Monday, August 7, 2017

Review of Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick

The German legend of Johann Georg Faust has been reworked and revisioned multiple, multiple times over the centuries.  From Goethe to Bulgakov, deals with the devil leading to one’s loftiest desires are abound.  Contemporary writers likewise throwing their hat in the ring, in 1997 Michael Swanwick delivered Jack Faust.  Running with the legend’s roots but taking a societal rather than personal approach, Faust is tormented by the world’s knowledge, but he is not the only one…

Opening on a familiar note, Johann Faust begins the story burning the books in his library.  Declaring the majority of written knowledge to be rubbish, he frightens his assistance Wagner with his antics.  Soon enough Faust is contacted by a demon from another galaxy calling himself Mephistopheles, and made an offer: all the knowledge in the world, no strings attached.  Believing in the quality of his fellow human beings and that the knowledge will be used for good, Faust accepts the offer, all the while Mephistopheles secretly assumes it will lead to humanity’s downfall.  Turns out, both can somehow be right.

A fire crackling along the spine of Jack Faust, the novel very well may be Swanwick’s best from a prose perspective.  And the advantages link together: dynamic word flow complements the dynamic changes which Faust’s pact brings to the world.  The vigorous approach likewise leads to some comically harried scenes, several which are laugh-out-loud funny. (That with the philosophers defending staid but flawed Greek idealism brings a smile, ear to ear.)  At the same time, plot momentum slowly loses steam.  Shifting too much focus to Gretchen (Faust’s object of female desire) and getting caught in a veritable milieu of technological advances, what started as a razor sharp narrative dulls itself in time by spreading itself a little too much. The conclusion does bring a new edge to the blade, defining Swanwick’s agenda in the process, but lacks the blood it could have drawn were the cut continuous from head to toe.

In the end, Jack Faust is a quality reinterpretation of the classic German legend that opens with fire and brimstone, coasts through the mid and late game, only to regain some of its flame for the grand conclusion.  (The final scenes remind the reader of the power of the opening scenes.)  Pure humanism, Swanwick cautions against excess, even in the abstract sense of knowledge and science.  I still believe The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons of Babel to be Swanwick’s best novels, but Jack Faust is for sure a worthwhile read that strengthens any argument Swanwick is one of the best fantasists working today.


  1. There really are stories that would benefit from being told at novella/novelette length rather than being stretched too thin into novel format. I also remember that Jack Faust dragged on for a while in the middle, but in the end, my overall impression remains positive. But then I'm a sucker for retellings of the Faust myth. To me personally, Iron Dragon's Daughter or Vacuum Flowers suffered more in comparison from being too long. But then we all know that Swanwick is a formidable short story writer and that that is his ideal length.

    1. I haven't read Vacuum Flowers, and therefore cannot comment. But regarding The Iron Dragon's Daughter, it never dragged for me. If I remember correctly, the novel is told almost episodically (almost), with each "episode" representing a step in the maturation of the main character. I remember that some "episodes", indeed, may have been superfluous, but were presented from so singular an imagination that they were impossible not to read. I can't say the same about the middle parts of Jack Faust. The parts with Gretchen as main character seemed more a nod toward contemporary feminism than an integral part of the development of Faust and the world he helped create. Surely I've stepped on the toes of many a contemporary feminist by saying so, regardless, the novel would have been more streamlined, and focused, without it.

      Is Swanwick a better short story writer than novel-length? I don't know. I don't think I've read enough to say definitively one way or the other. Based on what little I've read, he is equally good at both. :)

  2. @ Jesse --

    Absolutely agree with you about both THE IRON DRAGON'S DAUGHTER -- and I _loathe_ most 'high fantasy' -- and this one, JACK FAUST, which is a great concept that Swanwick fails to deliver on because of the longeurs of its middle stretch.

    It's almost inexplicable to me that this author, almost always adept and frequently brilliant -- indeed, I'm struggling to think of a living SF writer I'd rate more highly -- dropped the ball on this one, a concept that if he'd delivered on would be up there with the likes of the classics that everybody recognizes, like A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, and CHILDHOOD'S END. I can only guess that, knowing what he potentially had in JACK FAUST's basic concept, Swanwick stiffened up mentally and lost sight of what he was doing.