Back in 1988, Tad Williams published the first book of the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, which inspired George R.R. Martin to start writing A Song of Ice and Fire. Now, more than twenty years after publishing the last installment (and just as the new season of Game of Thrones begins), Williams announced that he’s writing a sequel, The Last King of Osten Ard. You could also read our own Janet Potter’s review of the first Game of Thrones book.
From October of 2008 to May of this year, America’s Greatest Self-Published Novelist was a guy from New Jersey named Sergio De La Pava. Clearly, this was a title that begged certain questions — sort of like being America’s Best Left-Handed Barber, or America’s Funniest Nun. Nor was De La Pava’s claim to it undisputed; in terms of sales velocity, Amanda Hocking and E.L. James would have blown him out of the ring, and C.D. Payne (Youth in Revolt) and Hilary Thayer Hamann (Anthropology of an American Girl) had racked up strong reviews well before Hollywood and Random House (respectively) came calling. But what Hocking and James were selling was fantasy of one kind or another, and even Payne and Hamman kept one foot in the junior division. The main event — at least as De La Pava saw it — was several weight classes up, where Dostoevsky and Melville and Woolf had battled penury and anonymity and madness to make literature that might endure. And with the great Helen DeWitt in transit from Talk Miramax to New Directions and Evan Dara’s Aurora Publishers falling into a gray area, De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was left more or less in a category by itself: a 690-page XLibris paperback that could withstand comparison with the classics.
I first heard about the book in the summer of 2009, in an email from one Susanna De La Pava, of Amante Press. She’d read something I’d written about Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men; if I liked “both underdogs and meganovels,” she suggested, I might want to check out A Naked Singularity: “a debut work of literary fiction that combines fascinating and complex themes of morality, crime and theoretical physics.” The pitch was unusually thoughtful, but its failure to mention the book’s author seemed odd, and Amante Press wasn’t ringing any bells. When a web search for “naked singularity amante” turned up a coincidence between the author’s last name and my correspondent’s, I thought, A-ha! A vanity project! Did I want to “add it to [my] reading pile?” No offense, but Jesus, no!
If this sounds discriminatory, the fact of the matter is that every reader is. Our reading lives, like our lives more generally, are short. With any luck, I’ve got enough time left between now and whenever I die to read or reread a couple thousand books, and only rough indicators to help me sort through the millions of contenders. I may be breaking a critical taboo here, but the colophon on the spine is one of those indicators. The involvement of a commercial publisher in no way guarantees that a given book isn’t atrocious; I’d be safer just sticking with…well, with Melville and Dostoevsky and Woolf. Over time, though, a given imprint amasses a kind of batting average based on its degree of overlap with one’s tastes. (My Benito Cereno and Mrs. Dalloway might be your The Hunger Games and A Game of Thrones, but that’s an exercise of taste, too — one the folks at Scholastic and Bantam are happy to facilitate.) More importantly, the layers of editorial oversight at these imprints help to filter out hundreds of thousands of manuscripts that aren’t likely to overlap with much of anyone’s taste. To open my reading queue to pay-to-publish outfits like iUniverse or Trafford Publishing — to be forced to consider (and here I’m just plucking titles at random from a recent iUniverse/Trafford Publishing ad in The New York Review of Books) Cheryl’s Kidnapping and Her Odyssey, or Breath of Life: The Life of a Volunteer Firefighter, or Letters to the Editor That Were Never Published (And Some Other Stuff) — that way lies madness.
Then again, to cling to a prejudice against mounting evidence is its own kind of madness. Some time after Susanna De La Pava’s email had disappeared into the bottom of my inbox, I came across a review of A Naked Singularity by Scott Bryan Wilson at The Quarterly Conversation. “It’s very good — one of the best and most original novels of the decade,” was the leading claim. This in turn sent me back to a piece by Steve Donoghue at Open Letters Monthly, which I vaguely remembered Ms. (Mrs.?) De La Pava linking to in her email. “A masterpiece,” Donoghue declared.
These raves got my attention, because The Quarterly Conversation and Open Letters Monthly are venues I’ve written for, and that cover the kind of books I tend to like. It’s worth noting that both (like The Millions), started out themselves as, essentially, self-publishing projects; maybe this is what freed them to devote resources of time and attention to A Naked Singularity back when when Publishers Weekly and Slate wouldn’t. Over the years, by exercising a consistent degree of quality control, each had amassed credibility with its audience, and this is exactly what the business models of Xlibris and iUniverse prevents them from doing; neither has an incentive to say “No” to bad writing. To, in other words, discriminate.
So anyway, I exhumed Ms. De La Pava’s email and asked her, with apologies, to please send over a copy of A Naked Singularity. It was time to apply the first-paragraph test. Here’s what I found:
Hmm. Maybe it was time to apply the second paragraph test.
My getting out or what?!
Okay. Paragraph three. Here goes:
Eleven hours and Thirty-Three minutes since meridian said the clock perched high atop a ledge on the wall and positioned to look down on us all meaning we were well into hour seven of this particular battle between Good and Evil, and oh yeah, that was Good taking a terrific beating with the poultry-shaped ref looking intently at its eyes and asking if it wanted to continue. We were what passed for Good there: the three of us an anyone we stood beside when we rose to speak for the mute in that decaying room (100 Centre Street’s AR-3); and in that place, at that moment, Evil had us surrounded.
There were things here that excited me, from that plucked chicken of a referee to the Sunday-matinee rhythms of the closing lines. I also thought I detected, however, a dose of self-indulgence. (Why not just, “It was 11:33?”). I read on, through a digression on the Miranda Rights, and then 40 pages of dialogue between night-court defendants and their lawyers. Both were good, as these things went — edifying, amusing, and reasonably taut — but I still couldn’t figure it out: aside from demonstrating how smart the author was, where was this going? And here’s the second place where the imprimatur of a commercial press, and all that goes with it, might have made a difference. Had there been some larger cultural pressure assuring me my patience would be rewarded, I would have kept going. As it was, I abandoned the book on my nightstand.
It would likely still be lying there, had I not gotten wind last fall that A Naked Singularity was about to be reissued by the University of Chicago Press. At this point, the story around this novel seemed too interesting for me not to give the story inside it another try. Or, to put it another way, the constellation of extraliterary signals was shining brightly enough to propel me past those first 40 pages, and then another increasingly engaging 100. I devoured what remained in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, 2011.
And it’s a funny thing about those extraliterary signals — superficial, prejudicial, suspect, but also a natural part of the reading experience. Up to a certain point, they’re unavoidable, but beyond that, the accumulated effect of sentences and paragraphs starts to outweigh them. In this case, I won’t say that certain caprices of De La Pava’s prose (not to mention all those missing commas), faded into invisibility. On the whole, though, a good big novel lives or dies at a level far removed from considerations of teachable “craft” — the level Henry James and Michel Houellebecq gesture toward when they speak, in different contexts, of “intensity.” (i.e., as James’ preface to The Ambassadors puts it, “The grace to which the enlightened story-teller will at any time, for his interest, sacrifice if need be all other graces.”) And at that level, A Naked Singularity is, if not a masterpiece, then certainly a roaring success. To call it Crime & Punishment as reimagined by the Coen Brothers would be accurate, but reductive. Better just to call it the most imaginative and exciting and funky and galactically ambitious first novel to come down the pike in I don’t know how long. And if a book this good was consigned to XLibris, it meant one (or more) of three things. 1) Literary trade publishing was more gravely ill than I’d imagined; 2) My judgment was way off-base (always a possibility), or 3) There was some piece of this story I was still missing. The simplest way to find out was to go and talk to the author in person. I emailed Susanna, who presumably talked to Sergio — unless she was Sergio? — and by the end of January he and I had a date to meet at the most nouveau of nouveau Brooklyn’s coffeehouses.
This latter may have been a perversity on my part. On the jacket of the handsome new trade paperback of A Naked Singularity, the author bio reads, in its entirety, “Sergio De La Pava is a writer who does not live in Brooklyn.” In fact, as of January, most of the details of De La Pava’s personal life — age, occupation, place of residence, education — remained shrouded in near-Pynchonian occlusion. A Google Images search yielded exactly two results: one a blurry black-and-white mugshot from the comically low-fi website anakedsingularity.com, the other a sawed-in-half portrait posted alongside an interview in the fantastic Mexican literary journal Hermanocerdo. They might have been two different people; the only common features seemed to be curly hair and an intensity of gaze. As I rode to meet De La Pava, I wondered: what if the reason it had taken him so long to sell his book had to do with the author himself? What if De La Pava never wanted to be published commercially? Or what if he’d sold his book in 2007, but then refused to be edited? What if he’d emailed his manuscript in Zapf Dingbats font? Or forgotten to attach the attachment? Or what if — I speculated, as the man across from me on the subway struck up a conversation with voices only he could hear — De La Pava was certifiably crazy?
When I finally reached our rendezvous point, though, I found Sergio De La Pava as sane as any serious writer can be said to be: a small man in glasses and an off-the-rack suit, waiting patiently by the counter. About the only thing I recognized from his photographs were the corkscrew curls, now longer and slightly disarranged, as if he’d rushed over from somewhere important.
As it turned out, he had. He was coming, he told me, from his job as a public defender in Manhattan. His wife (Susanna!) also works a public defender. Later, they would both return home to New Jersey, where they lead an unexceptional suburban existence with their kids. As for the biographical cloak-and-dagger, the third-party emails, etc., De La Pava suggested several explanations. One was an old-fashioned sense that biography is irrelevant to the work of art — that the artist is, as a character in William Gaddis’ The Recognitions famously says, “just the human shambles that follows it around.” But a more practical consideration is that De La Pava’s dayjob brings him into regular contact with criminals. “My life is probably different than the lives a lot of readers of novels are familiar with,” he said. People in his line of work tend to be tight-lipped about their personal lives and daily routines, because otherwise “someone might put a bullet in someone’s head.”
This was, it turned out, a typically De La Pavan way of attacking a question. For someone so reticent with the public, he talks abundantly and well, his thoughts tending to organize themselves into fluid, almost lawyerly paragraphs of narrative and argument, with these little hard-boiled explosions at the climax. This is also, not incidentally, one way of describing the voice of Casi, the hypercaffeinated first-person protagonist of A Naked Singularity. As the interview went on, I came to see the riven idiom of both author and hero — on the one hand, leisurely abstraction; on the other, urgent volubility — as matters not just of style, but also of psyche.
Like Casi, De La Pava grew up in New Jersey, the child of Colombian immigrants. The basic happiness of his upbringing — home-cooked empanadas and “school clothes warmed on the radiator” — suffuses the scenes of immigrant life that recur throughout A Naked Singularity and help humanize our hero. But it also seems to have been, like most childhoods, one shaped by conflict. On the most obvious level, there was the jostle of languages — his parents’ native Spanish, the English of which De La Pava is something of a connoisseur. (At one point in our conversation, he would spend five minutes critiquing Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude).
Then, too, there was the drama of the dreamy child in the striving household. From an early age, De La Pava was attracted to the logical harmonies of various intellectual systems — theology, physics, classical music, math. “My earliest memories are of philosophical problems,” he told me, utterly in earnest. Reading the great philosophers was like “being welcomed into a community of like-minded individuals.” Later, at Rutgers, he would pursue philosophy more seriously, specializing in modal realism — the study of the coexistence of multiple possible worlds. But as a teenager, De La Pava was also into heavy metal. And his was a boxing household, where watching the fights was a sacrosanct activity. “Boxing, that’s my fucking religion,” he says.
His adult life has in some sense been an effort to synthesize these hot and cool impulses — the adversarial and the communal, the sweetness and the science, Yngwie Malmsteen and Rene Descartes. One socially acceptable outlet for both aggression and ratiocination was a law career. And although one of the first things a reader notices in A Naked Singularity is its anger at the Kafkanly facacta state of the criminal justice system, De La Pava remains in love with his chosen profession. In the abstract, “the law is so strikingly beautiful and logical,” he says, as opposed to “the faulty process of human beings…I feel annoyed for some reason when the criminal justice system fucks up, because I feel a great attachment to it.”
Still, De La Pava always thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. “I find myself constantly making up little stories in my head,” he said at one point, nodding across the coffeehouse. “Like if this woman making the phone call fell down right now, what would happen?”
Until then, he had been addressing me heads-up, as if I were a jury he was attempting to sway. As our talk turned to writing and literature, though, he began to look down and inward, a boxer tucking into a crouch. “I’m not that well-read,” was the first thing he said on the subject of influence. When I suggested that his conspicuous engagement with two broad novelistic traditions — the philosophical novel and the novel of erudition — seemed to contradict him, he amended the claim: He’s not that well-read in contemporary fiction. “I have old-fashioned taste.”
Reviews of A Naked Singularity have tended to name-check the white male postmodernists who are its immediate forerunners – Gaddis, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace — but De La Pava’s reading in the po-mo canon has been unsystematic. The Gaddis book he knows best is A Frolic of His Own, a late work centered around the law. Despite an apparent nod in his novel, he has not read Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Of Wallace, he will cop only to having read “all the nonfiction.” Unusually, for a novelist of his generation, De La Pava came to these writers through their own forerunners: the great 19th-century Russians, especially Dostoevsky, and Moby-Dick. This perhaps accounts for the mile-wide streak of unironic moralism that holds together the book’s formally disparate pieces. He does say, however, that Gravity’s Rainbow “turned me on to the possibilities of fiction.”
In his teens and early 20s, he produced some fiction that was “pretty terrible” at the level of skill, but ambitious at the level of content. He was determined to avoid the school of autobiographical offspring-of-immigrants writing he calls “Bodega Heights,” and to pursue instead those “possibilities.” One way his decision to work as a public defender instead of a corporate lawyer paid off, then, is simply that the hours were shorter. “I used to have a lot of free time to write,” he told me. The other is that it gave him something most young writers hunger for: a subject larger than himself to write about. In this case, it was the system Michelle Alexander has memorably called The New Jim Crow — a self-perpetuating prison archipelago populated by low-level offenders, disproportionately poor, disproportionately of color. Justice, in all its manifold forms, had been one of Dostoevsky’s great themes, and now it would be De La Pava’s. And that center of gravity began to pull the variegated worlds De La Pava had spent his youth exploring — vibrantly Spanglished New Jersey suburbs, crappily furnished starter apartments in Brooklyn, airy philosophical castles — into something “nebulous and dreamlike”: a vision of a novel.
“When I write, I almost begin with the end product,” De La Pava explained to me, as we started in on our second coffee. Midway through the first cup, he had begun to tug on the ends of those corkscrews of hair, and now he was working them furiously. “It’s similar to the way you try a case: you think of the summation first.” And what was that summation, with A Naked Singularity? Quickly, almost unthinkingly, he flattened out the rolled New Yorker he’d been carrying and began to doodle something with pen in the margins. He was talking now about the structure of Beethoven’s Ninth, but I was distracted by the peculiarly entropic energy of what he was drawing. Or whatever is the opposite of entropic. It was a single line, like an EKG or a lie-detector test, swinging above and below the baseline with swoops that grew smaller and tighter as X approached infinity. Finally, the line ended at an emphatic black dot. A singularity. “I wanted to take all this stuff and put it in in a way that would at first feel chaotic. I was interested in the question: at what point does something become a novel?”
This effect of dissonance and resolution is, in fact, exactly what had thrown me about the first 40 pages of A Naked Singularity, without my having a sufficient sample of the book to see it whole. Which means, among other things, that A Naked Singularity managed to stay true to a formal vision that is the inverse of most first novels’ (start with something singular; degenerate into randomness as ideas run out). De La Pava’s indifference to the prevailing trends of the marketplace helps to account for the number of rejections he would receive from literary agents (88, according to The Chicago Tribune.) But it’s also what’s so alarming about his novel’s close brush with obscurity. It suggests that traditional publishing has become woefully backward-looking, trying to shape the novel of tomorrow based on what happened yesterday. Could A Naked Singularity have benefited from a good editor? Of course, but books like this — singular, urgent, commanding — are supposed to be what good editors live for.
As to the question of when the book’s various gambits cohere into a novel, there’s an ironic twist in all this. Right around page 150, De La Pava introduces into his bricolage of Gaddis-y dialogue and Malamudian bildungsroman and potheaded discursus that most commercial of plots, the quest to pull off the perfect caper. It’s this set of generic tropes, rendered with a perfection of their own, that starts to pull De La Pava’s other concern toward that convergence point he’d drawn for me. By the halfway mark, A Naked Singularity has become exactly what every publisher is looking for: a very difficult book to put down.
“I was 27 when I started, 34 or 35 when I was done,” De La Pava, now 41, told me; “I didn’t know anything.” Only that “This wasn’t The Old Man and the Sea.” A book he likes, he hastened to add. But with the help of his wife, a voracious reader who keeps abreast of new fiction, he realized that he needed representation. The first excerpt he sent out excited several literary agents enough that they asked to see more. Almost uniformly, though, the response to the sheer bulk of the complete manuscript was, “You’ve got to be kidding.” De La Pava, having poured seven years of his life into the book, wasn’t ready to see it chopped into something smaller and less risky. “My attitude was, I’ll take my ball and go home.” (Though one doubts he would have stopped writing; a second novel, Personae, less successful but still interesting, was published through XLibris in 2011).
Susanna, however, wasn’t ready to give up on A Naked Singularity, and began to lobby him to self-publish it. “I think it cost about $10,000” to print it through XLibris, he says. “We had a book party and everything,” after which they ended up with “all these copies.” Susanna then took on the role of publicist…and proved adept at it as her husband had at the role of novelist. Her strategy was to send out targeted emails to bloggers and critics who had written about Infinite Jest, offering to send them something they might like. Some of them, like me, failed to take her up on it, but after Donoghue’s review, and then Wilson’s, things began to snowball. Soon “we’re selling like 100 books a month. And then we hear from University of Chicago Press.” A publicity director there (who was also The Quarterly Conversation’s poetry editor) had become obsessed with the book. A self-published magnum opus was, to say the least, an unusual project for a prestigious academic press. It had to pass muster with the board of faculty members and administrators that signs off on each book published. But, thanks in large measure to statements of support from the novelist Brian Evenson and critics including Steven Moore, the press decided to acquire the rights to the book. From there, it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to the window of my local Barnes & Noble, where I passed it just this week.
This can’t have been exactly the path to prominence De La Pava dreamed of. For one thing, I thought I detected an element of rope-a-dope in his protestations of literary innocence. In the course of our two-hour conversation, he capably paraphrased John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, tossed off two allusions to “The Big Six” (a term I had to think about before I got it) and name-checked half a dozen titles from recent Knopf and FSG catalogues. There’s also the matter of that New Yorker, rumpled from use.
And then there’s the way A Naked Singularity returns again and again to the theme of ambition. It becomes almost a counterpoint to the theme of justice. At first, Casi’s desire to do great things pulls him toward justice; later, it’s a source of frustration that borders on madness. As with the scenes of family life, the writing here is too personal not to have come from firsthand experience. When Casi says, for example, of a brief he’s preparing to file, “I’m determined to create a document so achingly beautiful and effective and important that should I drop dead as the final draft is being printed it would matter not the least,” we can hear the novelist standing right behind him, speaking, as it were, over his shoulder.
“Achingly beautiful and effective and important:” I imagine that, as he neared completion on his huge manuscript, De La Pava must have had an inkling that he’d achieved at least two of the three. And I imagine he believed, like Casi, that he was still living in a world where that would be enough. The doors of the great publishing houses would fly open, and then the arts pages of the newspapers, and then the doors of homes across America. This is what most writers believe, deep down, as the private dreaminess of the early drafts begins to give way to the public competition for attention, and money, and fame.
Yet De La Pava’s more tortuous path has afforded him certain gifts that outrageous good fortune might not have. Chief among these is something both the MFA and the NYC trajectories Chad Harbach sketched in a recent N+1 essay tend subtly to conceal: the knowledge that one is free to write the kinds of books one wants, with the kinds of effects that engage one’s own imagination, however rich, complex, and challenging. “That kind of freedom is important to me,” De La Pava told me, as we sat in the heart of Mayor Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk New York, in a neighborhood I could no longer afford to live in, amid the artisinal cheese-plates and the coffee priced by the bean. “I’m very into freedom as a writer.” I asked him what his ambitions were for the next book. “I want to preserve this mode of doing things,” he said. “The rest I can’t control.” Then we paid up, and said our goodbyes, and he walked out the door, bound for the wilds of Jersey.
Bonus link: “Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List” by Edan Lepucki
Bonus link: De La Pava boxing piece at Triple Canopy: “A Day’s Sail”
Image Credit: Genevieve McCarthy
The publishing world went medieval this month with the publication of A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in George R.R. Martin’s epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. The series inspires lifestyle-changing devotion among its biggest fans, seething ire among those it has lured in and let down, legions of new enthusiasts drawn in by the HBO adaptation of the first book, and bewilderment from those who can’t imagine what’s so interesting about knights and dragons.
These detractors, frankly, bore me. Seabiscuit wasn’t about a horse. You don’t have to like football to love Friday Night Lights. A great narrative is great in any genre, and A Song of Ice and Fire is perhaps the most compelling, fully realized narrative in modern literature.
Set in the kingdom of Westeros and its neighboring lands, the series follows the political unrest that results from the king’s death in the first book. That king, Robert Baratheon, was himself a usurper, and his eldest son Joffrey is still in puberty. That, combined with the fact that Joffrey’s legitimacy is in serious question, means loyalty to the young king is easily shaken, and before long there are a handful of lords hoping to take the throne. All these claimants at war with each other throws Westeros into chaos and, as of Book Five, it still hasn’t calmed down. As one character says, “So long as men remember the wrongs done to their forebears, no peace will ever last. So we go on century after century, with us hating the Brackens and them hating us. My father says there will never be an end to it.”
The books are narrated in turn by several of the principal characters — Catelyn, the widow who supports her son’s campaign to be king of the North; Tyrion, the dead king’s dwarf brother-in-law who is brilliant, funny, and hated by his family and eventually the whole kingdom; Davos, one of the claimants’ lowborn adviser, as wise as he is downtrodden; Sansa, a beautiful young heiress, dumber than a box of rocks, who is fought over as a marriage prize; and Daenerys, the daughter of a murdered king, who has grown up in exile with dreams of reclaiming her father’s throne.
These characters, among several other narrators, are our windows into the upheaval in Westeros. Although the action has brought in dozens of noble families and their households, several kingdoms, and more than 1,500 named characters, the two foci are the Starks and the Lannisters. It seems that no matter who you are in Westeros, you will eventually be fighting for or against one of these families.
The Starks are a stoic, noble family who are prone to loyalty, principled action, and terse conversation. The late Lord Eddard Stark is still quite present in the books as a fallen paragon of goodness. All but one of his children are narrators, and they are impossibly lovable with their stubborn, well-intentioned ways. The Starks have been separated since Book One, and none of them remain at their ancestral castle. The beating heart of the series, for me, is the hope that the remaining Starks will be reunited and reclaim their home. Killing off the Starks, or putting them in mortal peril, is one of Martin’s most painful habits.
The Lannisters, on the other hands, are presented in the first book as the slimeballs of the series. They scheme, lie, betray, and murder. They are unpredictable, and complicated, and throw a chaotic element into every situation they enter. Where the Starks’ life has been stable and loving, the Lannister siblings have been pressured, rejected, and distrusted since childhood. Martin has spent five books fleshing them out — showing how their manipulative natures were formed, and are in turn forming their adult lives. If the Stark family is a study in the limitations of morality, the Lannisters are a study in the limitations of existentialism.
Because in Westeros, your family is who you are. The honor or dishonor of your family name defines you, sometimes despite your actions. This is where Martin’s multi-voice narration brings Westeros to life. Looking into the inner lives of the characters shows us the knight who is afraid, the Lannister with regrets, the leader who needs advice, the boy with a destiny who just wants to go home. In A Dance with Dragons, Jon Snow perhaps speaks the most. Newly elected the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, a small force that guards Westeros’ northern border, he finds himself with few allies and no good council. “I am a son of Eddard Stark,” “I am the commander of the wall,” he reminds himself, but more often than not he feels unprepared and outnumbered.
All of the narrators are constantly doing this — comparing who they are meant to be with who they feel they are. Self-reflection is always done on the move, though, in this world where duty never ends. As Tyrion puts it, “Fight or hide or shit yourself, as you like, but whatever you decide to do, you’ll do it clad in steel.”
The narrative is operating on three levels at all times. The first is the day-to-day lives of the characters as they sit in council meetings, tell dirty jokes over dinner, haggle with ship captains, or pass the time with kingdom gossip. Martin is not wont to say that a voyage to Oldtown took five weeks and was difficult, he’ll drop in on the voyage a few times, tracking the mood of the travelers, showing them hash over their plans. This attention to minutiae takes most of the credit for the books’ lengths, but it doesn’t try your patience.
The second level is book-length story arcs for the narrators, like leading an army against the lords of the west, or journeying back to the capital after escaping from prison. These arcs, though, are rarely completed. Rather, when a character is about to accomplish what they’ve been striving for, they will usually find that the situation has changed, and will start on a new path. Jaime Lannister, for instance, spends a book trying to get back to his beloved sister in King’s Landing, only to reach her and realize he no longer enjoys her company. The characters continue to make their plans and predict their outcomes, but these plans will usually be rendered obsolete in the reshuffling of loyalties and quests that typifies the last 200 pages of each book.
The third level of Martin’s narrative is the slow march of history that manages to make the series, even though it’s at 4,000 pages and counting, seem like a small part of a much larger story. Martin has not just invented Westeros and its people; he’s invented thousands of years of its history, which he doles out little by little throughout the books. Westeros has seen the rise and fall of dynasties, new conquerors, centuries-old blood feuds, and plenty of wars. The conflicts that take up A Song of Ice and Fire will eventually be summed up in a few words sung by one of the kingdom’s minstrels.
Game of Thrones, the first book in the series, trained us, Martin’s readers, how to read his books. The beheading of Eddard Stark, the series’ original hero, sent the message that none of this was going to be pretty. We’ve stopped expecting fair outcomes. We know that a young, handsome, brave king can be killed by an old angry man while they’re eating dinner. When we see a character say, “I’m going to rescue your lost daughters,” we don’t hold our breaths. And we’ve become patient. When I finished Book One, I hurried on to Book Two with the expectation that I would soon see Arya Stark reunited with her companion direwolf (long story). Four books later, I’m still waiting. Another subplot — the murdered king’s heir’s return to Westeros to reclaim the throne — which was promised in the early chapters of Book One, is only realized in the final chapters of Book Five.
Much as the struggles of the Starks and the Lannisters hold our attention, they are not, the reader comes to learn, the be all and end all of Westeros. History will eventually forget most of them. And yet, as we follow them, each narrator is on an epic journey of their own. We see their daily lives, their attempts at glory or happiness, the way each of them — to themselves — is the entire world. We also see how, to Martin, and to Westeros, they’re only drops in a bucket. Every epic battle, king’s reign, or family history is a fleeting moment, and a story all its own.
“I sit on the damn iron seat when I must. Does that mean I don’t have the same hungers as other men? A bit of wine now and again, a girl squealing in bed, the feel of a horse between my legs? Seven hells, Ned, I want to hit someone.”
Compare that to anything you’ve heard Aragorn say, and you’ve arrived at the salient difference between George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien, even while the frequent comparison of the two remains apt.
Aragorn, of course, is the true-born king in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, who spends the trilogy fighting to claim his throne while being handsome and eloquent. The above was said by Robert Baratheon, king of the seven kingdoms in A Game of Thrones. He’s fat, drunk, and far too easily bored to be an effective ruler. The comparison isn’t quite fair, though, because Martin never makes the claim that Robert was destined to be king, or that anybody is destined to be king.
That’s just the thing with Martin. He’s created a fantasy world – warring families, usurped thrones, dark magic, heroic creatures – but hasn’t peopled it with fantasy characters. Yes, there are noble characters and yes, there are villains, but there isn’t a good army and a bad army. Although there are epic landscapes, close-knit brotherhoods, and a reverent relationship with weaponry, there is no one hero and no central quest. The particular gift of George R.R. Martin is that he’s adept at both the epic trappings and the gritty details.
Within the first 50 pages, we are introduced to the book’s four main families – the Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons, and Targaryens. Put as simply as possible, the Targaryens had long held the throne of the seven kingdoms, until Robert Baratheon seized it, with the help of his wife’s father and brother – the Lannisters, who betrayed and killed the former king – and his lifelong friend Eddard “Ned” Stark. Years later, the last remaining Targaryens – adolescent brother and sister Viserys and Daenerys – are in exile, planning to take back their family’s throne, which Robert Baratheon lazily holds, under the contemptful watch of his Lannister wife and brothers-in-law. When Robert’s closest adviser dies, he travels with his household to Winterfell, the isolated northern home of the Stark family, to ask Ned to take the position.
For a spell, almost all of the principal characters are at Winterfell – Ned Stark and his wife and six children, Robert, his wife Cersei Lannister, their three insufferable children, and her two brothers, Jaime and Tyrion. What a tangled, tangled web. Old grudges, new grudges, old secrets, new alliances, and more than one drunken revelation reverbate around the halls of Winterfell, just until you’ve got a feel for everyone, and then they all split up. (Even the Targaryens, off in exile, pack up and start moving.) For the rest of the novel, the cast is always on the move, traversing the vast geography of Martin’s world.
I was a Russian major in college, so I can’t read a 500+ page book without Isaiah Berlin whispering in my ear. Berlin was the author of “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” an essay based on an ancient Greek adage: “the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin divides writers into these two categories. Hedgehogs view the world as a stage for a single, encompassing logic (power corrupts, love conquers all, that kind of thing). Foxes are more fascinated by the infinite variety of the human condition. In Berlin’s signature comparison, Dostoevsky is a hedgehog, and Tolstoy is a fox.
The fantasy genre, although I admit I’m not its most versed reader, is full of hedgehogs. Godfather Tolkien, certainly, is pure hedgehog. What I find most fascinating about Martin is that he’s a fox in a hedgehog genre. While his world looks like fantasy (bastards! dwarves! whores! knights!), and the action revolves around the question of the seven kingdoms’ throne (Will Robert keep it? Are the Lannisters plotting for it? Will the Targaryens reclaim it?), the focus is on the clashing relationships and motivations of the people involved in the struggle.
Eddard, for example, leaves his home to serve the king, whom he’s lost faith in. He has to work closely with the king’s council, who he fears are in league with the Lannisters. He has to protect his two daughters, who he’s brought with him, and trust in his eldest son Robb, still a teenager, whom he left in charge of Winterfell. His wife Catelyn is traveling around on a secret reconnaissance mission, which is a whole other thing. Each character’s path through the novel is equally hard to navigate, I can’t think of one who doesn’t fundamentally distrust a number of the people around them.
Destiny and heroics have little purchase in this murky world. No one is the people’s champion. In fact, the salt of earth rarely show up except to mug rich people while they travel. The conflict is confined to the elite of the seven kingdoms, squabbling over a throne, and no side can claim a right to it.
That’s not to say that you won’t take sides. The Starks are the crowd pleasers. They enter the game of thrones reluctantly – always a sign of moral fortitude – and Eddard is honorable to a fault (for which he is endlessly reproached, to reiterate that such nobility has no place in Martin’s universe). The Stark children, in the book’s coolest whim, each have a pet wolf that follows them everywhere, can sense their moods and when they’re in danger.
In the HBO series based on the book, the Starks are the heroes. When we meet them in the first episode, they’re wearing dark, dignified clothes and standing up straight, while the Lannisters wear pastels and lean on anything in sight. The Starks deliver their lines in earnest, the Lannisters in sarcasm. But for all that, the Starks have their ugly moments, and the Lannisters are sometimes kind. The series, as it has thus far, will do well not to ignore those nuances in favor of narrative.
My favorite moment of the series so far is a scene in which a midnight courier’s message forces Eddard and Catelyn out of bed. As Sean Bean, who plays Eddard, stands by the fire, his night shirt drapes open, revealing a wide swath of pectorals covered in scars. Really awesome scars. It’s a powerful visual, and one that conveys, in a heartbeat, the lives of these men. The men of Game of Thrones are rich, powerful lords, knights, and kings who rule over vast lands and kingdoms, and they’ve all had their asses kicked numerous times. Their lives are expansive, and extremlely hard.
“The things we love destroy us every time, lad,” says Tyrion Lannister, early in the book. And truly, if Martin were a hedgehog, I would say Game of Thrones is about the things we let destroy us. Sometimes those things are plotters, usurpers, or vengeance. Sometimes those things are misplaced trust or foolish love. It’s complicated.