25 February 2012

Too complicated by half

Sue Scriven comes to our house regularly to help us stave off the dust bunnies, sticky crud on the dining room table, and general sediments of daily living. We are grateful and usually enjoy a week after she's been here because we don't have to dust or vacuum much. The following week we grumble and clean.

Sue knows about all the reading that gets done here and recently recommended The Coffee Trader, a book by David Liss. When I went to the library, that book wasn't on the shelf, but Liss' first book, A Conspiracy of Paper, was. So I brought it home.

The book, though written a dozen years ago and set in early-18th century London, is full of contemporary American memes. Like presidential candidate Ron Paul, there were lots of people in old London who were fearful of the "new" paper money. Like many 21st century politicians, there were many people worried about the "new fangled" national debt. And there were entrepreneurs and con men hawking derivatives based on the national debt and even lotteries based on the derivatives. Oh, and there were criminals working behind the scenes to create financial panics and sell forged shares of financial companies and ponzi scheme investments. ["There's an old saying about those who forget history. I don't remember it, but it's good." - Stephen Colbert]

At the end of the book, when it was too late to matter to me, Liss explains that "British money in the eighteenth century broke down this way: twelve pence equaled a shilling, five shillings a crown, twenty shillings a pound, and twenty-one shillings a guinea." (Remember these are the same people who came up inches, feet, yards, perches, and miles.) That complicated currency probably made sense to people who used it and didn't have much of it. A London laborer, Liss says, "might earn twenty pounds a year." Nevertheless, it seems overly complex from my 21st century vantage point. So does the story that Liss tells.

If I saw a diagram of the plot, I might admire the cleverness that went in to creating it and the creativity that linked elements. But, it was over complicated by half.

Same goes for the story telling in my mind. Maybe I am just a streamlined reader thrown back into a horse-and-buggy environment. But while trying to recreate the feeling of 18th century London, Liss spends a lot more time describing things that seem irrelevant than I thought necessary. When he wants to move the story along, the author can have a character send a message by street urchin across the city and get a reply in a couple hours and a couple paragraphs. Other times he takes pages of dialogue to reveal one tiny bit of information. I spent a lot of time frustratedly skimming for details that mattered.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book to me was that the main character was a non-practicing Jew in the London of 1720. After a career as a bare knuckle boxer and petty criminal, his uncle tries to bring him back into "the tribe" and an observant family. (In some scenes I was reminded of the outsider Easy Rawlins from Walter Mosley novels, and his struggles to reenter respectable society.) The anti-Semitism and legal restrictions on the roles Jews could play just a few decades after being allowed into the country were another of those things I was vaguely aware of, but had never thought about in detail. (BTW, that new national debt and the decision to allow Jews to once again live in England were related to the English Civil War, the Commonwealth of England, and Oliver Cromwell. Without a king, the nation had to borrow money to finance itself. And that borrowing required an international banking network. Since Jewish bankers in Holland were keys to the economic success there, Cromwell sought to expand the bankers' activities to England. That meant he promoted toleration and Jewish immigration.)

I might be tempted to pick up another of Liss' novels when I have lots of down time to enjoy the leisurely story telling, but I will know not to expect contemporary pacing. I'll still probably skim for relevancies, though. Maybe I should have begun with The Coffee Trader.

Have you read A Conspiracy of Paper or another of Liss' books? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

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