I first encountered Paul Park via The Starbridge Chronicles, a brilliant SF trilogy that was somewhat opaque, even difficult. I followed that to Celestis (disappointing), and The Gospel of Corax (very good, if surprising in nature). When his subsequent series A Princess of Roumania came out, I bought it right away – excited to at last see another Park novel, and about Romania, which I know a bit about. I wound up as disappointed as I had been excited. I read the entire series, but it never got better, and in fact got worse. I found it to be a mess of complex relationships, vague mysticism, and implausible alternate history. Still, the Starbridge trilogy sticks with me, so I looked forward to reading this new book.
Paul Park is, like Richard Grant and A. A. Attanasio, one of those authors whose work has both intensity and intelligence – an overtly intellectual tone that nonetheless reads well. You find yourself giving them the benefit of the doubt on opaque passages – willing to belief that maybe there’s a layer of subtlety you’ve missed. Grant does best at bring the intellectual down to earth. Attanasio sometimes gets so carried away with layers of meaning that he forgets to offer a comprehensible story.
As for Park, I’m not sure what he’s doing. In this novel, he’s deliberately created layer upon layer upon layer, braided, interwoven, and any other metaphor you can think of. They’re intensely self-referential – every character is a creator, affecting other realities, pasts, and futures through a sheer effort of will, often expressed via writing.
The book comes in several sections. In the first, two alternate historical narratives are tumbled together, deliberately confusing which character is the creator and which the creation – if either is at all. While an interesting concept, I found it difficult to immerse myself in. This not because of the complexity – it’s possible to get lost, but not too hard to keep track of what’s happening if you try. But I found that more often than not, after setting the book down, I wasn’t particularly interested to pick it up again. I just didn’t much care about the characters.
Sadly, that was just as true of the second section, which is again complex meta-fiction mixed with what purport to be autobiographical sketches of Park and his family as expressed in a novel written by one of his writing students. There’s only a mild effort to connect this with the earlier section, and I found it all of only mild interest.
The final section is told as further memoir by a future Paul Park, and draws together the overlapping elements of a literary family. There are many persons and many generations in play, and I simply didn’t have the interest to try to keep them straight.
Park has taken a couple of concepts and images, and repeated them in multiple variations, as one might with a musical piece. Unfortunately the result is less harmony than cacophony. He also gives the appearance of trying to construct a novel from ‘found’ narratives – snippets from his family’s old letters and books. If they’re real, they’re not well suited to the purpose. If they’re invented, why make them quite so dull?
Park seems to have overthought and overplanned the book. It’s hard to tell whether it’s a complex conceit that he simply hasn’t pulled off, or a clever idea that he’s struggled too hard to turn into an excercise in self-conscious sophistication. In either case, it didn’t work for me. It came across instead as a batch of unrelated parts held together with a thin layer of speculative fiction. As with Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, there’s clearly a lot here that would bring out new perspectives on re-reading, but I can’t see ever wanting to go back.
I’m disappointed, especially because I was expecting more novel and less memoir (even if invented memoir). I’m also starting to consider the possibility that in fact,Park is just not as good as I first thought. I’m still likely to be interested in his next book, but if that one’s not good, I may give up.
Finally, and because this is a novel so determined to be meta-fiction, it seems only fair to quote some of Park’s own language in this review. (All from an advance reader e-copy).
- “Traci believed decisively in cause and effect. You can always recognize that in an author, especially from a sketch. Every scene is arranged in careful order. Each one has a purpose.” – an approach that Park clearly disdains.
- “[T]he mere act of writing something down, of organizing something in a line of words, involves a clear betrayal of the truth. Without alternatives we resort to telling stories, coherent narratives involving chains of circumstance, causes and effects, climactic moments, introductions and denouements. We cant help it.” – This is clearly meant to be a key theme of the book, but the fact is that Park does not provide coherent narratives with clear causes and effects. That’s intended, but it just doesn’t work here.
- “I turned toward the screen again, searching for a way to calm myself and to arrange in my mind these disparate narratives.” – I wish that Park had realized just how disarranged the result remains.
- “I always warned students against complexity for its own sake, and to consider the virtues of the simple story, simply told.” – advice that Park certainly steered clear of in this case.
- “It’s all meta-fiction, all the time.” – the best possible summation of the novel.
- “I would choose at random various sentences and paragraphs, hoping to combine them into a kind of narrative, or else whittle them into an arrow of language that might point into the future.” – exactly what Park appears to have done in turning his own family documents into a book.