Thursday, April 05, 2018

Game of Thrones, Conclusion: So Why Do I Like It So Much?

I could go on for another week about “A Game of Thrones”, but I’m wearing out, so let’s flip all the cards back* and get to the big question: I’ve laid out several reasons why the book shouldn’t work, and talked about how Martin turned many of his potential weaknesses into strengths, but we still haven’t really established: Why is the writing so addictive? Why did I get so sucked into reading, even though:

  • I’d already decided I couldn’t countenance Martin’s worldview and abandoned the show.
  • I knew everything that was going to happen so I didn’t need to read to satisfy any plot curiosity.
  • I’m wary of fantasy books, and long books in general.

This gets to the heart of my book. This is the “stranger on an airplane” test: How do you learn to write so well that you win over even someone who doesn’t want your story? I think what really grabbed me was the “warm slipper” quality of the writing. What created that feeling?

  • Supremely confident world-building: World-building is where most sci-fi and fantasy loses me. I end up saying “That’s not the way the world works”, even if it’s not our world. The rules of the world being presented just haven’t been properly thought-through. Martin, by combining his encyclopedic knowledge of the medieval world with his boundless imagination, has created a free-ranging world in which all of the (thousands of) pieces fit snugly, and it’s astonishing to watch it all come together. It’s all-enveloping, like a warm slipper (even though it’s a cold world, in every sense.)
  • Intimate limited POV: I’ve already talked about this. The multi-sensory writing and strictly-limited POV create a sense of intense intimacy with whatever character we’re reading about. It’s the opposite of alienation. The full-identification also creates a warm slipper feeling.
  • Martin is not afraid to use the oldest tricks in the books to intensify our emotional experience, which makes the book an intense thrill. A simple line like “For a heartbeat he dared to hope” right before a gruesome death works every time.

My two favorite reading experiences are also super-long, multi-POV, and set during wartime: “War and Peace” by Tolstoy and “The USA Trilogy” by Dos Passos (which I originally encountered in one volume). Martin isn’t in that league, but he’s doing the same thing they’re doing: Creating a vast world at a tragic time, though many intensely intimate points of view. In all three cases, I found it addictive and didn’t want it to end.

(One difference is that Tolstoy and Dos Passos didn’t abuse my addiction.  They finally wrapped up their epic sagas just before I could exhaust myself. Martin just keeps his junkies on the hook year after year. The other difference is that I ultimately agree with Tolstoy and Dos Passos’s worldview, but disagree with Martin’s, which is why I was able to painfully break away a few hundred pages into the second book.)

*Never let it be said that my pop-cultural references are not super-up-to-date.


Jesse Baruffi said...

I think you hit upon something pretty big here. Darker stories need to end more quickly. A good tragic story can be a nice emotional gutpunch that has a lasting impact. Worlds of unrelenting misery that just go on and on and continually pull out the rug of hope from under their readers end up being exhausting and frustrating. It's easy to eventually find oneself asking, "why am I bothering with this?" and walking away. Game of Thrones does it far better, but I feel like The Walking Dead has a similar problem.

Jodi Lew-Smith said...

Matt I really enjoyed this series on GOT and I think you did an excellent analysis. Thank you.

My own two cents is that the first three books of the series were a self-contained set that ended with Tyrion Lannister killing his father -- and that could have been the final climactic ending right there. Martin talks elsewhere on the web about Tyrion being the actual MC of his series, and I think it's driven home in the way he writes the ending of Book Three.

After that, he pretty much sent all his characters scattering to the winds and has let them roam all over doing not much and supposedly preparing their souls for some massive climactic moment that he's over-promised and now apparently can't deliver.

I like your final assessment of the "warm slipper" effect that comes with such a deeply-realized world and such intimate characters. I'm likewise not a fantasy reader and have wondered for years why I like these books so much better than most any other fantasy, and I think that you nailed it -- how he made the world itself so seductive.

Thanks again for your insights. I look forward to reading more of your posts.


Matt Bird said...

Glad you liked it!

If Tyrion is the hero, then what's Martin saying? "The way to defeat evil in this world is to be close enough to evil people that you can ambush them on the toilet."

LL said...

I loved the book very much and also the show. It is somehow different from the rest and you never feel bored.