The Perfect Wholeness of the Vignette (Redux)
Okay, let’s try this again…
I just finished Patrick Rothfuss’s The Slow Regard of Silent Things.
It is not a normal novel (or novella) by any means. I’ve been trying to pin down, exactly, what to say about it or how to think of it. I think, in the end, it is this inability to articulate its wonder that makes me love it.
And I really do. It’s wonderful.
As we follow Auri through her lonely world, a lot of conventions get thrown out the back door. There is no dialogue. There is only one character, essentially. There is relatively little conflict. All of these things, or any of the individually, would be enough to get an author laughed out of a publishing house or roundly panned. And yet, through his beautiful prose and just a little sparkle of magic, Rothfuss makes this story riveting.
Much of the magic at work here is the mysteries that wrap around little Auri and her home. Secret books, hidden passages, a cistern with no bottom, a door never opened. Auri is a shattered creature – like many of Rothfuss’s characters – but the tool that did the shattering is hidden from us and her scars deeper. We pity her, but also do not. Auri fits here, just so. Nestled.
I think, as readers and as writers, we get stuck in a prison of our own making. This prison is called “stuff we like” and we all too frequently are confined there without parole. The Science Fiction reader scoffs at the Literary Mainstream. Mystery fans turn their noses up at Romance readers. The Lit Mainstream sneers at everybody. And yet there is so much more. We don’t see it. Reading A Slow Regard of Silent Things reawoke that part of me that appreciates modernist literature and experimental story structure. It made me realize how blind I am (and how blind we are) by our own conventions. If all you read are thrillers, you don’t see the conventions as conventions, but as truths. As Gardner says in Grendel:
That is their happiness: they see all life without observing it. They’re buried in it, like crabs in mud.
Now, Gardner is talking about dumb animals here, but the humans hardly make out any better. They construct for themselves myth and theory to make their blindness acceptable and rational. It has always been thus, and, thusly, shall it remain.
Rothfuss, though, doesn’t tell us the story of the Day Auri Was Broken or the Day Auri Got Fixed. No. He breaks the cycle. He tells us about Auri’s life and nothing more. A slice of it, one week long. We spend a substantial number of pages making soap. And yet…wow. It’s beautiful. It works. It is incredibly difficult to tell a slice of life story and make it interesting. This one, though, is the proof of concept. This is as much epic prose poem as story, as much painting as wordplay. Like that big brass gear Auri lugs around, it is a cycle with a missing tooth, but perfect for all that. A sign of how, even if we are no longer what we were meant to be, we are still what we are meant to be. No beautiful story can be so broken that it does not sing.
I highly recommend you read it.