Finally, finally, finally, I finished Devices and Desires. This book easily took 3 weeks too long to read. It isn’t entirely without merit, but I hadFinally, finally, finally, I finished Devices and Desires. This book easily took 3 weeks too long to read. It isn’t entirely without merit, but I had to force myself, out of guilt over the 12 bucks I spent to buy it. It’s a very different kind of fantasy novel, in some ways closer to historical fiction than fantasy, but still definitively in its own world. The world lacks magic or monsters, but maintains the typical medieval fright over what horrors, real or imagined, could be lurking in foreign nations. However, the biggest difference is the focus of the novel. Despite a large battle (plagiarized almost word for word from the assault on Helm’s Deep,) the novel remains definitively about the men in political power, not military maneuvers. This creates a very different kind of atmosphere, and Parker must be commended for this, if for nothing else.
There are a few things that Parker does well. She (He?) manages to give very real problems to the people in power. They are not heroes, and are all quick recognize their own humanity. An extreme lack of self-confidence stops them all in their tracks. They are able to view the world very realistically, but never seem to have it all figured out. Perhaps her best talent is Parker’s ability to make it clear that there is no antagonist, just individuals on different sides of the battlefield.
The downside to this is, of course, that almost every character is the same. No one has any confidence, except a single man, Vaatzes, who can be discussed later. While perhaps more realistic, a novel without a hero is just boring. Most of the protagonists sit around bemoaning their lack of governance skills, wishing they could pass off their duties to another. They are carbon copies of each other, each equally self-deprecating and absolutely drowning in their own mediocrity. Booooring.
Plotholes, which are not uncommon amongst even the best literature, are here numerous enough to need a calculator to add up, and large enough to drive small vans through. As I mentioned, the final battle sequence is lifted straight from Helm’s Deep, and partly from the Trojan War. Unfortunately, Parker got them both wrong. The specifics of the assault could have been written by a preteen. In a world where war seems to be almost a daily occurrence due to the constantly shifting balances of power (something Parker got right,) I am utterly unconvinced that any soldier could be as scared and pathetic as they seem to be. I cannot believe that any commander would be stupid enough to even attempt the preschool tactics used here. Mostly, it is ludicrous to believe than even a single commander would fall for the ridiculous and useless feints and deceptions practiced on both sides. The whole thing is a tactical impossibility. I know, Devices and Desires isn’t about the battle, it’s about the people. Regardless, these problems detract tremendously from the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief.
There are a host of other problems, most of them similar. Vaatzes complains about the horrible mechanical conditions of his new home, and is still able to somehow perform his craft at a super-human rate. No one seems to sleep in any definable pattern. The massive amount of foreshadowing concerning the numerous ladies in read all comes to absolutely nothing. I’m sorry Parker, but it’s a waste of my time. My biggest problem is more basic than all these. In short, I just don’t care. So what, some engineer creates a war to return home. Big whoop. The reader is never given a single reason to prefer any character over any other. I am utterly unmoved by the number of fictional citizens slaughtered. An author cannot expect the reader to care. The author must make us care. The impetus is on you, Parker, to take my interest. The impetus is not on me to grasp an unnatural hold. These men hardly care about their own lives. Why should I?
This is not even necessarily an in-book problem. What I am least convinced about it why Vaatzes starts a war. Just so he can get back home? No, I don’t see how that is possible yet, but I suppose there are two more books in the trilogy. I mean something larger than that. There is not a single reason to believe he cares about returning to his family. So he wrote his wife some bad poetry. I wrote my girlfriend some bad poetry in the 8th grade, and I didn’t feel that war was necessary to win her back again. Why does he care so much? Devices and Desires remains silent. Further, Vaatzes is written as a mastermind, a genius capable of any feat of charisma to get what he wants. Well, I’ve got some news for you. He’s not charismatic. He’s a boor. He’s not romantic. He’s a boor. He’s never even once shown to be planning any of this big hoohah. He’s, you guessed it, a boor. The problems in this novel are solved through coincidences too Deus ex Machina to even care about. Any credit given to Vaatzes for being a social engineer is misplaced.
It might not be without its high points, but Devices and Desires was a waste of my time. I don’t see myself finishing the trilogy without being stranded on a desert island with a copy of it. The leisurely pace is not a result of Parker’s ability as a writer. It is because the novel is bogged down in technical terms that don’t enhance even the atmosphere of the novel, much less character development (or even characterization, for that matter.) The slow pace is a result of the clunky writing, boring characters and a completely bogus plot line. I’m so glad I finally finished it; now, I can move on with my life. From here, I’m praying to God it can only go up. ...more
**spoiler alert** I heard about Dead Souls like it was a dirty secret. Just a passing mention here or there of this great mystery from a man I had nev**spoiler alert** I heard about Dead Souls like it was a dirty secret. Just a passing mention here or there of this great mystery from a man I had never otherwise heard of. So, after a little scrounging at my library I was able to dig up an old and horrendously beat up copy of Gogol’s masterpiece. To begin, let me say that my knowledge of Russian literature is terribly small and ill-informed. Even a very few books, however, will reveal a number of themes running through 19th Century literature, themes that Dead Souls is centered around.
First, the disconnect between appearances and reality plays a major role in the tragicomedy of Pavel Chichikov. “Our hero” as Gogol affectionately refers to him as, is a mysterious man of wealth, with an abounding charisma and social appeal; a 19th Century Russian Austin Powers, if you will. His unexplainable quest to buy up the souls of dead serfs casts a shadow on his personality, eventually spreading like wildfire through the town of N. He is cast out, out of fear. Although the novel is a comedy, not even the reader is immune to the worries of the townspeople. Just who is this Chichikov, and what is he doing with all these dead souls? How are we to bridge the gap between his position as a social leader and this darker side?
Another main theme, again shared by most novels of the same time, is the satire of the upper class. They are greedy, some of them preferring to live in squalor in order to keep their serfs, like Plyushkin. Others sell their dead serfs as if they were gold nuggets, like Sobakevich. Others are shown to be both more reasonable and more gullible at the same time. Manilov is happy to give his serfs away, asking for nothing in return. Although he does this selfishly, to avoid paying an unnecessary tax, he also exhibits a tremendous foolishness by trusting Chichikov’s words so quickly. The party back town is equally foolish. The circle of the Chief of Police and the Commissioner, etc. was reminiscent of (although technically the grandfather of) the story “A Circle of Friends.” I’m afraid I cannot remember the author, but the short story is a wonderful satire of Stalin and his cabinet of bumbling fools. Like other important members of the upper class, this political circle seems to spend all their time throwing lavish parties and heaping praises upon Chichikov – until, of course, they all suspect him of being the devil in disguise or worse – Napoleon. Their greed, waste, opulence, and self-importance is hilarious and pathetic.
There are a number of other things that make Dead Souls so similar to other works of 19th Century Russian literature. Their hatred of the French, but decision to use the French language in polite society is mocked. Little actions and unimportant details seem to occupy the time and minds of most characters. Pages are spent on why this type of nose means this, on the significance of scratching the nape of one’s neck. Gogol, like Turgenev and even sometimes like Tolstoy, are nearly Flanner O’Conner-esque in the constant, mystical importance of the mundane. Similarly, the rejection of the Roman Church is constantly undermined by the French language, and the large number of bourgeoisie with aquiline noses.
Yet, for all this, for all the beautiful language of Gogol and his wonderful plot line, I found Dead Souls an underwhelming read. I was up all last night, thinking about it, trying to determine why I can’t feel as strongly about Dead Souls as I do about Fathers and Sons, etc. I believe there are a few answers.
First, I’m not sure that Dead Souls covers a lot of new ground. Like I said at the beginning, I’m about as far away from a Russian scholar as I can be without being a plant. Still, I’m not sure Gogol tackles these themes any better than the rest. He is certainly not worse, but still in the middle of the pack. I hate to compare anything to 19th Century English lit, because I hate it. I hate Jane Eyre and that nonsense with a passion. I want to burn Pride and Prejudice to the ground. Frankenstein is incredible, but the Bronte clan make me want to jump out a window. Still, a similar formula is being used in both nations. The class struggles are not as important in Russia, as roles are more clearly defined, but the satire and the businessmen and the parties… it’s merely not my cup of tea.
As I write, I realize that my real reason for not connecting with Gogol’s work is because it was not what I expected. The idea of buying dead souls is such a great one. The concept is genius, and Chichikov is the perfect man to do it. It just doesn’t get the attention it deserves, I believe. So many wonderful things could have been done with that, and I feel like Gogol did not push the idea as far as he should have. I wish the idea would have remained ambiguous. Chichikov seems so mysterious and dangerous as a soul-buyer; perhaps he really is the devil! Honestly though, until the final movement of the book, I expected Chichikov to be an angel. This charismatic man, roaming the land to save the landowners from the dangers and unfairness of the Russian tax code, taking away souls unassumingly, quietly changing the landscape of Russia. To find that Chichikov is nothing more than a swindler was a shock, of course, but not one that pushed the limits at all. Gogol removed the mysterious, the ambiguity, the danger of not knowing, and did not replace it adequately.
Foolishly, I must admit that another problem I had is of no fault but my own. I had no idea that Dead Souls was an unfinished work. Perhaps Chichikov would become a hero eventually, but that did not happen in the 300 pages we still have today. Although the story did end in a somewhat appropriate place (imagine the Iliad – strong enough to stand on its own, even though the story is far from over,) much more of Chichikov’s journey would be necessary to resolve the unresolved love story and put some of my concerns to rest.
A lover of Russian literature cannot miss Dead Souls, for its cultural and literary significance. Taken merely as a novel though, I’m not sure how much I like it yet. I feel like I missed something. Not that good feeling that you get at the end of a Flannery O’Conner story where you don’t understand the significance, but the bad feeling, like there was some basic fact that I’m missing, some cornerstone that is keeping me from really understanding Dead Souls. As a 19th Century novel, it is a genre piece, but I have trouble seeing it as more than that. I hope that some day in the future, I can return to Dead Souls with a more open mind and experienced heart, and will see why Dead Souls is so important. ...more