Current/Recent Reading List

01 January 2008

Thoughts on Winter's Tale

"It might signify nothing, and be valuable solely in itself. A dream is not a tool for this world, but a gateway to the next. Take it for what it is."

"What am I supposed to do with it?"

"Nothing. It's like something beautiful. You don't have to do anything with it."

- from Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale

Yes, I'm a day late and a dollar short, but here we go:

Winter's Tale is, in short, about (not necessarily in any order) a man who disappears in a cloud wall and reappears a century later; a magical, heroic white horse; a child's resurrection; the quest for the perfectly just city; a plan to build a rainbow bridge to heaven; a man protected from harm by his dead wife; and the triumph of the sacrificial over the selfish. Oh, and that's not to mention a comically incompetent midget, a fairy tale village, a criminal's quest to build a room completely out of gold, or the fastest consummation of true love you'll ever read about.

This was the third novel of Mark Helprin's I've read in a year and a half, and though I haven't even read any of his short stories yet (he has three collections), it is fairly easy to discern patterns in his style, thought, and tenor. Most importantly - and this is a huge part of why I'm drawn to his work - Helprin is obviously a believer.

Let me parse that out a bit. I don't know anything too specific about Helprin's religious views, except that he is religious, at least in the broad sense. Winter's Tale includes many mystical episodes, and many third-person assertions about the truth of life, natural and supernatural, but I suspect any attempt to hash out a cogent theology from the novel would fail. Helprin is Jewish, but I don't know how devout. What I do know is that his books, while not religious screeds or devoid of the worst kinds of suffering, are animated by belief in life and love, in laughter, in beauty, and in an ultimate Good we can know, if ever so slightly.

This alone will place Winter's Tale in the minority when it comes to acclaimed contemporary novels. In fact, though it apparently almost won the NY Times' designation as "best novel of the last 25 years", it has had many detractors, most of whom, while not disputing that Helprin is supremely talented, point to its untenable (in their minds) story of redemption. Apparently, this reeks of naivity in these wise times of ours.

It may very well be that Winter's Tale, as well as most of Helprin's work, can only appeal to those of us naive enough to believe in happy endings (I hope not - I encourage everyone to try the books).

Then again, maybe one day the last shall be first, and the most appalling naivity will triumph as the highest wisdom. Oh, these happy endings may not necessarily occur on our time schedules (with our finite perceptions of time), but to paraphrase the narrator and some of the characters in the novel, justice works itself out, tomorrow or centuries from now, or in another place.

I'm one of those who are betting on it. But then, I'm one of those who has a taste for reading Mark Helprin.

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