Saturday, November 01, 2008

NL: Remembering Hypatia

NL logoThis time we read Remembering Hypatia by Brian Trent.

Sigh. I bought this back when it first came out, started it, stopped somewhere in Chapter One, or maybe Two, and never picked it up again. I kept reading great reviews of it, but ... When it was chosen for NL, I thought, 'Okay, I'll finish it and maybe it'll pick up.'

I did. It didn't.

To start with, there's way too much needless messy personal life. There's no evidence that Hypatia and Orestes were in love, I doubt there's evidence that Orestes' wife cheated on him with anyone at his court, and certainly no need to offer us badly written sex scenes dealing with it. For that matter, one of the many reasons I can't stand the main character is that he's led by what his poor suffering friend Arion so coyly calls his "loins". From day one all he can think about is seducing Hypatia, and the first bit of action in the book is him and his friend getting chased by a man whose fianceé he seduced. He steals from his employer, and the fact that he's using what he steals to make a present for Hypatia is meant to make us think kindly of him. It didn't work for me. Thasos is a jerk. The fact that the book opens with his death - it's an extended flashback - means I'm not interested in discovering his good qualities, either.

He's not the only character that's hard to get to like. A few of the very minor ones are intriguing, but not well developed, and Orestes is pretty two-dimensional, too (I think his love for Hypatia is supposed to humanize him, but it didn't, not for Rembering Hypatia by Brian Trentme). Orestes' wife is a one dimensional caricature (who asks the doctor who's just operated on her brutally wounded husband "When will I have my bedroom back?" That's not credible behavior) who undergoes a wholly unmotivated 180° turn in her last scene, and is then ignored even when her husband abandons Alexandria. Thasos' mother is a cipher who suddenly becomes a fanatic. The most intriguing character - the nameless Egyptian girl Thasos runs into at the Library - vanishes from the book (Trent never read Chekov). The two Christians, Cyril and Peter, are even less well-drawn - lying, ambitious schemers whose faith is never explored even to deny its existence. The end note tells us that Cyril "was subsequently declared a Christian Saint, a title he continues to hold today." That makes it sound as if his involvement in the purging of Alexandria is why he was canonized; in fact he was a scholar with an immense output, a defender of Mary's exalted position (the Theotokos) and warrior against the Nestorian heresy. His position as one of the five Doctors of the Church (Orthodox) rests on his theology. This Cyril is nowhere to be found, save for a few frothing references to the Novatians. All of the characters are like that - reduced to a few, usually primitive, traits: lustful, hate-filled, angry - or loyal, brilliant, sad... In fact, Hypatia herself never seemed real - and the embarrassing scenes where she lusts after Orestes are painful. But they're hardly the only ones.

Because the thing I really hate about this book is how very badly it's written.

I'm not talking about things like "Too far, he thought. I'm going to far." or "What's it's shape? What's it's size?", which are frequent but minor, but rather of truly bad sentences, things that make me stop dead and marvel over. Sentences like these:
Two men wearing mud-brown robes that covered them from neck to ankle entered, seized his nineteen-year-old body, and hauled him out into the chill night air.

Nervous by his sudden seizure of conversation with her, Thasos assumed a stance of mild bravado.

The desire to gaze and appreciate the voluptuous landscape of her body was nearly overpowering.

She would tell the woman everything about her husband's trysts, and watch as the hybrid wept at her lover's betrayal.

"You wound me such? ... You dare to wound me such!"

Marina made the realization that the hybrid's life must have been a lonely one.

He was not uncomfortable with solitude, and neither was intimidated by the demonic hours before God's light warmed the Earth's face.
That last one, particularly, is so awe-inspiringly bad that I actually stopped dead on reading it and made a mental note to post it. These are sentences written by someone who doesn't understand the nuts and bolts of his native language.

Then there's this action, which baffles me. I truly can't picture it as described:
Once he had closed the rectory door behind him, Cyril let his hand fly like a Pharaoh's whip and struck Peter in the face. The blow knocked him to one knee. Moving swiftly, Cyril placed one foot on Peter's side and pushed, rolling the boy over onto his back.
The book is full of these awkward clunkers.

Then there was the long excerpt from the report of the debate between Hypatia and Tyndarus - and I'm not talking about the breathless, overblown style ("his smile a candle-wax that had melted off his face"- what does that even mean??); for all I know, the scribes who took down those debates really did write like that. I doubt it, but maybe. No, it's more bad copy-editing (and when the copy-editing is this noticeable, the writing is not good). The excerpt was in italics, and not quoted - except when there was a quote at the beginning of a paragraph, leading to double quotes there - and at the close quote! It was maddening:
Her words hushed the audience. No mouth quivered, all eyes were dazzled. Like men of caves who had seen the sun for the first time, a blanket of reverence had settled over all.

Except for Tyndarus.

"'Nonsense!'" he retorted, his smile a candle-wax that had melted off his face. "'The world is a stage set for mankind, with constants that ache to be recognized. Change is the illusion, Hypatia. It seems to happen but doesn't. Change is only order on a grander scale!'"
And this account of Hypatia's first ever public lectureshows us this book's biggest problem with Hypatia the character:
She masterfully wove a tapestry of speculation that hovered in the minds of all present, like a quilt made from spools of thought. The students were her prisoners, and by the end of the Debate many dared to whisper that Tyndarus had been beaten. All the while, the eyes of the Elders never left the duel.
Do you see what I mean? Trent has a character who is supposed to be a great teacher and spell-binding lecturer, but he never gives us more than a couple of sentences of any speech. I think it might be partly that he thinks the science would slow the book down if it was given to us in bigger doses, though it would have been something I'd have enjoyed reading. But more than that, I think Trent isn't capable of writing a lecture that would dazzle us, cover us in "a blanket of reverence." The bits we see aren't that spell-binding, that's for sure. In fact, even when a student (Thasos, of course) gives an answer that enthralls his peers, we don't see it. Trent just tells us they're enthralled. It's the same problem that Fred Clarke described so succinctly in reviewing Left Behind:
LaHaye and Jenkins, then, have set a trap for themselves. This chapter, like all their others, fails to convey what they intended, but this time the failure is not mainly due to their relentlessly awful writing. The failure is built in. There is no way they can possibly show us what they have told us we are going to see.

This happens even to good writers when their story includes, say, a character who is a world famous great poet. At some point, readers are going to need to see some of that poetry for themselves and the writer is going to have to prove as gifted a poet as the character has been built up to be. (source)
Trent hasn't quite set himself the problem of the Antichrist winning over the world, but Hypatia's lectures are presented pretty much in the same way: Her words hushed the audience. No mouth quivered, all eyes were dazzled. Like men of caves who had seen the sun for the first time, a blanket of reverence had settled over all. It would be so much better if we got those words. (Though not, of course, if Trent was as bad as LaHaye and Jenkins and Hypatia's speeches were as excruciatingly banal as Nicolae Carpathia's.) Trent knows he can't pull it off, so he doesn't try. He just informs us of it, and moves along.

I wanted so much to like this book. It's a fascinating historical period and a tragic piece of history, which echoes in some of today's events. The three main actors - Orestes, Cyril, and Hypatia - are towering figures of accomplishment and learning. Hypatia was less a pagan than an agnostic (possibly even an atheist) - the term "pagan" was less precise then; Cyril was a devout Christian and an influential player in the early, formative years of the church; and Orestes, though a Christian, could be the patron saint, if you'll pardon the expression, for the separation of church and state. We could have gotten a story of "Church - State - Academia" and the war between the former and latter with the middle ... well, in the middle. But that's not the story we get. Instead, we get this muddled broth of ill-defined politics and sex, and the "everyman" character we're supposed to identify with is both obnoxious and blinkered...

This book annoys me so much I'm even angry at the subtitle, A Novel of Ancient Egypt. This is the fifth century AD! It's seven hundred years after Ptolemy I. It's after the Visigoths sacked Rome! The fact that I can't let that go means this book completely failed to reach me. And I'm angry about that.

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10 Comments:

At 10:58 AM, November 01, 2008 Blogger C. L. Hanson had this to say...

Good points. The sentence-level problems really put me off. It seemed like the author was trying to make it sound ancient and exotic, but didn't exactly succeed.

 
At 11:14 AM, November 01, 2008 Blogger Deborah Godin had this to say...

Whew! Looks like they ought to give a Bulwer-Lytton Award for more than just opening sentences!

 
At 1:30 PM, November 01, 2008 Blogger Ordinary Girl had this to say...

Yes, yes, yes, and yes. I agree completely. I felt like Thasos was modeled after the author, which makes me dislike the author even more.

 
At 1:55 PM, November 01, 2008 Blogger John Evo had this to say...

I guess I'm not really very good at analyzing books. I knew I didn't care for it. I knew it wasn't great lit. But I couldn't have really said why.

For instance, I look at all of your example sentences. I see some pretty mediocre writing. I never would have thought to point them out as examples of really bad writing. Even the last one.

 
At 4:24 PM, November 01, 2008 Blogger the chaplain had this to say...

It's too bad the book was so poor because, as you noted, the subject matter is so rich with possibilities. You won't be surprised, if you don't already know it, that iUniverse is an outlet for people to self-publish.

 
At 6:18 PM, November 01, 2008 Anonymous Anonymous had this to say...

Wow. Everyone has their opinions, and mine is to disagree totally with the comments here.

We read this book a year ago with my book group, and loved it. In fact, the author has become one of my favorite columnists over at Populist America, and the charge against his writing is dead wrong. Next to Bill Maher, Trent is a masterful commentator on politics and religion. http://www.examiner.com/x-1051-Independent-Examiner

And the language of Remembering Hypatia? Gotta disagree again. I don't feel like typing up every sentence, but here: "... Thasos breathed in the sweet, moist air as he went. It was the flood season of Egypt, when the Nile swelled like a fat serpent from the heavy rains of Africa's interior. The early sun brighteneed the limestone homes that cluttered the riverside avenue, and Thasos squinted under their painful glare."

That's a great rendering of the city, and put me there immediately. So did the description of the characters:

"Setne was an elderly Egyptian man with dark skin and skeletal hands. He had large almond-shaped eyes and a beak-like nose. His lipless mouth turned down at the corners. He was bald, but for a few grey strands sprouting dismally on the crown of his skull."

Hypatia's debate with Cyril was everything you said it wasn't. I found it enthralling and precise. The back-and-forth was tense and applause worthy in my view.

Thasos as a lustful kid? Sure, that was the point. His journey of growing (where Peter, of the same age, goes the other way) was the frame of the story. Now, there's nothing in history to indicate that Orestes and Hypatia were involved, but so what? Gladiator invented some things about its subject matter too, and that didn't take away from the story or impact.

I agree there was a lot of examinations of characters' personal lives. I guess that didn't bother me. But I think you've grossly mischaracterized the author's style and strength.

My two cents.

 
At 7:22 AM, November 02, 2008 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

Anon: I'm glad you liked the book. But I (obviously) don't agree that I mischaracterized Trent's style. Your example is a case in point - the bit about the sun blinding him off the houses is nice, but "swelled like a fat serpent"? I don't think that's a felicitous simile. The characters are physically well described, but their characters don't match. And the occasional well-turned phrase is counter-weighted by the clunkers. The debate with Cyrus? The confrontation was designed to make Hypatia triumphant and him a weasel, which he most certainly was not. Historically he wins, since most of her writing is lost, but did the words in his mouth sound like a Doctor of the Church, or a Klansman on the ropes?

And Thasos didn't have a "journey". He had an unmotivated transformation, in a couple of months. Peter didn't go the other way, he was already there when we started. Again, that would have been an interesting story - several years of watching two Alexandrian kids grow into two very different men. But it's not the story we got.

We have to disagree, I guess.

 
At 11:33 AM, November 02, 2008 Anonymous Anonymous had this to say...

Sure, we'll agree to disagree. I think comparing a winding river to a serpent is an example of an effective metaphor. And Cyril's arguments are like those that religious politicians today use. It was definitely not Good Guys Versus Bad Guys here, but I thought a great character study of fanatics and freethinkers.

 
At 10:04 PM, March 25, 2009 Blogger michaelbaron had this to say...

I just finished it and was profoundly moved. Yes, some of the flow of the words required my forgiveness, but what a great story. As a freethinker I would imagine you, as I, have some deep wounds. The horrible way religious zealots have hurt our world is something that can't be written about too often.This novel makes me proud and sad to be someone who questions beliefs. I am about to read Never Grow Old, his next novel and I expect to find some maturation of what I consider to be the easy things to fix along with the things that moved me so much.

 
At 5:21 AM, March 26, 2009 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

It is indeed a wonderful story, but he didn't make it up; it's based on fact. That means all I have to judge him on his is style.

 

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