Saturday, August 26, 2006

Caleb Williams by William Godwin

I've finally found a book that I think could be enjoyed by every single person I know. And it was written in 1794! I've tried reading a few things that are identified as "page turners," and have usually found them so thinly conceived that the solution is either fairly obvious by the middle of the book, or so arbitrary as to be of no interest. Most modern mysteries annoy me for the latter reason. The only mystery writer I find consistently delightful is Chesterton, and this may partially be because they're short stories and consist almost entirely of problem and solution.

Anyway, it's been a long time since I've read a book this quickly just to find out what happens. I was unwilling to take out less than a hundred page chunk every day. The book is a sort of murder mystery, but the murderer is revealed about a third of the way into the novel; and the rest of it is just a cat and mouse game. But the relationship between the two men is so strange and interesting that I never got bored. There isn't a huge amount of subtlety in the novel, and most of the characters are painted in primary colors -- but the central situation is so genuinely fascinating that it carries the entire book.

I think I have a vivid image of pretty much every scene -- and, what is rarer, a completely clear idea of causality and chronology -- while also not remembering a single memorable sentence or interesting turn of phrase. In fact, the only places I noticed style was when a section was getting unusually melodramatic. Godwin doesn't bother describing much of anything beyond what is absolutely necessary, and has no real feeling for rhythm or music in words -- but I haven't come across another book that demonstrates how largely irrelevant this is to whether or not a novel is successful, as long as the author is not actually vague or imprecise. But the praise that you seem to see most commonly on the back of literary fiction, at least in my experience, relates to prose style.

This is, in fact, the thing that I tend to look for first in books -- college training, perhaps, or because it takes less time to make this judgement -- and I have occasionally maintained that I can tell whether a book's any good from the first page. (In my defense, this is almost always because of a pretentious style, not an undistinguished one.) And Godwin's prose was so blunt that in the beginning of the novel I was really wondering why this book was worth reading, but I couldn't have cared less when the plot started to move.

Anyway, a wonderful book. Everyone go out and read it and tell me what you think. There are, incredibly, four editions of it in print. If you have any sort of a long trip coming, pick it up. It is certainly the most rewarding and engrossing potboiler I've ever read. I was even thinking of turning it into a screenplay, set in some sort of semi-feudal landowner type society. Maybe the post-Reconstruction American South. But there a few time change difficulties that I haven't figured out how to get around.

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