The grass is always greener. Maybe that isn't the central point of The White Castle (Honestly, how many good books actually have one central point
?), but it was the one that stuck with me the most.
Pamuk, in general, was suggested to me, so I went onto the Brooklyn Library's website and picked one of his books mostly
at random -- smarty-pants literary books with plot summaries that sound like adventure stories are one of my favorite genre syntheses. Perhaps picking randomly wasn't the best choice, as The White Castle is one of Pamuk's earlier novels and probably not exactly representative of his (extremely lauded) output. It is very good, but not so much as I hoped.
I hovered between three and four stars on this one, and eventually settled on three for the same reason that I gave three stars to, God help me, Deathstalker. That is, despite the (very different) emotions stirred while reading both of these books, neither stuck with me all that much once I had put them down. In fact, I often had trouble getting myself to pick up The White Castle, and it was often slow-going when I was reading it, despite the fact that I really did enjoy the act of reading it.
So let me say, that The White Castle is great book in many ways. Pamuk takes the old story of doppelgangers and the fluidity of identity and makes it work very well. Mostly this is due to the pretty amazing feat of making the characters blur together (as doubles so often do in these stories) without ever losing their distinct personalities. Their conflicts feel like those that normal people actually have, rather than disagreements engineered to drive home the book's purposes, and they both feel like complete characters all the time. Where "the grass is always greener" seeps in is the moments in which it becomes clear that this all serves as a sort of mirror to the fascination/revulsion/envy/disdain/etc.etc. that the Christian and Muslim worlds hold for each other. Had Pamuk run this comparison into the ground, the characters would have lost those real personalities and conflicts that I mentioned; but he does not, and that's a pretty damn competent highwire to walk. That this also all serves as a sort of treatise on the ways really smart people can completely stall themselves and grow frustrated with everyone except themselves, is a sort of icing, I suppose.
However, the story never quite clicks. I don't mean that in terms of events within the story -- a whole book of two guys sitting around a room (which this almost is) is just fine. What I mean is, this story is so much about contrasting ideas and backgrounds and points of view that I ended up without a real feel for anything else. There are only so many pages of characters divulging their deepest darkest secrets (or fake stories that they pretend are such) that I can read before getting frustrated that I, the reader, am not privy to any
of those stories. But that's just one example. The book is largely told in a detached way that works very well about half of the time, but the other half inches just over the line into "too detached for me to keep caring" or "too detached for me to care after I've closed the book for tonight." As the novel moved into its second half, I started to realize that what I thought was almost an introduction would be the form of the whole book, and while it was enough to keep me reading it wasn't enough to deliver on the potential of the earlier chapters.
It feels, in the end, that Pamuk is trying a little too hard. He's either trying too hard to illustrate the big picture and thereby losing his characters, or he's trying too hard to focus on one specific aspect of his characters' relationship... which still kind of loses the characters, but from the other direction.
I don't know if that made sense. But really, it's an interesting, well-written book that's trying to do something, and does succeed at that thing
, but in doing so ends up making less of an impression than it could have. Ultimately a little lackluster, but still very good, thought-provoking, and enjoyable. I'm very curious to read some of Pamuk's later work.