Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Left Hand of God

Paul Hoffman
Penguin (penguin.com)

There seems to be a bit of a fuss surrounding The Left Hand of God, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. I bought it on a whim before I’d heard a whisper of the massive spend Penguin seem to have poured into the marketing, intrigued by the nihilistic back-cover blurb and a catchy opening line. The book was liberally drenched in glowing praise from capable authors, Conn Iggulden and Eoin Colfer among them, and numerous reputable papers also appeared to hold it in high esteem. But by the fiftieth page I’d already paused to look up the newspapers in question, to see if the publishers were perhaps taking review snippets out of context*; by the hundredth, I was beginning to doubt I was reading the same book as Iggulden and co.

So we’ve established that I think The Left Hand of God is bad. In an effort to retain the literary high ground, I should probably explain why.

Let’s start with the plot. Thomas Cale is a teenage orphan inhabitant of The Sanctuary, institutionally brutalised by the fanatical Redeemers who run the place in an effort to prepare them for service in the church’s armies. But Cale, being the protagonist of a fantasy novel which treats the genre clichés like some kind of tick-list, is special; possessed of a cold competence which sets him aside from his fellow children.

The novel dwells on the daily drudgery of life in the Sanctuary for a while, before Cale discovers one of his pious masters’ dirty little secrets and is forced to flee in the company of two almost-friends. If that seems to be a spoiler, you’ve never read a book before. But then The Left Hand of God in general seems to have a peculiar attitude towards suspense. It takes the entire novel to build up to a shocking revelation which will shock precisely no one who has noted the title and can put two and two together to get four, or even five. I wonder if perhaps Paul Hoffman is carrying out some cutting-edge literary experiment to prove the existence of anti-drama?

Along the way to this damp squib of a climax, Cale and co wander in the wilderness, outwit their pursuers through a variety of time-worn tactics (including, at one point, slipping out of a facility noted for its inescapability by donning hooded robes and joining the back of a long line of departing monks), discover the wonders of the big city and participate in a fiercely fought battle which bears an uncanny resemblance to Agincourt.

The entire setting of the novel, in fact, bears an air of the familiar. If some Dali-esque deity were to screw the fabric of our world into a ball and smear dark, unpleasant substances into the cloth, before cutting it into strips and sewing the thing back together at random, this is what he’d end up with. References to real-world places, peoples and names abound, each one of them seemingly perfectly pitched to shatter any sense of immersion the reader might have built up. Like an operatic high-C in a glassblower’s workshop, this haphazard recycling of reality is an utter disaster. Any hope of investing in the world Cale inhabits, in its authenticity and the causality of the events which occur within, simply fall apart every time you stumble over a posse of Norwegians, a St Stephen of Hungary, a city named Memphis or a leaden Biblical malapropism:
“That boy is a menace. He’s a jinx, like that fellow in the belly of the whale.”
“Jesus of Nazareth?”
“Yes, him.” (p.403)

What on earth is the rationale behind this? The only assumption I can make is that it’s either an attempt to indicate a far-future, lost-knowledge, back-to-the-dark-ages setting... or a massively backfiring attempt at a joke. Certainly if it’s the former, there’s nothing in the way of lost technology or buried history to back it up.

A stable of hard-ridden fantasy clichés and the ham-handed recycling of the world building aren’t the only places Hoffman’s originality seems to have failed him, but in the hands of a skilled stylist there’s no reason a decent story couldn’t have been constructed from these base materials. Alas! Alack! Hoffman’s prose is a wincingly awful combination of the bland, the bizarre and the childish. An urgent, engaging opening line (‘Listen. The Sanctuary of the Redeemers on Shotover Scarp is named after a damned lie, for there is no redemption that goes on there and less sanctuary.’ – p.1) gives way to a landscape of prosaic, flatly functional prose, in which abominations lie buried like anti-personnel mines. Behold:

Who could blame her if a quietly suppressed shudder did not make its way into the deepest recesses of her heart, there to be locked away. (p.409)

In the days after the terrible events of the Red Opera she had spent lascivious nights with Cale, passionately devouring every inch of him... (p.409)

...he lay wrapped in her elegant arms and endless legs... (p.411)

In addition to its occasional baffling turn of phrase, The Left Hand of God sustains a peculiarly immature attitude throughout, from the naming of such characters as Vague Henri, Kitty the Hare and IdrisPukke (who stands alone in his defiant rejection of normal word-spacing conventions) to a way in which the novel seems to stand arm-in-arm with its juvenile protagonists to point and laugh at an array of targets ranging from the childish (he’s got no trousers on, hur hur!) to the insensitive (fat girls, hur hur!) and on to the outright distasteful:
“They burnt him.”
“They burnt who?”
“Redeemer Navratil. They roasted him over a griddle for touching boys.”
“Sorry about that. He was decent enough, all said and done,” said Cale.
“As long as you kept your back to the wall,” said Kleist... “Poor old Redeemer Bumfeel.” (pp.394-5)

The immaturity of the style might be an outgrowth of the novel’s unwritten but obvious targeting at the YA market, but somebody should tell Paul Hoffman that writing for young adults doesn’t mean you have to write down to them.

It’s clear that The Left Hand of God is intended as the opening chapter in the latest ‘epic fantasy’ series, but the foreshadowing is clumsy and often bungled, leaving you with less a sense of anticipation than a feeling the author’s simply forgotten about that teasing treat dangled in front of you a few hundred pages back. This isn’t helped by the peculiarly unfocused narration, which often meanders away from its hero as if bored of talking about him, in order to delve into the backstory of some third-string supporting character whose fate is to die unpleasantly without affecting the flow of the narrative one jot.

I came to welcome these diversions, after a while. Each of these speedbumps Cale glides over on his passage through life was substantially more interesting than the hero himself, and made me wonder why Hoffman hadn’t put a similar sort of effort into the characters we spend most of our time with. Perhaps Cale’s blandness is an attempt to create a Twilight-esque void at the centre of the novel, into which the teenage reader can insert himself with the minimum of difficulty? Certainly Cale has little else to recommend him, practically embodying the done-to-death archetype of the surly, badass loner. There’s no genuine feeling in him, nothing which grows out of the character himself; even on those rare occasions when a glimpse of emotion shines through Cale’s unfeeling exterior (occasions which may as well come with a sign on which the cry ‘OH, I’M SO CONFLICTED!’ blazes in ten-foot letters of fire) it’s impossible to understand what internal process might have produced it. The plot merely required he become angry, or scared, or ‘in love’ - and so he did.

The result is a boy who seems sometimes to be gripped by a particularly convenient form of multiple-personality disorder, and whose attitude oscillates wildly between sociopathically aloof and staggeringly petulant:
“...Someone give me a sword.”
The guard commander signalled one of his men to hand over his weapon. “How about some trousers as well?” he added, to much amusement from the other soldiers.
“When I come back,” said Cale, “you’ll be laughing on the other side of your face.” (p.388)

It might be different if he showed any kind of character growth. But the Cale you meet at the beginning of the book is the same as he who departs at the end of it - only his situation has changed, and that but barely. In every story there’s the instigating character, the one whose actions propel the plot into motion. They tend to be fairly static in terms of character development, and the interest lies in watching the other characters scramble to deal with the consequences of their actions. Cale is one of them, and he makes a lousy protagonist because of it.

Perhaps the second book in the series will be more interesting? The Left Hand of God reads like a tiresomely extended prologue, and I wonder if the series would have lost anything important had it begun where this book ended. The novel recovers a little bit of form in the dying pages, which makes me think Hoffman began writing with the opening and the denouement firmly fixed in his mind, but little idea how to join the dots. As shamelessly baiting as the cliffhanger is, however, I won’t be sticking around to read the next instalment. A handful of decent paragraphs at either end of the novel simply cannot tip the scales against 480-odd pages so devoid of humour, style or imagination.

*The Telegraph’s ‘tremendous’ turned out to have been excerpted from ‘tremendous momentum’, and is preceded by a lament of the novel’s ‘workmanlike prose’. Take from that what you will.