Thursday, May 3, 2012

Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban

This is going to be difficult to review, largely because I like to find something positive to focus on when I do these, but the only positive thing I can find to say about my experience with Russell Hoban’s Kleinzeit is that it was short.

Occasionally I get books that I wonder why they’re on this list. Generally it’s because I don’t think they fit into the definition of fantasy, even going by the definition at the beginning of the book. Kleinzeit is one of those, not just because of classification, but because it’s really not a very well written or thought out book, I couldn’t even really call it a novel. It reads largely like a stream of consciousness piece written by someone suffering from a mental illness as a therapeutic exercise.

There is nothing that you could really call a plot and because the author has chosen to name nearly all his characters using single names according to their position in life or physical characteristics they never really develop personalities beyond those and that includes Kleinzeit himself. He claims the English translation of his name is ‘Hero’, but it actually means small time, which is also an accurate term to describe him. The only characters that get given proper names are the fictional action hero film stars that appear on movie posters in the Underground that Kleinzeit sometimes busks in. Even those are joke names like Dirk Jockstrap, that’s a fairly cleaned up version by the way. I’m not sure if the author actually felt they were funny or satiric, it was rather puerile to me. A 12 year old boy may get a giggle or two out of it.

Kleinzeit spends a lot of the book ion the hospital being treated for a problem with his hypotenuse. In fact all of the ailments suffered by various characters in the book are literary, geometric or musical terms, I think one or two may have also referred to photography. If you use this once or twice it’s clever and even amusing, it was overused here and became very tired, very quickly and actually irritated me. I get a laugh every time I think of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye telling someone he broke his clavichord, but that is funny and typical of the character. Holden also knew he was making it up. Hoban’s characters aren’t doing that.

One of my pet peeves in books is characters not acting or speaking in ways that are at all believable, it was a lot of what spoiled John Crowley’s Little Big (another critical success) for me, and it happens again here. If Kleinzeit had been shown to have created a false reality for himself because he was suffering from difficulties in dealing with his own reality, that may have made a whole lot more sense, but there’s no evidence of this.

The book’s received quite a bit of critical acclaim since it’s release in 1974, but I really can’t see why. It’s fairly shallow and as I said earlier in my opinion not particularly well written. Sections of it where Kleinzeit is having conversations and relationships with inanimate objects (Hospital became a character in its own right) or concepts reminded me of some of Chief Broom’s musings in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (I would recommend reading that, it’s a great book). Some of the more unreal and pseudo philosophical passages made think of Mark Helprin’s cure for insomnia; Winter’s Tale. Looking ahead on the list I can see a title I think I’m going to appreciate far more than Kleinzeit, too. Phew!           

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