Other times, reading is incredibly easy, and you suddenly hear your alarm clock go off and realize, “Oh yeah, I was supposed to go to sleep.”
It’s an odd contrast, because they’re all the same words. Same ink. And they all tell stories—sometimes very interesting stories. The thing is, in these cases I do not believe it is the story itself, but how the story is told, that makes the difference.
Recently I read Autopista del Sur (Cortázar), Heart of Darkness (Conrad), and The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain (Monger).
Here is the interesting thing: Autopista del Sur was less than 20 pages, and it felt really long. Heart of Darkness hovered around the 100 page mark, maybe a little less, and that book went on forever and ever. Englishman was about 280 pages and it was a rapid read; it hardly took any time at all to devour.
Now, in numerical time, Englishman took the most time to read. But in perceived time, it did not. I have guesses as to why, with comparisons between all three books.
Autopista del Sur
- short story, told mostly through narration
- little dialogue
- lots of black space
- most characters identified by their cars (instead of names)
- discussion of social order and what happens when people are left to live on their own “islands”
- in Spanish (which means it felt a little longer to me because reading in Spanish isn’t always easy)
- hop-around characterization
- lots of action and continuous character updates
|Basically the story, except for the car moves.|
Heart of Darkness
- novella, told almost completely through dialogue
- little (formal) narration
- lots of black space
- many characters identified by their job or race
- discussion of imperialism, various psychological forces, and morality
- in English (which didn’t help)
- focused characterization
- TONS of figurative language
|What would have been a welcome ending.|
The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain
- novel, told with quite a bit of jaunty narration, but an awful lot of dialogue, too
- first person narration of a third-person omniscient story
- lots of white space
- characters identified by name, by job, by country (English vs. Welsh), and by local nickname
- discussion of national pride, community relationships, religion, teamwork, friendship
- in English (with the occasional Welsh word)
- hop-around and focused characterization
- also, I watched the movie first
|Exciting action in town with lovely mountain scenery in the back.|
You’ll notice that a, I’m biased, and b, Englishman did a lot of things differently that I personally do not think are unique to novels alone.
Englishman is told from the point of view of a grandson, who is telling the stories he has pieced together since hearing them as a boy. He talks like a human being, but also has the ability to look into each character’s mind because he himself is outside the story.
There’s a good mix of dialogue and of narration. It flows back and forth, to fill in the gaps that the other cannot fill.
The characters are fantastic. The first chapter, which is all about names, is hilarious, and they are identified by things that strongly characterize them as well. They’re memorable!
My native language does help a little. But also getting to enjoy Welsh is fun, too.
The characterization flows depending on what the story needs.
And, I could enjoy the story because I read it for my pleasure, and I could find ways to understand it without risking a grade or getting concerned about the details I’d be tested on.
Is it that HOD or Autopista were bad stories? No. Were they brilliant in their own rights? I’m sure.
But they’re academic stories, in a way. They’re long, filled with details and hidden meanings and criticisms of what is and was.
Englishman is too, but I didn’t find it academic in the slightest. I found it passionate. Witty. Excited, and filled with a memory of a people.
I’m just saying, but when you put that kind of spirit and voice into a book, it’s impossible for it to feel too long. And it’s why Englishman was so much more enjoyable for me.
How do you feel an author’s voice and choices lend to the story? Are there any authors who have a particular style or voice you dis/like?
(By the way, if you don't have an hour and forty minutes or more to read or watch Englishman, you can enjoy the two-minute summary that has nothing to do with the actual story but hey, it's Veggie Tales!)