Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

March 10, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books get a lot of press for being underrated fantasy. Really, though, I don’t think fantasy is the genre. Peake is a good, maybe even great, writer and what he has managed to produce here is the novel equivalent to an unrelentingly bleak and minimalist postmodern stage play. The setting is an enormous castle more or less in the middle of nowhere. Nothing is around it except for a squat, unbelievably poor village. Right away I was bothered by the absurdity of a feudal system that doesn’t seem to have any serfs to speak of. What Peake is doing is constructing a hazy dreamscape where the world outside the castle fades to white while people struggle with their difficulties inside it. The characters are all grotesques and the events in the plot are somewhat arbitrary. Unlike Gene Wolfe, who at times evokes the same haze, this world is not poorly understood, there is nothing to understand. It is the two dimensional backdrop to the play Peake is putting on. If you enjoy getting social commentary by means of a strained allegory then this is probably a great book. I do not, but I could appreciate the marvelous job Peake did with his characters. I hesitate to call them characters, since they are not really characters in the traditional sense. They are types wrapped in massive eccentricities. Many of them are amazingly memorable, but I didn’t much appreciate Dickens and ultimately I didn’t appreciate this. It’s too bad, because at one moment, as Steerpike comes to Fuschia’s window, I could sense something that I would consider brilliant in the realm of possibilities. But Peake was after something else entirely. If you liked Dickens, this is not the same thing but it is worth a try. Otherwise, it is mainly worth reading to know what other people are talking about.

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