Saturday, February 14, 2015

going mad for prose

"Pictures of pets adorn the façades and menus of restaurants in Nam Dinh, a city in a part of northern Vietnam where cats and dogs are commonly consumed."

Now, that is a good sentence.  From this week's edition of The Economist

It catches your attention.  And, no matter how you feel about the ethics of eating cat and dog, that short sentence compels you to say: "Tell me more."

Well that is not going to happen if you pick up Oliver Pötzsch's The Ludwig Conspiracy.  One of the fun things about my Kindle is its recommendation of books I might find interesting.  The list shows up at the bottom of the home page.

After finishing off my electronic magazines earlier this week, I started looking around for something to read.  Because I have a history background, I am not usually interested in historical fiction.  There is a tendency to re-write the past through the artifice of bodice-ripping prose.  Bruce Catton meets Barbara Cartland.

But I have long been fascinated by the death of Ludwig II.  And that sentence sums up the basic problem of writing about Bavaria's Fairy Tale King. 

He is far more interesting in death than he was in life.  I will not bother telling you why, but if you have read that sentence, you essentially know the plot of this plodding piece of pedantic prose.  I have saved you a painful read.

I started to say that Pötzsch came up with an interesting idea and then lost it in execution.  There is no doubt the idea was lost in execution (and I suspect neither his editor nor his best friends told him that the book stank worse than Ludwig II's corpse.)

But even the idea is not that interesting.  We all know people who are simultaneously self-absorbed and just a bit loony.  Adding the simple fact that the subject is a monarch (Yeah, I know.  But I am leaving it alone.) does not make the person's story any more interesting.

So, let's say you are willing to forgive the author for building his story around one of the world's greatest boors.  Isn't it more important to determine if the author can pull it all off by writing an interesting page turner filled with clever prose?

Maybe.  But that is not this book.  Remember the sentence from The Economist?  The one that caught your attention?  Compare it with this phrase:

"While the sun rose in the sky, a glowing red globe to the east, ..."  Is there anything in that sentence that causes you to react any other way than to ask: "Did you type this on a computer screen, with its glowing white light melting the creativity right out of your head?"

I started to keep a list of the clichés that drain the life out of each paragraph, but I realized that would necessitate copying most of the book.  And I do have a life to lead.

Pötzsch comes from that school of historical fiction writers who conjure up a grisly murder to be solved by an amateur through a series of clues that will lead us all to discover a secret of the universe.  In other words, a Dan Brown wannabe.

And like Dan Brown, Pötzsch serves up thin gruel tarted up as a banquet, and then slips out through the kitchen just as the bill arrives at the table.  We tend to fall for it every time.

The good thing about buying one of these books is the cost.  They are the type of fare one once found on the remainder table at Crown Books.

In this case, I wasted $2.99 and about five hours of reading.  That seems a bargain.  After all, in the bargain, I uncovered lots of material for an essay. 

And that is priceless.

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