Details: (c) 1980 Anthony Burgess; Pub Avon 1981; ISBN 0-380-56903-5
Verdict: Earthly Powers is fascinatingly detailed and many-layered piece, though it's a little short on action.
Reasons for reading it: rysmiel enthused about it, and then showed me the opening sentence. (I liked said opening even more once I'd read a few paragraphs in.)
How it came into my hands: Shortly after this conversation rysmiel took me on a tour of Montreal's second-hand bookshops and I found a copy.
Earthly Powers creates a character so believable and so complicated he might as well be a real person. Kenneth Toomey isn't particularly likeable, but he's so amazingly well-drawn that I was motivated to read about him and wanted things to go well for him anyway. I had to keep reminding myself that the book is fiction, not an actual autobiography. Even the presentation of a draft of a manuscript is convincing; Toomey "accidentally" repeats phrases which appeal to him and the narrative is superficially slightly muddled, as if the imaginary narrator had forgotten what background he's already revealed or where he is chronologically.
But it's much cleverer than that; everything fits together in an incredibly subtle way, it's full of metaphors and allusions and references and clever connections and every detail turns out to mean something in the story. The apparent minor flaws and inconsistencies, as well as creating a sense of realism, also contribute something to what is a truly impressive edifice. EP is clever like a Bach fugue is clever, everything almost inhumanly precise and the themes and shapes working at all kinds of different scales.
Unlike Bach, though, EP is much more a cerebral delight than an emotional one. It's not a very accessible book, it's incredibly slow going and just too complex to be entirely readable. It's taken me most of a month to get through it, and even for a 700-page book that's slow going for me. I never really felt an urge to get back into it once I'd put it down. I'd end up waiting until the generic drive to read sent me back to it, rather than wanting to know what happens next, because really not a whole lot happens. Again, this does enhance the sense of realism of reading a draft of the autobiography of a rather doddery old man who was a competent but not a wonderful novelist.
There are lots of cool ideas in EP, but they're almost incidental; the authorial voice is almost entirely silent and the ideas seem to emerge out of the main story almost spontaneously. In some ways it's a history of the 20th century, but with fiction dovetailing with real history so you can't see the joins at all. I was particularly interested in the account of the history of homosexuality, from the invention of the concept of homosexual orientation through its gradual social acceptance in the mainstream, of course an unfinished story as EP makes very clear. It presents some really interesting views of religion, (religion itself as well as theology) which I found fascinating. And there's stuff about love and relationships, and creativity, and different places and cultures, and all sorts of things.
It's the kind of book that almost makes me want to engage in some serious literary criticism. I'd like to study it and dissect it in depth, the symbolism and the construction and all the sort of things that I normally prefer to ignore so I can concentrate on the story. Even simply reading it felt like hard work, but it was decidedly rewarding.