Tuesday, October 18, 2011

We'll All Be Disappointed When It Turns Out the Wind's Name Is "Tim"

To hear the reviewers tell it, Patrick Rothfuss is the second coming of Tolkien.
My interest in The Name of the Wind was first piqued by two glowing recommendations the boys at Penny Arcade. Tycho's opinion in itself was enough to justify adding it to my ephemeral list of Books I Will One Day Get Around to Reading, a notion that was strengthened when I read a similarly glowing review by Ursula K. Le Guin. Then Terry Brooks. Then Tad Williams. Then Anne McCaffrey. Then Orson Scott Card. Then, finally, Robin Hobb, and I'll be damned if I was going to ignore that many uplifted thumbs from the greats (well, perhaps the "pretty decents" in Williams's and possibly McCaffrey's cases) of contemporary fantasy literature. But let's get down to the only opinion that really matters here: mine. Does Rothfuss live up to the glowing praise heaped upon him by media outlets ranging from the New York Times to the Onion A.V. Club?

Kind of. Alright, fine: yes, yes he does. Mostly.

Every liberal arts major has likely at one point or another heard a professorial speech on the distinctions between serious "literary" fiction and escapist "commercial" fiction. The former is canonically defined by that miserable legend Laurence Perrine as fiction that holds "academic" literary merit on account of style, depth, and whatever other arbitrary distinctions make Bram Stoker's Dracula a less valuable piece of prose than Ulysses. The latter can be defined - much more intelligibly - as "books people buy because they're actually fun to read." God forbid.

So let's throw aside all comparisons to that incomparable giant JRR Tolkien: The Name of the Wind is not a deep work, though for the sake of brevity I won't go into all the reasons why here - read it and find out for yourself. Suffice it to say that I despise rigid categorical distinctions as much as the next postmodern Aristotelian, but even I'm willing to admit that TNOTW falls far and clear into the commercial category. Is that a mark against its favor? I'll leave that to other readers to decide. Allow me only to say that, profound metaphor and relevancy to the human condition be damned, TNOTW is as entertaining a fantasy novel as any I have read since Tolkien's own Hobbit. And damnit, there I go, both breaking my own promise of non-comparison and forcing Perrine into a subterranean barrel roll in one fell sentence.

The novel has a few faults, of course, so let's get those out of the way. Let me start by saying that the narrative voice reeks of the kind of pretension that could only belong to a first-time fantasy novelist propelled into New York Times Bestselling fame practically overnight. I admit the analogue is a bit anachronistic, but Rothfuss's narrative voice, both as the omniscient meta narrator and as Kvothe's (the Hero, but we'll get to him later), is just dripping with a not-wholly-undeserved satisfaction in its own cleverness, even at its most markedly un-clever moments. Allow me to present the closing paragraph from the prologue, which gleefully recycles fantasy's time-trashed tradition of opening with some mystical personification of a natural force and/or abstract concept (in this case a "silence of three parts," a merciful departure at least from Robert Jordan's "wind that was not the beginning"):

"The Waystone was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as autumn's ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die."

And that after an entire prologue's worth of exactly the same thing. And this stuff is practically pink compared to the deep purple of some of Rothfuss's later prose. "Self-important" is perhaps too kind a term. Let's just say Rothfuss is weakest when he waxes eloquent and leave it at that. The real issues of pretension come in with...

...ah, yes, Marty Stu. Or "Kvothe," as he is called in this incarnation. Again, "glorified author proxy" doesn't begin to describe this utterly unflappable paragon of perfection, who is not only smarter than you and better than you and getting way more action than you (with ninjas and faerie goddesses no less) but who KNOWS it with the kind of infuriating self-assurance ordinarily reserved to the acutely adolescent - which, to be fair, Kvothe is for the greater part of the novel. It's helps just to accept him as a satire of munchkin power gaming and ask no further questions.

The times when I was busy rolling my eyes at the author's fantasy actualizations aside, I loved every moment of TNOTW. Hopelessly self-important as the story is, it makes you believe in its importance, which in itself is possibly as high a praise as can be levied on a novel of this genre. Kvothe is an impossible figure, a fiery Achilles with Ulysses' wit, torn from Homeric lines and written into a world no more fantastic than our own save for the existences of a few more sciences in the mystical bend.

Fantasy is about exploration of the possible by transportation to the realm of the impossible, and on that count TNOTW succeeds mightily. It is escapist fiction, yes, but escapist fiction of the most compelling kind. Rothfuss is above all else a master storyteller, and so what if that story gets a little bit out of hand at times? It's the prerogative of a good story to do so, after all.

Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 8/10

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