Saturday, July 30, 2011

Winter's Tale

I finally finished Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin. It's 748 pages long, and I was really into it for the first half, then I had to read some other stuff and try to figure out what I wanted to teach next year (Flight, by Sherman Alexie!), and when I came back to it, I wasn't as into it. The last two hundred pages were rough going--but it's hard to give up on a book when you've put that much time into it. Plus there continued to be a lot I loved. But the book spans a hundred years, and I liked a lot of the characters in the beginning, but wasn't as interested in or engaged in some of the later characters.

Also, the book is mostly set in NYC, and when the book opens, it is the NYC of the early 20th century--but the end of the book is set in what was the future when it was published in 1983, but I lived through the turn of the millennium, and there was so much hype (remember that, folks?), that while it was interesting to read Helprin's take on what it would be like (in this weird sort-of-NYC fantasy world he creates), I'm also really over it.

I was telling a friend about this book, and she said, "So it's fantasy?" Another friend, who'd also read it, said immediately, "Yeah. Not like unicorns and stuff, but it's fantasy." I said, "No it's not!" and the friend who'd also read it just looked at me. I said, "Okay, I guess it kind of is. I guess it mostly is. Yeah, okay, I guess it is."

Helprin's world, in its weirdness, just feels so real--maybe I'd suspended disbelief that thoroughly. But there's a small upstate town that most people haven't heard of and can't find. There are ice-boats used as a regular mode of transportation. There's a magic horse. There's a man who lives a hundred years and doesn't age.

This is a book that will stay with me. And I loved how NY it was--and how much it was about the city evolving. I loved this description of the hundred-year-old man wandering the Manhattan of the 90's: the end of May and in early June he began to walk the city, to see what he might remember, and to note the changes. It was almost all glass and steel. The buildings seemed to him more like coffins than buildings. The windows didn't open. Some of the buildings had no windows. And their graceless and exaggerated height made the streets into wispy little threads strung together in a dark labyrinth. Only at night did they redeem themselves, and only at a distance--when their secretiveness, their inaccessibility, and their arrogance disappeared, and they bathed the city in light and shone like stained-glass cathedrals turned inside out. Oppressed by the size and the power of the city's architecture, he found for himself a string of holy places (only one of which was a church) to which he could and did return time after time. He sensed there what seemed to him to be the remnants of the truth, and he returned to certain rooftops and alleys the way that lightning repeatedly strikes high steel towers in an argument between tenacity and speed.

I never thought about the city as a place of light, particularly. The New York City I know is that city of tall buildings. But of course it would have had so much more light before the skyscrapers.

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