Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Reading List: My Name is Red

There is a certain quality to prose that I have never seen discussed as such, but which I always think of as its viscosity. By this I mean the stickiness, or resistance, a text offers a reader -- how much, in other words, does it slow the reader down?

Shakespeare, for instance, is pretty viscous. There's all sorts of unfamiliar vocabulary and constructions and world view going on that forces the reader to parse sentences, tease out meanings, and think about implications. It takes time. Most philosophical texts are extremely viscous, for much the same reasons. Whereas, in more popular works -- we can perhaps identify Steven King as a consensus example of an author who writes highly accessible prose, albeit often for the dumbest storylines -- the viscosity diminishes to almost nothing.

Technical writing tends to have some viscosity, as it by its nature deals with the abstract and unfamiliar; the reason that we have technical writers is to keep the viscosity manageable. Poetry, dense with meaning and resonance, is viscous by design. And, prose naturally gets stickier as it ages. The Bible, an example I've been getting to know, puts up a real fight not just because of the unfamiliar names and customs, but because it was written by and for people who found significance and meaning in different aspects of the human experience than we do today. To try to envision the world through their eyes takes a lot of imaginative effort, which makes for slow reading.

My Name is Red

My Name is Red is a novel by the Turkish writer and intellectual Orhan Pamuk, whom you have likely heard of as the guy who has endured so much flack for conceding that the Armenian genocide might, duh, actually have happened. It is a novel of great intellectual interest, but with an intriguing mystery at its core as well. Characters are vividly drawn within an unconventional, engaging multiple first-person narrative structure. There is a playfulness of tone that keeps the mood from bogging down in the 16th Century details. There is, indeed, much to recommend this book. But alas, it -- or at least its English translation (by Erdag Goknar) is rather on the viscous side.

I wish this didn't bother me. I wish I was the kind of wise, reflective person who says "the beauty of this text is the way it invites the reader to proceed at a slower pace, to contemplate and reflect on an alternative vision of the world's workings." I can imagine Mrs.5000 saying something like this, for instance. But not me.

In a contemporary work of fiction, viscosity makes me grouchy. I've read enough books with sparkling language, brilliant insights, and/or moving narrative, and been able to read them at my natural speed, that being forced to slow down to make sense of the language is frustrating. So, while I can generally recommend My Name is Red as a fine modern novel, I also mourn a little for the book that doesn't exist: the My Name is Red that loses none of its virtues by streamlining its prose, and gains that quality of immersiveness in which a reader -- at least, this reader -- can lose himself entirely.

Things to Look For

To say that My Name is Red has a murder mystery at its heart is to give nothing away; the first chapter is narrated by the corpse. Which of the three essentially identical suspects may have done the foul deed, however, turns out to be immaterial. The more important issue is why he, or either of the other two, would have committed the crime, and like most of the best crimes, this one is all about ideas. Specifically, it is about the philosophical differences between European and Islamic styles of painting and illustration. This topic, and the larger collision of cultures that it represents, must be particularly resonant issues to the Turks, poised as they are always between Europe and the Middle East, between Europe and Asia.

Other attractions include a love story that has epic trappings, despite being conducted between two deeply flawed characters; a detailed exploration of the art of Islamic illustration; and a vivid invocation of life in Sixteenth Century Istanbul. The character of an illiterate clothier who moonlights as messenger between the courters and the clandestine lovers of the city is a bit of a show stealer, and I was always a bit disappointed to leave her world to get back to the business of the main plot.


A mysterious loner rides into town, determined to win back the woman he loves. But! A terrible crime has been committed, and he must find the killer before he can get the girl. It's all very spaghetti-Western, except that everything is driven by passionate disagreement about the portrayal of perspective. Told from the various points of view of a dozen major and minor characters, as well as a corpse, a dog, some paintings, and the color red, the story of our hero's search for the Truth is a long and strange one.


Anonymous said...

"It takes take"? You must mean "It takes sake," little cup after cup, before you can make sense of things, or perhaps the grudgingly admiring chestnut "It takes the cake."

Michael5000 said...

@Mrs.5000: Check. Corrected.

fingerstothebone said...

I had forgotten about the seamstress/go-between. Thanks for bringing this book back in my mind again.

Anonymous said...

Viscous is a good word for describing the slower-reading books. I happen to like them, so this one will go on my to-read list.

Marquez can be quite viscous as well, and that goes for in Spanish or in translation. You always wonder, though, if the translator simply didn't have an ear for language or something.

margaret said...

This is totally dorky, but as a former (ahem) copy editor I have to complain about your capitalization in the heading. I mean, poor little "is"!

It's a little world, sure. Only two letters. But now there you go treating it like it's some puny preposition or conjunction and lowercasing it. But "Is" is for real and just 'cause it's small doesn't mean it shouldn't go capitalized like all the rest of them.

Up with capital-eye "Is"!

There, I feel better now.

Michael5000 said...

@Margaret: Oh, chill.

Wait. Former?

fingerstothebone said...

And Margaret -- "It's a little world?" Ms. Copy Editor!

margaret said...

Oh dear. I'm going to fire myself.

Bridget said...

Viscous is a great word for those reads . . . a thing I tend to avoid in my fiction. I read enough theory dense non-fiction, thank you! And yet, at the same time, this book sounds very intriguing! Drat . . .

Anonymous said...

I agree with the viscous kudos. Very apt. It is so difficult for me to explain to people why I hate to sit and read most modern things but why I love words and language and what they can do. Thank goodness it's rare that people ask.

I like perspective playing so I might actually like to listen to this story being told. Sometimes that thins things out a little. But I do get cranky when what I hope is a light intrigue turns into but doesn't complete being something more dense.

The artwork you have here is killer.

Anonymous said...

Oh. Now I get it. I thought you meant "vicious".

Anonymous said...

I'm way late on this discussion, but I've now decided to never read this book. My own Michael bought me "Snow" at the Denver airport, and can I just say, it's not plane reading. Just way too sticky. So I never finished it (and I'm capable of finishing lots of crap, but apparently, not the "good" stuff).

Oh, and do you ever go to Extreme Craft (or did I get the link from you), b/c there's a photo of his mom's quilting room that has to be seen to be believed:

fingerstothebone said...

My Name is Red is an easier read than Snow. It took me a long time to finish Snow. The guy lived so much in his head, it was hard to take. You shouldn't decide on Red based on Snow, I don't think.

Mm mud said...

A bit late in the day, but some of the reasons why the book captivated me was the historical angle- I've seen some elaborate, intricate drawings from the mughal times and wondered; I've read about the influence of Shah Nama(Book of Kings) quoted in it on the mughal kings and they writing or having their biographies written; A lot of the stories in it are familiar- Rustum/Shorab. I liked how cleverly it was woven which is why I put it in the genre of historical fiction and not fictional history.