Despite frequent analogies between writers and other crafters—let’s choose fine woodworkers as the second half of the equation—we immediately encounter one major difference that renders such comparisons ultimately inutile.
An expert craftsperson such as a fine woodworker can sustain an honorable and satisfying and thoroughly plumbed career simply by replicating flawless examples of past masterpieces. Old chairs fall apart or end up in museums, and new ones made to the same time-tested designs are always needed and welcomed. The fine woodworker who can assemble a beautiful Adirondack chair out of quality materials has done her job and can be proud, without having altered the blueprints for the chair one iota as a result of personal vision or impulse.
Unfortunately for authors, such is not the case. Writers of fiction all labor, however defiantly and begrudgingly, under the injunction famously codified by Ernest Hemingway in his “Monologue to the Maestro.” “There is no use writing anything that has been written before unless you can beat it. What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasn’t been written before or beat dead men at what they have done.” Or as Ezra Pound more succinctly put the proposition, “Make it new.” Unless a fiction writer adds conceptual novelty or employs a unique narrative filter—whether deriving from his personality or from the zeitgeist—he is merely uselessly replicating perfectly serviceable older works that are probably better than his, for having withstood the test of time.
As a writer, Ken Follett is a semi-decent woodworker.
His enormous new book—the first in a series—seeks to embody nothing less than the social, cultural and political history of the twentieth century through the interlocking lives of several representative families at all levels of society and hailing equally from several nations (although this British writer scants the USA, a factor likely to render his book less enticing to the egocentric American reader). But this novel’s characters, events, themes and conclusions are so well-worn and pre-digested that the effect is that of consuming flat soda poured into a factory-new bottle sculpted to resemble a retro container.
You can simulate the complete experience of Follett’s novel, except with immensely greater frissons and rewards, simply by reading Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That, E. L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, William Faulkner’s Soldiers’ Pay, and Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York in quick succession. While amalgamating so many influences into one volume might represent an eccentrically synthetic accomplishment, it hardly seems worth doing in the first place. So fustily old-school and by-the-numbers is this book that if it were shipped via time-warp back to 1917, it would still struggle to be hailed as the promising but unambitious work of a minor new writer.
Fall of Giants reads passably on a sentence-by-sentence level, where mortise joins tenon. Its plotting is serviceably sturdy, all the events dovetailing together in predictable and mechanical fashion. The people do talk like real human beings. Humor does alternates with tragedy. Period ambiance is attained through dutiful swotting up and disgorging of relevant minutiae of all sorts: “…his gun, a Nagant M1895…[in which] used rounds were not automatically ejected, but had to be removed manually when reloading.” But the combinatorial manifestation of all these technical writerly virtues results merely in a wax dummy amalgamating a dozen more famous predecessors. I can’t imagine that anyone who has ever read even a single family saga set at any point in the first quarter of the twentieth century will be entertained or surprised or enlightened by this iteration.
Follett’s near-thousand pages encompass precisely thirteen years of his chosen century. Symbolically, a subsequent volume might well choose to focus on the Bataan Death March.
-PAUL DI FILIPPO
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.