Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Let me tell you how much I loved this book.  I took it with me on a trip back to my alma mater for its 50th anniversary reunion, a long weekend of celebrations, events, and visitations at which I was reunited with some of my favorite people in all the world, people who were there when I formulated the beginnings of the person I grew up to become and who, despite all they've seen, not only still like me, they downright love me.  And I love them, as much as I've ever loved anybody.  Some of them I hadn't seen in more than a decade.  Some of them aren't even on Facebook, if you can believe that.  We danced, we partied, we revisited much-loved places where some of the most significant events of our variously-spent youths occurred (and believe you me, shit was epic back in the day).  We showed the kids that go to school there now how it was done, and we looked good doing it.  I don't think I got more than five hours of sleep a night for most of a week.

The night before I flew home, I think I got five hours.  The night before that, no more than 3 1/2.  I had a 13+ hour day of flying to get back (from Florida to the Pacific Northwest, with not one but two layovers).  It was actually still dark when I got up and got going to the airport.

I had more than a couple of drinks, and took a painkiller for my back.  I was exhausted.

You would think I would have slept away the hours on those flights.  Any sane person would.  More than once, I thought for sure that my eyes were just going to roll into the back of my head and I would have to be shocked awake with a defibrillator to get me off the plane.

But I did not sleep, because I was reading The Name of the Wind, and all I wanted to do was keep reading.  So I did, until I finished it.

The Name of the Wind is both intimate and epic, deeply immersive in a fantastical way and also recognizable as a real world inhabited by real people.  It is (the beginning of) the story of Kvothe, a magician and hero of great renown, told in his own words, a story of tragedy and tribulation and the dirty, gritty realities that underlie the stories we tell about our heroes.  In that, it is also, perhaps, a commentary, not only on heroism, but on the transmutation of life into narrative, and the divergence between the two.  It's a tale of love and loss, of the quest for knowledge and the pitfalls that lie hidden along the way.

It is also, as you may have guessed from what I said above, a rollicking good tale of adventure and magic, a story so compelling that a near middle-aged man will suffer sleeplessness to the point of near-hallucination because he can't put it down because it's So.  Fawking.  Good.

So why is it so good?  What makes it so compelling that its 722-odd pages fly by so quickly?

Part of it, of course, is the fascination with heroes, and the lives they truly lead.  The difference between deeds of great renown as they are told after and the blood and dirt and uncertainty while they are actually happening is a rich vein, and one that's been mined profitably in quite a bit of literature, both genre and mainstream.  But Kvothe is an imaginary hero.  As the reader, we don't know the stories, and Rothfuss doesn't waste time giving them to us.  It's enough that he's known; we don't need the details.

What makes the story so addictive is the human element.  Kvothe is a complicated character, intelligent but sometimes foolish, accomplished but sometimes so overconfident he is nearly killed, driven by a personal history that would make most people curl up in a ball and die and desires he can only barely begin to understand.  And because we know that he becomes great, watching him stumble through his early life, with successes and failures in near-equal measure, the shape of the life we know he'll lead lends greater significance to what we see happening.  And because he has not yet become great, is for much of the tale just a kid, really, however talented and intelligent, we cringe at the things he doesn't see, even though he sees them now, looking back, and so do we.

It is also a love story, so filled with stumbles and misunderstandings it would be farcical if it wasn't so tragic (he's just a kid, remember), and this reader, for one, recognized more than one or two foolishly romantic mistaken ideas and poor decisions. 

And, even more exciting, there is a story brewing in the present while the tale is being told.  More than once we are returned to the scene of the telling, where the something is happening, and it is more than passingly implied that Kvothe's storied past is coming back to haunt him.  It's only a minor thread in this first volume (of how many, who can say?  One hopes at least a trilogy, which I would like to become available Right.  Fawking.  Now), but one has the impression that interesting things will be afoot in the story's present as well as its past in short order, and this reader is more than a little excited to see what those things might be.

We are used to seeing our heroes on their pedestals (or onscreen, which is often no different), presented in all their glory, near-infallible in their moral compass and near-undefeatable in their badass-itude.  We lionize them, but in doing so we make them less (or at least other) than human, and their stories suffer as a result.  One of the things I learned at Clarion, and this comes from Faulkner, is that the proper, indeed perhaps the only, subject for literature and narrative is the human heart in conflict with itself, and at the end of the day, that's what makes The Name of the Wind such a great book.  Yes, it's got a fantastically imagined and realized world, with rules that make sense and a cool take on magic.  Yes, it's got long odds and tremendous obstacles that must be overcome by our hero, who makes bets and takes risks that only a genuinely brave soul would have the courage to do.  And yes, it's evocative and well-written, with solid prose that puts you there in the world and makes it feel real.  But at the end of the day, what makes this such a great fawking book is the hero at the center of the tale, who tells the tale, to us and to the others within it: fallible; imperfect; facing danger and desire, unrest and uncertainty; driven by forces that would break a lesser soul; taking great risk for great reward (and not always getting it); muddling through as best he can with whatever he can scrape together and not a little help from his friends.  A complex, interesting person, who dares greatly, and accomplishes great things, and knows the cost that comes with it.

I can't wait for the next one.


SuJ'n said...

Finished this just before leaving for Florida. Bryan said I *had* to read it. If B's in town, we'll be going to the UW Bookstore reading/signing on the 1st. If not, he's sending me solo. Coming with?

dallas taylor said...

I think I am. It'll cut into my writing time a bit, since I'm usually working that time on Tuesdays, but I'd a) really like to meet that guy, and b) really like to get ahold of the next book.

The Spiral said...

Leah and I were just discussing this book the other day; she's reading it now and loving it and, though I have planned on reading it, I never got around; however with two fellow Clarionites strongly recommending it, I think I will. Also the second book (finally) comes out in a week or some such!

dallas taylor said...

It's really fun. I couldn't have picked a better book for a weekend with twenty-odd hours of airplanes and airports.

And the next one comes out on Tuesday. First reading/signing is in Seattle. I'm totally going.

Hope I don't squee all over the guy too much.