Craziness and holding the center

My general policy is, I like crazy books. Give me a bizarre plot description that has me going “Wha?” in shock, and there’s a good chance I’ll be giving you my money.

I’ve been heard to say “The weirder, the better,” which explains my undying affection for Perdido Street Station and House on the Rock, but I’ve been rethinking that phrase lately, mainly due to John Burdett’s The Godfather of Kathmandu. The first few chapters were great–dizzy pace, weird goings-on (a grisly murder, a police official who thinks The Godfather is a blueprint for life, a lama who’s pushing smack and using telepathy), everything I treasure. But then I got about halfway through and realized I wasn’t picking up the book with the excitement I had at first. It wasn’t that the book had gotten more normal, but that its weirdness hadn’t cohered in any direction or gained any momentum. If I wanted piles of weirdness without any real drive, I’d read Tom Robbins.

I don’t think I’m overly demanding. I love both Winter’s Tale and One Hundred Years of Solitude, and heaven knows these are books not known for their strong narrative drive. But what they have is a center–in Winter’s Tale, it’s the relationship between Peter Lake and Beverly Penn; in One Hundred Years of Solitude it’s the village of Macondo and the dancing around and through his theme that Garciá Márquez does (for a similar but shorter and even more plotless weaving dance, check out Robert Coover’s Briar Rose and take time to wonder how any relationships last). You have to be grounded in something, and to me, The Godfather of Kathmandu didn’t have that. And in the end, that’s the greatest weakness of House on the Rock–it’s a spectacle and a wonder, but you’ll break your brain trying to figure what it’s all about, which leaves you with the vague suspicion that it’s not about anything. I like weirdness, but I suppose I don’t believe it’s an end in and of itself.

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