1959, Books, Fiction

Hawaii (1959) by James Michener

This was my first Michener, though I did read a novel called London, which was basically an imitation Michener, back when I was a teenager. My understanding is that he is very much the author of these alternative histories of given places. So I guess I had to read him at some point. But holy shit, does this guy need an editor.

But let’s start with the good stuff about this book, since I am rating it 6/10.

  • For when it was written, this is a fairly nuanced view of the world and a strong defense of multiculral societies at a time when that kind of thing was likely considered ignorant, foolhardy or pie-in-the-sky. Michener is arguing that all humans from all cultures have value and can contribute to a prosperous society. I don’t disagree.
  • And Michener, for his faults, can really get you to turn the page. He is good at making individual stories compelling enough so that you keep reading, which is probably why I finished this.
  • And there are some really compelling moments within the book, spread throughout so that they are not all front- or back-loaded. Some really powerful stuff at times.

But all of the good is completely utterly undermined by the length of this book, my version of which was 1,100 pages. Could he have told this story in 400 pages? Maybe not, but he probably could have told it in 800: eliminate a character or two and eliminate a few of the characters’ individual moments.

And despite Michener’s admiral defense of multiculturalism, this is still a very cultural determinist novel (which some people might confuse for racist). I have many problems with cultural determinism, not the least of which is that it is just flat out wrong, like all forms of determinism.

And though he tells stories of both rich and poor, this very much feels like the work of a man on the side of the rich, a defender of big business and the very wealthy, as enablers of the rest of us. I have a problem with that, too, because, though I do support capitalism as the best (or least bad) economic system, I do not see the super rich as heroes like Michener does and I think an honest portrayal of the super rich would have a little less celebratory attitude towards these people. (Michener will show faults and then seemingly excuse them.)

But I feel like my quibbles with his cultural determinism and defense of the super rich wouldn’t be so much of an issue if I hadn’t had to read 1,100 pages. I mean, what was he thinking?


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