Friday, October 19, 2012
Under the Microscope - Wolf Hall
Bring Up the Bodies
Since Bring Up the Bodies just won the Man Booker Prize, I thought I'd look back at the first book in the series, Wolf Hall, which also won the Man Booker Prize, in 2009. That's a lot of Booker. Wolf Hall is a book that seemed to garner unending praise, which I admit somewhat puzzled me.
Not that Mantel can't write, as she's brilliant. And perhaps that's part of it? A brilliant writer who'd previously been loved by the elite but not the general public, who typically wrote about odd, strange little stories. And who had now written a big book on that most popular of topics, Henry the VIII. Or, more specifically, Thomas Cromwell and all the shenanigans that go on in Henry's court. Some might say it also has to do with the fact that she was writing about men, now, and not women... (just food for thought, there).
Mantel's writing in Wolf Hall is brilliant, and I can't argue that her character portraits of the various historical people are not evocative and humanizing. They are, and these are the strengths of the novel. Cromwell is a fascinating character, and the story is ripe with fascinating events... but the problem is that in the book all the fascinating events occur off stage, as it were, only to be rehashed by people who sit around talking afterward, obliquely referencing whatever happened. There seem to be endless talking head conversations. It's like a book about the moments between interesting things, and never the interesting things themselves. Just the talk and the gossip after the fact. And, yes, her talking heads are interesting and human, and cast an interesting light on history, but it's damned annoying to always be left out of the action, to be left wondering what that interesting experience might have been like, or that one, or that one...
It's a bit like sitting in a theater watching a movie. It's a fairly good movie, and you don't mind it. But in the theater next door, everyone is endlessly howling with delight, laughing, and shrieking with surprise. You try to concentrate on your movie, on what the people are saying, but part of you is always wondering what's happening in that other theater. What are they watching? What's that story? And wouldn't you like to see it?