Friday 29 July 2011

The Comforters by Muriel Spark

"I think she's too ignorant to be a witch."

Muriel Spark's debut novel The Comforters is an utterly bizarre and whimsically ambitious meta-fiction that is structured around the literary equivalent of the Chinese box technique: a novel within a novel, within a novel. Paradoxically, Spark is keen to emphasize the fictional aspects of fiction itself; utilizing a variety of literary tropes such as irony, satire, religious parables, parody and metaphorical conceits to playfully break the fourth-wall -- not only between the author and the reader but also with several of the characters of the novel (more specifically, Caroline) and the omniscient narrator. 

Caroline is an educated woman and just so happens to have studied literature in college, possessing a thorough knowledge of the structural principles pertaining to the novel form. After leaving a Catholic convent, she begins to mysteriously hear voices in her head but these are no ordinary voices -- they take the form of a chanting chorus and the clicking of a type-writer, objectively writing down her exact thoughts at specific moments. Is this phenomena a religious miracle of God speaking through her or just plain delusion? Spark is purposefully ambiguous in answering this question, whereas madness takes on thematic relevance as many of the characters are fervently concerned with their sanity. At one point, one of the characters named Baron Stock, makes a profound observation about madness by asking a rhetorical question: "Is the world a lunatic asylum then? Are we all courteous maniacs discreetly making allowances for everyone else' s derangement?" (204). This is a question that the reader should keep at the back of their mind. Not only is the narrator unreliable but are all of these characters suffering from a mental derangement and if so, whose perspective can the reader trust with assurance?  How do we really know that our perception of what constitutes so-called "reality" is true? There tends to always be a lingering doubt that everything is not as it seems. Read the daily newspaper or step outside and perhaps it is not far-fetched to believe that most people are utterly insane, operating under the false surmise that they have complete control of their mental faculties and are living in a sane world.

Caroline soon comes to the conclusion that she exists within a fictional realm of an unknown author's imagination. She perceives herself and everyone else around her as characters in a story:  “The characters in this novel are all fictitious” (105). The concept of free-will and predestination is cleverly explored within this narrative conundrum as Caroline attempts to deceitfully outsmart the narrator's intentions by contradicting her thoughts and choices. During one such occasion, she initially decides to take the train to travel with her on and off again boyfriend Laurence Manders to visit his grandmother in the countryside. However, in an act of defiance against the narrator who is supposedly pulling the strings and dictating the exact trajectory of her life, she decides to take the car with Laurence instead. Perhaps it is ironic or an act of fate that the couple are involved in a serious car crash. Could this tragic incident represent one of Spark's many religious parables throughout the novel about the consequences of not placing faith in God? Maybe, maybe not. Similar to the works of Graham Greene (another great Catholic novelist), it would be reductive and downright misconstrued to classify Spark's work as evangelical just because of the strong religious overtones. She is a Catholic writer but her concern is not to create religious propaganda but to rather question, ruminate and examine the Catholic faith within the context of narrative fiction. 

The outrageous plot is charmingly comical as much as it is baffling in its incongruities. The Comforters is a social drama and sardonic comedy of errors; a part detective and crime novel that even dabbles in mysticism. Laurence even suggests that Caroline has involved herself in a otherworldly story, abandoning Catholicism for a new religion commonly referred to as "Science Fiction" (184). His criticism is obviously meant to be hyperbolic but it seems as if Spark is cleverly winking at the estrangement of this novel: diamond smuggling, witch-craft, blackmail, conspiracy, superstition, Catholic dogma, homosexuality, incest -- this novel purposefully contains a plethora of plot devices that make for a wild and intriguing story. However, Spark is inclined to undermine narrative conventions; blending different literary genres, teasing the reader's expectations for a logical and close-ended story where all of the loose plot threads are resolved with a satisfying conclusion. To reiterate, she perpetually emphasizes that this novel is a work of fiction, exposing prominent and arbitrary conventions while ironically, attempting to ascertain a higher truth -- realism. With irreverent wit and a penchant for writing crackling dialogue, Spark not only focuses heavily on religion but also branches off into gnosticism, inner human consciousness, illusion and the precarious nature of reality. Spark frantically bombards the reader with a convoluted plot whilst juggling a host of perplexing ideas that is not always effectively balanced, although she redeems herself with the climax of the story that is craftily delightful. The Comforters is far more impressive as an experimental novel as opposed to a thoroughly enjoyable work of fiction with empathetic characters and an engaging story. 

Read from July 26 to 28, 2011

Book Blogger Hop: 7/29-8/1


It's that time again, put on your dancing shoes and groove to the Blogger Hop! This is a wonderful weekly meme hosted by Crazy For Books that brings together fellow book bloggers. Unfortunately, I have neglected to participate in the event for the longest while and now it is time to jump back on the bandwagon. This week's question:

“Highlight one book you have received this week (for review, from the library, purchased at the store, etc.) that you can’t wait to dig into!”

After reading Mrs. Dalloway and having my mind-blown to shattered fragments by its sheer awesomesomeness, I have been obsessed with Virginia Woolf and super excited to give To the Lighthouse another chance considering that my previous attempt 10 years ago ended in failure. Since then, I'd like to think that I have matured intellectually to appreciate and critically analyze literature. I feel confident that this time around, my experience with this novel will be much different now that I am more familiar with her style of writing. Thanks to the library, my weekend vacation to cottage country just got better.

Monday 25 July 2011

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Prior to picking up this novel, my only exposure to Virginia Woolf was a short-story for a college course years ago entitled Kew Gardens (in which, I possess no recollection of whatsoever), the film Orlando staring the always wonderfully eccentric Tilda Swinton (an utterly bizarre story taking place during various time periods with strong feminist ideologies and focusing on gender identity) along with a halfhearted attempt to finish To the Lighthouse, only to give up rather quickly in frustration. In retrospect, it is astonishing how much my reading habits and writing skills have improved since those troublesome early years of university life when I remained completely indifferent towards my English courses out of frustration to comprehend the material; bitterly struggling to tackle challenging authors such as Virginia Woolf and in retaliation, stubbornly resorting to insubordination. Ironically, only after dropping out did I begin to take an avid interest in literature and through intensive self-study, my passion for the written English language has manifested into pure obsession. If Mrs. Dalloway had been assigned by one of my classes back then, I most certainly would have tossed it aside as rubbish. Oh, what a daft buffoon I was back in those days!

For the longest while, I have purposefully avoided writing a review because without a second or even third reading, it is difficult to compose anything substantial that can possibly do this magnificent and profound novel justice. To simply reflect on the text produces a lump in my throat and brings me close to tears. What is it about this novel that is so intensely moving? A monumental literary achievement, Mrs. Dalloway renders the majority of fiction as perfunctory in comparison. The masterful prose, use of imagery and innovative style are contributing factors but the emotional power of this novel goes beyond mere aesthetics. Woolf takes on the ambitious task of burying deep into the amorphous and perplexing core of human consciousness in order to achieve metaphysical transcendence.

Similar to Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway is experimental in prose; appropriating a "stream-of-consciousness" literary aesthetic to explore the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters but the latter is far less alienating,  maintains a tangible sense of intimacy and deeply emotional resonance that is not readily accessible in the former. Impressionistic and elusive in its narrative approach, Woolf is ambitiously subversive in technique; she radically departs from the conventions of form and structure typically associated with the novel -- ushering in a dazzling innovative reconstruction of narrative fiction. It is no surprise that she is often considered a revolutionary author. From the very first page, it becomes apparent that Mrs. Dalloway is not going to be a typical novel that plays by the rules. Woolf cleverly introduces the reader to the title character who decides to go out and buy some flowers because she hosting a party at her extravagant home for friends and distinguished guests of the English aristocracy. In a direct and simple way, she wily adheres to conventional story-telling: the female protagonist has an object of desire and in she will need to encounter various forms of conflict (inner, social and external) to finally achieve her goal. Yet, Woolf has no concern for a linear plot contrivances; life and human consciousness is far too complex to be restricted to stringent literary parameters. She is far more interested in examining the interior landscape of the human psyche; eschewing with the established objective worldview and plummeting directly into the jostled consciousness of her female heroine:

'What a lark!  What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was int he early morning; like the flay of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, "Musing among the vegetables?" -- was that it? -- "I prefer men to cauliflowers" -- was that it?" (3).

The style of writing accurately reflects the ebb and flow of conscious thought. There is a specific rhythm to the words and syntax as the protagonist is overwhelmed by the capricious ruminations of flooding memories from the past. The extensive use of punctuation (Woolf is a big fan of the semi-colon, bracket and line-break where sentences can stretch to a full page) is effectively implemented to serve as a type of mimetic articulation of the wandering inner thought-process. A pervasive melancholy of nostalgia and loss is prevalent in these lines, which also permeates throughout much of the text. Mrs. Dalloway sentimentally mourns her youth and first love with Peter Walsh when she lived at Bourton. She even questions the dubious nature of memory ("was that it?"). Woolf tactfully explores the fallibility of memory and her descriptions of the past are vivid as much as they are beautifully elegiac. Thus, her style of writing can be disorienting in its perplexity because the unstable psychological construction of past,  present and future intertwine simultaneously. Although the novel can be appreciated on the surface level for its unique aesthetic merits, the narrative is built upon layers and layers of subtext that is difficult to absorb on a first reading. To further complicate matters , the novel is structured around interconnected sub-plots with  Clarissa Dalloway serving as the main focal point. The inner lives of other characters is also examined with precision as their thoughts flow into one another. Hence, my earlier trepidation of reviewing this intensely complex work, which is overflowing with an intricate tapestry of thoughts and ideas that can be interpreted on so many different levels. 

Much attention has been given to Woolf's social, political and economic commentary pertaining to England soon after WWI, with particular emphasis on the strong underlying feminist ideologies of the text. Personally, the most fascinating aspects of the novel is its philosophical interpretations, deeply rooted in ontology and the exploration of human consciousness. With intimate sensitivity and profound wisdom, Virginia Woolf has astonishingly managed to write one of most beautiful and life-affirming novels that I have ever read. It is strange how I find it much easier to write about a literary work that I disliked as opposed to one that completely floored me such as this novel where I can no longer view fiction in the same way ever again. Virginia Woolf possesses a profound grasp of humanity and understands life as ephemeral and fleeting. The dejection of unrequited love, loneliness, rampant insecurities, the difficulties of actually truly knowing anyone, the regret associated with the past and its influence on the present, the disconnection to the outside world, death--essentially, she understands what it means to be human--flawed, self-conscious, desperately seeking happiness in a cruel indifferent world, searching for some kind of meaningful connection with others. She speaks to me in a way no other author has ever done so before. Within these 200 pages, Woolf compacts the stuff of life through the power of language. She was ahead of her time and reading this novel was an enlightening experience.

I could probably quote the entire novel but here are just a few favorites:

"It was to explain the feeling they ad of dissatisfaction; not knowing people; not being known. For how could they know each other?" (152).

"It ended in a transcendental theory which, with her horror of death,  allowed her to believe, or say that she believed (for all skepticism), that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places after death... perhaps - perhaps" (153).

"She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day."

All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was!-that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; how, every instant . . ." 

"Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely? All this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?" 

"Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the center which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death" (184).

"For she had come to feel that it was the only thing worth saying -- what one felt. Cleverness was silly. One must say simply what one felt" (191).

A masterpiece.

Read from July 20 to 22, 2011

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Authors I Loathe #1: Henry James

( Boooooooooooooooourns!!!)

Perhaps I woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning but after recently picking up The Ambassadors by Henry James,  it did not take me long to realize that he now ranks as one my least favorite authors. Thus, I have decided to start a new segment on this blog that will hopefully encourage others to no longer feel ashamed to admit their vehement animosity towards any author, especially those who are largely considered part of the literary canon. Call me crazy, but I am under the impression that most people are not truly honest when it comes to their true feelings and opinions regarding certain literary works. They merely conform to the established general consensus in order to avoid a confrontation or be labeled a philistine. The chauvinistic and pervasive cultural elitism is completely biased;  dictating the specific literary works and authors that are considered to be "great literature" whereas everything else should be avoided. Literature is far too multifarious -- spanning many different languages, genres and cultures to be reduced only to a handful of authors and important works. 

The literary form encourages rumination and discourse from a wide variety of perspectives.   It is blasphemous that someone who enjoys reading Twilight or the Shopaholic series should be chastised by some priggish group of pseudo-intellectuals -- literature is far too subjective. There is an endless amount of books to read and authors to discover that one need not always feel pressured to acquiesce perfidiously with the general masses just to avoid a confrontation. Read whatever you love and pay no attention to what others think about your literary tastes. Defend your opinions with well-reasoned arguments and stay true to yourself! If you find Faulkner's work to be incomprehensible drivel, so be it. Life's too short to force yourself to read novels that you find deplorable.

Ok, that's enough of my rambling and it is time to get down to business: Mr. Henry James has successfully managed to become my literary kyrptonite and whose self-indulgent writing style reduces me to explosive fits of rage. James seems to take an excessive amount of pride in his wordiness but the incessant use of run-on sentences with subclauses is an exercise in futility.

Come on James, is this really necessary? There is no need for all of these endless descriptions, metaphors and fancy wordplay -- get to the bloody point already! I'm only 50 or so pages into this novel and already feeling the urge to bang my head against the wall in frustration. His writing is insufferably discursive and this flamboyant style is so aggravating that it has given me head-aches. Not only is the prose ridiculously convoluted but the one-dimensional characters and languid plot surely do not improve matters. So far, James does not seem to deviate from this style and it is doubtful that I will be able to force myself to get through another 400 pages of torture.

A few years ago, I attempted to read The Bostonians but quickly tossed it aside due to my aforementioned criticisms. I struggled to finish A Turn of the Screw along with a bunch of his other short-stories/novellas including Daisy Miller and The Beast in the Jungle. Despite their iconic status and high praise by respected literary critics, these works failed to leave any impression on me whatsoever. I try to avoid using the "p" word but for James, I will make the exception: he is the epitome of PRETENTIOUS.

So, now I turn the question to you: Who are some authors that you find overrated, disagreeable or downright awful? Let me know.

Monday 18 July 2011

Books I Should Have Read by Now: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

"Power resides only where men believe it resides."

It's official: I am absolutely hooked on George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. To echo similar sentiments of my reading experience with A Game of Thrones, the writing is not challenging or profound, albeit, as far as fantasy fiction goes Martin is a superb story-teller and surprisingly, infuses plenty of metaphorical devices and even irony to enrich the narrative. He is capable of handling a large host of interconnecting subplots, creating memorable and well-rounded characters (Tyrion Lannister is now a personal favorite) and is prone to wily undermining archetypal conventions of the genre where everything is not always black and white. A sense of moral ambiguity along with suspenseful intrigue that is unpredictable proves to be a refreshing aspects of these novels. Above all else, at 1000 pages, the story flows smoothly and never drags; if nothing else, this series has proven to be immensely entertaining. 

Martin creates such a fascinating and vivid world with a rich tapestry of many characters. Each chapter revolves around a specific character's perspective and now, civil war begins to unfold amongst the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros over the rightful heir of the Iron Throne. Initially, Martin's epic narrative scope proved to be disorienting with the first installment but with A Clash of Kings as the second novel in the series, Martin's style is now easy enough to follow. My earlier ambivalence towards the melodrama of the noble gentility has drastically subsided and I now find court life and the political strife to be most captivating to follow.

My only concern with this series is that the story is so colossal that it will eventually lose steam and end up in a perpetual state of limbo much like the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. For now, I am willing to give Martin the benefit of the doubt since he has allowed the narrative to take many unexpected turns but at the back of my mind, I can't help but thinking: Where does the series go from here? Only time will tell. Excuse me, while I continue to devour the third novel in the series, a 1000+ page monster entitled A Storm of Swords, which is already proving to be highly addictive like its predecessors.

Rating: ****

Read from July 04 to 10, 2011 

Howards End by E.M. Forster

“Death destroys a man: the idea of Death saves him." 

There is no denying that E.M. Forster is a shrewd intellect capable of writing gorgeous prose but the problem with
Howards End is that its pompously detached style and rigorously pedagogical nature undermines the actual narrative. This is a novel about ideas – the story is secondary to Forster’s exploration of various political, economic, social and philosophical attitudes pertaining to his native England at the turn of the 20th century. Although Forster may come across as bitter and cynical towards his homeland, he also maintains a passionate optimism where perhaps there is hope for the future (if the ending is any indication). He provides insightful criticism and sophisticated observations of English culture especially pertaining to class warfare, gender roles and the rights of property. 

The novel succeeds as a highly polished academic treatise and with a new emerging social culture, Forster is greatly considered with many questions about the potentially new direction of England. More importantly, the novel attempts to figure out who and what particular social class will now rule this great land. Forster has a great love for humanity but fails miserably at delivering any sort of convincing or engaging story. While he should be commended for his crafty and introspective writing, he is often too clever for his own good, where arguably, the novel takes the form of allegory pertaining to social hierarchy: The Wilcoxes represent the priggish and superficial upper-class, the Schlegel sisters are the over-educated artists of the rising middle-class and the Basts are characterized as the na├»ve, hard-working lower-class. The soap-opera melodrama that involves these different factions of society is illogical in its design; merely serving as a platform for Forster to implement metaphorical conceits and heavy symbolism of vastly interpretative meanings. Thus, such a novel is daunting in its ambitious scope but I found Forster's haughty writing style to be downright self-righteous at times. Sure, erudite literary academics are bound to drool over this novel but I found it to be an unsatisfying chore to get through. 

However, that is not to suggest that I vehemently despised the novel. There are certain redeeming factors but I still remain highly apathetic. Near the beginning of the novel, the narrator smugly asserts that this particular story focuses on the noble gentility and harshly condemns the lower-classes: “We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk” (47). Is the narrator being deliberately ironic or just pompously declaring class superiority? The novel often utilizes irony for dramatic effect along to emphasize the subtext but sometimes this type of rhetorical device falls flat for lacking subtlety. Nonetheless, Forster does manage to effectively portray class distinctions with resonant eloquence: “The boy, Leonard Bast, stood at the extreme verge of gentility. He was not in the abyss, but he could see it, and at times people whom he knew had dropped in, and counted no more” (47). The precarious position of being part of the lower-class and falling into the “abyss” of obscurity is an apt observation. As the narrator previously put it, to be at the bottom of society's rank is to become “unthinkable” which is chillingly full of truth -- the rich stay rich and the poor remain constantly oppressed until they reach oblivion and are forgotten. Unfortunately, it is a shame that Forster’s insightful and wily charm is rendered mostly inconsequential by the the novel’s severe lack of a convincing or emotionally resonant narrative, which is painfully contrived. For example, the major tragic moment at the end involving Leonard Bast is inevitable but there is no emotional weight behind it at all and just incoherently happens without any genuine motive because this scene occurs only to serve as a launching pad for the author's political and social purposes. Granted, the way Forster utilizes conversation in many intriguing ways to emphasize the underlying subtext is worth noting but the pompous diction gets annoying fast in its obnoxiousness. The characters are incessantly dull as metaphorical constructs; prone to engaging in tiresome palaver that is cringe-inducing in its ostentatious vernacular. Did rich English folk really talk this annoyingly back then? I can only hope that Forster was parodying the vain and magniloquent gentry.

The novel’s most famous lines come from Margaret Schlegel who is thrust into a life of gentility by marrying the rich landowner Mr. Wilcox. She struggles to maintain her previous spiritual inner life as an intelligent and independent woman against the new social protocol she is expected to follow. Eventually, Margaret decides to preserve her self-identity and attempts to influence her new husband to change his narrow-minded perspective to save his soul from damnation:

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die” (195). 

These beautiful lines serve as a major structural component to the story and Forster is keen to emphasize this theme throughout the novel: A meaningful life can be achieved without the blind-pursuit of wealth by connecting to people, places and art. Focusing entirely on capitalist ideals leads to an empty, vapid existence. Considering the historical context of the novel, Forster was surely radical in his ideologies for rejecting traditional conservative values.

It is no surprise that Howards End is a landmark novel of early 20th century fiction that has been extensively studied academically because it is overflowing with ideas and complexities that can be analyzed to the point of no return. For instance, is it just me or are Schlegel sisters involved in some kind of border-line incestuous relationship? They clearly love each other but there are subtle moments that suggest they might be more than just siblings. They spend an exorbitant amount of time together, share the same interests as well as mannerisms and if they happen to be apart, their lives fall into chaos. Also, one particular line left me rather befuddled: “They passed upstairs, kissed, and amidst the endless iterations fell asleep” (330). The key word is “iterations” which perhaps suggests sexual connotations although perhaps I am merely over analyzing what is supposedly just two sisters enjoying each others company.

Personally, I would have preferred if Forster just wrote an essay on these complex issues of class, gender and politics sparkled with his profound philosophical beliefs instead of forcing readers to slog through such an insipid story. If I were take anything valuable from this novel, it would be some of the author's sagacious and elegant diction:

“It is so easy to talk of “passing emotion,” and how to forget how vivid the emotion was ere it passed. Our impulse to sneer, to forget, is at root a good one…But the poetry of that kiss, the wonder of it, the magic that there was in life for hours after it–who can describe that?” (25).

“We recognize that emotion is not enough, and that men and women are personalities capable of sustained relations, not mere opportunities for an electrical discharge. Yet we rate the impulse too highly. We do not admit that by collisions of this trivial sort the doors of heaven may be shaken open” (25).

“Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty” (111).

“One is certain of nothing but the truth of ones own emotions” (178).

“Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they one exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!” (273).

Pick up this novel if you are interested in early 20th century literature but be forewarned, its slow and methodical structure requires plenty of patience to finish. Despite my indifference, it does leave plenty to ponder and discuss afterwards. 

This novel is part of the Classics Club Challenge.

Monday 4 July 2011

Books I should have read by now: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

"Winter is coming."

Perhaps it was happy coincidence that Gabriel's challenge and the HBO series George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones piqued my interest around the same time. I have always been fond of the fantasy genre: The Lord the Rings, Harry Potter and His Dark Materials are amongst my favorite series of novels but my exposure to epic high-fantasy has been severely limited. I purchased Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series years ago during my fantasy fiction phase and even began reading A Game of Thrones but ended up abandoning it half-way through. My initial consternation was largely due my preference for fantasy rooted in mythology and the otherworldly as opposed to a soap opera of an alternative history political narrative about the courtesans of noble gentry. Not to mention, Martin's writing tends to be bloated, uneven and at times, laughably lame in terms of characterization and prose. However, this time around I was more forgiving and decided to put aside the stringent literary critic and just enjoy the novel as a piece of high-fantasy fiction. Suffice it to say, by the end of this 800 page tomb, I was rather pleased and surprised how entertaining the novel turned out to be. A definitely slow-burn narrative, the novel only starts to kick into high-gear around page 500 when the drama shifts to the political tensions between the different factions of the realm that lead to war. I'm glad that I did not abandon the novel this time during the slow sections because Martin takes his sweet time detailing this world of the Seven Kingdoms and slowly develops the many characters. Nonetheless, it is the intriguing story and rich detail of this world that make it such a compulsive read. A Game of Thrones may feel inadequate or unsatisfying in certain regards but this is only the introduction to the series and I am now incredibly anxious to read the rest of the books to find out what happens next.

Can Martin's novel ever be considered "great" literature? Of course, such a label is completely subjective and open to debate but I find it narrow-minded that genre fiction is often considered a lesser form of literature. I doubt his name will  appear alongside popular canonized authors like Hemmingway, Faulkner and Joyce anytime soon but to be honest, I would still prefer to read Martin over them. His prose obviously lacks the profound depth and complexity of those highly-respected authors but the man is gifted at writing a great story filled with a plethora of amusing characters, intricate plots and counter-plots along with a fascinating world containing such a rich background of history. Where Martin lacks in brevity and ornamental prose, he makes up for it ten-fold in sheer epic narrative scope. I have always turned to the fantasy genre as a form of escapism; an outlet for losing myself in a mystical reality where the imagination is given free reign: Martin's A Game of Thrones not only provides that opportunity but sets up what could potentially be a landmark fantasy series. 

On a side-note, the HBO series adaptation is wonderful and perhaps even better than the book! Season 2 can't come soon enough!

Rating: ****

Read from June 26 to July 01, 2011