Winter's Tale

Mark Helprin

Book cover

I wanted to like this book, to the point that I read all 750 pages of it even though I didn’t like it very much. It seemed to have a lot going for it: my dad is a fan of Helprin; it is about New York City; it contains magical realism (though apparently Helprin disdains that term).

The main thing it had against it going in was that Helprin is a known conservative, but I didn’t know whether it would be relevant for a novel or not. Now, the story of WT is not overtly conservative, in the manner of, say, “Atlas Shrugged.” But I think part of what I didn’t like is the way the author’s conservatism came through, in a couple of ways. First, there are a number of passages that seem pretty transparently like the author spouting his opinion (mostly about how society is worse than it used to be) through a character’s mouth; not as bad as Rand’s John Galt speech, but still clearly there. Beyond not agreeing with the politics, I just find this annoying. Second, I can’t help but feel that the way relationships are portrayed is characteristically conservative. There is a lot of falling deeply in love at first sight (or in the case of two particular characters, even before they ever see each other). Helprin is not afraid to portray passion between his characters, but he doesn’t ever lay the emotional groundwork for why two characters are really right for each other–kind of like he doesn’t have time for it. I don’t mind a book that stays away from the mushy stuff (most sci fi), but so much of WT hinges on the romantic relationships that it just feels weird.

The book also shares some similarity in style with “The Crying of Lot 49,” a book that I truly hated. I’m not sure how to characterize it exactly, but it’s also something that’s somewhat present in “Atlas Shrugged”: a kind of vulgar overdramatization of events, sometimes to the brink of slapstick. Lots of people “screaming at each other,” for example. If you’ve read WT, the segment with Hardesty in the woods with the hobo is the key example. While I was reading the book, I was wondering how I could dislike magical realism in WT when I enjoy it so much in, say, Murakami. I think this is the reason–Murakami is all understatement; Helprin is all overstatement.

My Goodreads rating: 2 stars