Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Big Fish : A Novel of Mythic Proportions

Big Fish : A Novel of Mythic Proportions Review

This is one of the rare times I watched the movie before reading the book. Indeed, the movie led me to the book (that, and the Country Inn and Suites that let me have it for free). Overall, I thought the story was very strong -- funny and enjoyable. Daniel Wallace is known mostly for his short stories, and this book reads like a collection of short stories about the same character. Big Fish is about Edward Bloom -- the most intriguing man to ever come from Ashland, Alabama.

The tales about Bloom are woven together with scenes of Bloom's last days, dying as an old man in his home. His son William tries to get to know his father in these final hours, realizing that, up to this point, he knows more of his father's wild stories than the man himself. The vignettes are told by William as the great myths (or fish stories) passed on by his father over the years.

Wallace admits that Big Fish is directly inspired by Greek mythology. Indeed, much of Greek myth portrays the father/son relationship as openly hostile. In Big Fish, it's not quite that bad. They struggle to communicate as William wants to know his father and Edward yearns for approval from his son. William wants the truth, but Edward hides behind jokes and tall tales, the language with which he is most comfortable. Though this is a little of a "daddy issues" book, it's far from depressing. It's really quite colorful and fun, and also explores the nature of truth. A myth has been described as a "true story that never happened." William is unsatisfied with this understanding of truth, longing for real facts and insight from his father, while Edward believes some truths are best communicated through fictional stories and humorous tales.

Many reviewers give special attention to the chapter "The Day He Left Ashland," in which Edward finds an underworld-like version of his hometown "populated by should-have-beens trapped forever in a miserable place." I found this chapter compelling as well. Rising stars somehow got off track and found themselves stuck in this grey town, guarded by a vicious dog who bites off the fingers of those who try to leave. In an interview about the book, Wallace says the dog was inspired by Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the gates of Hades in mythology. "Every mythic hero needs a trip through the underworld," Wallace says. This chapter is a great example of how myth (or parable) can tell us something true -- many become so paralyzed by the fear of failure that they find themselves "stuck" underachieving.

Most of the other stories don't have the same communicative value as "The Day He Left Ashland," but the book as a whole is enjoyable. Wallace leaves the reader with an unresolved tension -- sympathy for Edward and his great stories, and also a sense of sorrow that he never let his son know him better. Stories are great for entertainment, and even to teach an idea or value. But they are no substitute for honesty and vulnerability, which is what William longs for in his father. Edward, it seems, would prefer to teach or entertain his son rather than really get to know him.

Big Fish : A Novel of Mythic Proportions Overview

Sitting by his father's deathbed, William Bloom tries to understand the man quickly slipping away, who is more interested in evading his son's questions than answering them. So William reconstructs his father's life through a series of stories, and in doing so finds a way to say goodbye.

Big Fish : A Novel of Mythic Proportions Specifications

In Big Fish, Daniel Wallace angles in search of a father and hooks instead a fictional debut as winning as any this year. From his son's standpoint, Edward Bloom leaves much to be desired. He was never around when William was growing up; he eludes serious questions with a string of tall tales and jokes. This is subject matter as old as the hills, but Wallace's take is nothing if not original. Desperate to know his father before he dies, William recreates his father's life as the stuff of legend itself. In chapters titled "In Which He Speaks to Animals," "How He Tamed the Giant," "His Immortality," and the like, Edward Bloom walks miles through a blizzard, charms the socks off a giant, even runs so fast that "he could arrive in a place before setting out to get there." In between these heroic episodes, Bloom dies not once but four times, working subtle variations on a single scene in which he counters his son's questions with stories--some of which are actually very witty, indeed. After all, he admits, "...if I shared my doubts with you, about God and love and life and death, that's all you'd have: a bunch of doubts. But now, see, you've got all these great jokes." The structure is a clever conceit, and the end product is both funny and wise. At the heart of both legends and death scenes live the same age-old questions: Who are you? What matters to you? Was I a good father? Was I a good son? In mapping the territory where myth meets everyday life, Wallace plunges straight through to fatherhood's archaic and mysterious heart. --Mary Park

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