2015 Reading Journey: Titus Groan

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Titus Groan (The Gormenghast Trilogy, Book 1) by Mervyn Peake (1946)

I selected this first book of the Gormenghast trilogy for the 1940s leg of the journey for a couple of reasons: it was on a large number of “must read” classic spec fic lists, and nearly all of the reviewers seemed to love it. I selected it in spite of the numerous comparisons and contrasts with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I cut my reading teeth on Tolkien’s work and LotR is likely what hooked me on Fantasy as a child. So I had some concerns.

Those concerns were both ridiculous and valid.

It’s not the same kind of fantasy.

In the beginning, it was very hard to like Titus Groan.

On page 78, the narrative itself tells me we just finished introducing the relevant characters. Really? Eighty pages into a five hundred page book and now we can actually start the story? Granted we’ve learned that we’re inhabiting a small corner of a world that’s so locked into tradition and the way things have always been done that there’s no room for personalities other than the stereotypes we’ve been introduced to. But maybe stereotype isn’t a fair word. If the world is really so closed, so insular as the author brings to us, then it’s entirely feasible that only stereotypes are possible.

Which doesn’t make it easier for me to read farther into the story.

And yet slowly, ever so slowly, the writing, with its lavish descriptions and odd similes, long conversations about nothing and just the barest hint that this may be a world of fantasy rather than a slightly rippled version of our own world, the writing draws you in.

The plot is fairly easy to summarize, and there isn’t much of one: Escaping the kitchens on the evening of the next Earl of Groan’s birth, a young sociopath begins his rise to power in an enclosed society crippled by a bewildering array of senseless and ridiculous traditions. (That sentence was written almost half way through the book, and I changed “a bewildering array of” from “many” when I finished it.)

I understand Mr. Peake spent time in the court of Imperial China, a ritual-heavy environment that would have seemed bizarre and impenetrable to a western outsider. The inspiration for the huge castle of Groan and the bizarre and unintelligible traditions that bind everyone’s every waking moment (especially the Earl) are clear, but I think are less coherent than he would have found in the reality of the Chinese court. Still, the traditions make it impossible for you to mistake being in a world that isn’t ours, and the previously mentioned young sociopath, Steerpike, finds tremendous advantage in conforming to the rituals and traditions outwardly while doing whatever he pleases in his quest for power.

Characters in the book are mostly not particularly complex, not one dimensional, but not with any great depth to them. You get hints here and there that they would like the world to be different, that they have hopes and dreams and fears, but they all feel both loyal to and bound to the way things are. Especially the Earl of Groan, whose nearly every moment is ruled by some ritual or another. Again, Steerpike seems to be the exception. I’d be likely to flag him as the antagonist of the tale, if there were a protagonist.

I feel like it’s worth nothing that there are a couple of stylistic switches the author pulls that completely threw me out of what little story there was.

Somewhere close to the ¾ mark in the book, he changed tense from past to present. This can work when it’s done well and the writing is in the first person. In a sort-of-omniscient third person, it’s less palatable and far more jarring. I think I’m supposed to assume this change is to convey a sense of immediacy, but I actually found it jarring and kept waiting for him to switch back, which distracted me from the narrative. When he finally did switch back, an odd feeling of discomfort disappeared.

Then there was a series of stream of consciousness “reveries” at “The Breakfast” (a celebration for the next earl, young Titus Groan, for whom the book is named but is barely a character. This is probably a matter of taste. If you like unpunctuated stream of consciousness drivel, then maybe this set of mini-scenes will work for you. I don’t, and it didn’t. As the POV is something between 3rd person omniscient and a travelling 3rd person limited with viewpoints switching at the author’s whim, I don’t see the point of this other than the author wanting to see a small scrap of scene from multiple viewpoints and not wanting to choose which to write or include.

So, with all of the things I don’t like about this book, it might be surprising that I give it an overall rating of 2 stars, maybe squeaking towards 2.5 at times. It was okay, but not okay enough for me to pick up the next story in the trilogy. Insufficient story, insufficient character development. While the level of description, lavish and world-building as it is, paints a detailed picture, that picture is dull and uninteresting. Mr. Peake’s writing is so description-heavy that he can (and does on at least one occasion) take several pages to tell the reader that nothing is happening, in part by telling us all of the things that aren’t happening.

But description doesn’t make a story on its own, as much as this book tries.

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