Once Upon a Time in a Far Off Land….
by Jennifer Young
|Life on a desert island...you'll need a good book. |
Photo by Indi Samarajiva (Wikimedia Commons)
To address this, I’ve got a plan: I alternate new books with classics. So far I think the classics pile has been as mixed as the new pile – some lollipops (I’ll definitely revisit the extraordinarily modern plot of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) and some lemons (though I would recommend Moby Dick as a practical guide for insomniacs). Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to Robinson Crusoe.
I still don’t know what to make of it. If I hadn’t been so set on my plan I’d never have picked it up, let alone persevered through the heavy opening sections. One thing it doesn’t do is get straight to the action. Check that one off in your writers’ circle. “Brilliant plot, Daniel, but perhaps you should get to the interesting stuff a little more quickly?”
Then there are the characters. I won’t criticise his characterisation (I’m in a position of weakness) but it might have helped if any other than Crusoe and (eventually) Friday had names. It’s difficult to distinguish one sailor from another, the first of the Spaniards from the second, Crusoe’s patron from his benefactor and, indeed, any of the other old men and their sons who between them maintain his wealth for him as he spends the years marooned on his famous desert island.
|Crusoe and Friday |
(public domain: from Wikimedia Commons)
And another problem. Crusoe alone on the island for so many years (Friday turns up so far into the book that he’s more like a week on Friday) has no-one to talk to and no-one to talk to means a distinct absence of dialogue. Worse: it means dense pages of text and more than a little repetition as successful wheat crop follows successful wheat crop and, frankly, nothing happens. Until, writes Defoe, “I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore.”
I was surprised too, even though I knew it would come. In my mind I ran with Robinson to hide in the woods, keeping watch while he set up his muskets to defend whatever he had against all comers. That’s why it’s a classic. Because for all its dated language and ponderous prose, for all the fact that it could do with a very heavy editor’s cut, it made me draw in my breath in that noooo! moment we all aspire to. Okay, it took pretty much half the book: but in the end it hooked me.
It would never be published today, of course – not just because of its slow pace, its over-heavy moralising on the superiority of the Christian over the savage and its unconscious but obvious racism (it is, after all, a book from the age of slavery). And if you do pick it up, don’t expect it to be a rip-roaring read. But it illustrates something that’s always worth repeating: if you can make your readers sit up suddenly and straight, spilling their glass of wine into their box of chocolates…you’re a writer.