If books were players, I’d probably grade them out on just three tools, plot, prose, and characters (“personalities” if you want to keep on the alliterative tip). The plot must be credible, tight, and interesting, providing the “narrative greed” to which I often refer, that desire to know what happens next (or last) that keeps you moving through the novel. The prose can’t get in the way, at the least; the dialogue must be believable, the sentence structures can’t impede your comprehension of the topic, and if there’s room for clever turns of phrase or literary devices like metaphors, so much the better. There should be at least one character with whom the reader can connect; whether or not that’s the protagonist isn’t a big issue, but I need some sort of empathetic connection with one of the major characters for the book to hold my interest. For example, if the main character is an asshole, he’d better be a funny one, or I’m checking out before Chapter 3.
I rarely run across books that would earn scores of 80 across the board. The Master and Margarita is an obvious one. The Harry Potter books are probably 80s in plot and characters, although even I (a defender of Rowling’s prose) would have a hard time pushing that score above 60. To Kill a Mockingbird is a three-80s book, as are Emma and Tender is the Night (Fitzgerald’s writing might be the definition of 80 prose). At risk of standing accused of slapping high grades on a book too quickly – the literary equivalent of one-looking a player – I’ll add Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Novel to the list.
In the book, author Susanna Clarke has given us two compelling characters, the magicians of the book’s title, the conservative, brilliant, condescendingly paternalistic Mr. Norrell, and the exuberant, handsome, and wild Jonathan Strange, who becomes Mr. Norrell’s tutor and later his rival. Both are richly drawn, with complex personal philosophies of magic and magical ethics, and, in Strange’s case, a marriage to help flesh out his character even further. Clarke is deft at imbuing even her secondary characters with deep colors and rounded edges to make them more real, yet never floods the book with so many personages that the core story gets lost in descriptive language.
The prose is very Victorian-Brit lit, with shades of Austen (remarked upon by most reviewers of the book, it seems) but also the gothic novelists of the time, such as Radcliffe and Brontë. Although the book has its share of laugh-out-loud moments, Clarke’s prose is suffused with dry wit throughout, and she melds it with strong descriptive prose, including countless brilliant images to evoke scenes in the reader’s mind:
She did not rise at their entrance, nor make any sign that she had noticed them at all. But perhaps she did not hear them. For though the room was silent, the silence of half a hundred cats is a peculiar thing, like fifty individual silences all piled one on top of another.
If any of Jonathan Strange‘s grades was to fall below 80, it would be the book’s plot, and perhaps that is the inevitable consequence of the book’s length (1003 pages in mass-market paperback) and lengthy gestation period (Clarke wrote it over a period of ten years). The story does meander, and many digressions appear to be just that – digressions into character histories or side stories that don’t necessarily advance the plot. Clarke did employ a clever solution, using extensive footnotes to sequester some of her stories from the history of English magic from the body text, helping to speed the plough, and to be fair many seeming digressions end up tying into the main plot once the book heads into its final inning. Clarke’s use of the hoary “prophecy” plot device did exceed expectations both because of how she resolved it and the way she unfolded it in stages, almost giving us a coarse outline for the second half of the novel. If the plot doesn’t get the highest possible score, it couldn’t get lower than a 70; I flew through what is probably the second-longest novel I’ve ever read, and that doesn’t happen if the plot isn’t fantastic.
I wonder how the book will be perceived by the academic community in time – as simply a well-written work of popular fiction, capitalizing on the recent mania for all things magical as long as it’s not too far into fantasy-nerd territory; or as a thoughtful, clever story of two finely-developed characters, meditating on the natures of friendship and on morality, with a fair quantity of nature-based symbolism for deconstructionist-leaning graduate students to analyze to the nth degree for college theses and dissertations with ultimate audiences numbering in the low single digits. I’d like to think that it’s the latter, but there’s a sort of Nichols’ Law at work in literary academe, where the more popular and accessible a contemporary work is, the less it is esteemed by denizens of the ivory tower.
Next up: Back to the TIME 100 with Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird (Kosinski, Jerzy).