is a character obviously on loan from one of the Bronte sisters, and is one of those characters who is interesting in inverse proportion to her number of narrative appearances. Unfortunately, she eats up a huge number of pages, and becomes rather tedious.
I’d say this book was about… 300 pages too long. That said, I was never tempted to quit reading, nor was I ever terribly displeased. I liked the book, bloated though it may have been, and I consider my time with it fairly well spent.
Still… that ending…