When I first finished The Nature of Plots my immediate impression was that I hadn’t liked it very much. On further reflection, I actually really enjoyed it. The change of opinion (which is pretty rare for this particular dairy product, I’ll have you know) came about because I kept going back over to my bookshelf, reaching for this book, and flipping back to re-read parts that I couldn’t get out of my mind. I could not stop thinking about this one! Which isn’t to say that the ending wasn’t conclusive (it was) or was surprising (it wasn’t), or that I was confused about how things played out (nope!), just that the book was so compelling I kept wanting to return to Zahrt’s world.
The story revolves around Sam, who’s a graduate student about to defend his thesis. The thesis in question is about his grandfather, Leonhard Grundstein, a fictional Hemingway contemporary who may or may not have led a double life while writing his most famous works. As Sam gets closer to his defense date, more and more information about his grandfather’s possible duplicity begins to emerge, forcing Sam to make some very serious personal and professional choices.
Let’s get into to some specifics of things I liked about the book. There is an incredible blend of fact and fiction, and Zahrt does an amazing job with inventing an author and his collected works and weaving them into the story. There’s also a sub-plot involving the swine flu and a recession and a minor-character’s death (alluded to within the first chapter, so it’s not a spoiler!) that really amps up the tension that’s been building in the main plot. In fact, the time period it’s set in (2009-ish, for the most part) makes it a very distinct story. The writing style was also enjoyable (there’s this thing with strike-throughs that, once you warm up to it, makes for some funny moments). Another favorite thing is that maybe half-way through our protagonist Sam joins twitter, and so the last half frequently features tweets, which seems awkward but actually fit well into the flow of the story.
But now onto some of the not so good things, the ones that influenced my knee-jerk reaction to the book. First: Sam. I found him annoying, rude, and somehow both oblivious and a know-it-all. Which some might not mind reading, but really drove me crazy and at several points made me want to put the book down for good. Another thing that bugged me was that the aforementioned subplot with the dead minor character did not pay off for how much of the book was spent building up to his death. I mean, from the first chapter we know he’s not gonna make it to the end, so it wasn’t surprising, and it was hard to figure out why exactly it was mentioned so many times. In fact, Sam had too many friends who didn’t propel the plot- they weren’t present enough to be well characterized and distinct, and there were so many of them that I lost track of who was who a few times, making it even harder to tell them apart. Also, for however good of a job Zahrt did of creating a canon for his fictional Grundstein, the story got a bit bogged down in the middle third with all of the literature lectures. Like, Sam gives several real (or as real as can be in a novel) lectures. Several. In a row. I understood that they were necessary for the story and the reader’s understanding of a fictional author’s work, but they dragged it down for me. Lastly, I’ll get down to my most nitpick-y point: Sam’s name! Sam’s full name is Samuel Leonhard Grundstein Schurke, and the first chapter makes a HUGE deal about the fact that he’s named after his grandfather. Which… he is and he isn’t. Technically, he is named in honor of his grandfather, Leonhard Grundstein, but since he goes by Sam Schurke in all aspects of his life it’s not as meaningful as the author builds it up to be. Nitpicky, but it bugged me.
So, in summary: a good book. Perhaps even a great one. The ending in particular blew me away, and it’s the last few chapters that I keep wanting to re-read to make sure I’m remembering them correctly. Certainly this was the first book I’ve read in a while that had me immediately looking forward to reading more of this author, so I’ll be adding Zahrt’s first book, Odd Man Outlaw, to an admittedly extensive to-be-read list.
I’m also dying to get my hands on some of Grundstein’s work! Even though I know it’s not real, the “lectures” on The Timepiece had me dying to read it irl. C’mon, Zahrt! Write it for me and I promise I’ll only say good things here on the blog!
AND WHAT ABOUT THE MOVIE? No. The style is mostly the reason I came around to this book, so a movie wouldn’t hold any attraction for me at all. On the other hand, speaking of The Timepiece…