I actually finished the novel almost a month ago but I’ve been holding off writing a review of it because I needed time to think about what my problem is with it, especially since this is considered one of his great masterpieces and that not liking it felt sacrilegious.
The truth is that I just don’t think this is a very good novel and I’m a little ashamed that I feel that way. I even spoke to the person who recommended me this novel – a brilliant Literature Professor of mine – and we talked at length about it, but my mind didn’t change during our conversation.
Here’s the problem: the novel is structurally a mess. Now I want to be clear that I don’t mean that because the first hundred or so pages are … well, let’s just say slow going and the plot doesn’t move forward at all. Though I was not interested in the opening sections of the book, I just assumed they were character development needed to understand the later events of the story. And to a degree that is correct, but the real problem is the narrator. To often we’re told by our narrator that he will get back to certain details that he’s leaving out for the time being, but he never does go back to them. In fact, almost whenever something interesting seems like it might happen, it’s dropped and we move on.
The main issue with the narrator other than his never picking up the threads he drops, is that he’s not the right person to narrate this story. He’s basically a useless character who, had he been an unreliable narrator might have been something (though I don’t see what the point of that would have been either), but he also doesn’t add anything to the story – and at times he’s privy to information he could never have known. I get the sense that Dostoevsky thought the narrator would be a good idea at first then wrote himself into a whole and wound up being stuck with him.
And that gets to another point of the novel: focus. Dostoevsky’s novels and stories often read like fever dreams, where Sisyphus’ stone is getting away from him and he’s running behind to catch up to something that is desperately inevitable. This novel, though it does read as if it were written in a fevered state, only feels muddled and confused. And perhaps that’s what he wanted to evoke since many of the characters lives are muddled and confused, but there is nothing really to snap any of these events into focus. We get a lot of description and cryptic explanations, some of which are explained, some aren’t and we, the reader, are left feeling lost in a sea of doubt.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky explains how we must be empathetic to all people because we can never know what they are going through and that to judge is God’s right alone, and so I tried to take that to heart with the characters in this novel, but that proved to be impossible because I never got the sense even Dostoevsky liked these people. Most of them were hurtful, cruel, or, as in the case with Stepan Trofimovich, a buffoon – though, he and Kirillov were the only characters I really liked. I really wished that Stepan had been the central character of the novel to hold it all together since his journey is the most interesting.
And so at the end of the novel what was the point of it all? A town is thrown into chaos because of a possible revolutionary uprising? That desperate people resorted to murder? Well, when I put it like that then it sounds interesting, yet he managed to make that as uninteresting as possible. There is no life in this novel and as much as I hate to say it I agree with Tolstoy that all of Dostoevsky’s characters are (at least in this one novel) all just Dostoevsky speaking – the characters all sound like each other, all act like each other, and though sometimes they may say something remarkable, there is no real substance here.
I suppose this was his attempt to write a satire, and though I don’t expect him to have a sense of humor about any of this – though there are one or two quite funny moments – he fails to get us to care about any of these people. Part of the problem is the novel is staged like a play – there are almost no physical descriptions of setting and so we wind up imagining people talking in dark, empty rooms most of the time. There is no life surrounding these lifeless characters and for a reader it’s impossible to empathize with anyone here, with the possible exception of Kirillov and Stepan.
I honestly think this novel could have used an editor – in fact considering how some version retain the Tikhon scene, wile others drop it as an appendix, I get the feeling even Dostoevsky wasn’t sure what to really do with this novel. It feels like a draft for something interesting, but in its current state it feels rushed, uninspired, and poorly constructed. And yet because he’s otherwise such a great writer, it’s still not a bad book – it’s just mediocre, and it’s only that good because Dostoevsky was a great writer – a lesser writer would have botched this up even more.
I so wanted to love this novel because Dostoevsky is one of my favorites, but this is a tough slog with almost no reward for the effort.