Review: Matrix, by Lauren Groff
eagle at eyrie.org
Sat Nov 5 19:02:03 PDT 2022
by Lauren Groff
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Marie is a royal bastardess, a product of rape no less, and entirely
out of place in the court in Westminster, where she landed after being
kicked off her mother's farm. She had run the farm since her mother's
untimely death, but there was no way that her relatives would let her
inherit. In court, Marie is too tall, too ugly, and too strange, raised
by women who were said to carry the blood of the fairy Mélusine.
Eleanor of Aquitaine's solution to her unwanted house guest is a Papal
commission. Marie is to become the prioress of an abbey.
I am occasionally unpleasantly reminded of why I don't read very much
literary fiction. It's immensely frustrating to read a book in which
the author cares about entirely different things than the reader, and
where the story beats all land wrong.
This is literary historical fiction set in the 12th century. Marie is
Marie de France, author of the lais about courtly love that are famous
primarily due to their position as early sources for the legends of
King Arthur. The lais are written on-screen very early in this book,
but they disappear without any meaningful impact on the story. Matrix
is, instead, about Shaftesbury Abbey and what it becomes during Marie's
time as prioress and then abbess, following the theory that Marie de
France was Mary of Shaftesbury.
What I thought I was getting in this book, from numerous reviews and
recommendations, was a story of unexpected competence: how a wild,
unwanted child of seventeen lands at a dilapidated and starving abbey,
entirely against her will, and then over the next sixty years
transforms it into one of the richest abbeys in England. This does
happen in this book, but Groff doesn't seem to care about the details
of that transformation at all.
Instead, Matrix takes the mimetic fiction approach of detailed and
precise description of a few characters, with all of their flaws and
complexities, and with all of the narrative's attention turned to how
they are feeling and what they are seeing. It is also deeply, fully
committed to a Great Man (or in this case a Great Woman) view of
Marie is singular. The narrative follows her alone, she makes all the
significant decisions, and the development of the abbey is determined
by her apparently mystical visions. (In typical mimetic fashion, these
are presented as real to her, and the novel takes no position on
whether that reality is objective.) She builds spy networks, maneuvers
through local and church politics, and runs the abbey like her personal
kingdom. The tiny amount of this that is necessarily done by other
people is attributed to Marie's ability to judge character. Other
people's motives are simply steamrolled over and have no effect.
Maddeningly, essentially all of this happens off-screen, and Groff is
completely uninterested in the details of how any of it is
accomplished. Marie decides to do something, the narrative skips
forward a year, and it has happened. She decides to build something,
and then it's built. She decides to collect the rents she's due, the
novel gestures vaguely at how she's intimidating, and then everyone is
happily paying up. She builds spy networks; who cares how? She
maneuvers through crises of local and church politics that are vaguely
alluded to, through techniques that are apparently too uninteresting to
bother the reader with.
Instead, the narrative focuses on two things: her deeply dysfunctional,
parasocial relationship with Eleanor, and her tyrannical relationship
with the other nuns. I suspect that Groff would strongly disagree with
my characterization of both of those narratives, and that's the other
half of my problem with this book.
Marie is obsessed with and in love with Eleanor, a completely
impossible love to even talk about, and therefore turns to courtly love
from afar as a model into which she can fit her feelings. While this is
the setup for a tragedy, it's a good idea for a story. But what
undermined it for me is that Marie's obsession seems to be largely
physical (she constantly dwells on Eleanor's beauty), and Eleanor is
absolutely horrible to her in every way: condescending, contemptuous,
dismissive, and completely uninterested. This does change a bit over
the course of the book, but not enough to justify the crush that Marie
maintains for this awful person through her entire life.
And Eleanor is the only person in the book who Marie treats like an
equal. Everyone else is a subordinate, a daughter, a charge, a servant,
or a worker. The nuns of the abbey prosper under her rule, so Marie has
ample reason to justify this to herself, but no one else's opinions or
beliefs matter to her in any significant way. The closest anyone can
come to friendship is to be reliably obedient, perhaps after some
initial objections that Marie overrules. Despite some quite good
characterization of the other nuns, none of the other characters get to
do anything. There is no delight in teamwork, sense of healthy
community, or collaborative problem-solving. It's just all Marie, all
the time, imposing her vision on the world both living and non-living
through sheer force of will.
This just isn't entertaining, at least for me. The writing might be
beautiful, the descriptions detailed and effective, and the research
clearly extensive, but I read books primarily for characters, I read
characters primarily for their relationships, and these relationships
are deeply, horribly unhealthy. They are not, to be clear, unrealistic
(although I do think there's way too much chosen one in Marie and way
too many problems that disappear off-camera); there are certainly
people in the world with dysfunctional obsessive relationships, and
there are charismatic people who overwhelm everyone around them. This
is just not what I want to read about.
You might think, with all I've said above, that I'm spoiling a lot of
the book, but weirdly I don't think I am. Every pattern I mention above
is well-established early in the novel. About the only thing that I'm
spoiling is the hope that any of it is somehow going to change, a hope
that I clung to for rather too long.
This is a great setup for a book, and I wish it were written by a
fantasy author instead of a literary author. Perhaps I'm being too
harsh on literary fiction here, but I feel like fantasy authors are
more likely to write for readers who want to see the growth sequence.
If someone is going to change the world, I want to see how they changed
the world. The mode of fantasy writing tends to think that what people
do (and how they do it) is as interesting or more interesting than what
they feel or what they perceive.
If this idea, with the exact same level of (minor) mysticism and
historic realism, without added magic, were written by, say, Guy
Gavriel Kay or Nicola Griffith, it would be a far different and, in my
opinion, a much better book. In fact, Hild is part of this book written
by Nicola Griffith, and it is a much better book.
I have seen enough people rave about this book to know that this is a
personal reaction that is not going to be shared by everyone, or
possibly even most people. My theory is that this is due to the
different reading protocols between literary fiction readers and
fantasy readers. I put myself in the latter camp; if you prefer
literary fiction, you may like this much better (and also I'm not sure
you'll find my book reviews useful). I may be wrong, though; maybe
there are fantasy readers who would like this. I will say that the
sense of place is very strong and the writing has all the expected
literary strengths of descriptiveness and rhythm.
But, sadly, this was not at all my thing, and I'm irritated that I
wasted time on it.
Rating: 4 out of 10
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org) <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>
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