What’s Happening?

by wjw on August 14, 2018

My current reading is Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, an amiable, eccentric pseudo-Victorian work.  Reading it is pleasurable, but I’m over 100 pages in and as yet have no idea what the novel is about, if anything.  Amiable eccentric Victorians amble through the work encountering one another, and there either is or isn’t a sea monster lurking off in the estuary (I rather think there isn’t), and people might or might not love one another, but everyone is reasonably reasonable and there doesn’t seem to be a lot at stake.  The work’s one nasty character dies in Chapter One.

It’s so well written that I’ve kept going, but now I’m wondering why I need to continue.  Maybe I’ve got the point already.  Is it possible to write a work where there’s no conflict and everyone is perfectly nice?

Well, yes.  That book would be The Great Passage, by Shion Miura, about some amiably eccentric Japanese lexicographers who set out to create a new dictionary of the Japanese language.  This seems to be a more difficult task than it might be in English, and it’s a project that takes more than one generation to complete.  There’s no real conflict and there’s not a lot at stake (except whether the dictionary gets finished in one or another decade), but it kept me reading straight through while experiencing nothing but delight.

If you want to experience a conflict-free book— in other words, a literary impossibility— I’d pick the Miura if I were you.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Etaoin Shrdlu August 15, 2018 at 2:45 am

Back when I was pretending I’d ever be able to write a novel, I read a few romance books thinking that maybe I’d try to publish some of that (yay Amazon self-publishing). The only “conflicts” the protagonists seemed to experience were in picking which shoes to buy (all of them) and deciding which hung horny billionaire badboy rockstud they were going to live happily ever after with (“both” was apparently a viable option). I quickly decided I couldn’t possibly go into enough detail about shopping for clothes to pull off publishing as “Rosemary Titmouse” without offing myself, so that dream died.

Anyway, looking it up, The Essex Serpent is categorized under “romance”, so that’s probably why there’s no point to it.

BTW, I finally ran into the Maijstral series, and found out where the “collaborators” part of the backstory to DEF came from. It’s like a literary treasure hunt! One of these days I’m going to track down your Age Of Sail books and read about Martinez’ origins.

Urban August 15, 2018 at 8:29 am

I’m halfway through _The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet_ by Becky Chambers; I like it a lot, but a third of the way in I started to wonder who is the protagonist (it *should* be the newcomer on the ship, but she’s more an initial focus character than protagonist) and why there’s no antagonist but rather a series of problems.
Things could become much worse, but somehow I think it’s sort of feel-good novel just showing different ways of living, because that’s a theme.

wjw August 15, 2018 at 6:23 pm

Etaoin, I’ve noticed that Amazon classifies all sorts of books as romance, including THE COMPLETE WORKS OF HG WELLS, I guess because he writes “scientific romances.” Also THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, everything by Walter Scott, and THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO.

(and THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL ANGRY PLANET, BTW.)

Amazon apparently doesn’t distinguish between the older use of romance and a modern category romance. Which must confuse the heck out of a lot of a lot of readers who can’t work out why the Karamazov brothers don’t get an HEA.

Privateiron August 16, 2018 at 8:38 am

One of my favorite movies has no clear antagonist: “My Neighbor Totoro.” Plenty of obstacles/issues/internal struggles, but no nasty entity to fight with.

Theophylact August 16, 2018 at 12:10 pm

Keep on. There’s more to The Essex Serpent than you might think.

Susan August 16, 2018 at 7:14 pm

I read the Essex Serpent a while back and thought it was well written but it was a book that I was glad to finished with so I could move on to something else. It has gotten a lot of buzz, so I assume the problem was me, perhaps not being in the mood for that particular book at that particular time.

I adored Becky Chambers The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, so go figure. I enjoyed spending time with the characters in that book, and was a little disappointed when most of them didn’t appear in the second and third books. I’ll still read everything Chambers writes unless something changes in the future.

Right now I’m slogging through Robert Penn Warren’s “All the Kings Men” for my book group meeting on Monday. So far, it’s full of lush description and the plot is sloooowwwly developing. Hoping I can finish by Monday night, since I’m finding myself doing things other than reading (like reading blogs and commenting).

Etaoin Shrdlu August 17, 2018 at 1:43 pm

I bought and read through “Angry Planet” on the above recommendations from so many of you, and enjoyed it. It’s an odd book but fun. I was happily surprised by the ending, which flies against modern publishing industry mandates. Have to get her next two now. I might try The Essex Serpent after them.

WJW, I didn’t know there was a different older meaning to the term. Looks like your DEF series sort of falls within it — “extraordinary exploits of heroes in exotic settings”. So I guess that, what with her werewolf books getting bought by romance readers, you and Carrie Vaughn now have “romance writer” in common. :-)

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