Why Character Matters

July 05, 2010

I just finished reading Edward Lee’s The Golem. This is my first encounter with any of Edward Lee’s work. I believe every author should have two chances, so Ed Lee has one left. To me, the book read like a first draft, but I’ll get to that.

We don’t see the golem used much in popular fiction. I can only recall one instance where I’ve seen it used–an old episode of the X-Files called Kaddish. Lee brings the reader a modern version of an old Jewish folk tale based on Judah Loew, a 16th century rabbi who created a golem to defend a Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks. Lee brings the folktale to life with vibrant rituals and an exploration of a dark sect of Kabbalah based on Kischuph. The story revolves around the small town of Lowensport, Maryland. In 1880, a group of Jewish refugees from Prague,  led by the evil rabbi Gavriel Loew, construct two golems to defend themselves from the attack of the Conner clan, a local group of settlers lead by an ex-military deserter. The story is told in parallel with the present-day tale of Seth Kohn and his girlfriend Judy, who move into the old Lowen mansion and find themselves in the middle of a plan by Gavriel’s great-great-great grandson to resurrect Gavriel as a golem and–you guessed it–take over the world, or at least small part of it.

I think the book presents an interesting bit of folklore, but aside from that, I didn’t find much appealing here. I don’t know if this work is representative of Mr. Lee’s style (I’ll have to read another to decide), but I had difficulty in getting into the book because of the language. The book is riddled with adverbs, which isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself but Lee uses them to such an extent that I found myself struggling to visualize much of anything in the book. For instance, twice in the work Lee uses the word ‘paranoically’ to describe two different characters.

“Of course!” But then [Judy] looked paranoically behind her. (pg. 24)

And

Czanek looked paranoically over his shoulder again. (pg. 52)

In both instances, Lee provides the action (the showing)–both characters look over their shoulder. The reader sees what the characters are doing and the context provides the tension. What does the word ‘paranoically’ bring to the reader? The reader is bumped from the story with such an awkward word. These are two instances, but they are representative of the work’s style. I found myself jostled from the story with almost every turn of the page. This is what made the book feel like a first draft. I think the language could have been cleaned up and more appropriate description put in to help draw the reader deep into the story.

In addition to the language, I struggled with some key things Lee chose to focus on in the story. The reader gets two pages describing the video game Seth wrote and sold to make his millions, but the game itself has very little to do with the storyline. The reader also gets a lot of time spent on Switchgrass, the local cash crop, but again, other than providing a setting for characters to hide in, the Switchgrass and its use as a biofuel has little to do with the story. Whats more, the way the reader finds out many of these details was bothersome. Judy, being an ex-college professor, seems to know a bit about everything. Whenever the reader needs an explanation, or even when the reader doesn’t, Judy pipes up to give details. Yet, when she’s walking through the Switchgrass, the reader gets a strange gap in her knowledge:

Watch for snakes, she recalled the remarks of the man from the state. This new path was barely shoulder width. Did ticks live in switchgrass? No, she didn’t think so. (pg. 194)

We get pages of infodump from this character, but when it comes to something as trivial as ticks, she seems at a loss.

So, style aside, is there a good story here? It’s interesting in terms of the ritual and folklore of the golem, but I found myself struggling to care about what happened to any of these characters.

First, the 1880 story centers around a group of black-magic Jewish refugees (evil guys) locked in a struggle the Conner clan, with a group of local settlers led by an ex-military deserter and his cohorts (evil). I found neither side appealing, so I had no one to root for. Both sides wind up wiping each other out, leaving a single golem. I found nothing redeeming in the people on either side of this conflict. I initially had some sympathy for the Jewish refugees until it became clear that they were ousted by their own people in Prague because of their adherence to Kischuph. So while there’s some satisfaction in having a bunch of bad guys kill each other, there’s no one left at the end that I cared about.

The present-day story centers on Seth Kohn and his girlfriend Judy. Seth is a game designer lost his wife two years earlier and struggled through a bout of alcoholism. His girlfriend is an ex-college professor who struggled with crack addiction. They met in rehab. But when the story opens, both have recovered, Seth has made millions on his video game, and they buy Seth’s dream home near Lowensport, Maryland. These people have everything, so I also had trouble sympathizing with either of them. During the course of the story, Judy falls off the wagon and gets raped several times by local drug dealers as part of the plot to recover Gavriel Lowen’s head from the mansion, but by the time this all happens I, as a reader, have already disconnected from her as a character.

Compare these two with the main characters in Nate Kenyon’s novel Bloodstone. Billy Smith is an ex-convict, guilty of drunk driving and manslaughter. Billy is paired with Gloria Johnson, a heroin addict and hooker. These are sympathetic characters at low points in their lives, victims of circumstance to a degree. The reader cares about Billy, who has done his time but still lives burdened by the guilt of his crime. The reader cares about Gloria, a victim of drug addiction who, at the start of the story, is near the end of her rope. We cheer them on, we want them to get better.

Overall, I think The Golem provides little in the way of a good writing or good story telling. But I have to admit, if this book is ever made into a move, I will watch it. I think there are some visually stunning scenes: the Kischuph ritual of golemancy, the dynamiting of the mill, and of course the murderous mayhem inflicted by the golems. I have a deep love for horror movies, and I’m much more forgiving of story in exchange for the visual appeal.

I look forward to giving Lee’s work another chance. If you have suggestions of what is representative of Lee’s writing, post a comment. I’d love to hear from you!

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