NL: Remembering Hypatia
This 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 me). 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.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.
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.
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.And this account of Hypatia's first ever public lectureshows us this book's biggest problem with Hypatia the character:
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!'"
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.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.
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)
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.