Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Monsters of Templeton

The Monsters of Templeton
by Lauren Groff

In many ways, this book ought to be a hard sell for me. Set in, and dominated by, a small New England town named Templeton, which is strongly based on Cooperstown, New York, home of novelist James Fenimore Cooper and the Baseball Hall of Fame, it follows a young woman named Willie Upton, returning to her old home town to be confronted with a mystery about her past. I’ve never read any of Cooper’s work, and ever since the Expos moved Major League Basebal has been Dead To Me. But Willie’s story, and the stories she finds about her ancestors, are engaging; Groff’s a talented writer, and the structure of the book, with interpenetrating narratives and shifting voices, held my interest.

The book is nominally fantasy, filled with ghosts, pyrokinetics, a possibly-immortal apothecary, and the titular monsters (though it’s a safe bet the title’s also meant to refer to some of the human characters as well). You could call it magic realism — it’s a novel set in the recognisably real world, into which there are intrusions of the uncanny which nevertheless don’t alter the real setting are not necessarily the main point of the action of the story. In the end, it’s a strong blend of both the everyday and the unreal.

The writing is very strong, with smooth prose. The characters are engaging, if occasionally a trifle flat. On the other hand, this is a busy book, moving swiftly through scenes and incidents; you don’t notice that some of the characters have, let’s say, an archetypal quality to them. 

The town is well-detailed, well-imagined, but I felt could have used a bit more life to it; and by that I mean it would have been nice to see some of the secondary characters react strongly to some of the events which happen in the town. I would have liked to have seen the town, as a community, deal with a dead monster washing up on shore (as happens at the beginning of the book) in a more extensive fashion than we get. I don’t mean that the book should have focussed on that in a plot sense; only that none of the characters seem particularly interested or touched by the event or its aftermath.

More disappointing to me is the fact that Willie’s voice is less distinctive than that of many of her ancestors. Groff has a good touch with voice; the collective speech of a running club, almost incantatory, matching the rhythm of their jogging steps, or the rough dialect of an eighteenth-century frontiersman, or the excited yet stilted tones of nineteenth-century ladies in private letters — all these tones and vocabularies come across, all these speakers are vivid. Willie, by contrast, has her moments, but suffers by comparison.

This may be an extension of the tonal shifts between the present-day stories and the past tales Wille uncovers. Events in the present are sweetly comic, with relatively little tension to them; things in the past are bloody and often tragic. It’s something I find common in novels called ‘literary’ as opposed to those considered ‘genre’: in the literary novels, events in the past define the present, the main story takes place in extended flashbacks, and the climax often mixes both by revealing in the present some previously-unknown truth to which the flashbacks have been building (or presenting a capstone flashback tying past and present together). The genre books tend to be more focussed on the present; the key events unfold right now, obviously shaped by history, but nevertheless making the current moment the main field of action. I don’t mean for this to be an absolute statement, only an observation of a trend. My point is that it describes The Monsters of Templeton nicely, and in this case is exacerbated by the differences in the types of story being told in past and present.

At any rate, in the end, it’s a strong book, a fine read. I picked it up from the library looking for books from 2008 I could reasonably nominate for a Hugo Award; this might end up fitting the bill.

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