Monday, September 24, 2007

But What About Me?

I'm a little out of the loop, so I just found out that Robert Jordan died, leaving his interminable monumental Wheel of Time series unfinished.

I am, of course, very sorry that Jordan died at such a young age, after suffering a long, debilitating illness. But frankly I'm also mad that after the approximately 10,000 pages I've invested in this saga so far, I may never know what's supposed to happen to Rand al'Thor, Matt Cauthon, Perrin Aybara, and the rest.

It's some comfort to know that Jordan was working on the last volume and confided the major plot points to his family before he died. I suppose that somebody at some point will produce the final book to give his fans the illusion of closure. But the problem with books finished by people who are not the original authors is that, even if they are fine books in their own right, they are inevitably not the same book the author would have produced. For example, Jane Austen's Sanditon, completed by Another Lady, turns Austen's gentle humor into broad satire. Cherry Wilder's The Wanderer, finished by Katya Reiman, captures Wilder's style admirably, but is shamefully devoid of plot resolution. So while the book that gets published as The Memory of Light will be an ending, it won't be the ending.

I have very mixed feelings about the Wheel of Time as a whole. For years I had seen the books on the shelves without feeling any particular desire to buy one. Then one day my father, as is his wont, picked up one of them as well as one book by David Eddings (which, ditto) for a quarter each at the local library's deacquisition table. I read maybe a chapter of the Eddings and threw it aside (flat dialog, insufferable characters). I started the Jordan (it happened to be the third in the series, The Dragon Reborn) with no greater expectations, but I soon found myself caught up in it. Rand's journey toward the Stone of Tear and the ambiguity of its outcome -- would he take up the sword? would that be a good thing or a bad thing? -- was suspenseful and captivating. I wanted to know more about Rand and the rest of the Two Rivers gang, and I plowed my way through the rest of the extant series (I think they had been published up to #9, Winter's Heart) over one long summer.

Despite justified accusations of being too derivative (his first book, The Eye of the World, steals whole cloth from Tolkien; his Aiel are C. J. Cherryh's mri to the life), Jordan had a definite storytelling gift. The first five or so books are as entertaining and engaging as any series I've ever read. I liked the ties among the six young heroes. I sympathized with Rand's reluctance to accept his deadly gifts, as well as Perrin's denial of the abilities that would mark him as a freak and an outcast. I found the relationship between Nynaeve and Lan touching and romantic. I liked the epic scope of the action, with travels to all points of the wide continent.

But along about book six the series begins to drag . . . and drag . . . and drag . . . . If I'm not mistaken, that must be the point at which Jordan became a huge international best-seller and decided to ride the gravy train as long as he could. So our heroes find the Bowl of the Winds, then it takes them two more books to use it. They keep having the same conversation about the game that can't be won unless you cheat without putting it together with what they know about the Aelfinn and the Eelfinn, much less applying it to what happened to Moiraine. Plot points are telegraphed so far in advance that when they finally happen there's less of an "aha!" and more of a "finally!" The viewpoint characters have multiplied while the secondary and tertiary characters have proliferated like tribbles in a bin full of quadrotriticale.

And that's not even to mention some of Jordan's writing tics that become more and more annoying the longer the series has continued. The way all women express disapproval by sniffing and clutching their skirts. The way men and women universally regard each other as different species, frequently starting sentences with "Women always" and "Men never." The way we get a complete description of every outfit worn by every character in almost every scene. The way that silk is supposed to be a rare and expensive luxury, yet everyone is swathed in it from head to toe. The way the whole continent is supposed to be torn apart by unnatural weather, invasion, monsters, and civil war, yet there's no famine or disease. The way that, beyond a few vague references to prayers and characters exclaiming "By the Light!", there's no religious structure or theology. The way no character except Perrin ever exhibits the slightest self-knowledge. And so on.

Yet I've stuck with this series until now, way past the point where most people I know have given up, because I was taken with the power of Jordan's original idea and I want to see how it comes out. I want to know that the many hours, days, weeks of my life I have devoted to this project have been, in the end, well spent. And now, I won't ever have that satisfaction.

I'm sorry you're gone, Robert Jordan. But I may never forgive you for writing that prequel instead of finishing the job at hand.

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