Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dorothy Dunnett, Game of Kings

In her 1919 poem ""In the Days of Prismatic Color," Marianne Moore wrote

complexity is not a crime but carry
it to the point of murki- 
ness and nothing is plain.

Moore's poetry is complex and difficult, but I enjoy the challenge of her poetry.  She successfully walks the fine line between complexity and impenetrability.  One has to work at reading Moore's poems, but the effort yields tremendous rewards.

The Game of Kings by Dorothy DunnettDorothy Dunnett's writing is also complex and requires attention.  I had never heard of Dunnett's work until a couple of weeks ago (now I wonder how that's possible), and then in the course of a couple of days, I found several reviews and references to her six-novel series, The Legendary Lymond Chronicles.  While many reviewers praised the Game of Kings, the first in the series, several panned them, saying that they were too complicated or confusing. Some readers said that they were completely lost in the first hundred pages; others that they could not figure out who all the characters were, and why they were relevant.  The novel, for these reviewers, was complex beyond the point of murkiness, and wasn't worth the effort.

I wondered, as I read the negative reviews, what the Goodreads or Amazon reader reviews would be for William Faulkner's novel, The Sound and the Fury.  How would readers handle the challenge of reading the opening Benji section and not knowing a) that it is told by a mentally challenged man, and b) that the narrative in Benji's section switches time periods often and doesn't give the reader any explicit indications of what year Benji describes.  You have to read through the whole novel and then go back to that section to make sense of the stories Benji is telling.  My guess is that The Sound and the Fury would probably rate somewhere in the lower 3.0 range on reviews, with lots of one-star reviews saying things like "don't waste your money, this is an incomprehensible pile of garbage."  And that about a novel with one of the most brilliantly-conceived narrative structures in the history of the novel. 

So back to Dunnett.  I confess I was drawn to Game of Kings by the claim that the novel was impenetrable.  I wanted to take up the challenge and see whether the ecstatic fans or the detractors were right.  I vowed I would read through the first 150 pages without trying to sort out all the characters and plotlines, and decide then whether to continue reading. What I discovered was that I was hooked by page 50, not because I had figured out who everyone was, or what exactly was going on, but because Dunnett's writing was so compelling.  I wanted to keep reading the sentences she wrote.  Over time, I would figure out what was going on. 

Take, for example, this pair of sentences describing an archery competition:  "The wind, violent and skittish, was making better sport of it than the competitors were.  Buccleuch, shooting third, nicked the post with his first shaft and overshot with his second, retiring bellowing amid a chorus of witticisms" (145).  These two sentences tell us a lot in short order:  the wind is a significant factor, and one that is inconsistent in its effect on the arrows (it's skittish, not sustained); the first two shooters fared poorly because of the gusting wind; Buccleuch misses low and high with his two shots; he is angry because he missed; and the crowd mocks him because of his misses.  To me, that's an extraordinarily economical way to describe a fairly involved scene.  And they are interesting sentences as well, because of the vibrant language (skittish, nicked, overshot, bellowing) and the arrangement of the elements.  I love the fact that Dunnett, in twenty-two words, can show us Buccleuch's turn, from the first arrow to the response of the crowd when he's done. 

But I wonder if Dunnett's economy of words creates a challenge for readers who are used to things laid out at length.  You can't speed-read through those sentences and have a clear sense of what's going on.  You have to attend carefully to each clause; you can't skim.  If you don't read attentively, then you're likely not to follow what's happening.  Henry James wanted readers who would read attentively, and if you've read his late work, you know that you have to read carefully to sort out the syntax.  I think Dunnett wants that kind of reader as well. 

Having said all that, I thought Game of Kings was an excellent novel.  Its complexity is a strength, not a weakness.  When I finished it, I immediately searched the library catalogs in the region to find out where I could get the next two in the series.  To my dismay, I discovered that they are not held at any local libraries, so I plan to buy the whole series.  If the later books are as good as the first, then having them all on hand to re-read over the years will be well worth the investment.

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