Monday, April 6, 2015

Omniscience & Joss

So after foisting countless novels and comic books on my friend Brian Solloway​, he responded by recommending something a little outside my comfort zone: Tai Pan. I'm a sci-fi and fantasy guy to a fault, so I have almost no experience with modern historical fiction (as opposed to stuff written in-period, and all of that was mostly via curriculum rather than pleasure.) That's really my only excuse for having missed James Clavell up until now. I tried to keep this review focused on style and free of spoilers, so you should be good to go even if you have yet to read the book.

In brief, the book is about Dirk Straun, an opium trader who becomes Tai-Pan, the supreme ruler of Hong Kong and head of the 'Nobel House,' which is essentially the middle-ground between a shipping empire and a Chinese dynasty. Dirk is a larger than life figure, a peerless sailor with all the ruthless cunning and fighting skills of a pirate king. He has a stronger sense of honor than his rivals, and everybody from the British Navy, but what really sets him apart is the fact that he has gone native. He has made a tremendous effort to learn Chinese culture, and picked up some invaluable tips about hygiene--like, you know wiping your ass--and concepts such as Face and Joss which were hugely important factors of Chinese culture.

The beginning of the book struck me as a bit of a whirlwind. You meet what feels like twenty characters in the first forty pages, and Clavell jumps from perspective to perspective quickly. True third-person omniscient is extremely difficult to write, and somewhat challenging to read as well, which probably explains why it's been recently replaced by rotating POV chapters. Even rarer is for third omniscient to play with true antagonists as well as the good guys. The only other book that I can think of which pulled it off was Dune, and those transitions were much more distinct in Herbert's writing. Here, in the course of a single conversation, we'll hear how three men are planning on shanking each other in the back, while the fourth is worried about parliament and a fifth is hung up on lady problems.

Acclimating took me some time, and doubling back to keep things straight; the exact mechanics of the British politics never became clear to me; Clavell doesn't do exposition. It's a great counterpoint for me, because all of my stuff still has the shine of YA exposition; here's how magic works, here's how the world works, etc. I think there is a happy medium to be had somewhere, and I'd do well to re-read Clavell when I'm trying to pare down the info dumps in my own work.

What won me over and made me love the book by the end was that it surprised me. Every time I had a prediction, the characters would subvert my expectations (and occasionally themselves), or Clavell would use some momentous event from History to ruin everybody's day (Malaria says "'Sup"). There were characters I initially dismissed as minor or supporting who ended up being fulcrums for the plot. There were a few times when this led to disappointment; as some eagerly anticipated scenes never came to pass, but on the whole, being surprised was far better.

This inherently unpredictable plot does a fantastic job of illustrating the concept of Joss, which Clavell introduces in the first couple pages as luck, God, and the Devil all mixed together. Fate is probably our closest cognate, though it is much more mercurial than that. Joss is not written ahead of time. It the force that plays dice with the universe, regardless of what gods or devils have in mind.

It's the perfect rebuttal to the most common complaint about historical fiction: history is boring because we know how it plays out. To that point, I plan on reading Clavell's Shogun on short order.

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