“No one ever said that you would live to see the repercussions of everything you do, or that you have guarantees, or that you are not obliged to wander in the dark, or that everything will proved to you neatly verified like something in science. Nothing is: at least nothing that is worthwhile. I didn’t bring you up only to move across sure ground. I didn’t teach you to think that everything must be within our control or understanding. Did I? For, if I did, I was wrong. If you won’t take a chance, then the powers you refuse because you cannot explain them, will, as they say, make a monkey out of you.”
-Mrs. Gamely to Virginia, Winter’s Tale
I knew of Mark Helprin from the beautiful Swan Lake trilogy he wrote, illustrated by one of my favorite illustrators of all time, Chris Van Allsburg. Even in those books, which I read primarily for the illustrations, I was struck by Helprin’s creativity and deft playfulness. In Winter’s Tale, perhaps his best-known work, the eccentricities of his style are magnified. His writing reminds me of only two other writers, Chesterton, with his lighthearted raving, and periodically of Dylan Thomas, with his drunken, obscene grandeur. Those are the only two. Helprin’s writing is, for its time period and in its subject matter, quite unique.
In plot structure, Winter’s Tale could possibly be classed with works of modern magic realism like the novels of Salmon Rushdie and Haruki Murakami, but in tone it is much more lighthearted, rooted not in absurdist nihilism but soaring with hope for human life in all of its infinite, varied patterns. Chesterton wrote, “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly,” and Helprin seems to have taken that bit of wisdom to heart, often poking fun at language itself (at one point he describes mountains as being “mountainy”). At times this book reads like the long-winded tall tale of a southern grandfather, at times like the diary of a confused but transcendent saint, and at times it has the vivid, disjointed imagery of an opium-addict’s visions. Bits of plot are fairytale-esque with a capitalist twist: a burglar falls for a rich newspaper-man’s daughter, and a milk-cart horse displays unsuspected magical powers. Other sections have the flashy theatrics, sweeping scope, and nostalgic backdrops of a musical (Moulin Rouge comes to mind). The story essentially features a sort of fantastic clone of New York City at the beginning and end of the nineteen hundreds, and it overflows with affection for even the most horrible aspects of that metropolis, muse of so many great authors.
I could go on to discuss the many characters and caricatures, but it is the experience of reading this book that will drive you away or draw you in. It is like watching a master juggler at work. At the beginning, he is juggling something simple like balls or handkerchiefs, but he quickly and imperceptibly switches them out for bananas, perhaps plucking one out to answer the phone on it while manipulating the rest one-handed. Then, he is juggling snow globes, each a tiny world and falling within its rising arc. Then glittering knives, flaring torches, a human infant, making figure eights to the ceiling. When he switches back to bananas for three hours, you are frustrated that he is making you watch him play when he is capable of real art. You might stay in your seat, hoping for another glimpse of a world without gravity, or you might leave and go back to more mundane pursuits. There are jewels in this book, real wisdom like that quoted above, but they are all mixed up in a magpie’s hoard with other words that glitter but have no real substance. The novel speaks often of a great pattern inherent in the world and of ultimate justice for those who suffer, if one’s perspective can just be panoramic enough to encompass it. Unfortunately, the world of the novel does not successfully back this idea. Days after turning the final page, I still see no purpose or even causal relation in most of the events that occur within. It is mostly pure, disorganized performance, drawing attention away from the actual communication that is the work of literature.
If you like books to be rational, trustworthy, and feature complex characters whose conflicts and salvations stem organically from their own strengths and flaws, and if the idea of closing a book feeling as if you have listened to an eloquent drunk proclaim and digress for hours does not appeal to you, I would stay away from Winter’s Tale. If, however, you will read solely for the music of language, and if you have a deep-running love for New York and/or a high threshold for silliness and mysticism (always interesting bedfellows), you might want to check this one out. Save it for when you’re snowed in, though. This is a book that needs to be read in a blizzard.