A Turd on Every Page: some thoughts on the fiction of Ken Follett
Pity me, gentle reader. Although I have read some excellent books lately, with others jostling for attention on my shelves, I have spent the past week flogging through Ken Follett's World Without End, his tale of Black Death, medieval architecture and humdrum sex. Follett sells a lot of books, so he can live quite happily without my approval, and he's obviously digested the "conflict on every page" mantra*. Incident piles on incident, improbability on improbability, although after a while even this surfeit of action becomes wearisome. Once every couple of pages, breast-fondling occurs: this is the Middle Ages, and men of a certain stamp can't see a woman without lurching into grope mode. Readers will be reassured to learn that breasts in the period ranged from the fried egg profile to ample rotundity.
Perhaps the most ludicrous such moment comes on page 1078 (I really did get that far) in a dialogue of self-parodical risibility:
"I've never been good at breaking news gently," she said. "I'm pregnant."You have to read this several times to savour the full crassness of the passage. "Good God!" He was too shocked to hold back his reaction irks with its redundant commentary; had it been necessary at all, it should have been before the exclamation. My monthly cycle has been irregular ... Good God! I am too shocked at the tinniness of this to hold back my reaction. I noticed your breasts as you came into the garden. This spectacular non sequitur defies any kind of logic: are painful nipples really so obvious, even in Follett's mammocentric fictional world?
"Good God!" He was too shocked to hold back his reaction. "I'm surprised because you told me..."
"I know. I was sure I was too old. For a couple of years my monthly cycle was irregular, and then it stopped altogether -- I thought. But I've been vomiting in the morning, and my nipples hurt."
"I noticed your breasts as you came into the garden. But can you be sure?"
"I've been pregnant six times already -- three children and three miscarriages -- and I know the feeling. There's really no doubt."
"Well, we're going to have a child."
Writing of this standard annoyed me particularly in the context of the book I am currently reading, Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind. This is a fantasy with prose of relaxed elegance, a pleasantly judged humour and an engaging authorial voice. Yet Rothfuss, a purveyor of mere fantasy, the preserve of maladjusted adolescents, sits on the bottom table in the Grand Hall of Literature, while Follett, though never likely to win the Booker Prize, basks in vast sales and a degree of critical success. Ladies and gentlemen, there ain't no justice.
* the rather more challenging maxim introduced to me by David Isaak, "a gem on every page", has not been fully implemented. Is there a school of creative writing which demands "a turd on every page"? Or indeed "a tit on every page"...