Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Fiction: Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess

Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Date: 1980
Format: hardback
Source: purchased used
Read: for a LibraryThing group read
Pages: 605
Reading time: I lost track, given that there were a lot of days where I didn't read anything, but around three weeks total

Eighty-one-year-old British author Kenneth Toomey is living in Malta when he is contacted by the island's archbishop to help in the canonization process of Pope Gregory XVII, also known as Carlo Campanati, Toomey's deceased brother-in-law. For his part of the effort, Toomey embarks upon writing his own memoirs, spanning the 20th century from the First World War to the mid-1900s. Covering a multitude of themes, events, and locales, Earthly Powers can be seen as a subtly parodic summation of the past century's social, literary, and moral history.

Note: There is a lot of LGBT content and religious commentary, so if these things offend you, I would not recommend reading this novel.

Earthly Powers is a very immersive book. As a 600+ page epic, it's got to be either compulsively readable or a quick DNF decision. Fortunately, Burgess's sly wit and wondrous mastery of vocabulary make this an entertaining and interesting read. It's still dense, packed with historical, social, literary, and linguistic references, but it is often read with a smile on your face.

Admittedly, I did drop the book for several days in the middle. Though I was engrossed for the first two hundred pages, the length and density made me lose interest for a while. Upon picking it up again after a little time off, however, the last two hundred pages regained the hold that the first two hundred had held on me. My two favorite sections were probably Toomey's experiences in Nazi Germany and his trip to a pseudo-Christian commune/cult in the California desert (I'm still trying to figure out whether or not there were intentional overtones of Southern plantation life there).

Earthly Powers is a novel to be savored and slowly digested. The dense writing and multitude of often rather obscure references can make it a difficult, but ultimately worthwhile, read. There's no way to catch all the details in one reading; this will certainly be a book that I return to in a few years, eager to uncover more of its quirks and quips.

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