Saturday, June 30, 2012
Gods of Gotham by Lindsey Faye
I can count the number of books I couldn’t bear to finish on one hand, and this was one of them (and that was a crushing disappointment).
I simply can’t fathom what the people who love this book are raving about.
Yes, Faye can turn a phrase, and there are moments of stunning writing (for example, when the protagonist is describing his brother, who is high on morphine, Faye writes, “the minutes dripped from his eyes like blood from a corpse”).
And clearly, she has done an immense amount of research into both the social and political atmosphere of the time.
Unfortunately, neither of these two things in and of themselves make for good storytelling.
The first main issue I had with this book was Faye’s clunky, ham-fisted way of enfolding the research she did into the story. Instead of using information to weave a picture made of many threads of historical fact, she takes a mediocre event or plot point at best and shoves facts all over it, the same way wedding dress designers put random, stupid bows on gowns.
This problem presents itself in two main ways.
The first is Faye’s horrible use of flash, the slang of the poor in New York at the time. She would have been well advised to look to Bruce Alexander’s Murder in Grub Street for a much-needed lesson on how to fold flash into a story to create atmosphere. Instead, she bludgeons the reader over the head with terms that, given the rest of the protagonist’s tone, come across as jarring and don’t seem to fit. Granted, flash isn’t the main character’s main way of speaking (so why does he use the terms in soliloquy, then?), but even so it’s distracting.
And the characters that should use flash don’t.
The second example of this is the tedious way Faye describes New York. It’s obvious that she lives in contemporary New York and even more obvious that she loves it. Which for her, at least, is a problem because it makes reading the book a little like having to sit through watching someone else play a video game.
Travel is told through directions (I went north on this street and south at this street), which in my opinion is a pretty boring way to write character travel to begin with. But unless you’re familiar with the streets and how they look now, how they looked during the 1800s simply falls flat. Even worse, the map printed on the inside of the front and back covers of the book doesn’t show half the streets Faye refers to, so you can’t even try to follow routes that way!
There are some interesting characters, like Matsell, but they are poorly developed. And even the main character, Tim, is wearying. He’s a barkeep who notices everything, but is too naïve to notice the girl who run into him is a “kinchen mab”? And the murders of children shock him? Really? But he worked in an oyster house? Please.
And his alleged love-hate with his brother is poorly developed and terrible. His resentment is badly—very, very badly—mixed with awe and admiration. Val, the brother, should be a complex character but really isn’t. And the object of Tim’s affection, Mercy, is equally half-sketched and cumbersome (we get it; she speaks in riddles an helps the poor; move on already!).
And on top of all that, the writing is choppy, lacks flow or pacing and the story isn’t interesting enough to look past it.
No, dear friends, this is a novel publishers were likely hoping would ride on the coattails of the current Sherlock resurgence (don’t even get me started on that…) and the increased interest in the Victorian era that resulted. I can’t wait until the Victorian isn’t trendy anymore so only the cream rises to the top again.