What happens when an amazing story is torn apart by the author in the name of style over substance? Lavie Tidhar self-sabotages his latest novel, The Violent Century, just like that. Essentially, Tidhar is exploring an alternate reality where an unnamed catastrophic event caused hundreds of people around the world to transform into superhumans. Fogg and Oblivion, two British agents mostly used for information gathering rather than combat, control fog and dissipate matter, respectively. They are reporting their exploits in every major interntational war from WWII to the present to the Old Man, the head of the British superhero unit.
The Violent Century is a pure piece of fantasy, reimagining WWII, the Vietnam War, and many Cold War confrontations without actually impacting history. The Ubermensch and Uberfrau of the German forces don’t magically allow Hitler to succeed and the Soviet heroes are incapable of sustaining the USSR. Tidhar is interested in exploring the darker side of these conflicts through the relative safety of superheroes and, at that, he succeeds.
The story of The Violent Century is amazing. The concepts he’s exploring put this international assembly of heroes and action in the same category as Watchmen and The Dark Phoenix Saga. It is a stunning feat of narrative planning, spanning a century of well-researched global history. Time does not matter to the superhumans as the change froze them forever in time at their current age. The story is told, fittingly, through massive jumps in time, location, and context.
The problem with the text is huge. Lavie Tidhar chooses to ignore standards of form, grammar, and punctuation. It is so hard to follow the novel because more than half of it is comprised of random sentence fragments. There is no flow to the storytelling. It’s halting. Just stops. No flow. Random choices. Effects. Affected. Author intrusion just to intrude.
The fragments alone wouldn’t be too bad if quotation marks were used; they’re not. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, dialogue is started with an em dash, like this–. Tidhar doesn’t even continue that past the first hundred pages in a consistent way.
Worse still, the dialogue is lumped together in long paragraphs of narration. Someone says something, is acknowledged as saying something, and then either dialogue (from them, the person they were talking to, or someone brand new to the scene) or exposition pops up for long meandering paragraphs of word soup. The fragments continue here, too.
I can’t believe I actually read through an entire novel and cannot, for the life of me, come up with some justification for this literary device. I can act as a Ryan Murphy apologist and tell you how American Horror Story: Coven actually had a clear narrative arc within the context of American witch narratives, but I can’t even being to tell you why Lavie Tidhar refuses to separate dialogue from exposition in his superhero novel. I read Modernist novels and plays for fun and I can’t make heads or tales of the form of The Violent Century.
If you can get through the actual writing (and it’s a big if), you will be drawn into a really phenomenal superhero story. The Violent Century really needed a simpler style to come alive. Tidhar comes close to completely losing a brilliant narrative by focusing on artistic style over authorial clarity. There is no shame in simple sentence structure and functional rules of grammar and usage.
Robert writes about entertainment media at Sketchy Details. His TL:DR treatise on AHS: Coven will probably never come out online, but other great content will.