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19 February 2007

Book Review: The People’s Act of Love (aborted)

I admit my weakness: I am a genre fiction whore. I am drawn first to the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore. I feel this failing, deeply. Because SFF is not highbrow fiction. And it is highbrow fiction that puts a reader “in the right camp”, so to speak. (Don’t get me wrong: I’ve read my share of highbrow fiction. My favorite authors are Hemingway [but that gets me in trouble with most feminists], and James Joyce [Ulysses, anyone? And my 22-year-old self pitched a fit when my James Joyce prof canceled the sequence on Finnegan’s Wake, because we were taking too long with Ulysses. Pshaw! We should have come in for extra sessions and made the time!].)

When I feel I’ve overdone it with the SFF, I force myself (and perhaps here is the crux of the problem: my calling what I do “forcing”) to read some “quality” fiction. The New York Times liked The People’s Act of Love, by James Meek, and it was in paperback, so I bought it and started it that very day.

On the cover, I read that The Washington Post Book World said, “Doctor ZhivagoAnna Karenina … Lermontov’s A Hero of Our TimeThe People’s Act of Love will remind you of all these books … Magnificent … heart-pounding.” (By the way, when reviewers feel they need to provide the author of a classic work when citing it, I would argue it isn’t a classic, really; they’re just trying to cover up their own feelings of inadequacy.) On the back cover, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland’s, that is) gushes, “The heft and passion of classic Russian literature … Anna Karenina set to the rollicking pace of a modern-day thriller. Epic yet heartbreakingly intimate … it feels like a revolution.” (Reads a little over the top, no? Too bad I didn’t realize that before I started reading.)

We meet Samarin, as a young man, and then as an escapee from a Siberian work camp. He escaped with someone called The Mohican, who Samarin claims took Samarin along so he could eat him as they made their way to freedom. Curious, macabre, but I let this pass. We meet Balashov, the barber of Yazyk, who is returning home from another village. Then there is Mutz, a lieutenant in the Czechoslovak Legion in Russia. Here is where I learn something: masses of Czechoslovak soldiers were stuck within the boundaries of Russia after World War I, caught in the upheaval of Soviet revolution. (That’s what good fiction is all about, learning something in the course of the book!)

On page 55, we learn that Balashov, and most of the residents of Yazyk, are part of a Christian sect. A sect which believes in the ultimate evil of all things carnal, and solves the whole body/mind dichotomy by castrating the men.


Now hang on just a second! I chose this book because I wanted to read some good, highbrow, fiction. Something rooted in the real world, that would evoke the human condition in all its poignancy. Excuse me, but I would bet that it would be just as likely for a work-camp escapee to come across a castrating sect in Siberia as for the battle between the High Folk and the Night Lords to wash across a world cowering between its two angry twin suns. Why would the first deserve reviews in all the best places and a $15 cover price, whereas the latter is considered reviewable only by pulp magazines and a $6.99 cover price?

Now, I am sure that beyond page 57, The People’s Act of Love will break my heart with its intimateness. I don’t disagree that the epic scope might knock my socks off. That, as I reach the climax of the story, I will shout out, “Doctor Zhivago! Anna Karenina! Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time! Fantastic!!!” But it isn’t the kind of story I was looking for at this particular time. So I’ve put it aside, and started something else, instead. Soemthing that is so rooted in the real world, it's fabulous.

I will finish The People’s Act of Love. If only to tell you all that I did. But if you choose to start this one, consider yourselves warned: you better be willing to accept fantasy/horror mixed in with your fiction.