You know, I can fault Patrick Rothfuss for many things. Foisting this wisp of a tale onto the book-buying public as a $19 hardcover when it should have been a $2 Kindle release at best will probably be one I’ll come back to. But I have to give him some credit here: at least he apologizes. In an afterword to this novella, Rothfuss tells readers he’s fully aware that he’s written a “thirty-thousand word vignette” that “doesn’t do the things a story is supposed to do,” that only “a crazy person” would do what he does here, like write an 8-page sequence detailing his character making soap.
Well, all props for self-awareness, but being right doesn’t make the results any more palatable or even readable. I am all for unconventional narratives — bring me your Dhalgrens, your Tristram Shandys, your Gravity’s Rainbows yearning to be free. But I still like for there to be a point to the exercise. And if there is a point to The Slow Regard of Silent Things, I’m left with the uncomfortable feeling it’s not one to be lauded.
I’d be more forgiving of the narrative aimlessness of Slow Regard were it not for the fact I’m already accustomed to Patrick Rothfuss being aimless and meandering at great length in The Wise Man’s Fear. Here he only subjects readers to 150 pages of it rather than a thousand, which is something. But despite its brevity, Slow Regard felt like no less a tedious slog. In his novels, Rothfuss at least had highly readable prose to carry us over those parts where the story isn’t really going anyplace in particular, but here even that skill has fled him. His attempts at playful whimsy come across as way too precious, cloying, just plain fake, as if he skimmed some Neil Gaiman for a few stylistic pointers.
Auri is a minor character from Rothfuss’s bestselling (and immeasurably overrated) series The Kingkiller Chronicles. A former student of the University, Auri experienced some kind of mental breakdown, which has left her charmingly flighty and eccentric. She now makes her home all alone in the Underthing, a sprawling, abandoned subterranean city beneath the University grounds, where she spends her days collecting and arranging randomly found items so they’ll be less sad. For 150 pages, she does just this. She seems to have unusually plentiful sources of fresh water for bathing. Her gathering and naming of found objects, which seems vitally necessary to her emotional stability, comes across as a not-invalid depiction of obsessive-compulsive disorder. But this is where Rothfuss missed his biggest opportunity. Why not tell the tale of how Auri became this way, of what caused her crackup in the first place? That would have been the easiest and most obvious path to take for this to have gone from vignette to actual story. But among what tiny slivers of background Rothfuss offers, that remains a mystery. If the intent was for Slow Regard to be a character study, it doesn’t offer much study.
Except, perhaps, in one particular: All Auri’s actions, and all her motivations, are centered on Kvothe. What will make him happy is what makes her happy, and she appears to have no life goals that don’t have him at their center. Thinking of him — especially of a future in which she tends to him and cares for him when the weight of the world is upon him — makes her dance and skip and spin in happy little circles.
Great. Maybe it’s just me, but haven’t we had enough Manic Pixie Dream Girls in any number of crap low-budget indie rom-com movies? Was anyone asking for this trope to be ported over to epic fantasy? Here was an opportunity to take, as Rothfuss himself describes Auri, a “broken” character, and give her some actual depth, give us meaningful insights into her history, her personality, her humanity. And it turns out she has none of those. If it’s Rothfuss’s goal, in the end, for Auri to be little more than Kvothe’s helpmeet, and that these tunnels and chambers deep underground are “exactly where she ought to be,” well, I personally think she deserves better. She doesn’t have to settle for being a disregarded, silent thing.