Steve's Reviews > The People's Act of Love

The People's Act of Love by James Meek
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Mar 05, 2010

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bookshelves: fiction
Read in March, 2006

I was a bit disappointed after finishing The People's Act of Love. Don't get me wrong, this is certainly a book worth reading. Meek knows his Russian Lit. In particular - Dostoevsky. Structurally the novel hurtles along (like all great Dostoevsky novels) from one revelation to another, with occasional stock gathering, as a character stops to offer up some existential musing or another. All the characters are Dostoevsky weird, and some of the dramatic set pieces are first rate. (My favorite moment was probably when we first meet the mad Czech Captain Matula, at a meal where cocaine, sex, and sable killing goes on. Whoa!) The demonic (and just as crazy) Samarin is also good character, but he would have been better with a few less speeches and his heart-of-gold moment. Balashov, the castrate, ditto. Less so is Anna Petrovna, the love interest for some of the men in this strange community. And so on. The echoes - for me - are clear, but they also seem studied. The novel does hold up well until about the last hundred pages or so, and then Meek lets his grip slip. The absurdist aspects of this story takeover (and yes, I know Karamozov was meant to be a comedy, but not a slapstick one), and characters flatten out, losing some of their depth. One character's batting of grenades, or Anna's conversation with a Cossack Communist at the end, illustrate this. I started out thinking The Devils, and ended up thinking Castle Keep. Both are good (well great and good), but the tone is different for each, with Dostoevsky always playing for the higher stakes. Why? There's a God in his universe. In The People's Act of Love, the universe is simply a place of growing extremes, which in the end devour themselves (though in the case of Samarin, Meek blinks. Dostoevsky certainly didn't with Stavrogin) . And that is the difference. Dostoevsky, however dark, has his center, Meek sees none, which is fine, but if you're going to play in Fedor's sand box, you can't be surprised when people see you've left out the sand. There are, as the character Lt. Mutz puts it, "inconsistancies" in this story.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Jim (new)

Jim Very nice, Steve!

Rachel oh, nice review -- I think you got it right.

Steve Rachel wrote: "oh, nice review -- I think you got it right."

Thank you, Rachel.

Alla Babushkina virdee Excellent review! I kept thinking while I was reading that there's a reason Dostoyevsky will be remembered and Meek won't. The characters themselves don't feel real because, as far as the author seems to be concerned, the ideology behind their extremism is a moot point, it's the extremism that is the point. That's very much the thesis of the book, driven even home even more clearly (as if we needed that!) when Samarin makes his request of Balashov. But by not engaging with the value of the ideology characters espouse, Meek ends up turning his characters into a farce. I couldn't help comparing this book to Orhan Pamuk's Snow, another Dostoyevskian look at religion, anarchism, and secularism; Pamuk's work is by far the superior, and I wonder if that's because he grew up in a country that's still trying to work out how beliefs and ideologies should operate in the public sphere. Meek's understanding of belief and extremism is just not on Pamuk's level, so his work falls way short of what it could have been. And it's sad because Meek is clearly an astute observer of human interactions: his portrayal of a (for all intents and purposes) divorced couple is among the best I've come across. Maybe in future he'll write about topics he's more familiar with. At the very least, if he wants to imitate a Russian writer, he should definitely stick with Tolstoy.

Steve Alla wrote: "Excellent review! I kept thinking while I was reading that there's a reason Dostoyevsky will be remembered and Meek won't. The characters themselves don't feel real because, as far as the author se..."

Thank you! I've not read Pamuk. I believe starting reading something by him, and I was told to start with another title. (Might have been Snow.) I'll have to look him up.

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