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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Stranger than Fiction


I have never been much of a fan of sequels; just don’t trust them because nine times out of ten they disappoint me. But it is that one-in-ten chance that a sequel will prove to be the equal, or better, of an original book or movie that stops me from giving up on them completely. So, despite the fact that it has probably doomed me to nine disappointing sequels in-a-row, I am happy to report that Stranger than Fiction, Jim Murdoch’s follow-up to Living with the Truth, is a treat.

When I closed the pages of Living with the Truth, Jonathan Payne was a dead man. Jonathan, owner of a rather shabby little bookshop specializing in used books, had been visited by the personification of Truth and he had been made to take a long, hard look at the consequences of the choices made over his lifetime. Jonathan’s life was one of missed opportunities but, although he learned much about himself from Truth, he was left with little time to do much with his new understanding.

Well, it seems that Jonathan has not been the only one to fail at this thing called life. Not for the first time, God is unhappy with what he sees in the universe and He is just about ready to pull the plug on it again. He is losing patience with the whole project and is about ready to tackle something new. But, before he gives up, God has decided to perform a super-audit to determine why his universe has failed so miserably this time. Truth and his co-workers (Destiny, Reality, etc.) are assigned to interview every person who has ever lived in order to avoid their mistakes next time around.

Jonathan, with Truth by his side, gets to meet some important people from his past, including his mother, his father, and the only real girlfriend he ever had. Truth and Jonathan wander around in Jonathan’s past, both learning from the encounters what went wrong and what might have been done differently. The conclusion that Jonathan comes to, though it may have surprised Truth, is one the reader will admire him for reaching.

Stranger than Fiction might be served up with humor and filled with bizarre situations but, at its core, it is a moral tale and Murdoch’s deceptively simple prose is perfect for the story he tells. One of my favorite passages comes early on in the book and describes Jonathan’s love of books (after all, he is a bookseller):

“It was one of the few things you could say that he did love with any degree of certainty but you certainly couldn’t say he loved all books. Books were like women, some had wonderful covers with nothing inside, others had their dust jackets hanging off in shreds yet held such riches; there were thick tomes, slim volumes, hardbacks, paperbacks, first editions. He gave way to the unique pleasure of holding each one in his hands but only special ones were actually read; the rest were for looking at. And there was nothing like a well stacked bookcase. Apart from a well stacked woman.”

How perfect a way to describe a man’s love of books is that?

I was happy to find that Stranger than Fiction ends in a way that leaves the door wide open for a sequel to the sequel. I don’t know what the odds are about the success of such efforts because my sample is too small to make a judgment. I’m willing to take a chance on this one, though.

More, please.

Rated at: 5.0
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