Monday, March 7, 2011

100 Books 15 - Ken Follett's WORLD WITHOUT END

I was just 19 years old when Ken Follett's hernia-inducing tome, The Pillars of the Earth was published, a languages and literature major at Beaudacious Bard College with more important things to be doing with my spare time, but I eagerly borrowed my mother's copy as soon as she was done with it and devoured it anyway. I had recently enjoyed Edward Rutherford's equally weighty and sprawling Sarum: The Novel of England and wanted more of the same. I only approximately got what I wanted, but I was satisfied nonetheless. Pillars of the Earth was, if nothing else, a good historical soap opera that happened to contain a whole lot of juicy detail about gothic architecture and stonework. I enjoyed it and forgot about it, as one might who still had the likes of Thomas Pynchon and Jorge Luis Borges and John Barthes in store for her (and that all in just one class!).

I was, therefore, a little bewildered when many years later the book suddenly started turning up everywhere, in the hands of the same people I'd sadly watched devouring the likes of Dan Brown and feeling that they had thereby been imparted special knowledge. I had one of those weird cognitive shake-ups I occasionally have, when deja vu gets inflated to something way beyond just a nagging feeling and becomes an undeniable in-my-face elephant in every room. It wasn't a new book. I was sure of it. I had vivid memories of reading it as a teenager. Had I somehow imagined it? Was I having my own Philip K. Dick experience of bleed-over from an alternate universe where it had emerged in the late 80s but was actually new in this one? I walked around bibbling my lips in confusion for a while -- until I learned that no less a literary lion than Oprah herself had instructed her minions to go forth and read it and give Follett their money. Follett was annointed and worthy.

And Follett is no fool. His goose was laying golden eggs again. Better get a gander and see if he could breed her and make another one.


If you think I approached this much-belated sequel to Pillars of the Earth with more than a little cynicism, you are right. I still taste the ashes of Katherine Neville's ill-advised and horrible sequel to The Eight, a vastly entertaining chess-themed thriller (I won't even name that horrible sequel here; I refuse to take responsibility for anyone's being subjected to it).

I'm relieved to say that World Without End is nowhere near as bad as that, but it's really not all that wonderful either.

Set some two hundred years after the concluding events of Pillars of the Earth, it's only kind of a sequel in that regard. We're more or less concerned with the descendants of the prior novel's protagonists, some of whom have continued to hold the Earldom of Shiring, two of whom are more or less duplicating the experiences of their illustrious ancestors, Jack the Builder and Lady Alieana. And here's where it's mostly a satisfying sequel, I suppose, if by "sequel" one means "the mixture, same as before, with only small dollops of novelty added at rare intervals." Lovers kept apart by mighty circumstances of church and state, check. Plucky female who wants to be more than just a wife, check. Bigoted clergy, OH MY GOD check. A big architectural challenge that only Jack, I mean Merthin, can possibly tackle, check. Petty squabbling rivalries, check. Royal intrigues warping the lives of ordinary folk, check. Yawn, check.

There are some differences, but sadly they are what almost ruins the book, not because they depart from the prior book's successful formula, but because they are so far-fetched as to be rather ridiculous. As in two defenseless nuns traveling through war-torn France in pursuit, "I WANT MY TWO DOLLARS" style, of their bishop and happening to witness the Battle of Crécy ridiculous (and by the way, said battle has been pwned for all time by Warren Ellis and Raulo Carceres in their graphic novel Crécy . Nobody else should even try!). And here more than ever before, author Ken Follett succumbed to the temptation to attribute nearly every innovation his chosen historical period achieved collectively to the uncommon brilliance and spirit of his protagonists. His Alieana substitute, Caris, is pitted single-handedly against the medieval medical establishment's reliance on ancient sources and scholasticism -- and she wins (despite charges of witchcraft, which she defeats by agreeing to become a nun, the better to fight the system from within and pine for her sweetheart for several hundred pages). His Jack the Builder substitute, Merthin, is the only builder/mason in all of Christendom who can figure out why an old bridge collapsed and why a hastily added tower to the town's cathedral is destined to follow suit. Caris transforms the town's wool industry by being the only person in it bright enough to think maybe they can make red cloth, too, by golly. Etc.

We won't even talk about the clergy, portrayed to a man as spineless, hidebound, sneaky, cowardly and power-mad. They might as well all have been given big black mustaches to twirl.

All this and an extraordinarily lame narrative McGuffin, to boot. Our protagonists and a peasant friend and Merthin's brother witnessed an attack on a knight in their youth. The knight bore a letter with a big secret and buried it. Nearly a thousand pages later we find out the secret and it has -- wait for it -- pretty much nothing to do with anything that has happened in the intervening story. The secret could have been pretty much anything and made no difference at all! That it actually contained kind of a radical idea about the history and origins of the reign of Edward III and posed an interesting question to ponder still had NOTHING to do with the story being told at all, really, except for explaining why one character was present, and that character's importance to the actual story was miniscule. Cheat!

Edward Rutherford, what do you have for me next?

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