Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

“To be mad is to feel with excruciating intensity the sadness and joy of a time which has not arrived or has already been. And to protect their delicate vision of that other time, madmen will justify their condition with touching loyalty, and surround it with a thousand distractive schemes. These schemes, in turn, drive them deeper and deeper into the darkness and light (which is their mortification and their reward), and confront them with a choice. They may either slacken and fall back, accepting the relief of a rational view and the approval of others, or they may push on, and, by falling, arise. When and if by their unforgivable stubbornness they finally burst through to worlds upon worlds of motionless light, they are no longer called afflicted or insane. They are called saints.”

Sometimes I don’t know where I get the idea that I am supposed to read something. And then I will read it and it will disappoint me, and I will not be sure who to blame. In the case of Winter’s Tale, I know exactly where I got the idea that I should read it: Paste magazine. In fact, when we were cleaning out our magazines last spring, I went through every single issue of Paste so I could remember what book it was that they had recommended so highly. I finally found it and dutifully wrote it down. I checked it out over the summer but didn’t read it. I am so glad I finally, finally got the chance.

It’s hard to tell you what this book is about. The Wikipedia entry sums it up like this:

The overall feel of the novel is that of magic realism, similar to that found in the works of Gabriel García Márquez or Salman Rushdie. The book is in part a paean to New York City in the same way that Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is a tribute to Colombia.

But the thing about this book that is so amazing is the language. It’s fantastic. I hate to just post quotes, but what I have to say about the book can be said better by the book itself.

“Such a thing as the child left alone to die in the hallway was unknown on the marsh. But here, in the dawn, was mortality itself. In the city were places to fall from which one could never emerge — dark dreams and slow death, the death of children, suffering without grace or redemption, ultimate and eternal loss. The memory of the child stayed with him. But that was not to be the end of it, for reality went around in a twisting ring. Even the irredeemable would be redeemed, and there was a balance for everything. There had to be.”

Winter’s Tale is, honestly, a little strange and a little bit difficult to follow in places. It took me a while to get through it. But I do recommend it, despite all of that. If you can handle that sort of magical realism, give Winter’s Tale a try.

“Nothing is random, nor will anything ever be, whether a long string of perfectly blue days that begin and end in golden dimness, the most seemingly chaotic political acts, the rise of a great city, the crystalline structure of a gem that has never seen the light, the distributions of fortune, what time the milkman gets up, the position of the electron, or the occurrence of one astonishing frigid winter after another. Even electrons, supposedly the paragons of unpredictability, are tame and obsequious little creatures that rush around at the speed of light, going precisely where they are supposed to go. They make faint whistling sounds that when apprehended in varying combinations are as pleasant as the wind flying through a forest, and they do exactly as they are told. Of this, one is certain.

And yet, there is a wonderful anarchy, in that the milkman chooses when to arise, the rat picks the tunnel into which he will dive when the subway comes rushing down the track from Borough Hall, and the snowflake will fall as it will. How can this be? If nothing is random, and everything is predetermined, how can there be free will? The answer to that is simple. Nothing is predetermined, it is determined, or was determined, or will be determined. No matter, it all happened at once, in less than an instant, and time was invented because we cannot comprehend in one glance the enormous and detailed canvas that we have been given – so we track it, in linear fashion piece by piece. Time however can be easily overcome; not by chasing the light, but by standing back far enough to see it all at once. The universe is still and complete. Everything that ever was is; everything that ever will be is – and so on, in all possible combinations. Though in perceiving it we image that it is in motion, and unfinished, it is quite finished and quite astonishingly beautiful. In the end, or rather, as things really are, any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others. All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but something that is.”

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