is a novel
, written by a man named Mark Helprin
, about which (and whom) the estimable dannye
has done a superlative job of noding. It was on the strength of that writeup
, in fact, that I purchased this book. Not being one to take mincing steps, I purchased it in hardcover, signed, from the author's website, figuring that that way if I was disappointed I'd have reason to be really
annoyed, and if I enjoyed it as much as I suspected I would I could save myself the trouble of having to go buy an archival
copy as a second round. That would avoid the middle ground of disinterestedness, you see.
Dannye warned me that not only had this book moved him to public displays of emotion, but that I (specifically) might suffer fits of various kinds of awe and appreciation at the man's use of language. He cautioned me to approach the work with care and to avoid attempting to devour it in great chunks seeking the advancement of the plot, for (if I may paraphrase him further) those who seek to recommend Winter's Tale to friends often find that those friends either burn out in the first hundred pages or so, or are caught up in it irrevocably.
The book arrived at my workplace on a slow week near the holidays, when no-one is making demands on the infrastructure and my kind are left with nowt to do save make trouble.
I began to read.
* * *
Some fifteen years ago, I graduated college. When I did so, I moved to New York City; the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, in fact. I went seeking experiences and the city of my birth, as well as employment sufficient to feed, clothe and ale myself. The company of friends old and new as well as the trick of working for a living wage were my actual goals, and I found both of those, to my fortune. I did not find the city of my birth, which lay far uptown; when I was growing up, Times Square was hideously far downtown, someplace I never ventured. When I lived in Chelsea, near Madison Square Park, those few years, Times Square was hideously far uptown, someplace I never ventured. Trips to the other side of that landmark, in both periods, were expeditions set upon with preparation and malice aforethought; despite the ready availability of taxicabs and subways, provisions would be laid on, charts consulted, and local lore researched before departure.
Such is the size and power of New York City, that two mirror-facing worlds can co-exist for the same person, on the same borough's island, separated by a point of view and four years of time. Even visiting the neighborhood in which I had spent the first eighteen years of my life, once my address had changed in space and years to the lower half of the island, the city was alien to me because my home was no longer there. New York will do that to you, reach into your soul and lay a great smoky hand down to muffle the internal compass that we all carry which points the way unerringly to our safe beds; even if we don't know the route which will take us there, we know such a route exists. It is that knowledge which keeps us sane in a place of such frenzied madness, power and glory. In a place where the streets themselves are blood-warm, bleeding steam into the winter sky from steel wounds; where enough energy is hurled upwards every second as pure light to take men into orbit, and tanagers still perch atop iron railings to sing at daylight, that knowledge of a place where we belong is a linchpin of all that makes us human in the face of the Machine That Is New York.
All of us find a way to cope.
I began to write, not knowing how or what. Without purpose or intent, what I wrote took the shape and form of the city I found myself in, with mysteries that I couldn't explain dwelling within it. I posted it on the World Wide Web years later, still unfinished (as it remains), some hundreds of pages, concerned with these themes of winter, the city, identity, loss and power. A writer from the Washington Post read it while casting about the state of 'fiction on the web' in this new electronic wasteland, and in a feverish sentence not only gave me my name but compared my (anonymous) work to Joyce's Ulysses, a comparison which would have brought even more overweening ego inflation had he not been the Technology columnist.
I realize this is not a writeup about me. There is a point here.
Years later, I sat in my office and read Helprin's Winter's Tale. I turned pages quietly, slowly; I was forcing myself to a measured pace. I read extremely quickly, the legacy of a childhood lived without a television but with any reasonable request for books granted - an even more spoiled existence, I wot. Yet, now, this was a hideous disadvantage; I was aware of the beauty of the language, but so eager to read more that I was charging ahead, devouring the book in half-page chunks. I forced myself to read it line-by-line, slowly, savoring the imagery and the words.
Once or twice I even read it aloud to myself, as if to an unseen microphone or audience; with affect and meter.
It was some seventy-five pages before it struck me.
Helprin was in my playground. Worse; I checked the date. I was in his. My story, listless, self-indulgent, winterborne in New York City, Grand Central Terminal, downtown, the avenues and byways - Helprin, too, was painting here. With wider, bolder, softer, subtler strokes, and - damn it - I could feel the City in my head becoming his.
But it wasn't really a loss, because mine had never been finished. His had. I knew, because I held in my hand a complete bound book. That book was what in my wildest dreams I could never imagine being able to write about a City I love and hate and am awed by.
Helprin writes with the gentle curves of a fine holograph, at once bold and sweeping, all while exploring with purpose to the left and right of his base course. I cried out several times in frustration: /msg dannye I wept today at scene thus-and-so, in public, damn it. I was a hundred, then two hundred, then three hundred pages in, and still I had no idea where the story was going. Yet the draw of the book just grew stronger. The language was becoming almost normal as I read; something I was used to, no longer a heady wine, but there was some glowing light at the back of the book that I could feel. I had to reach it, not to find out what happened - because, somehow, that was almost unimportant - but to find out what Helprin had done with this marvelous decoction of literary distillate.
I was strict with myself, rationing the pages until I got close, but eventually I came to the end.
It wasn't what I expected.
But I'm very glad I bought the archival copy first.
1st ed. Harcourt; New York, September 20, 1983. 688p.
For more information, see Mark Helprin.