Book #8 (February 13, 2010): The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
This book sat on my shelf unread for more years than I’d care to count. I finally sold it to a used bookstore, along with several thousand other books that I was pretty sure I would never get around to reading (or, in many cases, re-reading). But a friend of mine recently told me that I’d like it and I decided, in light of my decision to read a book a week for a year, that it was time to give it a chance. So I found a new copy to replace the one I’d gotten rid of and finally read it.
I see why my friend liked it. He’s a fan of the Studio Ghibli animated films and The Last Unicorn has the same gentle fairy tale feel as Spirited Away or Ponyo. And, in fact, there was a 1982 animated film version, scripted by Peter Beagle, that was produced by some of the same people who went on to form Studio Ghibli. (The music for that film was by a favorite composer of mine, the wonderful Jimmy Webb.) Did I like the book as much as my friend does? Probably not, though I liked a lot of things about it. Peter Beagle’s style veers from post-modernist wit a la the ancient Fractured Fairytales cartoons to a poetic lyricism that can be quite moving, but the styles never quite mesh and sometimes seem at odds with one another. Just when the story becomes touching, you realize that the author’s intent is satirical, and you feel slightly embarrassed at having been touched. (Most of the post-modernism is gone from Beagle’s film script, so I suspect he recognized the problem.) Beagle is way too infatuated with metaphors and similes; his literary affectations would be more effective if he’d restrained himself to using, oh, one or two per page. But not quite halfway through the story begins to coalesce nicely, and Beagle gets his stylistic mannerisms under control. From that point on I found the story, which is about an ancient unicorn on a quest to find where the rest of her kind have vanished to, quite lovely. The end is very nice, though Beagle lets the anticlimactic portion go on a bit too long, another problem he fixed in the film. But it’s hard not to get a little misty eyed during the final chapters.