February 24, 2010

Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures

In a word, unremarkable.

I suppose it should be no surprise that the majority of books I read are not that good. If writing a great book were easy or common, we wouldn't have the concept of a masterpiece--or of 'the canon,' for that matter. Still, it's always a disappointment when a book seems really promising, and comes trailing clouds of good reviews ("a stunning story, compassionately reimagined," says the back jacket of this one, and "thoroughly absorbing ... a moving story"). I'm left wondering if the reviewers read the same book, or if, perhaps, they haven't really read very many books--or very many really good books. At least this one hasn't won any prizes--yet.

Like The Mistress of Nothing (speaking of mediocre but prize-winning books), Remarkable Creatures is a good idea poorly realized. In fact, I put off reviewing it for a week or so after finishing it because I felt so weary at the thought of saying pretty much the same kinds of things. So, I'll say them more briefly. This novel too is based on a real-life relationship, and one that has every ingredient you need for a compelling and evocative story, including unusual characters participating in one of the great intellectual and spiritual shifts of recent centuries. It's about fossil hunters Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot (the former, of course, much better known). So we have women engaged in hands-on scientific inquiry at a time when such conduct is hardly ladylike, and we have the unfolding crisis of faith by way of the ancient specimens they collect. But too much is insisted on that ought to emerge from the situation and characters, too much is wooden that ought to be natural and thrilling, too much--and yet too little--is said. Chevalier tries to evoke the trauma and exhilaration of discovery, of the vast expansion of the historical horizon and the destabilizing of comforting certainties about the world and our place in it, that was part of the intellectual life of the nineteenth century, but the result is endlessly unconvincing and mechanical, to my ear at least. Here's Philpot, for instance, contemplating a fossil find:
If it was not a crocodile, what was it? I did not share my concern about the animal with Mary, however, as I had begun to on the beach, before thinking the better of it. She was too young for such uneasy questions. I had discovered from conversations I had about fossils with the people of Lyme that few wanted to delve into unknown territory, preferring to hold on to their superstitions and leave unanswerable questions to God's will rather than find a reasonable explanation that might challenge previous thinking. Hence they would rather call this animal a crocodile than consider the alternative: that it was the body of a creature that no longer existed in the world.
This idea was too radical for most to contemplate. Even I, who considered myself open-minded, was a little shocked to be thinking it, for it implied that God did not plan out what He would do with all of the animals He created. If He was willing to sit back and let creatures die out, what did that mean for us? Were we going to die out too? Looking at that skull with its huge, ringed eyes, I felt as if I were standing on the edge of a cliff. It was not fair to bring Mary to the edge with me.
It's not terrible, but it's also not either moving or evocative. The language (again, as in Mistress of Nothing) is flat and stilted., with that odd uncomfortable formality that (second-rate) historical novelists seem to believe will convince us that they are bringing us back in time. The subject of the book is intrinsically interesting, but if a novelist can't do any better than this, we might as well read non-fiction, or, better yet, poetry:
"So careful of the type?" but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, "A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

"Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more." And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law--
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed--

Who loved, who suffer'd countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal'd within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match'd with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.
That's how you bring us to the edge of that cliff with you.


Sam said...

You know, there's an easy way to AVOID that 'not very good' blah sensation of reading a bad or boring book! It's called STEVE, and it's simple to use: next time you're considering whether or not a book is worth your time to read, simply ... ask Steve! He reads 170 pages an hour, and he reads for seven hours a day - chances are very good he's already read the item you're pondering, and if he has, he can warn you if it's merely so-so or outright bad! THINK of the time you'll save!

For instance, he'd have whole-heartedly informed you that "A Suitable Boy" was worth your while, and he'd have done his best to warn you off the lazy slumming of "Her Feartful Symmetry"!

Give the Steve method a try! You'll be glad you did!

I,Sam, wrote this, in heartfelt - almost tearful! - gratitude for even KNOWING someone as awe-inspiringly awesomely awesome as Steve!

Rohan Maitzen said...

Hmm. Is the Awesome STEVE infallible? I kind of enjoyed Her Fearful Symmetry--and I hear he has some good things to say about The Other Boleyn Girl, so he's not above a little slumming himself. . . . Maybe sometimes he reads a little too much, too fast?

(Poor Sam. Does he know you steal his identity on a regular basis?)

Sam said...

Oh no - it wasn't YOU doing the slumming with "Her Fearful Symmetry," it was the author! Twins and ghosts and pre-creepy cemeteries - please! Hard on the heels of time-travel and love at first sight - what's next, trained monkeys and falling stars? VERY annoying,when an author tries to sneak out of doing the actual WORK of writing, by resorting to silly shorthand like this! The only legitimate way you can do it is to put the silly cliches on display and then by main force make them more than what they are (examples abound, from Austen to Melville and beyond!)- but to just plop them there and let them carry weight? Yeesh.

So! What shall WE read next, hmm? "Not Wanted on the Voyage"? "The Lathe of Heaven"? "Cal"? "Sacred Games" (if you're ready for another Indian-themed doorstop that's quite good!)? "The Last Samurai"? "The Odd Women" one more time? I - er, I mean Steve - is ready for anything!

Rohan Maitzen said...

I've come close to reading Sacred Games a couple of times recently, and I also have The Last Samurai on the shelf ready for plucking when the moment comes. But now I've started Rebecca Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, which looks fun and smart. The analytic philosopher of religion in the house quite enjoyed it, anyway.