Saturday, September 22, 2007

you're just a twit

-michael frayn

this book fooled me at least twice into thinking it was something it wasn't. what it is, besides a foolish romp through the english countryside and dutch art history, is a bit boring. martin clay believes he has happened upon a lost treasure of european art, and he struggles to prove this to himself as he dives into the history of the painting he thinks he has discovered. along the way, he must outwit the country gentleman who owns the painting as he seeks to acquire it for a fraction of its true value.

while reading this book, i was also meditating on the question i asked previously about authorial skill and narrative voice. when writing from the first person, how does an author transcend the limits of this chosen narrator? introspection is one tool that provides some ability to comment on the scenes that unfold through one person's eyes, but not all characters would be as self-aware as the distractable professor who stumbles his way through this particular plot. for less literate heroes, the author must find ways to use words cleverly and yet avoid puncturing the image of this fictional world as it's related to us by the narrator. this means details and descriptions must be concise yet revealing, character flaws must fit the archetype the protagonist embodies, and every word has to come across as limited by the chosen narrator rather than the author's skill. headlong, of course, avoids this dilemma, but it does seem to spend too little time revealing the nature of secondary characters. the greatest weakness of this book, though, is the tedious length of martin's research sessions. perhaps we never find out much about anyone besides himself because the book is about a man who becomes increasingly self-absorbed as he pursues his dream at a pace that leaves everything else in his life behind. i felt like the other characters were interesting, however, and i wish i'd gotten to spend more time with them. the fact that i feel closer to them than martin ever does perhaps proves frayn's skill in relating more than martin ever tells us, or simply proves that being human is to reach out to those around us, even when they're fictional.

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