02 May 2007

Cracks in The King in the Window

In his dedication of The King in the Window, Adam Gopnik thanks his son for giving "the author the finest piece of editorial advice he has ever been given: 'Just bring the cool bits closer together.'"

That is fine advice, but I wish Gopnik had received a couple of other types of editorial support. First, for a high-profile book from an established house (Miramax), The King in the Window has a dismaying number of typographical errors, especially in punctuation (pages 42, 166, 252, 272, 280, 311, 394).

Second, Gopnik should have pruned his ideas; many imaginative and energetic authors need editors who say, "This is interesting, but save it for your next book." The King in the Window has much too much to keep track of. Its details don't fit together, and in a fantasy that supposedly reveals the unseen way the world works, in the end all the details should fit together with a satisfying click.

Instead, on page 332 our young hero Oliver sees past the villainous Master of Mirrors's disguise because "He couldn't use a metaphor. He couldn't even understand one." But back on page 226, that same Master of Mirrors told his followers:

"The terrible burden of wanting that sat inside you, burning like a coal in your brain--it is gone! . . . You have been released from this parasite, this tumor, that filled your life with the pain of longing and wanting. . . . Feel the lightness of your liberty!"
I count three metaphors and one simile in those sentences.

Oliver himself suffers from inconsistent or unrealistic characterization. Born twelve years before in America, he's lived with his parents in Paris since he was three, going to French schools. Yet his "best friend" is Charlie Gronek from New Jersey. How many real children sustain a close relationship with a preschool playmate into adolescence--when they're separated by three thousand miles of ocean? (There's no hint the boys are cousins or the like, regularly thrown together.) And even after nine years in France, Oliver feels so alienated that he's made no friends at school--how troubled is he?

Well, he is a weird kid. On page 6, Gopnik says Oliver wished he "walked home every day arm in arm with a chain of very fashionable people." Twelve-year-old boys don't care about "fashionable." They care about "cool," which is determined by a much smaller, closer set of people. (Unless, perhaps, Oliver has truly turned French.)

On page 99, Oliver sends Charlie an email that says, in passing, "The chess move is QXE4. I think that's checkmate." That's the first mention of chess, and it comes a bit late for a new theme (even in a 400-page book). Chess periodically pops up again in the book, and on page 314 the narrator tells us Oliver "had always been bad at chess." So Oliver chooses to play an older, savvier boy at chess, and beats him, but has "always been bad"? How bad must Charlie be?

On page 191 Charlie from New Jersey is surprised and upset that Parisians don't serve Coca-Cola with ice cubes. That's a perfectly fine observation about the backwardness of Europeans in general, but since Gopnik has told us that Charlie had visited just the year before, he really should have noticed that custom already.

There's a strange moment on pages 168-70 when Oliver has been told off to find "the mirror of Luc Gauric," and he doesn't even know what it is. He's surprised to learn hear Neige, the daughter of his building's superintendent, say:
"It's in my room. . . . You seem surprised. Why? Because I'm a girl? Because I'm the gardienne's daughter? . . . I am a crystallomancer. I see into glass, and use my crystal to fight the master. . . . But you looked right past us. . . . We were poor and servile and you never guessed."
And Gopnik tells us, "Oliver sighed again at his own stupidity."

But it isn't stupidity, or class prejudice, or sexism, to be surprised that the magical thing you must find but can't even identify happens to be in the building where you live. After all, that sort of fortunate coincidence only happens in fantasies or badly plotted novels. And since Oliver's never heard of a crystallomancer, there's no logical reason why he should have figured out Neige was one.

Oliver certainly doesn't need to learn valuable lessons about respecting a girl with less money. Through the whole book so far, he's been moping about being in love with Neige and not being able to talk as they used to. Nothing he's said or thought has hinted at prejudice. Yet here he must sigh "at his own stupidity."

This little lesson on the danger of class prejudice is even stranger given the scene that immediately follows. It tells us that all the clochards of Paris ("old men, with long beards and matted hair, who live on the streets. They drink a lot.") are part of a mystical order of guardians who deliberately keep themselves dirty and stinky. So not to worry about them--they like it!

And when we reach the point where everything should click together, page 405 brings us this summation from Oliver:
"I think I figured out why everyone involved--you know, the Watchful, and the Witty, and the Wise--why they all begin with a 'W.' . . . It's Double-U. Double you. It's what you see when you look into a mirror or a window. A double you: the part that's really there plus this other you that lies beyond. . . ."
That would seem more meaningful if this story hadn't taken place in Paris, based on French monarchical history, with most of the conversations conducted in French. Not only do the words Watchful, Witty, and Wise not begin with W in French, but the rare French letter "double-vais" doesn't lend itself to the pretentious pun.

As I said, someone should have sat down with Gopnik and said, "Save some of this for your next book."

TOMORROW: Alice doesn't live there anymore.

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