Friday, August 3, 2007

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Months ago, I abandoned this book halfway through. I was mystified at the incredible laudits it had received, the awards, the blurbs, the iconic status. I had read other Ursula Le Guin books, finding them completely awesome and wonderful, but this one, maybe her best known and most praised, I just couldn't penetrate.

I didn't like it. It was so political. So dry. With a few exceptions, where chapters would suddenly jump into the mythology of the alien planet, it was all so trudgingly expository.

On this planet, Gethen, humans are without gender. That is, they only have a gender during a few days out of the month, when they become sexually active. During these things, they could go either way -- one month male, another month female, it just depends on who's around. The main character is an envoy to this planet from an interplanetary alliance, and he is their first contact with the outside universe. Male. All the time male. So, during the first half of the book, or so, there's a lot of palaver over what they're going to do with him, and he drifts around making little progress as a diplomat, finding out more about the planet. Nothing terribly urgent happens.

This summer, I'm trying to finish some books that I'd given up on. You may recognize some of these sentiments from the last review. So, I picked up the book and read a few more pages of politlcal this and that. THEN the second half of the book happened, and it all became magically clear, why everyone raves about the book, and loves it, and considers it so revelatory, so sublime. The envoy suddenly experiences everything you want characters in novels to experience -- danger, love, and a challenge to his intellect -- bang, bang, bang, right on through to the end. Now all the imagery makes sense. Now all the exposition pays off. It's all struck into bright definition, like a chalk drawing that's been fadoodled over with light grey strokes for hours and then instantly becomes a dragon with three bold lines of a darker shade.

Did she have to go through all that, to get to this place? Maybe she did. Obviously it worked. And for those weak souls like me who have to flog themselves through the first half, where everything seems cold and dry, and nothing seems to be moving, take heart, keep flogging, and get some sleep too, because once you get on the truck headed north, you're going to have trouble putting the book down.

1 comment:

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