The Electric Commentary

Monday, February 14, 2005

The 50 Book Challenge, Numbers 3, 4, and 5

The Deptford Trilogy, by Robertson Davies.

The 50 Book Challenge.

#3 - Fifth Business
#4 - The Manticore
#5 - World of Wonders

Boy Staunton was a wealthy Canadian sugar baron in the early 1900s. He had beautiful women, an unlimited supply of money, political power, and fame. He was always larger than life, and those who knew him were to some extent crushed by his shadow. He dies in a freakish car accident that may or may not have been murder, and we see the background of those affected by Staunton in life through the tales of three people.

The first (Fifth Business) is Dunstan Ramsey, and eccentric schoolteacher and an expert on Saints (although he is not Catholic). He grew up with Boy and was throughout his life his closest friend. When they were very young Boy threw a snowball (with a rock in the center) at Dunstan which he managed to avoid. However, it struck the mother of Paul Dempster (World of Wonders) which caused the premature birth of Paul, as well as his mother's loss of sanity.

This event sets in motion the fantastical interactions between the characters, all of whom had love/hate relationships with Staunton. Dunstan always lived in his shadow, his son David (The Manticore) could never fill his father's shoes, and Paul's premature birth caused him to be undersized and constantly ridiculed. But this is not a typical murder mystery.

Davies spends most of the trilogy discussing myth and perspective. Ramsey sees the tales of saints as instructions, not to be taken literally. They are short, memorable instructions on how to live life. He believes that people create myths all the time, because it's easier to understand the world through a story than it is through a list of rather boring facts. He seems to attack reason in favor of emotion, but really he sees myth as a synergy of the two.

The Manticore looks at David Staunton, son of boy, through a Sopranos style psychiatric visit. In his sessions, David learns about the characters in his own personal myth. David the Hero, the Villain, the Romantic, and the Monster. Through his observations we see that Boy never connected with anyone, even his own family. He was constantly trying to make himself as big as possible, and his family and friends were merely props.

World of Wonders finds Paul Demptser, now the world's greatest magician, playing the part of Robert Houdin in a movie. He relates the tale of his life to the filmmakers (as well as Ramsey and his friend Liesl) to create some subtext for the movie. Paul (now called Magnus) suffered a great deal of trauma, and ended up with a traveling circus. He eventually worked his way up in the theatrical world, as the magician in a slightly better circus, as the stunt double for a theatre troupe which was still holding on to the old romantic style of theatre in its last days, and finally as the world's greatest magician.

The three tales tell us more about the ways in which people see the world than about some mysterious death. It is about myth, mystery, emotion, and ideals.

These books are character driven, and while the plot is interesting, it is the characters that are truly engrossing. It is extremely well written, as Davies has a way with words that few authors can match. Highly recommended.

Previous entries:
The Dark Tower (Spoiler Warning)

On Deck:
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
The Road to Serfdom, by F.A. Hayek

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