It is rare that a book is bad enough to move me to actual contempt and disgust. I am an extremely fast reader, half a book per day in the usual course of things, two books daily if I work at it; consequently I can swallow most written material by the simple expedient of gulping it down very fast and promptly forgetting about it. But this piece of pretentious babble filled me with sufficient nausea that I had to give up on it; a rare occurrence.
The premise of the book is not too unreasonable: A mafia kingpin hires an out-of-town assassin to do some killings, enforcing his rule against an incipient rebellion by the local businessmen and church leaders, who prefer to pay their taxes to exactly one government. The blurb hints that the hitman will eventually repent of his life, and from the first few chapters it seems likely that this will be because of some epiphany given by conversation with the priest of the piece. It will very likely be one of those ambiguous, was-it-or-wasn’t-it a divine intervention, instant conversions, which everyone can interpret to suit their own religious tastes; a morality play for the modern agnostic, who cannot bear to be hit over the head with actual gods, but demands a genteel wave of the hand in that direction, preferably with a soupcon of
Fraud Freud. (Indeed, the hitman has – quel surprise – an ambiguous relationship with his mother.) Give me a frothing fundie snake-handler any day. But the utter predictability of this is not the reason I threw the book at the wall in disgust.
No, the contempt comes when the author, whose name I suppress on the grounds that his crime is more heinous than Herostratus’s (I can get right behind burning temples), rips off King Lear. The mafia boss decides to retire, leaving control of daily affairs to his sons in proportion to their ability to declare their love for him in words. The very dialogue is a near word-for-word translation to modern English of the same scene in Shakespeare’s play! This is probably intended as an artsy, intellectual hommage; it comes off as a rather desperate attempt to be bloody clever. (I do not use the word ‘clever’ as a compliment; theologians are clever. Engineers and scientists are smart.) I have no objection to updating old stories to modern conditions; Poul Anderson (may his potatoes bounce nevermore) rewrote Norse sagas into modern novels, and did it very well. But Shakespeare! King Lear! And utterly no originality, no attempt to update the characters by exploring their reasons for doing as they do! It might be interesting to hear why Goneril and Regan suddenly refuse their father, but there is no nod in this direction; we get no more explanation for their actions than Shakespeare gives. It’s like a high-schooler’s attempt to show that he is erudite; well done, child, indeed thou art familiar with the single most-quoted author of the western canon. Now stop ripping him off and write something original, dignabbit.
I will admit to having committed something similar myself, at one time: I wrote an analysis of Macbeth, or perhaps it was Julius Caesar, I don’t recall, showing how Shakespeare was subtly flattering King James VI and I; and I wrote it in blank verse, doing my best to imitate Shakespeare’s style. Got me a good grade, too. But that should clue you in: This was literally high school! And ye gods, even at my most stylistically imitative I had at least got some content that wasn’t down to the Bard! As for pasing such a scribble off as literature and extracting genuine, hard-earned money for it, gah. The mind boggles.