There is nothing simple about A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. It sprawls over 768 pages. It demands that you keel over and give yourself up completely to the story. It resists a breezy acquaintance and insists that you focus on each and every single word that adds up to its 768 pages. And as far as I am concerned, it’s a story that I just cannot complete in a single sitting—the sort of absolute attention that it requires is exhausting. And yet the deeper I move into it, the stronger becomes its allure.
The setting is turn of the century (the dawn of the 20th century that is) Manhattan. The main characters (from what I can ascertain by reading the first section of the book) are a thief, another thief, a horse that can virtually fly, an amorphous white wall composed chiefly of clouds that extends for miles both vertically and horizontally and that lurks off the shore of the island of Manhattan, perhaps a boy who was presumably dead, a girl who is definitely dead and the city of New York itself.
Here’s what Helprin has to say about Manhattan:
Manhattan, a high narrow kingdom as hopeful as any that ever was, burst upon him full force, a great and imperfect steel-tressed palace . . . [B]uilt upon an island from which bridges stretched to other islands and to the mainland . . . it took in nearly all who wished to enter . . . [I]t was, for sure, one simple structure, busily divided, lovely and pleasing, an extraordinary hive of the imagination, the greatest house ever built.
Its forms and geometry entranced him . . . shoe-black horses trotting airily at the head of varnished carriages . . . the ballet of the crowds as they took stairs, turned corners, and forged across streets; the guttural noises of machinery . . . and acres of beautiful upright women.
I love how generous Helprin is with his words, piling them one on top of the other till I feel intoxicated. I think that I initially persevered with this book purely because of the sentences that make up its girth. Helprin is a master describer. My favourite chapter in this first section is an episode called, “Lake of the Coheeries.” Its setting is a winter landscape that is probably brutal and yet one that Helprin succeeds in making you yearn for with the utter beauty that he renders it.
Beyond the words there are the characters themselves. They’re quite unique and also not quite normal. Not normal not because this is a book filled with magical realism (1. I hope I used that term correctly 2. There is an incident where a pair of adolescent boys are very nervous because they’re afraid that magazine with the pictures of the almost naked women they’d been drooling over would burn a hole through the floor of the room right above them and drop down onto the table where everyone was having the family dinner. That the scene a sentence later alludes to there now being a hole in the floor above was quite funny). The characters are not normal because each of the characters has something going on that makes them appear slightly touched.
I’m pretty sure I haven’t ever come across a thief who steals because he’s held in thrall by colors. The greatest heist that he plans—to seize a cargo of gold so that he can build a room made entirely of gold—has nothing to do with greed or pride:
My plan . . . is to build a golden room in a high place, and post watchmen to watch the clouds. When they turn gold, and the light sprays upon the city, the room will open. The light will stuff the chamber. Then the doors will seal shut. And the goldenness will be trapped forever. . . . In the center, I will put a simple bed, and there I will repose in warmth and gold. . . for eternity.
The book is divided into four sections and I finished the first one today. I’d become confused enough within the first few pages to want a sense of where all this led to and to see if it was worth investing my time into this story. I was careful though to not read anything spoilery about the ending, as it’s supposedly controversial. So I have a 30,000 feet overview of what probably happens. And yet I find myself bemused at this unusual tale. I don’t know what motifs, if any, form the backbone of this book. Given that I’ve finished just a quarter of this compendium that might not be surprising. I’ll be back as I find out more!
Edit: And here’s part 2