Friday, May 15, 2015

Slow Going

Sorry for the long delay, though I'm relieved to see it was not as long as I feared. With any luck I won't have a month long posting drought this year. Consider it a late resolution. Anyway! Here are my thoughts on Patrick Rothfuss' The Slow Regard of Silent Things.

I loved The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear. Best contributions to classic fantasy literature in a long time. Beautiful prose, a tragic frame-narrative that makes you question the otherwise traditional hero's journey, and an incredible cast. It can be tropey. Cliched even at moments (eyes that shift color with emotion). Kvothe, with his limitless talents and quick wit has the godly tang of a Mary Sue. Though those things are part of the charm. It was tremendously refreshing to see the Old Ways done right, with a cunning new voice. Needless to say, waiting for The Doors of Stone has been agony.

Inevitably, people have been hounding and badgering Rothfuss to finish it, which is understandable, but also the wrong thing to do. As per Neil Gaiman, authors are not their audience's bitch. But I know that the impatience and harassment is coming from a place of lust, if not real love. So I can see why people would be disappointed by this quirky little novella about Auri, one of the oddest and most mysterious characters in the world, that doesn't really solve any of her mysteries, or drive much of the plot forward.

Rothfuss knew it too. He wrote an afterword that's longer than a couple of the novella's shorter chapters talking about how distraught he was over publishing it, knowing people would be angry, and acknowledging that it does not even fit the expected criteria of a story. It's a strange little addition; a sorry-not-sorry of literary afterwords with the ultimate take-away of, "I needed to write this, I think there are some people out there who needed to read it, starting with this one friend who I spoke with about it." It's a sentiment I heartily endorse.

But I was not one of those people. The story frustrated me. It's very short; reading material that should have been the matter of an afternoon, and it took me more than a month to get through it once I started reading it in earnest. I was anticipating learning about Auri's past. What made a presumably once-normal person into this strange creature who lives under The University and speaks in riddles with vaguely Carrolean words.


Instead we get five days in Auri's curious life. She talks to objects as if they are people, attempts to move them around her underground world in accordance with some undefined personal sense of feng shui, and then imagines or senses the objects' reactions. There's no hint at what happened to her, assuming she wasn't a feral girl from the start who somehow taught herself how to speak and dress and learn something of social norms (what the proper soaps for kissing are). There is a vague teaser of what is to come; I suspect Kvothe may be using The Underthing as a refuge to continue combing the library for information even after he is expelled from The University.

There is no denying the feat of voice craft. Rothfuss clearly became Auri as he wrote, no-longer seeing words on the page, but The Underthing in all its dark, complex splendor. The core of her translates, but the answers behind her are intentionally ignored. It curbs hard away from explanations, save for declarative statements from Auri about what type of day it is, and how objects should be placed

The Underthing itself is also muddled. Despite the detailed descriptions of discrete regions, I found it impossible to link names to places, at least with any certainty, because of the ephemeral, abrupt way Auri moves through them. I might be alone in my confusion, as some meticulous soul actually managed to map it out, but I think that exercise was at cross purposes with the author's intentions. It's meant to be alive, and ambiguously magical, a character unto itself like the detritus around her. Clearly charted paths would pin it down.

It was the lack of dialog that killed me. He means it when he says slow and silent, folks. My work to date frequently strays into territory that looks more like screenplays or graphic novel scripts. When reading I reach for conversation like a thirsty man in the desert. Conversation develops characters. It is story that catalyzes plot.

There are also very few sequences where things other than Auri do something physically observable to the universe. A skunk bites her. Water flows and gears churn. Her alchemic lamp throws light across the wall. And that's almost entirely it. Rothfuss wrote in his afterword that the closest thing to an action scene is when Auri makes soap. I would argue the most action packed moment is actually when she almost loses the massive bronze gear, toward the middle of the book, but his point stands. She is alone in this world, and her activities would be mundane were they not governed by seemingly arbitrary eccentricity.The rest of the time, it's objects feeling things at her, or her projecting those emotions onto them.

A theme that keeps rearing its head is that it is wrong to want at the world. That you play the hand you are dealt, and you try to be a curator of what is good, but that expecting anything from the world, or even trying too to get what you want, is wrongheaded, if not evil. As I read that refrain, I couldn't help but wonder if this little novella Rothfuss' reaction to his fans' monumental, and incessant expectations.

I think there might be something more to glean from the novella. But the book wore me down early on, past the point of closer reading. After the halfway mark I was reading for a twist or a change in pace that never appeared. This may be one to revisit when I am older, and gods willing, more patient.

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