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Flawed But Ultimately Thought-Provoking and Worthwhile
on March 1, 2003
Yes, much of what negative reviewers of this book have to say is true: the writing is blunt and simple, the characters lack depth and complexity, it is quite male-focused in its subject matter and language, it has a bunch of quasi-religious mumbo-jumbo, and so on. This book should not be put on the list of great literature for the ages. There are doubtless many novels that cover subject matter from this book far more artfully. As I read the book, I was aware of its hokeyness and lack of redeeming literary qualities. I am, in fact, usually the first person to criticize books that read like this.
And yet, I have to say - and I feel a bit sheepish about this - that I found it meaningful, even profound at times. How can I say this, given my criticisms? First of all, unlike many reviewers, I did not approach this book with great expectations. No one told me that this was Shakespeare or Tolstoy; I had never even heard of it until it was recommended to me recently. And by the end of page 2, I had adjusted my expectations further. This clearly was not going to be winning the Booker prize.
But I found the book moving in its simple way. The characters deliver their statements without subtlety, but subtlety is more a literary virtue than a philosophical one. In fact, I essentially came to view this work as a life philosophy expressed as a fable, so I didn't particularly mind that its messages were not buried far beneath the surface.
Are those messages novel? No, but what of it? Novelists have been recycling themes for centuries, becuase many themes are of enduring interest and relevance. The point is, the messages are worthwhile and deserving of consideration. They are simple, but I think that simplicity is itself one of the central themes of the book: that life is not that complicated when one follows one's dreams honestly and passionately, or as the book says, "with love and purpose." And yet the book reminds us that it is very easy to give up dreams and abandon one's passion.
I have to disagree with one often-mentioned criticism of the book, namely, that it advocates pure materialism. That is, in my opinion, a serious misinterpretation. The book is written in the style of a fable, and therefore the goals people strive for are the typical gold-and-buried-treasure stuff. But I think one would have to misread the book quite severely to think that it is advocating material gain. The book is not at all about the specific goals that the protagonist pursues. It is about the importance of wanting something urgently and how the wanting seems to reorient the universe in harmony with that goal (just as a magnetic field can reorder the particles around it), how genuine passion and enthusiasm are rewarded with success, how those who love us encourage us to pursue our goals, and how the act of reaching for goals - whatever they are, and whether or not ultimately reached - plunges us into a strong current that carries us to places that we can never expect or know when we embark. There is something here in common with the beliefs of the Romantics, in that much of the value of the goal is in the journey that it leads us on -- the experiences gained and the lessons learned.
It's not a fair criticism of the book, I think, to say that it doesn't tell us what happens when people's goals conflict with one another, or disclose that circumstances outside of our control often render us unable to reach our goals however sincerely we may pursue them. We don't need a book to tell us that. Anyone who has made it out of childhood knows that, and I have to believe that the author is well aware of this as well. I suspect that through his simple tale, he is trying to provide some kind of argument against the kind of cynicism or fear that the world can sometimes instill in us, and encourage us to keep diving into that "strong current" to see where it takes us.