Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The book of laws

I just finished reading Peter Behrens' novel The Law of Dreams. The book won the Governor General's Literary Award here in Canada, and is generally the subject of much praise.

How wonderfully, terribly, wonderfully grand.

It's not that this book isn't fine and dandy. I read it very quickly, absorbed in Behrens' storytelling, the lush scenery, the galloping pace of misery, fortune and downfall. The man's mastery is undeniable; I'd recommend The Law of Dreams to anyone in need of a good read, and especially anyone who--like me--enjoys historical novels. But it is also undeniable that Behrens repeatedly abuses the reader with his sermonly instructional method.

The book is riddled with one-liners that seem designed to bequeath unto us some philosophical wholesomeness: "Anger, what is it? It's nothing pure. It's yourself you despise;" or, "Everything is strangers." At first I thought these punchy fragments were the words of Fergus, the protagonist, flashed at us through the pall of the the third-person narrative. But as time wore on it became clear that Fergus wasn't half wise enough to deliver these maxims.

The problem, then, isn't that these aren't kernels of wisdom that, I expect, many readers will find truth within (I certainly did, repeatedly); rather, it is the manner in which Behrens interposes himself over the story to insist these things, entirely unnecessarily. By the end of the book I felt almost as though Behrens was writing a book of handy tips, with a perfunctorily delivered narrative to give a backdrop for them. Either that, or they must exist merely to fill out the pages.

This style didn't hinder my enjoyment of the book until the very end, when I began to realize how false the whole endeavour rang because of it. I still loved the book, was more than happy with the ending, and would, I repeat, recommend the novel. Indeed, I agreed with many of Behrens' (stress on the fact that they were Behrens') nifty little observations on life. So, more than anything, this is a lesson to be learned for writers: don't preach to your audience. Unless you have a character authentically vocalizing your sentiments, it will be transparent and, consequently, annoying.

-bn

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