Friday, March 6, 2009

A Real Work of Literary Magic

9. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

"What kind of magic can make a nearly 800 page book seem too short?" USA Today claims on the back cover. Despite the fact that my version at least was over 1000 pages (in rather small print too), I would have to agree it was not long enough. I wish Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was the literally Never Ending Story.

Mr. Norrell is the first practical magician in York for nearly three hundred years. To guard his distinction, he swiftly and capably disbands the York Society of theoretical magicians in less than one hundred pages. I appreciate the time Clarke takes in the first couple hundred pages to slowly introduce and develop characters. Her style here reminded me strongly of Tolkien, in the best way. I know many people are not such avid fans of description, I have heard this section described as "boring." But, I promise, those are the same people who complain of Lord of the Rings. It all depends on what you value.

Jonathan Strange comes on the stage rather late, but he is well worth the wait. He is England's second practical magician, and he and Mr. Norrell strike up a surprising friendship. Mr. Norrell takes him on as a student, but it is obvious that their opposing viewpoints on certain key points of English magic will one day spark an estrangement.

Clarke creates a large world of the history of English magic, built around a central ancient figure, the Raven King. Her extensive footnotes on the subject are interesting, though unnecessary to the story. I found the background story of the Raven King interesting, but its resolution was, to me, rather irritating. The Raven King, is, let me be clear, essential to the novel as a whole, it is the stories of magic and other historical magicians that are not.

After the first section that I mentioned, Clarke spends regrettably less time in character development. She introduces quirky, intelligent minor characters that I never felt I quite got enough of. I would particularly like to note Clarke's neglect of the women in the book. There are hints that Mrs. Strange and Lady Pole have extensive, and probably illuminating, views on magic and related issues of the book, but there is very little from their point of view. I would happily read another 1000 pages from Arabella Strange's viewpoint

The other details I would like to complain of might be spoilers, but I'll try to keep it mysterious. I don't like the idea that Arabella is a "possession" of Mr. Strange. I understand that the book takes place in the nineteenth century, but it's an "unnatural" book in many ways and isn't Susanna Clarke a modern woman? I also think the fulfillment of prophecies is kitschy. I understand their place in a book of magic, but must absolute determinism be allowed? Another nineteenth-century themed flaw, I suppose.

What impresses and astounds and flabbergasts me most about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is Clarke's powerful weaving together of a nineteenth century style and a fantasy world. There has been nothing so quintessentially English, so unmistakably fantastic, and so bona fide literary since The Lord of the Rings. I hope this hearkens in a new age in which fantasy as a genre can finally be respected and treated as literature.

Fortunately, my obsession doesn't have to end here either: www.jonathanstrange.com


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