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It’s only when you encounter a novel lacking in complex characters, plot, and motive that you realize how vital those things are. Without them, the story is dead.
Of course, if you like this kind of thing, Erin Morgenstern’s sophomore offering “The Starless Sea” will appeal to you. She sweetens the pot with endless descriptions of cups, libraries, rooms, and paintings to make up for the lack of her characters’ direction. It’s doubly disappointing to encounter these glaring issues in her second novel, because they are the same problems that plagued her first release, “The Night Circus.”
Because the characters lack motivation and cosmic desires beyond “wanting to tell their story,” it’s difficult to truly ascertain what happens in “The Starless Sea,” but the general premise is this: Zachary Ezra Rawlins studies Emerging Media at what feels like a fictional Ivy League school in Vermont. He discovers an odd book that uses part of his own life as the plot, leading him down a rabbit hole to figure out the book’s origins. He soon ends up at a costume party, the events at which initiate him into a world of aesthetic intrigue and opulent beauty.
The above is truly the most accurate plot summary possible, because to say anything more would be mere conjecture. A secret sea exists under the earth in the world Zachary finds himself, but why it’s there is unclear. It’s also made of honey, presumably to tie in with the bee, sword, and key imagery strewn throughout the book, but, again, why these symbols are vital and how they tie into the much-needed backstory is never provided to the reader.
Unfortunately, this novel also suffers from problems at the semantic and syntactic levels. Dialogue is followed by qualifiers like “if buttressed is a word.” This kind of indecisiveness is sloppy and distracting, especially since an omniscient narrator tells the story.
Morgenstern, to her credit, spends a great deal of time crafting a visual world, with the result being that many objects are overwrought. For example, she describes “a larger light above is not a chandelier at all but a cluster of glowing globes hung amongst brass hoops and bars.” As a layperson without any claims to chandelier expertise, it seems like this “larger light” is literally the description of a chandelier.
This sloppiness weighs down her prose, making it difficult to discern what is important and what is not. It lends her a seemingly masterful air, and thus a reader might defer to her authority because they do not understand what’s happening. Newsflash: If you, as a reader, don’t understand the prose because everything seems unconnected and intentionally vague, it’s not you — it’s the author.
The novel’s narrative tense is problematic as well. Morgenstern writes in third person present: “Dorian smiles at the statement, despite the truth of it or because of it.” The present tense is jarring from the first sentence of the novel all the way to the very last. It also serves no functional purpose in the book because it doesn’t even ostensibly provide narrative urgency.
At times, it is shocking that the novel made it past proofreaders and editors. The following is not a sentence: “In the bottom of the wardrobe there are several pairs of shoes and of course they fit, which bothers him more than the clothing since most of it is loose-fitting and adjustable, everything fits but that could be explained away by him on the slim side of standard but the shoes are scary.” That multiple people green-lighted this, is, quite frankly, appalling.
Morgenstern seems to have decided that metaphor, not plot, would be the story’s foundation. Unfortunately, metaphors require points of reference, and when the concrete images presented to the reader are all reduced to metaphors, the reader must them ask herself, “what is the real thing that’s happening here?” Unfortunately, because Morgenstern can’t be bothered with making choices about why things happen in the novel, she doesn’t know either.
Thus, “The Starless Sea” is roughly 500 pages of beautiful images that create no cohesive whole. The characters are not motivated to do anything beyond wander in and out of worlds — we don’t know why they’re connected or why this universe is truly imperiled — which comes as no surprise, because Morgenstern also fails to flesh out any of her characters beyond vague origin stories that are nothing more than filler. The characters are so loosely sketched that they have no real reason to do anything until the next image of a bee crops up.
To that end: Morgenstern never clarifies the purpose of the bee, the sword, the key, or the crown. Are these images remnants of an old society? Possibly, but they appear as tattoos, etchings, images on dice, and actual objects, and it’s difficult to tell why they do. Every single element of this story has no “why” underpinning it, which is particularly important in fantasy.
Morgenstern might disdain worldbuilding, yet for fantastical novels such as this one, in which the stakes are different and the terms set by the limits and extent of the world itself, worldbuilding is absolutely vital. Ignoring it results in a novel that has no stakes, no tension, no purpose, and, crucially, no intrigue. The lack of plot becomes almost insulting considering that Morgenstern herself admitted in an interview that she has trouble with it: Perhaps putting the brakes on indulgent descriptions of libraries to determine where the book is going would have been a good use of her time.
The only discernible villain dies early on, resolving nothing. The characters continue to wander — and no wonder, because Morgenstern never gave them any reason to do otherwise. It might be annoying to do as an author, but even within an unreal world, the characters, plot, and setting have to provide a logical answer to “why” things exist and occur the way they do. The reader never receives an answer, because Morgenstern is content to ask vague questions couched as answers — they’re “metaphors,” but for what, no one knows — assigning the reader instead to the task of answering. This demand inverts the relationship between reader and author, rendering the process of reading unenjoyable and purposeless.
Morgenstern appears to create a metanarrative about why we tell stories, how we tell them, who gets to keep them, where they go, and how we get lost in them. These are weighty, thought-provoking themes, worthy of exploration, but given that “The Starless Sea” is not a personal essay, but rather a large work of fiction, it is not too much to ask for concrete plot, detailed character desires, and backstory to serve as a foundation for attempted answers to those questions. Unfortunately, these three elements are basic, vital, and, crucially, absent from this novel.
—Staff writer Cassandra Luca can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @cassandraluca_
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