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Reading Through the Fog of Ondaatje’s “Warlight”

Recently I shared a comic on Instagram about how sometimes hating a book becomes an absolute defining character trait—it’s irrational, I know, but it can’t be helped. I’d referred to Pierce Brown’s “Red Rising” and the ‘Red Rising Saga‘ as that book/series that I just hate despite everyone else I know absolutely loving it.
In the comments Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient” was mentioned as one of those books that’s overrated. I haven’t read it, although I saw the movie and recall being fairly disappointed, but the exchange reminded me of Ondaatje’s new book, “Warlight”.

Warlight Michael Ondaatje

“In a narrative as mysterious as memory itself–,” the publisher writes, “at once both shadowed and luminous – Warlight is a vivid, thrilling novel of violence and love, intrigue and desire.”

The only mysterious thing about this narrative is how anyone could actually describe it in this way.

I started writing down my impressions of the book about a quarter of the way through it and by that point the most interesting part of the novel had been the brief paragraph offering a history of the lost rivers of London. This was only because it reminded me I need to get caught up on Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant/Rivers of London series.

‘Warlight’ is one of those meandering, kind of plotless, novel by anecdote—a fictional memoir that reminds me of John Banville’s “Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir”, in which there’s less linear journey of story and more loosely guided walk through the narrative grocery store; grabbing certain stories, memories, ideas, backtracking occasionally to pick up another item, another character or experience for a meal that you’re trying to prepare for without actually having the recipe to guide you.

There are so many great stories hinted at in this book, but none of them are sufficiently expanded upon. The opportunity for intriguing, absurd underworld adventures with fascinating, odd and war-damaged characters is completely wasted with only fleeting mentions of crimes and events. Everything is just out of reach, just beyond the reader’s grasp, as if you’re reading the book trapped in a fog with large portions of it obscured and hidden from you.

Maybe this was intentional, given the story I think is being told—as the reader you are the narrator, and his understanding of his post war life and the wartime actions of his mother specifically, and even her own personal history, are obscured—although for his and his sister’s protection.

But it feels more than that. It feel unfinished and poorly structured, with information inadequately doled out, the sharing of the synopsis-promised mysteries of postwar London unbalanced and lacking. It feels like such a wasted opportunity to create a unique but historically anchored world populated by odd characters existing within the dark fringes of a society that has been so broken by multiple wars it is unsure how to reintegrate it’s fractured, schizophrenic selves.

Instead I’m left needing it to just be over because I’m too far into it to walk away even though I just don’t care….

Follow me on Goodreads to see if I actually manage to finish this book, or to check out what else I’m reading.

📚🎧

Finally Finished Reading “Hell to Pay”

Last night I was determined to finish this book and had to fight through the last ten pages, just as I’d fought through nearly three quarters of it over the past three months.

Between it being just a pointless book and my general state of exhaustion from living under the tyrannical rule of a toddler, getting through this book has been a battle. The good news is this was the last book in the series and I‘m now free of Chesney Armstruther and his accidental war between heaven and hell. (And dinosaur people.) The bad news is that when I finished it I couldn’t quite believe it was over, and continued flipping pages through the author acknowledgements as if there was some literary equivalent of the Marvel post credits scene that would make it all worth it.

Realizing there wasn’t I had to ask, “That’s it?” And not in a good way. Not in a, “oh no, that’s all? I need twelve more books to give me a satisfying level of closure about all of these complete and well written characters I’ve grown to love as family, and satisfying storylines and character arcs we’ve all been through together.”

Nope. It was more of a, “that’s really how you’re going to wrap up this bullshit? By completely negating the last three books you dragged me through over the span of two pages and then having a picnic?”

The author spent more time explaining dinosaur people than he did writing a proper conclusion to this three book story, not to mention how misguided and insulting his attitude towards individuals with autism comes across. I lost count of how many times he reminded the reader that Chesney had been “cured” and now was “normal”. But that’s ok, since that was all changed in the blink of an eye at the very end of the book, along with every major point in the story until that moment, when Chesney was autistic again when it served a purpose.

So, pretty much the best thing about this series was the cover art.

Reading, “The Man in the High Castle”

“Work the sentences, if you wish, so that they will mean something. Or so that they mean nothing. Whichever you prefer.”

Man in the High Castle Amazon Philip K DickThe limited previews I saw for the Amazon adaptation are what pushed my interest in “the Man in the High Castle” to the reading point.  Is the show any good? I haven’t watched it yet, but I’m intrigued.  Nazis!  Alternate history!  Episodic storytelling!  DJ Qualls!  Ok, maybe not necessarily DJ Qualls, but the Nazis and alternate history piqued my interest.  Having read a few other Philip K. Dick novels and handful of short stories, I wanted to see what he would do with the few pieces I knew about.

The only way to explain how I felt reading ‘High Castle’, and I hope this makes sense, is to say nothing actually happened, but no one bothered to tell me.

Similar to other examples of Philip K. Dick I’ve read, there isn’t what you would normally call “world building” going on in his books.  It’s more like “world immersion,” as if you wake up to this new reality and although you have no idea what or who anything is, you assume that’s how it has always been.  Like laughing along with everyone else even though you don’t get the joke, you don’t freak out and try to understand what’s happening around you in this new reality.  Instead, you keep reacting and moving and speaking, picking up clues and understanding things as you go, hoping no one else figures out that you have no idea what you’re doing.

In that regard, I suppose Dick’s writing is as close to real life as one can get, just with slightly more advanced technology that you still don’t know how to work.

Man in the High Castle Philip K DickSometimes this method works, such as in “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said,” where that almost literally is the plot.  It works a little less so for “Time Out of Joint,” but generally extremely well for his short stories and in “A Scanner Darkly.”  You learn the necessary facts of this new reality as you go.  The important details are made clear because you need them to survive.  You learn by doing, by living.  It’s a ‘take only what you need to survive’ sort of writing style.

This style is great, and I’ve loved it in the past, and it’s why I enjoy Dick’s books.But here, with this reality and these characters, it left me constantly waiting.  We never really moved forward.  While the characters were steadily doing things and interacting with each other and proving they knew on another and were all connected, it never felt like they were ever moving about in the same reality. They kept doing but never moving.  Acting but never affecting.

But here, with this reality and these characters, it left me constantly waiting.  We never really moved forward.  While the characters were always doing things and interacting with each other and proving they knew one another and were all connected, it never felt like they were actually moving about in the same reality.  They kept doing but never moving.  Acting but never affecting.

I kept turning the page.  They kept going through the motions.  And we all kept waiting to see where we were going and whether it was worth it.

Man in the High Castle Philip K DickBut even as these characters met their ends and found explanations and tried to understand what they had learned from what they’d done, there didn’t seem to be much of a point to it.  I was left holding a book that was more an unfinished thought then fully formed novel.  I didn’t grow into understanding the reality so I didn’t care about the people in it, which was ok because the same could be said for any of the characters in it as well.

While this won’t turn me off reading more Philip K. Dick, or even deter me from checking out the tv show, this wouldn’t be the first, third or even fifth book by him I recommend.  Not when he much better-written novels and stories to chose from that successfully pull off his immersion style of writing.

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