Thursday, May 28, 2015

My Lack of Regard for Regard

Author Patrick Rothfuss roared onto the fantasy landscape with his debut trilogy, the Kingkiller Chronicle. And, like nearly all pillars of fantasy writing, he is having trouble actually finishing his story. Four years passed between the release of the first volume, The Name of the Wind, and the second, The Wise Man's Fear. Four more years have passed since, with no publication date in sight for the final book. But Rothfuss has released a few adjunct short stories and novellas for various anthologies, and now one published entirely on its own: The Slow Regard of Silent Things.

This novella focuses on one supporting character from the series proper, the mysterious Auri who lives in the Underthing -- her name for the labyrinthine rooms and tunnels that lurk beneath the series' magical University. Auri is a fan favorite, and the novella pulls back the curtain of mystery surrounding both the character and her home.

But from page 1, Rothfuss is apologizing for writing it. Not because he indulged a distraction from finishing book three itself. Not an "apology" in literal words, in fact. But he acknowledges in a foreword that this book is not a good place to read his writing for the first time, and then elaborates in a lengthy afterword how he felt doubts about even releasing the story at all. It was unconventional, he knew, and he seemed persuaded to release it only by a number of people telling him that if people didn't like it, then it probably wasn't "for them."

Very well. The Slow Regard of Silent Things isn't for me. Rothfuss is right to apologize for it. And none of the criticisms I'm about to level at it aren't acknowledged by the writer himself.

The novella comes no closer to a plot than one character struggling to find the right place to display a trophy. It comes no closer to action than eight pages of making soap. It comes nowhere near dialogue or interaction, featuring only the one character. The Slow Regard of Silent Things isn't a novella, it's a writing exercise. The assignment: shape a third-person narrative to convey the identity of a character.

Where the two Kingkiller Chronicle books thus far presented Auri as a quirky and mysterious character, The Slow Regard of Silent Things seems to reveal her as a young woman with autism. She sees a level of interaction in the world that no one else sees, and she lacks the ability to communicate her vision with other people in any meaningful way. She's obsessive-compulsive, set on finding the appropriate place for everything, and on keeping her face, hands, and feet properly clean.

As pure writing craft -- as say, a college assignment -- the writing is wonderful. It perfectly places the reader in Auri's head. Rothfuss makes strategic use of repetition, homophones (and near homophones), sentence fragments, and odd paragraph breaks, all resulting in evocative prose. And it's prose that feels nothing like the narrative of the novels that feature Auri without centering on her. But it hardly sustains for 30,000 words, and definitely doesn't stand alone with any narrative merit. Put bluntly, it's one of the longest short books I've ever read.

But, forestalling my criticism, Patrick Rothfuss says that this book isn't "for me." Fair enough. But I still think it unfair that he traded on my love of his novels to sell it to me. I do appreciate the way this honed his writing ability, and I hope those skills will be on display whenever we finally get book three of Kingkiller Chronicle (in which one assumes his main character will finally, actually kill a king). Still, I can only give the novella itself a D+.

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