Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Typical Virginia Woolf Experience: Orlando Is Not Magnificent.

The Good: Poetic prose, Deeper Themes, Character Development
The Bad: Dense, Confusing
The Basics: Despite being stiflingly dense in language and themes, Orlando succeeds at being an interesting character piece and treatise on English society through history.

I picked up Orlando because I enjoyed the film. The film is wonderful and surprisingly comprehensible, especially for being adapted from a Virginia Woolf novel. It's also quite completely a different work. The novel Orlando is considerably more daunting than the film. My friend who recommended both to me strongly recommends considering them two different works. I pass that recommendation on with my own voice as well.

Personally, I preferred the film, for a change to the novel, but both were quite good. The book being what is being reviewed here, allow me to commence exclusively with that.

Orlando follows the life of a Renaissance nobleman who presents Queen Elizabeth (I) with a bowl of rosewater and thereafter appears to age ridiculously slowly, or not at all. He then explores literature, life, society and war. While an ambassador, he changes genders. Yup, he becomes a she through an act of exquisite biology, making Orlando the eternal envy of all who have ever had to pay to have a sex change. So, Orlando continues the rest of her life as a woman, re-integrating with society, marrying, mating, having a child, publishing.

It's a strange thing, then that the change is not a terribly major event. In fact, more significant is that after Orlando changes gender, she becomes preoccupied with the past. Orlando begins to hallucinate and remember and in many ways become obsessed with minutia from her past. It's confusing and in some ways seems like the same affliction of James Whale in Gods and Monsters. Orlando seems to confuse the past and present and that it seems to deepen after the change in gender seems to be Woolf saying something.

The thing is, Virginia Woolf is not an easy writer. She's not intended to be read for enjoyment. She does not strive to be instantly comprehensible. That's the killer because it requires the reader not only to be awake but constantly engaged. It seems every line in Woolf's novels are alluding to something else, are packed with symbols, are speaking to something other than the obvious. Usually, I think that's wonderful and for the most part, I do with Orlando, too. The intimidating thing is the utter lack of dialogue. That's what will stop most people from making it through Orlando. Woolf has an annoying habit of using little to no dialogue. In her superior novel, Mrs. Dalloway, there is about 30,000 times the dialogue of Orlando and there it is somewhat sparse, too.

The problem with Orlando is it seems to need it. In a life spanning hundreds of years, to have less than ten conversations recorded is stifling. How may we be engaged by such lengthy exposition? The truth is, often we are not. Instead, we're set on a quest to decipher symbols and seek meaning where there may or may not be some. Outside an academic setting it's a huge challenge!

What redeems Orlando is the moments of character. There's just enough of it to recommend the book. It's easy enough to say "I'm going to write a book about an immortal who changes genders," it's another thing entirely to make it interesting and even engaging. Reading Orlando and his (and later her) misguided quest to understand the ages s/he finds him/herself in is interesting solely because Orlando is interesting. He has character. I feel, few pages in, I know this person who sits under trees reading naked. I understand Orlando's confusion at meeting people and discovering social mores and trying to fit into gender roles. Orlando makes sense. Orlando deserves our attention.

Alas, that Woolf makes it such a task! I am sure, later in my life, I shall return to this novel and read it with more of an eye for pulling out the deeper meanings. I would strongly recommend that those attempting this novel be prepared to do that - to some extent - the first go-around.

For other novels with characters who border on the fantastic, please check out my reviews of:
Niffenegger, Audrey - The Time Traveler's Wife
Meyer, Stephanie - The Short Second Life Of Bree Tanner
Elrod, P.N. - I, Strahd

For other novel reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2010, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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