Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

book cover

The last thing Mrs. Gamely said to her daughter was, “Remember, what we are trying to do in this life is to shatter time and bring back the dead.”

Winter’s Tale is a BIG book. I refer not only to its 748-page length, but to its ambition. It is a big book about big ideas, and it takes some big characters to realize the author’s ambition. There are a few here.

Colin Farrell as …

Peter Lake, the rock on which Mark Helprin builds much of his story, shares his genesis with the likes of Moses and Kal-El, set adrift as an infant in a small craft in New York harbor when his immigrant-wannabe parents are about to be turned away. Foundling Peter is raised by a group known at Baymen, an unusual band that is part deep interior bayou folk and part Native Americans. They inhabit, and work the Bayonne Marsh, a piece of New Jersey visible from New York harbor. His story is the primary character-driven thread here. We see Peter and this world from the beginning of the twentieth century to the turn of the millennium. Peter makes his way from Dickensian street urchin to mechanic to gang-member and burglar, to something grander.

Listo as …

Athansor is a great white horse, the stuff of legends, which comes in handy when there are impossible distances to be leapt and rescues or escapes to be effected. Boy meets horse when this milk-truck equine’s fanciful walkabout through the city is interrupted by his encounter with Peter, who is fleeing for his life from the Short Tails gang and its larger-than-life leader, Pearly Soames. Pearly would like to send Peter to meet his maker with extreme prejudice for a betrayal we will learn about later. Athansor and Peter gallop through this imaginary version of New York, doing things like snatching hats off policemen and dashing through a theater in mid-performance. (A real hoofer on Broadway) If you think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, you would be right. Hi, ho, Athansor, Away!

Jessica Brown Findlay as …

Beverly Penn is a consumptive 18-year-old (they upped her to 21 for the film) heiress who suffers so from the fever of her condition that she sleeps on the roof in winter in order to cool off. (Cue the Drifters ) She is playing the piano when she is startled, seeing Peter as he is in the process of burglarizing the family home. Having had a vision that something significant would be changing her life, it seems clear to her that the something is the criminal element in her living room. She has other visions as well, visual and auditory perceptions of a reality beyond that of which mere mortals are aware. There are other large figures in the story, and other story lines, but these are the main ones. And the story of Peter and Beverly’s love is balanced by Pearly and Peter’s antipathy.

Russell Crowe as Pearly Soames with his droogies Short Tails

The author is not content to weave a tale around his maybe-doomed lovers, but offers us other couples to tote some of that emotional freight. We meet families at various points in their history. A tot in one section becomes a capitalist scion in another, for example. I will spare you too much plot summary, or a fuller list of characters. Even by my generous standards it would be excessively long. But I have included a link to such a blow-by-blow in the Extra Stuff section if that seems useful. Suffice it to say that in upstate New York there is a Brigadoon-like town known as The Lake of the Coheeries, and some pretty magical things take place there. No, you do not have to wait a hundred years before it appears. It actually does not appear on any maps, but can be accessed if you know how. It is the source for several of our additional characters, and some fabulously creative images. It lies beyond the crucible zone that surrounds the city, substituting a huge hill of ice and snow as a barrier for the white clouds that enclose the city farther south. The town serves as a fairyland version of the country, in the same way that Helprin’s vision of New York City (well, really, Manhattan. His vision of the city offers little for the other four boroughs than a Breughelian image of them as places to avoid.) is a fantastical version of the real place. But all this seems a maguffin for the real business here, which lies in the themes being addressed.

Mark Halperin has written a love song to New York, well, parts of it anyway. There is a stunning lyricism to his descriptions of the city, alive with romantic vision, yet also fueled by a dose of paranoia and class fear. But he is after bigger fish than venting his affection for The Big Apple or whatever nickname might apply in his alternate universe, a whole ocean’s worth. Small matters like free will, the nature of existence, the relationship between the rational and the spiritual, the nature of time, justice, mortality. You know, stuff.

Helprin argues that the spiritual must accompany the rational or the result is a soulless existence.

Well, we’ve been mechanized. We view ourselves as mechanisms. This is a trend since The Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, in my view, has two streams – a good stream and a bad stream. The good stream is the beauty of reason, to approach something via scientific method, via logic. The ugly part of The Enlightenment is that if you confine yourselves to those methods, then you are limiting yourself in terms of your understanding of what a human soul is. By necessity, because you cannot define the soul as it’s not subject to proof, human beings become mechanisms. Without faith, a person is a mechanism, and then there’s no reason he shouldn’t be treated or work under those assumptions, as a mechanism. – from Contemporary Lit interview

Is there some underlying logic to our universe, machines, physical, psychic or spiritual that whirr, turn and grind to support everything?

“Apart from natural laws, from the world as we know it,” Hardesty speculated, “maybe there are laws of organization which bind us to patterns that we can’t see and to tasks that we don’t perceive.”

And Helprin takes a long view of things

“Churchmen,” she had said, “like Boissy d’Anglas, burn themselves up in seeking, and they find nothing. If your faith is genuine, then you meet your responsibilities, fulfill your obligations, and wait until you are found. It will come. If not to you, then to your children, and if not to them, then to their children.”

Helprin posits a world or worlds in which the select few can see and access an underlying reality, and it is not clear that there is a path to this understanding other than dumb luck. One must wonder if the writers of The Matrix or promoters of born-again-isms had Helprin in mind.

her strength was not derived from things which can be catalogued or reasonably discussed. She had an inexplicable lucidity, a power to see things for what they were. Somehow she had come into possession of a pure standard. It was as if lightning had struck the ground in front of her and had been frozen and prolonged until she could see along its bright and transparent shaft all the way to its absolute source.

No, this is not taken from the Left Behind series and Bev was not bitten by an irradiated spider.

Brooklyn Bridge and God

The city as crucible, which we first see from a god-like view, looking down, is surrounded by an enormous and deitifically powerful white cloud. Unlike the low-hanging clouds in real NYC, which can make building tops appear to vanish when they pass through, this white cloud can actually take the things it touches. It makes the city into an almost-closed system that will experience both the deadly cold of extreme winter and intense heat from another source.

“…these winters have not been for nothing. They are the plough. The wind and the stars are harrowing the land and battering the city. I feel it and can see it in everything. The animals know it is coming. The ships in the harbor rush about and have come alive because it is coming. I may be dead wrong but I do believe that every act has significance, and that, in our time, all the ceaseless thunder is not for nothing.”

There is the potential for greatness in cities, this one in particular, but there must be a blood-letting in order to usher in a new golden age, and that seems perfectly fine for the god of this novel.

The notion of justice also comes in for considerable attention. Peter’s first craft is named “City of Justice.” Jackson Mead, a builder of bridges, says, “My purpose, in one word, is justice.” A significant silver tray that Hardesty Marratta (a significant character) cherishes in inscribed thus: “For what can be imagined more than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone.” Peter engages in a quest for justice as well. In a passage about time, justice gets the final word

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 imagine 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 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 as something that is.

And it’s just tough luck on those who fall afoul of the currents of time. If you are rich, then I guess you were meant to be, and if you were dirt poor, well, sorry, it was always thus. It does strike me that this is a point of view that might be favored by those who have landed in the cushier seats.

Be careful where you step. You may bump into another image. Gates figure large here. Both the literal gates that surround the Battery in lower Manhattan and a set of four psychic gates that cities are supposed to have, (resonating with the four parts of the novel) visible, of course, only to people who are very, very special. Color figures large. Pearly (whose name certainly reflects the seasonal milieu) is deeply affected by color and seeks it out by whatever means possible.

But, whereas the wall was white, the city was a palette of upwelling colors. Its forms and geometry entranced him—the orange blaze in clear upper windows; a gas lamp’s green and white bell-like glare; leaping tongues of fire; red-hot booming chambers in the charcoal; shoe-black horses trotting airily at the head of varnished carriages; peaked and triangular roofs; the ballet of the crowds as they took stairs, turned corners, and forged across streets; the guttural noise of machinery…sails that filled the ends of streets with billows of white or sharp angular planes, and then collapsed into the bordering buildings or made of themselves a guillotine

Blue and gold come in for particular and much-repeated attention. Stars shine brightly here as well, whether the actual universe of stars or their simulacra in a large chamber or a magical painting. Bridges and rainbows carry significance as well. Machines are also more than mere mechanisms.

Mark Helprin – image from NPR

In case you did not know, Helprin is a political sort, a conservative true believer who writes speeches for Republican leaders. His particular sensibilities enter here as well, as he offers the odd diatribe on how any sort of public assistance is a form of satanic temptation, leading good people astray and allowing bad people to milk the rest of us to support what is portrayed as a life of low leisure. He also has a vision of wide swaths of the lower classes as being purely bent on destruction, as if the race riots of the 60s had burned a hole in his vision and he was forced thereafter to see everything in the world through those altered lenses. It gets intrusive at times. At least he has the decency to balance his Ayn Randish laudatory portrayal of one mogul with an equally dark one of another (a Rupert Murdoch stand-in). And he does offer an interesting proposal for an ideal way to organize a company that speaks to a need for fairness, but which would never be tolerated in the real world by those whose mission it is to absorb ALL the wealth. He also harbors a view of criminality that is, to say the least, eccentric. That said, the political aspect, while present and occasionally toxic, could have been a lot worse.

In Sum
What is impressive about Winter’s Tale is the sheer volume of creativity on display here. His portrayal of a Dickensian sort of steam-punk New York was fascinating and effective. The Lake of the Coheeries is very effectively magical. But just as it is wonderful to enjoy a slice of cake, it can become a different sort of experience if one were to try devouring the entire thing. So it is here, a case of creativity run amok. The author wanders off. For example, after we have invested in Peter, Beverly and Athansor, Helprin sets them aside for almost two hundred pages to play in some other snow fields. Really? Helprin is at his weakest when attempting a sort-of slapstick humor. Those bits fall very, very flat. As do sections where a character acquires otherworldly powers. And Athansor’s propensity for arriving in the nick of time to save this or that one makes one wonder if he might have been a sort of deity made by one of the many machines that populate the story. If you have not yet read Winter’s Tale, prepare to make a special effort to keep track of the characters. There are many. And, oh yeah, lest you think the opening quote was purely gratuitous, there are resurrections here. Helprin is definitely thinking BIG.

You may find Winter’s Tale exhilarating and you may find it exhausting. You may feel enlarged by the beauty of the imagery and reduced by the occasional mean-spiritedness manifested by the author. You may feel intellectually stimulated by the grand notions portrayed, but deadened by the familiar trope of access being reserved only to the elect. You may feel deeply at the poetry of Helprin’s descriptions, (they certainly sing to me in my love for my home town) but may experience frustration that he takes so bloody long to get to the point. Winter’s Tale may leave you cold, or it may warm you to unimagined possibilities. But whether your reaction is pain, exultation or both, you will definitely react. Winter’s Tale has been called one of the 25 greatest American novels of the 20th Century. I do not agree, but I can see why some people think that. It is pretty clear that it is one of the most ambitious. I believe it would have been a better book with a tighter focus and about two hundred or so fewer pages. But, even though I have issues with the book I do believe that it is well worth reading. Winter’s Tale may not have completely warmed the cockles of my reader’s heart, but it is still pretty chill.

Posted on GR on February 28, 2014

==================================EXTRA STUFF

Interview with MH in The Paris Review and in – This the source of the quote from the author used in the review

This review in the Thriving Family web site contains a detailed run through of the events of the book and a look at some of the imagery

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

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