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The Manchurian Candidate

by Richard Condon

About.com Rating 3 Star Rating


The Manchurian Candidate
I read this book because my book club chose it, primarily due to the pending release of the new movie version. We try to stay hip.

This is a great book club - we meet in a bar, and we only read paperback books that are less than two hundred pages long, written by men. Since I have been a member, we have broken all the rules save the one about meeting in a bar. My understanding is that the club started because two of the original members had wives who were in a different book club, and they were not allowed to go because they were men. I have always felt at home in groups born out of serious resentment.

In fact, this book club is the only reason I finished Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate. I really like attending this book club once a month or so, and really dislike showing up not having finished the chosen book. At some point in my twenties I realized that there was not enough time to read all the good books in existence before I die, and at that very moment I became capable of putting down a bad book before it stole even one more sentence of my life - something that I had been hitherto completely incapable of doing.

Yet I make a concerted effort to finish the book club selections, even if they are tripe. The book I picked last year sucked. More than one member has left the group when his selection was not well received. What I have realized is that this group is not about whether the book is good or not; it is about getting together and talking about what makes good stories and good writing, and consequently what makes bad stories and bad writing. And it is about the resentment that started the whole book club in the first place.

My point is this: had I not felt compelled to finish this book, I never would have gotten to page one hundred, which is really where the book started to change. At about page one hundred or so, what had been a poorly focused, atrociously written, fairly predictable thriller started to morph into something different - a poorly focused, atrociously written really good story.

Richard Condon's writing style is sophomoric, but at least his metaphors are obscure!

There really isn't much good to say here about his use of language - it is garbled and difficult to read, his words don't fit in your mouth, and the flow is choppy and confusing. I have mainly experienced this level and type of difficulty in just getting through the text of books translated into English from another language. Condon was born in New York.

The other annoying thing that he does is to spend a tremendous amount of time writing about weird, seemingly inconsequential details about triflingly small characters along the way. I kept thinking, "Get on with it, for cryin' out loud!"

All that being said, as best as I can recall by about page one hundred my desire to find out what might happen next was starting to be greater than my desire to avoid having to choke down this extremely unsavory writing. And I have to tell you that in the last hundred pages I just about couldn't put the book down. I was even glad that he had put so much effort into explaining the background and driving forces in all of the characters. What had seemed like so much unfocused rambling was actually turning out to be an important part of what was forcing me to pick the thing up every spare moment I had each day.

Now I am not saying that I warmed up to his writing style. The writing was still stiff and difficult to digest; it just turns out to be a really great story. Aristotle said in The Poetics that good drama is made up of the following components, listed in order of importance:

1. Plot
2. Character
3. Themes
4. Language
5. Music
6. Spectacle

That is why I enjoyed this book. The plot is exceptionally good, as is the character development. The themes touch on timeless fears and insecurities that plague us humans and our perceptions of reality. That is why this book makes for good drama. We can forgive poor language and music (Aristotle was referring to the lyrical quality of the language when he used the term "Music"), since there is almost no spectacle, and the plot, character and themes are so exceptionally well fleshed out - and in the proper order, no less. If Aristotle were alive today and teaching a class on good drama, he might very well use this book as an example.

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