Frisky Reads: The Library At Mount Char By Scott Hawkins

I opted to read Scott Hawkins’ The Library at Mount Char because of the cover, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. I’d spent a few weeks trying to read and then passing on a lot of dense theoretical books, cultural criticism, and “the world was better 75 years ago” novels, and when I saw Hawkins’ cover design, I thought to myself, “This will be a nice, fun one.”

I want to get the unpleasant stuff out of the way first so that I can go on to praise Hawkins pretty heartily. This is Hawkins’ first novel after a long career writing books like Linux Desk Reference and BEA WebLogic Server Administration Kit [With CDROM], which I state as sort of a caveat: This is a first-ever fiction novel. Hawkins didn’t go from short stories or essays or poetry to long-form fiction, he went from working in IT to being a fiction novelist. So there were going to be pitfalls.

By which I mean, some of the writing is just… bad. Just really, really bad. For example, and this is bad taken out of context, but it’s bad in context, too:

“Dude,” Steve said with truly epic sincerity, “I’ve got no fucking idea.”

I stared at that one for a while. There’s more, especially in the passages that are told from the character Erwin’s point of view, and while I’m on the topic of Erwin I’ll just dive right in.

Erwin’s a military legend for some obviously extremely violent but never specified incident early in his military career, who moved on to a career as an art teacher but realized after helping a Black student of his learn how to kick people’s asses (Erwin gets extremely sentimental at the memory) that he was better cut out for government work. Now he works for an NSA-contingent agency.

Did I mention that he’s secretly a major genius, but that he opts to speak to people as if he’s not all that bright, savoring all the while how stupid they are in comparison to him? No? Well, that’s Erwin. He’s clearly the author’s Marty Stu wish-fulfillment character, who gets himself into all sorts of unnecessary trouble but never really has to face any truly high-stakes consequences for it, who everyone likes despite themselves, who’s physically tough, never suffered PTSD despite the horrors he’d seen and committed, who’s super-duper smart (it cannot be driven home enough), and who has a memorable passage in which he sweet-talks the President of the United States so well, and comes off as just so humble of a guy who, to the President, is also obviously a genius despite appearances, that the President invites him to join his weekly poker night. I mean, come on.

There’s a lot of heavy-handed exposition (“It was compassion, though she did not recognize it as such,” “If he had known that this sunset would be the last he would ever see, he probably would have taken a couple of seconds to savor it”), and the pacing can be clunky, and there are archetypes abound in The Library at Mount Char. Oh, and by the way, the words “Mount Char” are mentioned only once, at the very end, and until then it’s referred to by a different name.

BUT. That all being said, I really, really loved this book. The only analogy I can really think of for why I liked this book is that it’s like looking at a breathtaking, emotionally moving, beautiful photograph that was taken with a not-so-great camera. The camera doesn’t matter too much, because a photographer’s talent doesn’t lie in having a good camera, it lies in being able to recognize a shot that will translate well to a still frame and line it up well.

Likewise, some – but definitely not all – of Hawkins’ writing is bad writing, straight-up. But the premise of the book is compelling, (the majority of) the characters are compelling, and it has a lot of heart. Hawkins has just written his first novel, so no, he doesn’t have the tools and experience yet to put down syntactically masterful sentences, or to approach his plot strategically. But he cared about what he was trying to communicate, and his writing is good enough to communicate it to a broad audience.

The premise is that capital-G God, basically, has gone missing, and the cult of human children who he’s been training in the mysteries of the universe – now in their 30s – are trying to find him, leaving a trail of destruction in the process. The cult calls themselves the Librarians, because they’ve spent the bulk of their lives living and studying in a mystical library, learning things like linguistics, the art of war, mathematics, zoology, and necromancy, all at a level, of course, that only God could comprehend. They live in America, but hardly ever come into contact with Americans, and when they do, it’s usually disastrous (for the Americans). The stakes in The Library at Mount Char are the fate of Earth – nay, the entire universe – which is part of what makes the novel a page-turner.

There’s a tremendous amount of violence, gore, abuse, assault, and trauma in The Library at Mount Char, and that might be useful to know going in. But while about halfway through the novel I was expecting Hawkins to be using all of that trauma as a way to pull the reader’s heartstrings, it turned out, as it went on, that the whole, entire book is about the inner suffering that trauma inflicts upon victims. It’s about the rage and paranoia, the loneliness. And it’s about this strange phenomenon you can get, when you’re going through a trauma, in which you attach all of your hopes to one person who’s absent, so you can make them into something greater in your head than they are in reality – into a savior, really. It’s about what you do to survive, and the myriad ways people try to let go of their pain.

All of which is a noble and worthwhile conversation for a book to engage in. Hawkins set his sights high when he was thinking about how this, his very first novel, would contribute to the world, and I think he succeeded, clichés or no. Inconsistency in the quality of writing and use of tropes and some heavy-handed exposition matters less than the fact that the book was written with earnestness and compassion, and that it’s good at delivering a worthy message to its readership.

In a cultural moment when the loudest discussions about trauma tend to feature people who deride victims and tell them to suck it up on the one side and on the other, people who hand-wring and overanalyze and nitpick, it’s refreshing to read a novel that just says to you, “It sucks to hurt, and I’m sorry, and it’s going to be OK.”

The Library at Mount Char will be available June 16 2015, from Crown Publishing. Send me a line at [email protected] and follow me on Facebook.