Sunday, June 21, 2009

All the King's Men

In the Noel Polk version of All the King's Men, Willie Stark becomes Willie Talos. TALOS?!? Yes, I get the classical allusion, but that doesn't mean it's not a terrible name for the character. He's supposed to be a hardscrabble, down-and-dirty American politician, and you're giving him a highfalutin, European-sounding name like "Talos?" As opposed to the perfectly-fitting Stark? This egregious miscalculation makes me seriously doubt Polk's judgment on all matters relating to this novel. I stuck with the original.

And the original is enough. Because really, people. This novel is badly overwritten as IS. Almost grotesquely so in parts. Do we truly need MORE of this? Warren is very much given to investing events and characters with baroque, pointlessly elaborate verbal curlicues that quickly collapse under their own weight and only serve to gum up the novel and remove whatever narrative momentum it might have had.

The opening is a great example of this: two and a half densely-packed pages describing the highway on which the protagonists are driving. What does this do? Does it contribute to the plot? Does it add any sort of meaningful atmosphere to the proceedings? No and no. And it certainly is not sufficiently arresting on its own terms to make up for that. It's empty, self-indulgent fluff. All that it does is demonstrate that Warren is truly madly deeply in love with the sound of his own voice. And if we weren't convinced, he demonstrates it again. And again. And BANG.

This isn't a political novel. Don't let anyone tell you it is. Everyone always identifies Willie Stark as the central figure--presumably because otherwise, it would be hard to nail it down as being about much of anything--but he is very much a secondary character; we only get a very sketchy idea of who he is or what his appeal to his constituents is, and his corruption, such as it is, is so laughably picayune that you barely raise an eyebrow. The mechanics of power are barely explored. "The rise and fall of an American dictator!" my copy breathlessly proclaims on the cover. Yeah, not so much. There are the seeds of something interesting here, but they never grow into anything.

No, this is about the narrator, Jack Burden. Forget Willie; forget all the other characters--none of them are more than half-formed; it's a stretch to even call them "characters." This is All Jack All The Time. Which means an awful lot of windy philosophizing about morality and duty and history, none of which amounts to much of anything. A deep psychological exploration this is not.

The fact that no one else is defined in any real way also means no one to care about and no drama either. There is a murder. It's meant to be the novel's climax. It's not climactic, because all the people involved are just shadowy puppets. Nothing they do matters or signifies.

I do admit that I was caught up on occasion. I liked the Cass Mastern story, and I liked the Judge Irwin plot. But then, oh lord, I had to slog through the Ballad of Jack and Anne. I think I'm at least as romantic as the next man, but I defy anyone to claim with a straight face that this long digression is in any way affecting. It's not. Anne's not a character (did I mention that there's a fair bit of misogyny here?), and Jack's not an interesting one. Overall, the interesting-to-mind-numbing ratio here is distressingly low.

I see that most of the negative review on amazon seem to come from apathetic high school kids. My normal inclination is to mock such people, but in this case, I have to admit, the apathetic high school kids kinda have a point. It was painful enough for me, a graduate student who's used to this stuff, to get through--you're gonna force it on teenagers who have no interest in literature? I mean, at least for me, there's a certain value in having read such an (however inexplicably) acclaimed book; for them, it just seems pointlessly sadistic.


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