Whom I’ve Been Reading: Patrick Rothfuss

You know how sometimes books will have author’s notes at the beginning? Have you ever read one that told you from the get-go that you should probably not read the book? That it wasn’t really much of a story, and that the author’s army of industry professionals (agent, editor, publisher, etc.) would probably prefer he not say any of this to you at all? That if you hadn’t read any of the author’s other works, this was the exact wrong one to start with?

Last week I read that book: The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss.

I haven’t read Rothfuss’ two novels yet, I will admit, so I was breaking a “rule” as well, and I’m glad I did, because The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a strange and marvelous story that demonstrates in unapologetic, beckoning prose that sometimes rules aren’t as important as we think they are.

This weird tale of Auri, a waif who lives in the tunnels beneath a setting in Rothfuss’ other books, glories in an inexplicable naming system and an outward premise which perhaps doesn’t pay off. With no dialogue and arguably one character, it defies the expectations of what mainstream fiction does and contains. But I think we need more books like that. It’s just one more way of diversifying what’s available in the marketplace.

I don’t want to tell you much about Auri’s story. For one thing, I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s a quick read, maybe 30,000 words, and part of its magic is in the strange way things are revealed — or not revealed, as the case may be. (It’s definitely a tale for open-minded readers.) But for another thing, I’m not really sure what I would tell you about her story.

Is she an unreliable narrator? Perhaps. Her voice — by which I mean her thoughts — traipse into the realm of mental illness, but in a charmingly benevolent way, if you can imagine. Auri is in some ways a broken girl. But there are moments when I believed it okay: she has found her way in the world, and once I accepted that her world is not my world and that the rules of my world don’t necessarily hold sway in hers, Auri’s differences melted away and I found her to be relatable, and ultimately reliable, too. I found I cared for her tremendously.

Does any of that make sense? Maybe not. Does her story? I’ll let you decide for yourself. I will say that the first few chapters had me bewildered, but I persevered, and on page 84, something so unexpected happened I laughed out loud for several minutes. I couldn’t have appreciated that moment, though, without having first absorbed Auri’s voice and thought process and the mechanics of her daily life. And what followed that funny moment was poignant because, in deft fashion, Rothfuss allows the reader to understand more than the character does in the moment of a scene, and so we can have all the feels while the character has the noble struggle. And he does this without condescending, with patronizing Auri.

Auri’s life is shadowed by past trauma and brightened by future joy. And while it would be a disservice to you for me to explain how the end of the book breaks the rules, I ask you to consider what the rules of story are for. We learn in school that stories must have conflict in order to be stories, and that this conflict must be resolved for the story’s ending to satisfy. But beyond those intelligent guidelines, the details are open to interpretation. If there’s one thing Auri’s story teaches us — both in its details and in its execution — it’s that we can’t always assume that our expectations are fair. And we shouldn’t.

Stories break rules sometimes. They defy expectations, surprise us. They innovate. And if they don’t? They’re not likely to rise to the top of my TBR list.

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