Monday, February 8, 2010

A Winter's Tale - Week 2

This week's reading from Winter's Tale fills us in on Peter Lake's backstory, how he got to Manhattan, and how he learned all of the different skills that made him such an effective burglar as an adult.

The details of Lake's childhood probably don't qualify as "spoilers," in that they don't give away any big turning points in the plot, and yet I am reluctant to discuss them because it really needs to be read to be appreciated - Lake's upbringing is part Pip, part Huckleberry Finn, part ancient myth. Parts of the Ellis Island chapter reminded me of Middlesex (and may, for that matter, have inspired it) and that sort of scene is such a critical part of American mythology that I had my guard down when the larger, more important allusion to the Book of Exodus occurs a few pages later. I appreciated the way that Helprin lets us believe he is headed towards familiar cliches and then branches off in another direction entirely.

The first couple of scenes in New York struck me as a little bit odd; the narrative jumps around a bit, and there are a lot of coincidences, and an out-of-nowhere teenager three-way (sort of?) sex scene, but once Peter ends up at the orphanage and the gritty Dickensian urchin stuff began, the story really picked up for me. Helprin again shows us hints of a few Dickensian cliches, but subverts them before we get too settled in. The story jumps ahead rather dramatically to Peter's adulthood, but by the end of this week's section it felt like the exposition was behind us and the plot proper was ready to begin.

Your thoughts?

1 comment:

Night Writer said...

Perhaps we should consider this chapter as if it were the overture to a musical; we get a sampling of the themes that will be developed later in their own movements.

You have portrayals of humans as fantastical (the Baymen living in the shadow of the Cloud Wall) and mundane (the Dickensian portrayals you mentioned); the Mosaic origins of Peter Lake who will be charged with leading his people to the City Rejoicing in Justice Alone (arriving in a miniature model of a ship named The City of Justice); the thrumming bass line of the machines coming alive in a new age ... and the first appearance of the lonely, dying child in the tenement hallway.

And then there's the jarring adolescent sexuality. I've wondered before why the Anarindas (in the marsh and in Manhattan) and the sick child were there and so explicitly and the best I can come up with is it is part of Helprin's design to show how good and bad, sacred and profane, harmony and discord are all intimately entwined as part of the intricate balancing of scales too big for us to see.

At the very least, this chapter lets you know that your traditional, even comfortable, assumptions about story and character will be challenged. At the same time, the prose promises that the experience is going to be rich and beautiful.

Thought for later: what are the differences and similarities of the Baymen of the Bayonne Marsh and of the villagers around the Lake of the Coheeries?