A 4 Million Word Betrayal

By some estimations, Marcel Proust’s  In Search of Lost Time is the longest novel ever written. It is also considered one of the best. Though broken up into seven volumes, with the last three still rough drafts at the time of Proust’s death, the 1,200,000 word novel is lauded as a singular work of “daily epiphanies.” Christopher Hitchens praised Proust’s skill at providing, with each moment, a “plangent echo or reverberation” many pages later. John Updike singled out Proust as one of his top five moments of “utter reading bliss.”

Proust began writing À la recherche du temps perdu around 1909 and worked on it continuously until his death in 1922. By then his writing had gained a following, and he was acclaimed by French literati after winning the Prix Goncourt in 1919. In an obituary published the day after his death, The Guardian wrote that Proust was probably “well known abroad, especially in Holland and England, where Marcel Proust Societies have recently been formed, as in Paris, where his work was enjoyed by a select minority. His style was difficult and obscure, and his intricate, exquisitely delicate meditations and analysis of emotions could never have appealed to the mass of readers.”

Unfortunately, I was not alive and in France while Proust was working on  À la recherche, and so I cannot say I know what it felt like to be a fan who learned, after following the Swanns and Guermantes for some years, that the work would never be completed to the author’s satisfaction. Perhaps there was no collective outcry. After all, Proust was not one to be held prisoner by plot points. What made his work so satisfying–and shockingly modern–was its organic quality. In that way it was true to itself even with a mishmash of an ending. Like so many real lives, the story merely faded away.

Other kinds of storytelling–the fable, the mystery, the epic journey–are far less satisfying if not resolved with a definitive finis. Six installments into Dickens’ murder mystery The Mystery of Edwin Drood, it is the author himself who kicks the bucket, while the fictive killer is never outed. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was meant to have tales told by pilgrims all along the road to Canterbury and back, though it never gets out the inn door.

But nothing holds a candle to the greatest false start in modern publishing history: Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga.

What is The Wheel of Time? Well, first off, it ain’t exactly Shakespeare. Or Proust for that matter. The Wheel of Time is a series of high fantasy novels, borrowing liberally from J. R. R. Tolkien. The first installment, 1990’s The Eye of the World is a pitch-perfect ode to the “road novel” opening of The Lord of the Rings.  Though you could easily fault Jordan for borrowing too liberally from his inspiration, he is hardly the first author to plow that field. (Eyes of the World is as much a ripoff of the lesser-known Chronicles of Prydain as it is Tolkien, and all of these books have a forefather in the Arthurian legend as envisioned by T. H. White.)

Unfortunately, any similarity to the great fantasies of literature fade as the The Wheel of Time turns. And turns. Tolkien wrapped up his Rings cycle in three volumes. Jordan’s ambitions, even at the beginning, were grander. The Wheel of Time was originally intended to be four–later six–books. Then something happened. Jordan couldn’t stop. More characters, more political intrigues, more side plots and prophecies to fulfill.  When Jordan died in 2007 he was working on volume 12. Author Brandon Sanderson, a fan of the series, was brought in by Jordan’s widow, to finish what had become a bloated disaster. The fourteenth and final entry came out this past January. What Tolkien manages to resolve in 500,000 words, Jordan stretched to 4 million. 

There are some die hard fans who will defend Wheel as it is. What is wrong, after all, with an artist creating a world so detailed and involved that he cannot escape it? (How very Borges!) To this I reply with the anecdote of the artist Giotto and the Pope. According to Vasari

Pope Benedict IX… sent a courtier from Treviso to Tuscany, to see what manner of man Giotto was, and to report on the quality of his work… Entering Giotto’s shop one morning, as he was at work, the envoy explained to him the Pope’s intention… and finally asked Giotto for some small specimen of work to send to His Holiness. Giotto, who was always courteous, took a sheet of paper and a red pencil… and then with a turn of his hand, produced a circle so perfect in every particular that it was a marvel to see. This done, he turned smiling to the courtier and said: “Here is the design.”

A great artist does not merely “create,” he composes.  If The Wheel of Time were a circle, it’d look like one drawn by a three year old riding a roller coaster.

I picked up book one of Wheel in 1993, shortly after having finished The Lord of the RingsI was on a fantasy kick after Tolkien,  and Jordan gave me exactly what I wanted: the same thing, only different. I was 12-years old in 1993 and there were already five Wheel of Time books published. The sixth entry came out a year later, followed by new books every two years. These were not thin volumes, mind you. The shortest entry in The Wheel of Time series is 672 pages, the longest just over a thousand. The books were a beloved part of my middle school experience, and even into my freshman year of high school I still remember discussing the characters and plots with friends.

In 1998, TOR Books published the eighth book, The Path of Daggers. I picked it up from the library, but reluctantly. Something had happened in those five years. I had discovered Cormac McCarthy and Nikos Kazantzakis, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Reading about the young farm boy Rand al’Thor, for the eighth time–and with no end in sight–had lost any semblance of pleasure. In 2000 the ninth entry came out. I was a freshman in college. My mother bought Winter’s Heart for me as a Christmas gift. It went on the bookshelf, unread.

From then on, it was eerie to see more Wheel books come out. Each one was very popular, getting top ranking on the New York Times Bestsellers list. The fan base was loyal, though anxious. I watched from a distance, but not without a personal stake in the whole thing. It was like checking in at your old summer camp, seeing kids singing the same campfire songs, a little part of you wishing you were twelve and a camper again.

When I heard that Jordan had died, I was stunned. It had been nine years since I’d read anything by the man, but I still felt like he owed it to me to finish the series. Even if I wasn’t going to read it, it felt important that the damn thing be done. I don’t know how well Brandon Sanderson succeeded in wrapping up the series–and I don’t plan to find out (just reading the plot summaries of latter-day entries makes my head hurt)–but I am grateful to him and Jordan’s widow, Harriet McDougal. It is not the same thing as completing Sagrada Familia, but it is satisfying to know that such a laborious production as The Wheel of Time, 23 years in the making, has  finally been topped off. The steam was let out of the kettle. I was free from the last bond of trashy high fantasy.

Not so fast.

For some time, friends who’ve never read anything else concerning swords and sorcery have encouraged me to pick up George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (i.e., A Game of Thrones). I always shied away. Knowing next to nothing about the series, I feared the similarities to Jordan were too great. Finally, this week I watched the first episode of the HBO series. Gotta admit, it was good. Too good. I felt like an alcoholic who’d only tried Natural Light being given a sip of Westvleteren. All the things that were wrong with Jordan’s work–the blind fealty to Tolkien tropes, protagonist invincibility, the puritanical avoidance of sex and cursing–were right in A Game of Thrones. The characters are more engaging, the stakes more authentic. Martin’s series is smaller than Jordan’s with just seven books projected, five completed. He also seems more adept at reining in his own logorrhea, tightening the screws with each novel rather than being trampled by narrative excursions. All that being said, if I could go back to the mid-90s and do it over again, would I have passed on The Wheel of Time and picked up A Song of Ice and Fire? Probably not. Though he hasn’t been writing for quite as long as Jordan, Martin still has plenty of composition ahead of him. I might be 40 or older before the last book is done. That is, if it ever gets done. The last book in the series took Martin more than half a decade to finish, and, at 64, he is six years older than Jordan was when he died. For Martin’s fanbase this is cause for a perverse, morbid anxiety. Blogs demanding he pick up the pace are common. A New Yorker piece from 2011 describes the furor over waiting six years for the fifth book, A Dance With Dragons, to be completed:

One post reads, “Since we all know GRRM can’t write unless he is in his special place with his special writing booties on and the temperature at exactly 69 degrees and the sun aligned with Aquarius, I take this as another sign that the big guy hasn’t typed a word of ADWD today.”

Imagine how Proust, described in that Guardian obit as “very pale, with burning black eyes, frail and short in stature,” would have responded to thousands of internet trolls salivating beside his writing desk. The comparison isn’t fair–I’m sure Martin would be the first to concede he is no successor to Proust–but there is something sad about watching this  “plangent echo or reverberation” of a writer racing his own mortality. Some Martin fan sites have openly fretted that he better not “Pull a Robert Jordan.” Martin’s plaintive reply is crushing:

Maybe it’s okay if I take a leak once in a while?

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