I always find it curious when a novel breaks literary rules it is supposed to follow, and yet is successful. I’m filled with admiration for the author and bafflement for the work. It’s great such things get published. But I can’t help thinking, “How? How did such a book get past agents and editors?”
I have just finished Master and Commander, published in 1969 and written by English author Patrick O’Brian. After about 20 pages, I realized that this one such novel. It violates what I would call three pretty big rules for successful stories, yet was so popular it spawned 20 sequels. The Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin stories are loved across the English-speaking world. They also famously inspired a Russell Crowe blockbuster movie in 2003. The series chronicles the nautical adventures and intrigues of a very clever English sea captain (Aubrey) and his surgeon/naturalist friend (Maturin) during the Napoleonic wars. Imagine Captain Kirk with Bones McCoy raised to the level of Spock but being more of an all-around Renaissance man and you would have a good feel for the camaraderie these two characters share.
This is one of those novels that I did not particularly enjoy, but refuse to condemn simply because I think it did what it sought out to do. That, and it does have noteworthy strong points. I’d like to go over these before I criticize the novel to prove that I don’t believe Master and Commander is a bad novel. Rather, it is just not right for me.
I always find it curious when a novel breaks literary rules it is supposed to follow, treatment and yet is successful. I'm filled with admiration for the author and bafflement for the work. It's great such things get published. But I can't help thinking, diagnosis “How? How did such a book get past agents and editors?”
I have just finished Master and Commander, buy published in 1969 and written by English author Patrick O'Brian. After about 20 pages, I realized that this one such novel. It violates what I would call three pretty big rules for successful stories, yet was so popular it spawned 20 sequels. The Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin stories are loved across the English-speaking world. They also famously inspired a Russell Crowe blockbuster movie in 2003. The series chronicles the nautical adventures and intrigues of a very clever English sea captain (Aubrey) and his surgeon/naturalist friend (Maturin) during the Napoleonic wars. Imagine Captain Kirk with Bones McCoy raised to the level of Spock but being more of an all-around Renaissance man and you would have a good feel for the camaraderie these two characters share.
This is one of those novels that I did not particularly enjoy, but refuse to condemn simply because I think it did what it sought out to do. That, and it does have noteworthy strong points. I'd like to go over these before I criticize the novel to prove that I don't believe Master and Commander is a bad novel. Rather, it is just not right for me.
O'Brian's big accomplishment here is the invention of two very likable characters who are nicely placed on a warship where they are bound to amicably butt heads. They probably occupy rungs 1 and 2 of the IQ totem pole of any ship they're on. Jack is brave and clever, but not headstrong. He's always trying to second-guess the enemy, and he's always trying to capture their ships for prize money. Maybe he's a little too loose with the wine. Maybe he's a little too loose with the ladies. He likes Stephen though, and not just as a surgeon. All the bugs and twigs the man collects. The incessant questions about naval goings-on, their shared interest in music. It's a strong yet interesting friendship, and I'm sure this resonates well with O'Brian's readership.
Another accomplishment, just as big if not bigger, is the truth of it all. There is no doubt that O'Brian knew exactly what he was writing about. The history, the culture, the technical details of sailors, ships and seamanship. Contemporary reviews focused on the exact verisimilitude of the story down to the tiniest details and raved about it. Indeed, Master and Commander is a time capsule. There is little that's modern about it other than some of the prose (and even that comes across as baroque at times). O'Brian abstains it seems from inserting any modern sentiment into his writing and focuses on telling the story as it would have happened in 1801 or whenever it takes place. Although this is not the sort of thing that necessarily jazzes me, I do recognize that it is a significant literary feat (and one that is difficult to accomplish).
The last great thing O'Brian brings to the table are the stratagems, gambits, and ploys Aubrey uses to trick the enemy. They are all ingenious, they are all based on deep research, and they almost always work. Hence the Captain Kirk reference. In Master and Commander, Aubrey captains the HMS Sophie, which is little more than a sloop. Often he faces off against ships that are bigger, newer, faster, and carry more firepower. Aubrey will need his wits if he doesn't want to take his crew on a tour of Davey Jones' Locker. And remember that IQ totem pole? It applies to practically the whole ocean it seems. No one is smarter than Jack Aubrey about things naval, and when he has a suspicion about the enemy or the weather or what his ship or crew can or cannot do under certain circumstances, it is almost certain to be right.
So if you like accurate history, atomic-level nautical details, likeable characters, ingenious stratagems, and a hero you can really root for (not to mention some thrilling battle scenes), then Master and Commander is for you.
But it is not quite for me.
For one, I found about a thrid the novel to be incomprehensible. This breaks a big rule for me: make your novel comprehensible. When I'm take on a story, I would like some detail, but not so much that it seems like it's written in another language. This is what it was for me. It seems that for the first several chapters, if you do not have an intimate understanding of all kinds jibs and sails and masts and decks then you will get lost. I honestly don't know how anyone who isn't a naval scholar or lacks experience on a 18th century warship would be able to follow what goes on. Yes, I know that many can; I just don't know how.
I think I gave up trying to closely follow the story when my dictionary failed me for the 5th or 6th time. This was maybe a third of the way through the novel. That's too much work for a reader, to have to constantly consult reference material to follow the action. I started to skim over some of the more baffling passages just to keep from putting the book down (which I was tempted to do several times). I found it amusing that somewhere towards the end a character had died and I hadn't even realize it. I didn't catch on until they were sewing him into his hammock for a watery grave. And I didn't care all that much, either. I was only skimming the baffling bits just so I could follow the main arc of the story. Then I realized there wasn't one. Master and Commander has a beginning and a middle, and that's it. The story is basically about Jack Aubrey's advancement through the ranks of the British Navy as he goes from adventure to adventure with his nerdy pal Stephen Maturin. The story isn't supposed to have an ending.
This leads to my second gripe. Being a serial novel, suspense never truly develops because no matter what happens you always know that Jack and Stephen will live to see another day. So the entertainment value comes not with wondering whether Jack and Stephen will get out of their current predicament, but marveling at how they get out of their current predicament. And there's always going to be a predicament.
Remember Gilligan's Island? You know they were never going to leave the island, right? No matter what an episode promises (or threatens), you can rest assured that in the end the castaways will be in the same place they were at the beginning. This is called the Law of the Expanding Middle. It works great for comedies and soap operas and mysteries and adventure stories, but it is rarely the format for serious literature. In serious literature you usually want main characters to be in a different place when it's all over. The story has to somehow change them (and us) significantly and perhaps even permanently. That is the mark of great literature. You don't get that with Sherlock Holmes stories. You don't get that with James Bond stories. And you certainly don't get that here.
This is not to say that Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Jack Aubrey novels are without merit. Of course, not. These are first-rate genre stories that have impacted millions. People have a need for this kind of thing, and these novels have been delivering for generations. And that's lovely. It's just that I don't have a need for this kind of fiction. I consider it to be intellectual but lightweight entertainment rather than something profound.
While I am willing to concede that my first two objections to Master and Commander are at least partially my problem rather than any legitimate knock on the novel itself, I will stand by my last objection till my dying day as an honest to goodness fault in the work. The novel's ending violates what I consider to be a sacrosanct law of storytelling:
Never take the climax of the story out of the hands of the protagonist.
Master and Commander contains two really big battle scenes towards the end: One in which Jack outwits the crew of a big Spanish vessel and takes it for a prize, and the other in which the Sophie is snuck up upon by 3 French warships, and, despite a brilliant and risky escape effort engineered by Jack, is captured. The remainder of the novel consists of Jack and Stephen sitting it out as prisoners and then getting court-martialed by the British navy. The big climax happens when the admirals let Jack off the hook for being such a capital fellow.
Does anyone else see exactly how lame this is?
Here we have our brilliant and gallant leader ending his story by getting captured and then sitting there at the mercy of others. Jack does nothing to achieve his state of grace. Yes, his crew testified that Jack did all he could to save the ship, but we already know this. All this ending proves is that the navy brass are not entirely unsympathetic to justice. This is more their shining moment than Jack Aubrey's. To slog through such a dense, baffling novel only to be sold a cheap bill of goods at the end was a letdown to say the least.
Yeah, I guess we're supposed to be elated since we share in Jack Aubrey's triumphs and disasters. But I'm not. If the author couldn't be bothered to contrive a climax that keeps Jack in charge of his own fate at the very least, why should I be bothered to care all that much when Jack lucks out in the end? He could have just as easily been hanged or struck by lightning.
This is simply lazy writing, and I am dismayed that so many people don't seem to care. If an author expects a reader to dedicate many hours to his book, he'd better have a worthwhile payoff in the end. That O'Brian doesn't give one is as baffling as some of his prose. And why readers gave him a pass for it is anyone's guess.
That said, I did come away from Master and Commander with a valuable lesson: if an author knows his audience (or if his audience knows him), he can get away with breaking any rule of writing he wants. I am willing to gamble Patrick O'Brian knew his audience well, and that audience (at least in 1969) consisted of a whole generation of English speaking men who were quite knowledgeable about British naval history. If this weren't the case, no publisher would have come near such an arcane yarn as Master and Commander. As long as Patrick O'Brian kept Jack and Stephen likeable, as long as he kept his stories teeming with accurate nautical details, as long as he kept supplying his readership with cracking battle scenes and clever stratagems, and as long as Jack Aubrey always came out on top in the end, then his readership will always love him.
There is something to be admired about that.