Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Michael5000 v. Dickens: Oliver Twist

2012 Assessment: "I don't think I've read it, but was shown bits of Oliver! in high school.  It has such a broad cultural footprint that one feels like one has read it."

Current Reading: Simon & Schuster "Enriched Classic" Edition.  I read it in an informal "book group of two" with frequent Tournament voter Morgan.

What I have to say about Oliver Twist is very similar to what I had to say about Nicholas Nickleby five years back. But, even on the off chance you are reading this, you probably haven’t seen that earlier review, at least not recently, so I can probably get away with repeating myself quite a bit.

First of all, like Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist is very early Dickens. They are his third and second novels, respectively, although the first novel, The Pickwick Papers, is so picaresque that we almost wouldn't call it a novel, if we really cared to enforce a definition of "novel." And in none of these first three, nor in the two that followed (The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge) do we really get a satisfying, fully realized Dickens novel.

I've wondered about this a lot, because in our current literary-commercial regime one reads an awful lot of "first novels," and often times those turn out to be, as one finds after buying the sophomore effort, conspicuously the best novel that that writer had in them. It doesn't always feel like contemporary authors have had the chance to mature into the fullness of a mature style -- or so I often think. On the other hand, I suppose there are counterexamples (especially in writers of serial fiction) where you can go back and check out the rerelease of a favorite author's first few published works, and you say "wow, this early stuff kind of stinks." Yes, I realize I just said two completely contradictory things. I said I've wondered about this a lot, not that I've figured out any answers about this.

Anyway, back to Oliver Twist.

In the Nicholas Nickleby review, I said "Although he's not as stylistically daring as he will be later in his career, Dickens' voice is already in place. You've got the lovely, well-turned sentences, the ironic wit, and the tendency to go a bit overboard, by modern standards, on the flights of pathos. His concern for social justice and the plight of the folks at the bottom of the social ladder is very much in evidence as well." That's true in Oliver Twist as well.

Next, I moved on to this: "What's missing, though, is the big complex kaleidoscope of a fully realized Dickens plot. In my favorite of the novels, there will be several scores of characters who are all twined together through an elaborate tangle of circumstance and back-story. In Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend, you'd be hard pressed even to identify a "main character," and three different people could each give you accurate plot synopses without it being obvious that they were talking about the same book. There's just a hell of a lot going on in these full-fledged Dickens masterpieces."

Whereas, Oliver Twist is another novel, like Nicholas Nickleby, that for the most part runs down a single narrative and chronological path. For the most part. To be fair, it is actually considerably more interesting than Nickleby, because we do see some characters take on lives of their own and have side adventures not directly related to the title character. But everything ultimately ties back to little Oliver and the mystery around his parentage, a mystery which is, alas, both overcomplicated and profoundly uninteresting.

I had a general idea of what would happen in Oliver Twist, but all of those things turned out to happen in the first few chapters. This is a common enough phenomenon with well-known, infrequently read books – a friend who saw me with the book in my hand mentioned that it is "set in an orphanage," which it is, but only for a couple of chapters. That whole "please sir, I want some more" business happens in Chapter 2, and there are 53 chapters. I suspect that, like me, most first time readers will find that the book they expected is contained in the first eight or nine chapters, after which the story keeps on going.

Like other Dickens title characters, Nick Nickleby and also David Copperfield, Oliver Twist as a title character is by far the least interesting person in his own book. We know, but only because we are told so and because of how some of the other characters react to him, that he is a child of remarkable (not to say improbable) attractiveness and virtue. That's about all we know, though, because he only ever opens his mouth to say something painfully sincere and virtuous. He is the star of the book only in that his existence gives other, more rounded and interesting characters a central point to revolve around.

True to the Dickens stereotype, Oliver Twist relies a bit too heavily on outlandishly convenient coincidence to lubricate the engine of its story. More than most Dickens, it also relies heavily on people doggedly failing to have obvious conversations with each other so that they can preserve misconceptions that are important to the plot.

Finally, to put it plainly, the biggest problem with Oliver Twist is just that it's kind of boring.

Current Dickens Score: I have now read 13/14.5 of the non-Christmassy Dickens novels.  The only ones left are Little Dorrit and the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Second Opinion: Publisher's Weekly ranks it as the sixth-best Dickens novel:
With its larger-than-life villainies and its endless excitements, is the perfect book to begin with. Who will ever forget the supremely wicked Fagin who co-opts homeless boys into a life of crime, the murderous Bill Sikes, the brave young Oliver himself, however idealized? No wonder it had such an immense triumph as successor to the benign and lovable Pickwick!

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