Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Titus Alone, by Mervyn Peake


The final entry in the Gormenghast series picks up where Gormenghast left off--with young earl Titus, fresh from his hard-fought victory over Steerpike, headed off into the wilderness, leaving his family, friends, and responsibilities behind in a quest for . . . well, it's not terribly clear exactly what he's looking for, or what he hopes to accomplish.  Seeing the world, I suppose, or having some adventures before returning to the drudgery of Gormenghast.  He is able to accomplish both goals by leaving Gormenghast and promptly falling into a completely different book, peopled by a whole mess of loony characters living in a sort of futuristic, sci-fi, steampunk world.  The book pretty much goes off the rails from there --and stays off the rails, at that--though we do meet some interesting characters along the way.

This is deeply weird book.

The previous two books have been more gothic, even fantastic in nature, full of castles and tradition and hyperbolic characters who, though ostensibly human, resemble dwarves and trolls and other mythical races more than man.  The characters in this book are quirky, to be sure, from the zoo-owning Muzzlehatch to the devious and cruel Cheeta to the generous Juno, but they're nowhere near the full-bodied, living caricatures that populate the vast reaches of Gormenghast--Dr. Prunesquallor and his sister, the professors, the Countess, or Flay, not one of whom makes an appearance here.  Ok, fine, I like Muzzlehatch.  But the rest of them simply can't measure up to the characters we've spent two whole books getting to know.

Even more jarring than the casting change-up, however, is the switch in genres. Peake removes us from the decaying Gormenghast and plops us down in a sci fi novel, complete with death rays and factories and flying machines and fancy dress parties. It's all very strange.  Granted, Peake still describes all these things in the same vaguely antiquarian language he used in the previous books, which lends all this futuristic nonsense a weirdly fantastic and extremely old tone--hence the steampunk comparison.  The whole thing's a bit of a trippy mess.

Titus, too, presents problems.  We spend the entire book with him (without the mercifully entertaining interludes of the foolish Irma Prunesquallor or the enigmatic Countess Gertrude) and, as it turns out, Titus?  Kind of a jerk. After starting off by abandoning his family to seek some sort of amorphous self-fulfillment, he proceeds to sleep with (and leech off of, and then leave) any woman he can find.  Also, he throws an absolute hissy fit any time someone doesn't pay him the respect due the Earl of Gormenghast (a place with which the inhabitants of this bizarre past-and-future society are completely unfamiliar).  Hey, Titus, you know where you would get treated like the Earl of Gormenghast?  Gormenghast.  Self-entitled prat.

Titus's only redeeming moment takes place when he saves a girl from her abusive boyfriend (of sorts), but since he pretty much just ditches her after that, it's . . . not enough.  When people help him or support his crazy claims or defend him from others, he takes it for granted.  After all, why wouldn't they help him?  It's his due as Earl of Gormenghast, after all.

Finally, after spending pages and pages trying to convince people (including himself) that Gormenghast is real and he is nobility, he decides to return home, to prove to himself that he's not crazy.  Which you'd think would be a Wizard of Oz nod to appreciating the value of home and all that, but when he [SPOILER] finally gets close to Gormenghast and sees a familiar rock, he is reassured and wanders off for more adventures . . . without even seeing the castle, or, I don't know, saying hello to his family and friends who haven't seen him in who knows how many months.  See?  Jerk.

In fact, the central conflict of the book, which culminates in the self-doubt that leads Titus to almost return home, arises from Titus' own selfish behavior--when a girl nurses him through serious illness and takes care of him, he pretty much tells her he would very much like to have sex with her but doesn't care about her at all.  She does not take this news well. Granted, she's not exactly a catch either--bitter, vindictive, vain, and who knows what else--but still, not a nice way to treat someone who saved your life. I think Titus has women issues. Which is not surprising, given his uniquely sheltered upbringing, but still. Dude has issues.

By the end of the book, I was more than ready for someone to drop a brick on Titus' head or something, so I could go back to hearing about Irma and Bellgrove, or Dr. Prunesquallor, or the Thing (who I fully expected to see again, miraculously resurrected in this book).

Don't get me wrong--the man can write.  The book is well written, and I actually do like Peake's style (when he doesn't spend 30 pages describing, like, a hallway).  Plus, this was never intended to be the final installment in the series--Peake had at least two more books planned.  Maybe they would have helped.  But without them, this book is just too weird for me to really enjoy.

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