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Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth

Recently I finished The Wizard, the second part of Gene Wolfe’s Wizard Knight. I enjoyed it, even if reading it on the train made me feel like I was reading The Dungeonmaster’s Guide or something similarly dorktastic. Wolfe’s writing is strange and dense. Making sense of the story is like a puzzle, with details casually dropped and hinted at throughout. There’s a genuine sense of satisfaction when you recall a tidbit that gets paid off 300 pages later.

My current novel is Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, a novel my mom recommended to me last summer. Apparently Follett makes most of his living as writer on techno-spy thriller kinds of books, a genre with which my mother is definitely enamored. I have never read one of his books before, and, honestly, I probably won’t. I’m a hundred pages into this one and I just don’t like it, even though I’m whipping through it. His writing is flavorless to me, mechanical. He tells too much and explains too much. As in films or theatre, I want characters to be mysteries we as audience member or reader need to unwrap. I am always fond of the unreliable narrator in books since it provides me with another level of something to work out in the novel. I’m not just trying to decipher the plot, but also the true nature of the protagonist. That is enticing.

But Follett leaves little of his characters’s motivations to the imagination. Rather, he spells them out for us like an elementary school teacher explaining long division to a third grader. It’s like a popcorn movie where every last beat is obvious, clear from the outset, where vagueness is alien. You don’t have to think to understand what’s happening; you’re being told. It’s the clear opposite of Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, a novel I struggled with a bit last year for all its deliberate lack of clarity.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the novel will develop into some tightly plotted, brilliantly executed mesh of interwoven plotlines and characters over the next 880 pages. It certainly has the space for it. But maybe it won’t. I’m not exactly ready to give up on it yet, but if it doesn’t turn around real fast, it’s entering the discard pile.