The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

The Short Version:  Tristram Shandy, gentleman, sets out to tell his life story.  Instead, he diverts, dissembles, spirals, spins, flys off on tangents, and does just about everything possible to NOT tell that story but instead discourses on many other things.  There are also a handful of stories about him, usually from his childhood.

The Review:  I’m doing something strange here.  Something that I am very reluctant to do but that I feel must be done.  I’m stopping reading this book before finishing.  Perhaps indefinitely.  This pains me, to shelve a book without having achieved that last-page satisfaction… but I was no match for Shandy.

First, let me sing the praises of the edition that I purchased.  I’d’ve had a far more difficult time getting through this book if it was just a regular old Everyman’s Library edition or something like that.  Visual Editions (a wonderful London-based publisher – they did that new JSF book, Tree of Codes) has put together something almost opposite of that boring format.  Using colors, symbols, strange other diversions, and just about every trick in their bag, they put together a ‘playful’ version of the novel.  There are blank pages, pages with the three previous pages’ text overlaid, highlighting, arrows, pictures of noses, squiggly lines, a shiny overlay, an entire section in Latin, and the list goes on.  I found myself, after a time, reading simply to discover what fun thing I might stumble across next.

Now, as I am a digressive talker of the highest order – I do love a good tangent and I’m damn good at bringing them back into the main thread – you think I would’ve loved this book.  And at first, I did.  Shandy even takes a moment to digress and explain why digressions are so important and when I read that, I threw down the book and texted all of my friends to say “HA! I win.”  My friends, of course, now have the last laugh – for as my tangents have defeated so many, so has Shandy defeated me.

The Short Version:  Tristram Shandy, gentleman, sets out to tell his life story.  Instead, he diverts, dissembles, spirals, spins, flys off on tangents, and does just about everything possible to NOT tell that story but instead discourses on many other things.  There are also a handful of stories about him, usually from his childhood.

The Review:  I’m doing something strange here.  Something that I am very reluctant to do but that I feel must be done.  I’m stopping reading this book before finishing.  Perhaps indefinitely.  This pains me, to shelve a book without having achieved that last-page satisfaction… but I was no match for Shandy.

First, let me sing the praises of the edition that I purchased.  I’d’ve had a far more difficult time getting through this book if it was just a regular old Everyman’s Library edition or something like that.  Visual Editions (a wonderful London-based publisher – they did that new JSF book, Tree of Codes) has put together something almost opposite of that boring format.  Using colors, symbols, strange other diversions, and just about every trick in their bag, they put together a ‘playful’ version of the novel.  There are blank pages, pages with the three previous pages’ text overlaid, highlighting, arrows, pictures of noses, squiggly lines, a shiny overlay, an entire section in Latin, and the list goes on.  I found myself, after a time, reading simply to discover what fun thing I might stumble across next.

Now, as I am a digressive talker of the highest order – I do love a good tangent and I’m damn good at bringing them back into the main thread – you think I would’ve loved this book.  And at first, I did.  Shandy even takes a moment to digress and explain why digressions are so important and when I read that, I threw down the book and texted all of my friends to say “HA! I win.”  My friends, of course, now have the last laugh – for as my tangents have defeated so many, so has Shandy defeated me.

There is little to be had of Shandy’s actual life in this book.  He doesn’t get to his own birth until Book III for goodness sake.  The main characters are really his dad, his uncle, their servant, and Dr. Slop.  Susannah, the maid, too – I guess.  They sit around talking about things and thus allowing Shandy (or should I say, in this circumstance, Sterne) to tilt at whatever particular windmill he wants to aim for in the moment.  This lack of plot gets old rather quickly.  It also doesn’t help that, despite Visual Editions’ brilliant playing with the text, there is something visually uncomfortable about the actual typesetting.  Perhaps it is the use of the orange in the dashes, perhaps its the fact that the font seems small for the page (too much white space, that is – I don’t mind small font).  As a result, I found myself growing increasingly restless with the book.  I would set myself goals that I couldn’t bear to finish; I would find myself daydreaming or thinking of other things while still ostensibly reading – but then realizing I’d missed the last five pages.  But then, if I just tuned back into the book, I realized that it didn’t really matter.  The book didn’t (or doesn’t) need you – it moves of its own accord.

Rating: (incomplete).  I can’t, honestly, give the book a rating.  I haven’t finished it.  I can tell you that, as of now, I wouldn’t rate it very highly.  There are some excellent diversions and I found myself laughing aloud a few times – but for the most part, it was frustrating because I knew I was spending so much time on something that wouldn’t ever quite reward me.  This edition itself, however, will garner at least an extra star – simply because the best thing about the book is the Visual Editions-ing of the text.

4 comments

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