Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Poe Shadow, by Matthew Pearl

A young lawyer, in 1849 Baltimore, goes pretty much crazy when Edgar Allan Poe dies under mysterious circumstances (which are historical fact), and abandons everything in a quest to find out what happened. He ends up going to Paris, dealing with two men who may have been the inspiration for Poe's Inspector Dupin, recruiting one of them, antagonizing the other, and then at around the middle of the book Napoleon-assassination schemes start popping up and the chronology becomes totally kerfuddled and I got completely, infuriatingly, lost; and genuinely did not want to pick up the book again because it was irritating me so.  

So I took a break at that point, and hustled up on the Kindle the actual Dupin stories. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" scared me to death when I was little, because we owned a version of Poe's stories which had terrifying illustrations, and there was one of the orangutan (oops! spoiler alert, I guess) killing the victims that I can still see when I shut my eyes. I have a fear of orangutans which is directly attributable to that picture.

Anyway, so I had not remembered that the story itself is twenty pages of Dupin saying, "I deduced this, and that, and this, because I am brilliant. Oh, and because there was orangutan hair all over the place." What? That's not brilliant deduction! That's as if "The Speckled Band" included a shed snakeskin lying conveniently at the foot of the victim's bed. And the second story - "The Mystery of Marie Roget" - is unreadable. I didn't even attempt the third.

Then, while I was on my Kindle, I looked at the collected works of Dickens I downloaded, and saw something called "No Thoroughfare", of which I'd never heard. So I read it, and WHAT. For the most part it's very, very dull, but then there comes a part which apparently he let Wilkie Collins write: the heroine, who until this point has been a completely typical Dickens heroine - weeping, drooping, blushing, tiny feet, etc - follows her fiancé into the Alps, leads the search party when he goes missing, constructs a rope harness and has herself lowered down to the ice crevice where he has fallen, and when all the men are saying, "It is the power of love and the hand of God giving her this strength!" she responds with, "Actually, I grew up here, doofuses." And then at the end the hero decides, "Oh, she must not know that the villain is dead; it would upset her far too much!" and I'm like, "She knew the villain was the villain long before anyone else did, and she rappelled down a glacier, I think she could handle it," but no, we're back to blushing and drooping (all Dickens' heroines can safely be pictured with heads too heavy for their necks, given the amount of drooping going on). A totally bizarre story. And frankly pretty terrible.

Then I re-read some Lovecraft. And watched five episodes of Castle. And then, finally, once more unto the breach.

It didn't get any better. It didn't get worse, exactly, but I finished the book with no clue as to what had actually happened behind the scenes, or why. Such a disappointment. The first half was fine, although I itched to be able to edit it (characters suddenly have things in their hands without any explanation; someone "taps on his papers" when it's unclear whether he's sitting or standing; scene changes happen too rapidly), but the second half was just no fun at all. It's entirely possible we're supposed to think the narrator is out of his gourd, hence all the non-linear narrative and confusion, but it didn't come across that way to me.

Next up: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman.

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