In a sense, my reaction surprises me. What's original about Hoffman is not so much his plot as his style, which strikes me as specifically postmodern, filled with pastiche and metafiction and oddly self-conscious author-narrator moments (although thank the gods Hoffman doesn't step out onto the stage himself), things I typically hate about postmodern novels.***
Anyhow, The Left Hand of God struck me as so innovative that I immediately sought out all the reviews I could find on it. Apparently my reaction of mooncalf love-eyes was not shared by a majority of critics -- the official reviewers were atrociously harsh (including one head-scratching comment that Hoffman's book seemed like it was written by a focus group), and the fan reviews were a mix of awe and exasperation. Strangely enough, virtually no one commented on Hoffman's very sophisticated take on religion, and absolutely nobody seems to have noticed the postmodern-ness of his style. Instead, people either griped about his main character, Thomas Cale, or Hoffman's world-building. So, without further ado . . . .
Narrative Style & World-building
Hoffman's world-building does something quite unusual, and apparently quite annoying: he frequently real-world place names and jumbles them all together into vaguely European landscape. Readers will recognize tons of place names (such as Memphis from Egypt, Lyons from France, etc) that, within the storyworld, make so sense geographically. But at least Hoffman sticks to a relatively European geographical mishmash . . . until, just to be an ass, he randomly inserts a "Mississippi River" right down the center of his European-geography. Granted, that made me laugh out loud for the sheer audacity of it, but that's the kind of things other readers complained about
What seems to go unnoticed, though, is that kind of pastiche makes a lot of sense according to a postmodern style. In narrative terms, Hoffman tell his story using a third person omniscient POV, which is basically the default in epic fantasy, but Hoffman's unusual in that he has his narrator often take distanced, even ironic, stance towards the events being narrated. As such we get frequent things like this: "Cale was wrong about X, as it turned out, although his reasoning was sound."
What results is a persistent drollness that could be quite annoying, but it does permit two things
- Much more freedom for narratorial & general commentary than permitted in most epic fantasies
- A questioning of the textuality of the entire fantasy we're being asked to read -- a feeling only reinforced by all the real-world references/half-plagiarism inserted into the piece. One thing that most secondary worlds can't do is provide direct real world allusions, and that lack is the primary foundation of Tolkien-esque subcreation. Hoffman takes that rule and smashes it all to pieces, thereby creating a sense of contingency within his fiction common to the most metafictional of postmodern authors.
- Of course, Hoffman does write somewhere at one point "this is all exactly as it happened," but it's hard to tell it that's also tongue-in-cheek or if he's just not following through on the implications of his own narrative style.'
I thought Hoffman pulled it off, mostly, because I adored his miserable little shithead of a main character, Thomas Cale. Hoffman manages to capture a difficult adolescent blend of resentment, self-pity (half of it justified), trauma, self-aggrandizement, and superhero kick-assery that I thought quite a remarkable achievement. Maybe that just indicates how self-absorbed I was as a teenager, but there you have it.
ANNOYING THINGS THAT GO UNEXPLAINED
Still, there's a few things that suggest a certain laziness on Hoffman's part. I'll just note a few, although none of these marred an otherwise fantastic book for me:
- Cale's sickness ("soul-murder"????) was never really explained, nor why exactly he flees to Switzerland in Bk2. Both are basically plot conveniences.
- The final book ends not with a bang but a whimper -- a not-quite-but-still-ridiculously-close-to-it deus ex machina. Not Battlestar Galactica-level, so I can live with it, but it was deflating.
- Vague Henri was awesome.
- So was Deirdre Plunkett.
- Artemisa Halicarnasus deserves an A+
- I even really grew to like Arbell Swan-neck and Conn Materazzi.
- And, of course, IdrissPukke (based on the sayings of Schopenhauer) was a delight.
***Thomas Pynchon, Don Delilo, Salman Rushdie, and John Barthes are, for my tastes, the poster children of cringe-worthy postmodern novelists. Admittedly, I do love some novels categorized as postmodern -- Eco's The Name of the Rose, Tim O'Brien, plus all of Vonnegut.