Wednesday, December 7, 2011
K.J. Parker - The Hammer
You can have justice, or you can keep the peace. Can't have both. (p. 379)
Though I can hardly call myself an expert in Parker's work, I have read The Folding Knife and the Engineer Trilogy, and the similarities between The Hammer and the latter of those two are unmistakable. Some of those are superficial, like how we've here, as we had there, a scene involving the urgent construction of some strange tool to save a man's life. But that pales compared to the rather larger similarity of a world, one filled with conflict but set in its ways, disrupted forever by a single freethinking man that fled the established order, outthought everyone else, started a factory, revolutionized the economy and technology of all those around him, had an ulterior motive, and changed everything.
Now, a similarity that gargantuan's a bit hard to overlook, but alright, fine. It was a great concept the first time, and I trust Parker as an author. Surely, she could make it work again, and surely she wouldn't shoot for the exact same payoff. Well, she didn't. But that's where the book's more serious problem lies. The Engineer Trilogy showed its hero of sorts undertaking a huge task, but that was just the beginning. Momentous as the factory was, it was the path to something much greater. Using a comparatively simple mechanism, the main character shifted the entire world and did something that, though tragic, was unmistakably incredible, grand, and all sorts of words like that. The Hammer, alas, plays out in rather the opposite fashion. Our factory builder, Gignomai met'Oc, does have an ulterior motive, but rather than being earth shaking, that motive's far, far smaller than what he seems poised to do. The novel's earthshaking rhetoric and epic build were all just smoke and mirrors. Amusingly enough, all that large scale stuff does end up happening, after our personal payoff, and it does so off screen and without any real fuss.
It's something like if you went to a great stage magician's show, and she took to the stage with a school bus behind her, and she gave a long speech about how she's going to lift the bus into the air with the power of her mind, then reshape it into a statue, or what have you. Then she takes a spoon out of her pocket, bends that, and wanders off. The spoon bending was all well and good, and might have been quite impressive in other circumstances, but it's rather hard to not feel more than a tad disappointed after all the buildup it got. Then, as you're walking to your car, the magician stops by and, in a section entitled Five Years Later, tells you that she actually did all that was promised, only she did it after the lights were out and everybody'd left. She briefly alludes to how interesting it might've been to see if only she'd let you, though, so there's that.
Why is this such a problem? After all, in her aforementioned stand alone, The Folding Knife, Parker plays out the drama of one man's life on a grand stage. What makes that not work here, though, is that, unlike in The Folding Knife, the characters are not only unsympathetic but also unreletable. Some are cold and distant, others are only presented to us in that way, but we can grow close to none of them. That's not necessarily a problem in an epic, but it certainly is in a personal story about one man's obsessions. Like Vaatzes, Gignomai interacts with people as if they're objects, as if he's a "scientist" and the world's but a culture for him to fool around with and bend to his will, life just an "experiment" for him to manipulate to his satisfaction (p. 217). That could work for a man unfeelingly shaping nations, but when his goal is a familial one, I, at least, felt little more than the vague disappointment that comes when a great power is used for some minor end.
Of course, Gignomai's not the novel's only character. He is, though, the only one with any mystery to him. Through the entire novel, I can only think of one genuinely and emotionally human moment, and it takes place very near the end, though I won't say exactly what it is to avoid spoiling the text for those who've yet to read it. That one moment struck me, added untold depths to the character who expressed it, and made me, for a few brief moments, really feel the human consequences of Gignomai's actions. If the rest of the book had been like that, it would've been heartbreaking and immeasurably more powerful. But the rest of the characters, besides Gignomai and that one other flash, are concepts given flesh and blood, walking playthings for Gignomai to shape as he chooses. Amusingly enough, many of them are even aware of this. The town's shopkeep and mayor even begins to think of himself as a "properly greedy man" (p. 300) before all that long. The explanation for this could, I suppose, be that Parker's only capable of writing obvious characters unless, as she does with Gignomai, she simply hides everything about them, but I don't think that's true. After all, though it focused on much of the same themes as The Hammer, the Engineer Trilogy had several complex and fascinating personalities, and The Folding Knife had its riveting star, Basso. Leaving that out, though, I really can't say why most of the characters here fall so flat.
The distance is reinforced by the prose, though there is still a huge amount of Parker's always stunning irreverence towards traditions, loyalty, and life itself: [He] had no idea how to kill a man with his bare hands. It turned out to be one of those things you can pick up as you go along. (p. 342)
But when you laugh – and laugh, I think, you will – you're not laughing with the characters, even if they made a joke. You're laughing at how much more than them you know, even if it's not much, and at how terrible things are and will grow, and at how deserving they are or are not for the fate that you know that's coming.
Even when Parker relates her character's thoughts directly, the prose is still distant. We come to see these people, and we come to understand them, but we never really come to sympathize with them. Midway through the text, we see that Gignomai looked up so fast he banged the top of his head on a cross-beam. He felt a strong pulse in his scalp, and something wet dribbled down over his forehead. (p. 279) We see the physical and emotional effects of the story in every detail, we know why Gignomai hit his head and what happened afterwards and that blood dribbled down, but we see all this through a lense, and the detail that's never mentioned is whether this hurt, and we're certainly never made to wince alongside him.
This is, I realize, a really negative review. I should, likely, qualify it a bit. I didn't hate The Hammer. I even enjoyed reading just about every minute of it, loved the writing, was intrigued for most of it, and finished it in two days. But the book's ending was more a whimper than a bang, and the fact that, for all its interesting aspects, it was building up to nothing, rather trashed my fond memories of most of the experience. This isn't the kind of book where you cheer for the hero, and, because there's never a tenth of the way credible opponent, it's also not the kind where you wonder for even a moment if that hero's going to win. In the end, the The Hammer's the kind of book that's experienced through a lense or a microscope, with the reader not at all a part of the action and along just to see how things turn out, and, well, they don't really turn out at all, at least not on stage in any of the ways we might've been tempted to see.