Friday, March 7, 2014

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

Titus Groan is considered by many to be a masterpiece of the literature of the fantastic. I don't think that I can argue with that assessment. However, I can say that it's a masterpiece that I certainly wasn't pleased to be reading for much of the time I was doing so. The primary reason for this was that I felt that it was overly descriptive, tediously so. And I think of myself as someone who has a high tolerance for fictional works that others deem too descriptive.

Below you'll find a passage describing the head of a character--a poet--in the story whose existence is of little consequence to the narrative:

"It was a long head.

It was a wedge, a sliver, a grotesque slice in which it seemed the features had been forced to stake their claims, and it appeared that they had done so in a great hurry and with no attempt to form any kind of symmetrical pattern for their mutual advantage. The nose had evidently been first upon the scene and had spread itself down the entire length of the wedge, beginning among the grey stubble of the hair and ending among the grey stubble of the beard, and spreading on both sides with a ruthless disregard for the eyes and mouth which found precarious purchase. The mouth was forced by the lie of the terrain left to it, to slant at an angle which gave to its right-hand side an expression of grim amusement and to its left, which dipped downwards across the chin, a remorseless twist. It was forced by not only the unfriendly monopoly of the nose, but also by the tapering character of the head to be a short mouth; but it obvious by its very nature that, under normal conditions, it would have covered twice the area. The eyes in whose expression might be read the unending grudge they bore against the nose were as small as marbles and peered out between the grey grass of the hair.

This head, set at a long incline upon a neck as wry as a turtle's cut across the narrow vertical black strip of the window.

Steerpike watched it turn upon the neck slowly. It would not have surprised him if it had dropped off, so toylike was its angle.

As he watched, fascinated, the mouth opened and a voice as strange and deep as the echo of a lugubrious ocean stole out into the morning.

Never was a face so belied by its voice.

The accent was of so weird a lilt that at first Steerpike could not recognize more than one sentence in three, but he had quickly attuned himself to the original cadence and as the words fell into place Steerpike realised he was staring at a poet."

That's over 350 words used to describe some minor character's face, and this is not the most egregious example of what I would consider to be excessive descriptive verbiage. I would have--and easily could have--included much, much longer passages to illustrate my point, but I didn't want this review to run on forever.

I'm sure many find the passage above to be beautiful, poetic, a magical feat of descriptive language, and I'd understand where they'd be coming from. This book does contain great imagery--tons and tons of great imagery, in fact. There are scenes in this book that will forever be seared into my brain. There are brilliant set pieces, memorable character ticks and traits, and scenes of astounding power and depth. I just wish that the author would have been more selective when deciding when and where to lay it on so thick. As it was, the onslaught quickly became numbing--exhausting--and it was very easy to nod off while reading this book when the author's obsessive focus on all the little details too often brought the action to a languid, meditative...zzzz

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