Monday, June 13, 2011

Book Review "Pillars of the Earth" by David Pretty

Greetings, E.T. Book Club Members!

Sadly the highest praise I can give to a book lately is that I finished it.  Especially one of these five-hundred-plus-page muthas.  Although it took me awhile to read Pillars, not once did I ever cross my mind that I wasn't going to finish it.

Steven King once said that you'll know right away what kind of experience you'll get reading a book just as soon as you look inside at the layout, print size, and the author's tendencies towards dialogue or description.  As soon as you crack that puppy open you'll know immediately if it's a morale-boosting "quick flip and dispose" or a marathon slog that can either prove to be a colossal waste of time or genuine exercise in reward and fulfillment.

And let me tell ya folks, as soon as I hefted up a copy of Pillars of the Earth, with its eight-hundred pages of St. James Bible-style descriptive blocks and eight-point font, I knew this wasn't gonna be slow pitch.

And sure enough, it took me about a year to read it.  Mercifully the story is so clear and well-plotted that you can walk away from it for a bit, read three more books on the side, pick it back up and immediately get your bearings again.

Author Ken Follett hooks us right away by serving up some very likable characters and then subjecting them to the kind of of torture that should be illegal under the literary equivalent of the Geneva Convention.  Tom Builder is an enterprising mason during the rule of King Stephen in England, circa 1135.  At the start of the book we see him capably providing for his two kids and (very) pregnant wife by working away on a phat palatial mansion requisitioned by the not-so-nobleman Percy Hamleigh.

But when Tom's contract to build the house is cancelled, he suddenly finds himself without a sponsor or any savings for the winter.  He's forced to take his family on a miserable odyssey through the harsh countryside where they're subjected to the harsh elements, chronic famine and the whims of cruel bandits.  All the while he's pinning his hopes on a securing a cathedral building gig since he knows that this will keep him employed for the rest of his life and result in the production of an immortal achievement in art and engineering.  Unfortunately every crew working on existing projects seems to be manned to capacity.

Soon Tom and his brood are in dire straits (the condition, not the band).  They've been robbed blind and are edging uncomfortably close to destitution and starvation.  Things go from bad to downright awful when Tom's wife suddenly goes into labor while they're on a deserted road.  She manages to birth the child but falls victim to terrible complications.  Tom then makes the heart-rending decision to leave the child behind, reasoning that it would suffer less misery freezing to death versus slow, lingering starvation.

They don't get very far before Tom has a change of heart and rushes back to retrieve the baby but he's horrified to discover that the child has vanished.  Fearing that the baby has been carried off by wolves, Tom guides the remnants of his shattered family away from the tragic scene.    

Are we having fun yet, kids?

Yeah, so I should point out the obvious right now: Ken Follett is a sadistic bastard.  I know all good, propulsive stories need to craft likable characters and then put them into peril to retain our interest, but Follett really goes to hell with the joke here.  When an author shows the reader such abject brutality in the early goings of a book, we begin to fear that we're being led down a dark path by a lunatic.  You could call it cheap but daring film-makers like Stanley Kubrick have certainly used this tactic in films such as Clockwork Orange.  It's kind of a cheap ploy but it keeps all eyes front and center, and in this case, keeps those pages a-flippin'.    

Follett's willingness to cheerfully depict the worst elements of the human experience is really driven home in the personage of Percy Hamleigh's even more repugnant son William.  We see him lusting over Aliena, the beautiful, young daughter of a rival family.  After his duplicitous parents usurp the holdings of Aliena's honorable father, William ends up taking her by force.  Through an almost endless parade of reprehensible actions, William ends up making Tim Roth's character in Rob Roy look like Pat Boone.

In fact, it takes quite some time for the hope-stingy Follett to turn on the spigot for a dribble of promise.  Tom eventually meets a mysterious witch in the woods named Ellen and her savant-like son Jack who take pity on them and guide them through the wilderness.  Tom is instantly smitten by the exotic lass and they soon begin a torrid affair despite the fact that rigor has yet to set into his dead wife's body.  Eeeeeesh.   

Thanks to the timely sponsorship of the charitable Prior Philip (and the pyromaniacal intervention of Jack), Tom finally gets a contract working on the proposed Kingsbridge cathedral.  The balance of the book then deals with the trials, tribulations and all-around strife that results from the building of the cathedral as well as how the lives of all the aforementioned characters (and a slew of others) intertwine.

Most of the conflict comes from the political wrangling that the cathedral's announcement, construction and completion inspires in rival interests.  The fact that it's being built by people without a shred of ruthless ambition seems to infuriate the book's many antagonists, including Philip's rival, the Machiavellian priest Waleran Bigod.  When the unlikely alliance between Bigod and William Hamleigh is forged readers sense that no good can possibly come of it.          

The characters aren't particularly complicated but they are clearly defined by their actions.  They're either GOOD or EVIL and there's no room here for shades of gray.  Frankly, this is a bit disappointing, particularly in the way William Hamleigh is depicted.  He's a sexual predator, a sadist, a borderline pedophile, a despot, a pervert, a coward, and a rank idiot.   And those are his good qualities.      

Frankly, if someone as cynical as me can still maintain that the worst rat bastard on the planet has at least a few redeeming qualities, I consider characterizations like this to be downright weak.  I hate it when fictional characters do bad things just because they're so darned EVIL.  William is so one-dimensional as a villain even Follett's own characters call him out, such as when Aliena observes: "He was so evil it was hard to believe".  Indeed.

If Follett had just bothered to give the creep just a few flourishes of humanity, he could have been a successful, living, breathing creation instead of what he is: a professional literary foil.  For example: he could have been reasonably charitable to his own peasant population if only for his own political longevity and monetary gain.  But, nooooo, when a famine hits he lets them starve and suffer en masse, randomly murders them and abducts their women.

Regardless of his unchecked power, I find it impossible to believe that someone so morally and mentally bankrupt could survive very long without getting a knife in his back or chowing down on a poisoned hambone.   After all, evil doesn't mean stupid.  It's almost as if Follett is frightened that we won't despise him if he's depicted doing a single good or sensible thing.

In fact, this attitude also infects the more promising foil of Alfred Builder, Tom's eldest son.  He works a bit better as an antagonist, if only because we get a chance to see a few sympathetic sides to him as a child.  Nevertheless, when Follett needs him to start piling on the nasty he de-evolves into the same sort of unconscionable ogre that William is.

Which brings me to another point of complaint: I'm sure that there was plenty of sexual victimization of women in the Middle Ages but I hate it when writers indiscriminately use this sort of thing as a shortcut.  In my humble opinion, it's extremely lazy.  It's almost as if the writers says "Okay, how can I get readers to instantly despise this male character and sympathize with this female character? Hmmmm, I know...I'll have the male character violently rape the female character in graphic detail!  Perfect!"    

No, not perfect.  It's insulting to men and degrading to women.  I'm not saying that scenes like this should never by depicted but the cavalier way it's thrown around in Pillars kinda pissed me off.

For all the book's abject cruelty, broad stroke characterizations and the dense presentation, Follett is still a very capable writer.  His clean, clear, succinct style is conducive to plowing through reams of the book in one sitting and readers can easily pick up the thread if it's put down for a spell.

My only real gripe is the way in which he artificially pads the story.  Follett is obsessed with creating a constant stream of brush fires for the characters to put out.  Most of these spring organically out of the story but quite a few seem to come out of left field.  Instead of being a natural extension of the narrative, quite a few of these complications seem to exist solely to exhibit just how just clever or devious his characters are, and subsequently, just how sharp the author is.

Here's the pattern: the antagonists cook up some sort of evil and artificially generated impediment for the heroes.  The protagonists debate the merits (either internally or amongst themselves) of several possible solutions but end up picking the most obvious option.  The villains nullify this with a counter move.  Our heroes come back with one of the less likely solves (or one that just miraculously materializes out of left field) and they temporarily win the point.  Then another wrinkle surfaces in the same old scenario somewhere down the road making it appear as if the good guys are still no further ahead.  Repeat ad nauseum.  Aleina's back and forth battle for economic independence is a prime example of this.

At just over eight-hundred pages you can imagine how this constant emotional roller coaster will occasionally leave readers shouting "Oh, come on, now!" in response to the latest amber alert.  Say what you want about this, it certainly keep you reading on.  Personally I could have done without all the stone cutting and engineering details but I also recognize that this generates realism and trots out evidence that Follett is well researched.  Plus I'm sure there's a whole contingent of readers out there that find such divergences fascinating.  I'm just not one of them.

Although the gratuitous descriptions of masonry might get threadbare after awhile, Follett is generally quite adept with evocative description.  Whether he's depicting a busy medieval market, refugees packed into castle's great hall, or a pitched battle between two massive opposing forces, his descriptions are economic, evocative and appropriately grungy.  Of particular note is the author's frank and sometimes blush-inspiring description of sexual encounters.  If anything it certainly shows that Follett's did his homework regarding the sexual mores of medieval women.  They weren't the chaste, virginal, hapless maids that the puritanical Victorian would have us believe.  In other words: beware prudes, there's a fair amount of consensual and non-consensual humpage going on in this book.  

So beyond my ample harvest of nits I have to admit that this story is actually pretty, um, epic.  We see the tale develop slowly over several generations, and frankly, considering just how long it took to build one of these architectural marvels, it really couldn't be any other way.  Clues and story tidbits planted at the beginning of the book (including Tom's abandoned child and a seemingly disconnected prologue) actually pay off in the end.

People also bitch about the contemporary and informal way in which the characters speak.  I can tell you right now: if all the characters were running around speaking like Thor in a Marvel comic book, this book would have been an unmitigated disaster.  Follett wisely has his characters talk to one another in a modern interpretation of their parlance. That's not to say that they all sound the same; it's quite the opposite.  Frankly as long as the characters have distinct voices I really don't need them talking to one another in Middle English.

Follett has also done just enough research to allow his tale to dovetail nicely with the historic mise-en-scene.  Although Kingsbridge is a tragically fictional setting, the way the story is influenced by real historic events makes up for it considerably.  Encounters with King Stephen, Henry the First and Thomas Becket are all expertly woven into the plot.  Also, the entire novel is rife with authentic minutia of day to day life in the Middle Ages, especially where it concerns the dark motivations of certain elements of the clergy and the ruling class.

Although I may bellyache about the incessant, almost humorous, parade of disasters the characters must deal with in drive the story forward, many of them are not only warranted but they're downright riveting.      
For example, it's not enough for Follett to deny the builders of Kingsbridge cathedral access to construction materials, they actually have their quarry taken away from them by force, which, in turn, inspires an equally daring liberation.

And this is ultimately why Pillars of the Earth is a successful read.  It's propulsive, it gives us likable protagonists who we went to see prosper, and villains that are fun to boo and hiss.  It's also not afraid to go medieval on the character's collective asses (pun intended) and subject them to the most gut-wrenching peril imaginable.

Despite all the cruelty on display in the book, the overall theme (as far as I can gather if there is one at all) is that even if your charitable deeds and moral stances go unnoticed at first, eventually the big karmic wheel of good fortune will spin in your favor.  Hold on to those convictions because eventually it'll pay out dividends and punish those who seek to poison the world with avarice and pain.

Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, it makes all the seemingly irrational misery and labor spent on constructing the Kingsbridge cathedral justified in some way.  And that is strangely comforting somehow.      

out of five.  Tilt: up.  

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