Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

Winter's Tale by Mark HelprinWinter’s Tale is ambitious and lyrical and moving. It’s also confusing and confused and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it.

First of all if you’ve seen the movie, do your best to delete those memory files from your cortex. There are so many things in that movie that are just plain stupid.

Winter’s Tale is about Peter Lake, at first. He’s sort of like Moses, at least his parents abandoned him in a little boat on the coast of New York and he was raised by the people who found him. That’s about as normal as things ever get in this book. He befriends a horse that is actually some kind of magical godlike being that runs at supersonic speeds and leaps whole city blocks — all without the acceleration of such a jump having any debilitating or unsettling effects on his riders. It’s also about love that’s so powerful that it can stand the test of centuries — even when it is based on only minutes of acquaintance. It is about Justice and crime and Winter.

The New York of this book is not the same New York as in our world. This one has mystical ties at it’s very heart and is a magical city in every sense of the word. There are time traveling mists and immortal bridge builders. There are magical hidden lakes and idyllic newspaper employers. There are honest politicians and bumbling idiots that take the bumbling and the idiocy to such an extreme that it’s hard to take the book seriously except that it takes itself seriously. When Helprin tells us that the winter is so cold that it has frozen the moonbeams in the air it’s not clear if that is intended to be literal or not.

That brings me to the prose. Helprin writes prose like poetry. Everything has a rhythm and a flow to it that evokes part of the mystical feel of this book. Metaphors and poetic phrases litter the book throughout so that a lesser writer would have sounded purple or like simply trying too hard. Helprin somehow makes it feel like part of the world. Like New York could not be described accurately in any other way. Like these people could not be summarized with mundane words or less poetic phrases.

It’s an interesting place to be and I found myself constantly cocking my head in curiosity. I frequently said, “Wow, how did he pull that off without sounding like an idiot?” And he did. He pulled it off every time. Even when he is describing people and actions that are so preposterous that they belong better in a Douglas Adams comedy he makes it completely serious and I believe.

His praiseworthy traits are also his downfall, however. This book is both magical and mundane, lyrical and broken. It is filled with characters that are powerfully realized who fall into standard cliches. It is riddled with nonsense taken seriously and realities parodied. There are mysteries in heaven and in earth but they are never brought to light, nor are they dwelt on for long.

Helprin has grand mysterious passages about the stars moving and casting about like a great beast that sound both magical and fascinating but he never explains what they are about.

The story is inconsistent as well as Helprin spends hundreds of pages on mundane explanations of rivalries between news companies that garner little meaning to the rest of the story. He abandons characters after hundreds of pages to introduce new ones for hundreds of pages. There is no explanation about some of the things being done and there are many details that are discoursed on — in very lyrical and musical prose — for pages and pages that never come up again.

Like I said. This book is both confusing and confused and doesn’t really know where it’s going. It’s a fun ride, though, and it’s easy to get swept up in the words and let them just carry you along as you flow gently with their smooth and comforting stream. Eventually you find you are in a flowing loop and you haven’t really gone anywhere but those warm and comforting words will keep you floating until you pull yourself away, gasping for air and wondering how you got under the water when you spent so much time floating on top of it.

Helprin is a great writer but I remain unconvinced of his ability to tell a story. I’m not entirely sure that I read Winter’s Tale so much as Winter’s Poetic Discourse on Random Thoughts.

Read if you’re curious, otherwise, eh.

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