It's been a while since I've read a book that felt like an honest literary classic, one with emotional weight, intellectual confidence, strong writing, and human relevance. I say this not to diminish the books I've read thus far – I have read some knockout books this year. But for the past few months in particular, my reading has been very … immediately enjoyable. Pleasantly familiar. I felt, going in, that I was going to have fun, and I wasn't often wrong. My self-indulgent autopilot was disrupted by, of all people, A.S. Byatt and, of all things, her 1967 novel The Game.
So distinct is The Game from all my previous reading, I actually stopped reading four chapters into it. I began … I want to say in August, put it on hold, read about seven or eight other books, and only just finished it act the end of October. I simply wasn't in the right place mentally to appreciate that book: I'm a firm believer in suiting proper books to proper moods, and vice versa. But resume it I did, and finish it I did, and enjoy it I most certainly did. Beyond merely enjoying it, I also appreciate it – which is what distinguishes books.
Though initially hard to get into, the narrative voice is more impressive and convincing as you get used to it. Similarly, Byatt's characters seem, at first, to be nearly unlikeable. Their humanity is so real as to conflict with our connection to them. Over time, though, their complexity becomes compelling, as their struggles become more violent and their perceptions more serious.
The Game's focus on television, not as a story element but as a philosophical subject, is curious. I don't watch television, and I think the last TV-related book I read was Don DeLillo's White Noise. I mostly despised White Noise for its unfunny sarcasm, its disingenuous paranoia, and because it obsesses over a medium which, in our Internet-saturated world, is now drastically less relevant. While Byatt shows equal attention to television (as a theme), her approach is contemplative and honest where DeLillo's is ironic and flippant. Though she displays as much intellect as DeLillo, she got my attention and got me to care, while DeLillo did neither.
Speaking of intellect, readers had better prepare themselves: Byatt is, wonderfully, unashamed of her intelligence. She populates The Game with very smart, very articulate people: monologues are more prevalent compared to any modern novels excepting Max Barry's, and discussions include sophisticated syntax, intricate viewpoints, and more than one reference to classic literature. Unlike Salman Rushdie, who softens his knowledge with humor, self-effacement, and pop culture references, Byatt let's her knowledge simply … be. It's natural, neither forceful nor disguised, which is refreshing. I feel, unfairly, that I have to preemptively defend her against accusations of snobbery, or obscurity, or elitism. I don't know, people take smart writers too personally sometimes.
Though one of her earliest works, The Game displays the scope and maturity of deep experience, both in subject and in craft. (My one observation to the contrary, however small, is her use of question marks in non-question sentences. In chapter 19, Simon says to Julia, “Don't make it difficult for me? May I sit down?” The latter sentence is an inquiry and justifies its punctuation; the former is a demand and does not deserve a question mark. Nit-picking, I know, but this appears multiple times, and only in the last couple chapters. Peculiar.)
But still. Her characters, especially the lead sisters and Simon, are deliciously complex. I rarely express interest in book adaptation, but I bet The Game could be a smash on a live stage. Julia, Cassandra, and Simon would be absolutely incredible challenges for any actor, be it scene or monologue. Plus, the temptation to incorporate live animals onstage is greatly appealing.
Without spoiling the ending, I'll say it's not shocking but fascinating: it neither reveals anything unexpected nor harps on unnecessary information. Rather, it ends on an emotion, a sensation, and a decision, with the quiet, confident grace of when a record player reaches its final looped grooves and pulls itself into a central silence. Gradually, The Game achieves greatness.