_The Thief_, with spoilers galore--extra long for your enjoyment

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Fri Mar 8 00:47:41 EST 2002


_The Thief_, or Why I Don't Like Cheating
a long, mumbling and juicy ramble
by Melissa Proffitt

It's taken me this long to get back to this topic.  I just re-read the book
for the express purpose of discussing it here, but other commitments must
needs take precedence sometimes.  If you want to follow along, I'm using the
Puffin PB edition and all page numbers come from that.

Anyway....

spoiler space









more spoiler space because
I don't know
how much
is
really
needed





I had the nerve to suggest that Megan Whalen Turner had to cheat in order to
accomplish her goal with _The Thief_.  A number of people disagreed, which
could in a Bizarro universe mean I was wrong, but probably only means I need
to clarify.  :)  

(Note to new subscribers to DWJ-list: It is a long tradition that I am
Always Right.  The true meaning of this statement is the subject of much
philosophical debate, since I have been provably Wrong at times, but I'm
actually just channeling the spirit of Daisy Bagthorpe Parker.  It's a fun
conceit that should not be taken too seriously.  Now you know.)

Here are the main points of dissension, and I'm glad so many people went out
and read the book, because despite my misgivings I truly enjoyed it and I
hope Turner writes many more novels and I plan to read all of them.

Hallie said: 
>But given who and what Gen is, and what he was doing, our having access to his feelings 
>without necessarily catching on to his actions fully worked fine for 
>me.   Remember what Eddis says about him: he lies constantly.  He 
>lies to himself.  If he talked in his sleep, he'd lie then too. :)

Anita:
>I'm not sure about the cheating. OK, we're never told that he is (.. who he
>is .., for the sake of spoilers), but there are more and more clues as the
>book goes on. Remember he was not only deliberately hiding it from the
>reader, but from all the other characters too. 

The lovely Dorian:

>Yes, and I don't know that it's necessarily the sort of thing he'd be
>thinking of under the circumstances he's in - so if he's not thinking
>of it, there's no reason for him to mention it.  We are, after all,
>quite deeply in his head; there's an immediacy to his narrative,
>almost as if he's telling it as the events happen, rather than looking
>back on it.  It seems reasonable to me that he wouldn't mention it.

>In fact, come to think of it, given his situation at the beginning and
>even through most of the book - he's in fairly dire straits!  I think
>a case could be made for his deliberately repressing/half-forgetting
>who he really is, as the knowledge might be more harm than help to him
>then.

Good points, all.  In fact, I don't disagree with any of this: Gen's
immersed in his role, and most of what he thinks and says falls into the
category of double-meaning.  For example, the first chapter:

"I reviewed over and over the plans that had seemed so straightforward
before I arrived in jail, and I swore to myself and every god I knew that if
I got out alive, I would never never never take any risks that were so
abysmally stupid again" (p. 1)

On a first reading--and as one continues with the chapter--this statement
can be taken as simply the mistake of a common thief who's not as good as he
thought; the "risk" is read as stealing the king's seal and then bragging
about it in public.  On a second reading, it's clearer that the "risk" he's
referring to is his overall strategy for getting into a position to steal
Hamiathes's Gift.  This is completely appropriate and, indeed, an acceptable
technique.  I refer you to _Hexwood_, that masterpiece of misdirection, for
sundry examples of said technique.

HOWEVER.  This is NOT what I mean by cheating.  In my original post, rather
than trust the spoiler space, I referred obliquely to something that the
reader should have known, because Gen knew it, which was deliberately hidden
from the reader.  Ros, who is obviously very smart, picked up on the same
thing:

>But what about Gen's taking the stone from the mage and hiding it in his
>hair without telling the reader, allowing the reader to believe it's been
>lost?  In omnisecent voice that would be fine, but in a first person that
>strikes me as somehow selling the reader short.
and
>I'm still not convinced that having a narrator writing in first person
>hiding his identity from the reader,  isn't a kind of cheating. I wasn't
>only referring to Gen's identity, though--I didn't explain (because of
>spoilers) that I meant it to apply also to the fact that Gen also had stolen
>the stone a second time and had it safe all along. Even though I absolutely
>loved the book--I do want to stress this--I can't help feeling that hiding
>*that* piece of information from the reader when the book is written in
>first person does strike me as...I'm not sure whether the word is cheating,
>but I feel that it's doing something that's not fair to the reader.

Exactly.

I think there's adequate justification for Gen's hiding his identity from
the reader; he's deep in character, there are moments when he *breaks*
character which hint at his being something more (his unexpected ability at
swordfighting, the fact that his name is Eugenides, his having written up
his "history" and getting it planted in the archives for the magus and the
king of Sounis to find).  In subsequent re-readings, these clues are fairly
obvious.  A similar effect is found in Connie Willis's _Uncharted
Territory_, where the narrator's gender is a mystery for the first 100
pages.  (To avoid embedded spoilers, I will not reveal the truth here, so go
read the book if you're interested.)  Willis does this to underline the
ambiguity of Findriddy and Carson's relationship, and to strengthen the
underlying theme of sexual seduction and courtship ritual, but also because
it's a cool trick if you can pull it off.  I think Turner does this fairly
well, but it does feel a little like a trick, even if it is justified.

It's the issue of Hamiathes's Gift that I see as cheating, and I'll tell you
why.  The structural climax of the novel happens at the moment that Gen
reveals that he's had the stone the whole time everyone thought it was lost.
In order for this to be the climax, *the reader can't know the truth*.  The
reader has to be just as surprised as the magus and Sophos in order for the
climax to retain its emotional impact.  In order to do this, Turner has to
manipulate the first-person POV and take advantage of the reader's
assumptions.

While it's true that Gen lies all the time, his deceptions all center on how
he represents himself to others (and, due to the POV, to the reader).  But
at no time does he misrepresent what he *perceives* and *actually does*.
That is, he might lie about why he's doing something, but he won't hide that
he's done it--up until the skirmish at the ford.  Here's the relevant
paragraph:

"The magus and I were nearly knee to knee, ahead of the others.  I dragged
the reins of my horse over to one side, and it stumbled into the horse
beside it.  I brushed shoulders with the magus for just a moment and then
turned the horse on its haunches...." (p. 156)

This is the moment at which he cuts the leather thong and takes the stone,
but there's no mention of this key event.  Here's his later explanation of
how he managed to get it:

"As soon as I'd seen the riders attacking, I'd moved my horse, never far
away from the magus's, until I could cut the thong around his neck with the
penknife I'd stolen the first or second day out of prison.  He'd been too
distracted to notice and had assumed later, as I'd known he would, that the
thong had been sliced by a sword stroke and that the Gift had dropped into
the stream." (p. 204)

Yeah, the magus was distracted, but Gen sure wasn't.  And he definitely knew
what he had done.  So why don't we get to see it--especially since we get to
see everything else he's done?  Because that would have ruined the climactic
moment.  Turner tries to justify this by including other thefts that also
are never mentioned (i.e. the penknife and Ambiades's comb, the second time
Gen takes it).  She also throws in an oblique reference that is only
understood the second time, from the part where Gen has been worked over by
Attolia's guards and is in a cell:  "I didn't want [the magus] to put his
hand beneath my head and lift it....When he didn't notice the bump under my
hair at the base of my skull, I gave up protesting" (p. 173)  The bump, of
course, is the Gift.  But these justifications are iffy at best, given that
the reader is given no reason to distrust Gen's perceptions (and his
internal narrative to the reader) of physical events.  And the fact that Gen
finally DOES tell us the true sequence of events, immediately after the
surprise revelation, indicates that Turner knows full well that readers had
no way of picking up on this beforehand, and would be going "Huh?" at that
moment without the explanation.

What's more, this is a manipulation of what readers expect from the
first-person POV (something Ros noted above).  The assumption is that
whatever lies the POV character may tell to other characters--and whatever
lies other characters tell which go unquestioned by the POV--that narrator
will not, at least, lie to the reader; if his internal narrative is flawed,
there will be external evidence to clue the reader in to the discrepancy.
Turner takes advantage of this to keep the secret up until she can reveal it
to best advantage.  This isn't strictly cheating, but it's a manipulation
writers can't get away with very often, because it destroys the reader's
trust in the author's narrative choices.

This bothers me so much because _The Thief_ is in all other respects a
superior book, and one that deserves attention.  The competing versions of
the mythology, with their references to oral history versus scholarly
history, are alone worth the price of purchase.  The characterization is
sound and compelling; even the "evil" characters retain their humanity.
Sympathetic characters are hurt and one even dies, because the narrative
demands it--and Turner doesn't flinch from this, though I wonder if she felt
a twinge at sending Pol to his death.  I know I would have.  And the
relationship of the gods to humankind is beautiful, particularly Gen's
encounter with Hephestia and the other gods.  I loved the moment when Gen
tosses off a casual, not-serious prayer to Eugenides--and it's answered.
Some modern authors have a tendency to dismiss the ancients' belief in gods
as mere superstition, and though Turner's world is completely made up, she
refuses to take this easy route.  So the fact that this beautiful book
ultimately rests on a cheap parlor trick makes me a little annoyed.

_The Queen of Attolia_, thank heaven, doesn't have the same problem.  In
fact, it impresses me no end, quite aside from the fierce emotional
attachment I developed to it.  It is on the short list of my desert island
books (though to be honest, if I were stuck on a desert island with only the
books I couldn't live without, I could build myself a two-room bungalow with
those books alone).  I think Turner is an author to watch.

Melissa Proffitt
(I wanted to do something clever here, to compensate everyone who made it to
the end, but after all that composition, I'm tapped out.)
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