The two novels I enjoyed the most this year were both sprawling novels that attempted to encapsulate an entire time and place: In The First Circle and Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Both of these novels made me wonder, at first, if they were going to be worth it. In The First Circle has a meandering central storyline, involving a telephone scrambling apparatus and the KGB’s attempt to ferrett out a mole in late 1940s Soviet Russia, that doesn’t seems like a very by-the-numbers thriller plot. It keeps you reading, but you don’t necessarily enjoy it or feel invested in it. And I was also a little wary of the setting: a very claustrophobic gulag on the outskirts of Moscow where imprisoned technicians, scientists, and engineers are forced to work on technological innovations.
But the book is so grand and so far-reaching that it’s impossible not to be charmed! There are even five chapters from the viewpoint of Stalin himself. It goes in and out, dipping into the minds of dozens of characters, and giving you a very nuanced view of this world. It’s the most congenial of the Soviet prisons, and there’s some amount of hope and humanity here, but the mechanization of life–the totalitarian apparatus–renders the good life impossible, despite all of the inmates’ attempts to achieve it.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms, too, seemed very meandering, and part of me kept wondering when it was going to rise above what it was.The book is a chronicle of the Three Kingdoms period, when different states vied for supremacy after the breakup of the Han Dynasty in China. And I kept wondering when it would stop being a chronicle of events and start being about something human.
But then I noticed that the human element was there all along, it’s just stated so baldly that you don’t notice it. For instance, the hero of the book is Liu Pei, who heads what the author obviously considers to be the most moral of the successor kingdoms. But he is so ramshackle! He’s constantly being defeated. He’s constantly being forced out of this city or that! And when he finally does found his kingdom, he does it through incredible chicanery, by, basically, scheming against its rightful king!
And on the other side, Tsao Tsao is the epitome of dishonesty and terrible dealing, but there’s also something very charming about him. You like to see him move and maneuver. He’s a wonderful anti-hero.
There’s lots of life here, but it’s life as revealed through events. Very little editorializing. Very few character moments. Just what did people do, when. And if you stick with it for long enough, then you’ll see that that’s ultimately enough to tell a pretty good story.
The third book I will talk about is George Gissing’s New Grub Street. It’s when realism finally met Victorian England (although by now it might be Edwardian…I’m not very good at the periods). And it’s awesome! It starts out like many a romantic novel (it reminded me a lot of Trollope, actually), with a starving artist who’s desperate to marry for love. But then…all the Romantic stuff doesn’t happen. Instead, things get real. I feel as though realism never took the strong hold in Britain that it did in America and France, so that even Britain’s modernist texts are more flavored with the romantic than they are either here or in France. Thus it’s really interesting to look at this book and see how things could have gone.