By Ted Gioia

Woody Allen has been both praised and criticized for
creating a fantasy version of New York in his movies
—depicting a city that is no longer "a grimy urban
jungle," in the words of film critic William Rothman,
but "the most photogenic city on earth, boasting
buildings and trees that even
Paris would die for."  Rothman
concludes: "As if we needed
more proof that cameras can lie!"

Novels can also purify and
redeem cities, even one as
resistant to redemption as New
York.   And among authors,
none has attempted a more
ambitious or thorough literary
regeneration of Manhattan than
Mark Helprin.  In his 1983 novel
Winter's Tale, Helprin aims for nothing less than an
apotheosis of the city, a sanctification by fire that, at
times, crosses beyond the familiar terrain of the novel
and enters into the realm of myth or dogma.  

Peter Lake, the main character in Helprin's epic work,
undergoes a personal redemption as well.  A one-time
burglar, previously known as Grand Central Pete (a
name borrowed from a
real life NY con man of the
nineteenth century), Lake reinvents himself, first as
consort of a Manhattan heiress, and later as a catalyst
in the millennial transfiguration of New York itself.  
The messianic overtones of Helprin's story gradually
become more obvious as the novel progresses—Lake
learns to travel through time, later develops psycho-
kinetic powers, and eventually plays a key role in
raising a girl from the dead.  But even at the start of
the novel, Lake’s origins as a sea-faring orphan raised
by the mysterious Baymen of Bayonne Marsh in New
Jersey recall the story of the infant Moses amid the

Lake possesses a dim comprehension of the destiny
awaiting him—sensing that he may play a key part in
dawn of a new age.   This anticipation of a coming
splendor is shared by many other characters in
Helprin's novel.  Lake's lover Beverly Penn, slowly
dying from consumption, is mesmerized by
transcendent images—discovering "grace, or madness,
in her visions of the starlight" where she sees "a sky full
of animals whose pelts were made of an infinite
number of stars.  They moved slowly and smoothly,
for, really, they were motionless."  Readers expecting
these koan riddles to be explained will be disappointed,
and much of this novel needs to be read with the kind
of forbearance one brings to a sacred text, where
mystery is cultivated rather than solved.  

Lake also encounters an even more visionary
individual: the bridge builder Jackson Mead, who
dreams of a grander span than those made of steel and
stone—something more akin to the Tower of Babel
than to any terrestrial structure.  Lake also meets up
with Hardesty Marratta, who gives up the family
fortune to a ne'er do well brother, and travels to New
York, as part of a vision quest to find a perfectly just
city.  Other dreamers who populate this book include
newspaper owner Harry Penn, brother of Beverly, and
his editor-turned-mayor Praegar de Pinto; while even
the villains Pearly Soames and Craig Binky have their
heads in the clouds.  But Lake’s most unusual
companion is the white horse Athansor, who has more
in common with
C.S. Lewis's Aslan than Seabiscuit or
Secretariat.  In short, Helprin's New York is anything
but a hard-headed, practical city—instead spawning
cadres of prophets, sages and dreamers.  

If you don’t recognize typical stereotypes of New
Yorkers in this list of characters, you will be even
more shocked by the description of the landscape.  
And there is plenty of it: by my estimate, at least 300
pages of this 750-page novel is comprised by
descriptions of locales.  Countryside, cityscape,
shoreline, skyline:  Helprin piles sentence on sentence,
paragraph on paragraph, page on page, and by the
time you have read the 100th poetical evocation of
water, cloud and skyscraper, you will fall back in both
admiration and weariness.  Few writers can set a scene
with more sheer gusto than this novelist, but should
scenery really take center stage in any drama?.  
Helprin is especially inspired by winter settings, and
his ingenuity in describing white on white reminds
one of those proverbial Eskimos with their hundred
terms for snow. By the same token, a hundred or so
pages of this frosty, breathless prose could have been
excised from
Winter's Tale, and would hardly have been

Despite all his adjectives and subordinate clauses, a
relentless ambiguity permeates Helprin's New York.  
This too is part of literary style of
Winter's Tale.   Take,
for example, the following passage:

"There he was bobbing and floating on rafts of color
high above the streets: silvered canyons and warm red
brick, the lisp of a huge broken clock, trees like bells
shuddering sound in green, silent streets as dark and
elegant as mirrors in dim light, a thousand paintings
left and right—islands in the stream cascading from
above, the heat of pale stone, merchants forever frozen
who never ceased to move, cooing purple pigeons
shaped like shells, an arsenal of roses in the park,
streets that crossed in forks and chimes, leopard
shadows, dappled lines."

And you may ask, how can a merchant be frozen and
yet move?  What is meant by an 'arsenal of roses'?   
How can a street get crossed 'in chimes'?  When are
pigeons 'shaped like shells'?  What is the 'shuddering
sound' of trees that are like bells?

I have no answers to these questions.  Yet such
passages are typical of Helprin's mystical tone.  Where
other authors deliver precision in a few sentences, he
provides vagueness in many paragraphs—intentionally,
no doubt, and with the plan of hinting at grand things
"through a glass darkly," but in a manner that will
leave some readers just as frustrated as others are
exhilarated with his intimations of a more majestic
city behind the visible one.  Truly, Helprin outdoes
Woody Allen in this depiction of a Platonic ideal of
New York.  

For this same reason, Helprin is drawn to the fuzzy
side of nature, and devotes endless passages to fog,
mists, clouds, snow.  He is champion of anything that
obscures our view, anything that replaces clarity with
vagueness.  Few writers would take on the mission of
describing that which cannot be described, but this, it
seems, is Mr. Helprin's most cherished ambition.

All this comes out most clearly in the final pages of
Winter's Tale.  Here Helprin (in a book, remember,
published in 1983) presents the final days of 1999 and
the dawn of the year 2000.  No Y2K doomsayer or
fearmonger quite envisioned the kind of cataclysmic
changes that Helprin lays out in his concluding
chapters.  But even here our author is coy, and holds
back from explaining the transformations afoot.  

The result is a sprawling, poetic and unconventional
novel.  I was enchanted and dismayed by turns in
reading it.  Even as I grumbled about the author's
oblique prose and roundabout method of storytelling,
I marveled at the sheer abundance of his descriptions
and the daring of the narrative.  True, there are plenty
of other New York novels, and many are more
accurate than this alternate history, or more sharply
plotted, or richer in character and dialogue.  But
Helprin actually reinvented New York, turning it into
a kind of New Jerusalem.  He made Manhattan
magical.  And even in a novel, that is no small matter.   

Yet, in the final analysis,
Winter's Tale remains a failed
masterpiece. I admire our author’s ambition, but what
he is aiming for here is like the alchemist's trans-
mutation of lead into gold; at some basic level of
atomic structure, the change cannot be realized, no
matter how deft the author's sleight-of-hand or how
boldly he plunges into the magical and marvelous.  
And the obstacle here is not New York—I accept that
it can be redeemed or glorified or whatever you want
to call it—but the essence of fiction itself.  By
abandoning the constraints of storytelling, and seeking
instead to infuse his narrative with the reverberations
of scripture, Helprin reaches for effects that perhaps
no novel can achieve.
Winter's Tale
by Mark Helprin
Click on image to purchase
The Year
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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