High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Wednesday, June 11, 2003


No, not mine on anyone (FOR THE MOMENT!), but the book (Revenge) by Stephen Fry. I've just finished reading it, and I'm a bit at a loss as to whether it was any good or not.

He is, I think, a brilliant comedian and a wonderful actor. The brilliance is frequently apparent in his writing. The Liar is hilarious and amazing. The Hippopotamus is original and completely over the top (although it took me two or three tries to finally get into reading it), and Making History was an excellent story, even though the concept was a bit tired. In his memoir, Moab is my Washpot, he talks about the process of writing and the pitfalls with which he struggles. It's like an architect walking you through a house and pointing out everything that doesn't quite work.

So what to say about Revenge? It has the same issue as MH in terms of being derivative --- it's essentially The Count of Monte Cristo. I've got no beef with that, really. Everything old is new again, and you can't beat Dumas for racy, sexy source material.

In terms of execution, it starts out exceptionally well. I'm a sucker for epistolary pastiche and the romantic leads are incredibly funny and the villain suitably sinister. At the same time, there's a perfectly believeable context in which they all interact and are required to interact, regardless of their fundamental incompatability. So it starts swimmingly with a great deal of humor, and the story quickly takes the hero to Hell in a handbasket. And it's a scary, believable hell.

So we've got the funny, we've got the broody, we've got the good segue into a thriller. We've even got pretty well-done build up of how our hero is going to get himself out of his situation and get with revenge wreaking already. But somehow, the resolution is full of enormous holes and is incredibly unsatisfying. So I was feeling a bit grumpy about it and let down.

But then the inevitable fan-wanking began. There's a great deal of emphasis placed on stolen youth, stolen family, and stolen history, which, realistically, is going to leave you a thundering looney. Thundering looniness does not, in general, suit one to escape from outrageous circumstances, rise to glory, and reclamation of all that should by rights belong to the hero (sorry, Alexandre). So how do the two ends of the story meet, then? How does an author fundamentally damage a character and still feature him in a thriller of this kind that ends up more or less where the reader expects it to?

I think Fry deliberately writes the last section of the book in fairly amateur style. The holes in the revenge plan are gaping and obvious to the reader, but not obvious to the broken hero who is still emotionally 17. He runs into a bit of "play within a play" trouble when he has to write the reaction of a chronological 17-year-old to the hero's revenge plot --- a section that seemed impossibly weak as I was reading it, but now I have to think that's an intentional distinction.

I'm not sure he pulled it off all that well. I don't think this will ever be my favorite of his novels, but I still think it's a clever device and a readable book.

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