Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Count

Okay. Last year I read and enjoyed Carlos Ruiz Zafon's ambitiously overwritten blockbuster fantasy The Shadow of the Wind, and so a couple of weeks ago I read his new book, The Angel's Game, which I liked a lot for the first half and liked less as it wound up, mostly because things kept happening to the narrator which led to certain inescapable conclusions that the narrator, an otherwise intelligent man, seemed unable to process. It was annoying me as I was reading, and it is doubling annoying me to me now, because it reminds me of another book, the title and plot of which I have been wracking my brains to remember, spoiled in exactly the same way: it was simply not credible that the main character could be so incredibly dense about the situation he was in, and at a certain point you simply stop caring. It reminds me of watching Rin Tin Tin on television when I was a kid, and sitting there in my living room watching Rusty do something really stupid that was bound to get him in trouble so that the dog would wind up having to rescue him. And I'm talking to the screen, saying, "No! Rusty! Don't go in that cave!" I eventually gave up on that show as well.

Anyway, Zafon had his narrator make admiring reference, in one or two places, to The Count of Monte Cristo, which is one of those books that I have heard about all my life without ever having actually read. So, in the wake of my somewhat disappointing experience with Zafon's attempt to don the mantle of Dumas, I thought I'd go ahead and go back to the source. And so that's what I've been reading, in huge eye- and brain-fatiguing swatches, for the last week and a half. I bought an unabridged edition that runs to something over 1200 pages and am now, after perhaps 15 or twenty hours of reading, just about halfway through it.

It's been a while since I've been this deeply involved in an extended reading experience. (Maybe the last time was with Dorothy Dunnett's eight-volume Nicollo Chronicles, which runs to something over 4000 pages and remains one of the astounding feats of storytelling in my reading experience.) Dumas is an adept and witty storyteller, and he is certainly in no great hurry. I'm sure that has something to do with the fact that he was being paid by the word, so it was in his best interests to compile a great many of them. His descriptions of people and places are lovingly detailed, sometimes overly so, but I find most entertaining are the various situations in which he has his main character engaged in dialogue and repartee with the various individuals he is in the elaborate process of undoing. It's a complex story, and I am surely not the first reader who has had to resort to drawing a character map to try to clarify the web of connections.

So what's it like, being in the middle of a pulp fiction novel written 155 years ago? It's is sort of like being in the middle of a very delicious meal. You've already eaten your fill, but there's half of your food still on your plate, dessert is yet to be served, and they keep filling your wine glass. On the one hand, you know that this kind of gluttony can't be good for you; on the other hand, the food is just too tasty to pass up, so you keep loading your fork and shoveling it in, indigestion and heartburn be damned. Often when I put the book down it takes five or ten minutes for my head to stop swimming and for my brain to catch up to where I am.

I've got literally a dozen other books waiting for me on my desk, including an advance edition of a friend's novel which I am eager to get to. But it's going to have to wait for another week or so. The count is on the move.

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