Master or Tyrant?

My seat at the keyboard feels quite cold after this lengthy break from blogging – I missed you all! We have been a plague ship, as I mentioned before, and alas, I did not escape the flu/cold bug that my menfolk succumbed to, although I thought for one hubristic moment that I might. It was a bad one; Mister Litlove has been off work and on antibiotics for the first time in the 20 years I’ve known him. Thankfully I wasn’t as ill as him, but it gave me enough of a cotton wool head and sensation of general fragility that I was not inclined to think at all hard.

You may imagine, though, that I am moving rapidly through the blockbusters, if not quite the literary texts I wanted to accompany them. Several days ago now, I finished Sidney Sheldon’s Master of the Game and was instantly transported to my teenage years and the television adaptation, although I could only remember the very first part of the story. But perhaps that’s because the first part of the story is particularly memorable as it sees trailblazer and entrepreneur, Jamie McGregor, leaving behind his dour Scottish family for the promised land of the South African diamond fields.

No need for any kind of complex characterization, we’ve got a lot of plot to get through, so Sheldon’s characters are all blazing embodiments of one notable quality. Jamie is defined by a fierce, determined ambition to make oodles of money, and by his youthful naivety. In consequence, when he arrives at the mining town of Klipdrift, having nearly died en route (and keep count, his near-death experiences mount up alarmingly), he is instantly tricked by the town’s arch swindler, Solomon van der Merwe into signing a prospector’s contract in Afrikaans, which he can’t read. Unsurprisingly, the mule Solomon has sold him dies after the first day’s travel, but Jamie completes his arduous journey nevertheless (near-death experience no. 2) and by luck and inspiration, finds himself some diamonds. When he returns to Klipdrift, he doesn’t own half the land he’s marked out, as he expected, but earns only a miserly wage from the cunning van der Merwe. Furious, Jamie vows revenge, but van der Merwe is head honcho in this town and so he only gets himself badly beaten up and left to die (no. 3, with nasty vulture pecking scene).

Well, the point is Jamie’s determined, and so he joins forces with van der Merwe’s black servant, a man named Banda, who has his own axe to grind against van der Merwe. They fixate on a beach the Dutchman owns where you can pick huge diamonds straight off the sands. It’s guarded by armed guards in watchtowers with ferocious dogs, and surrounded by an evil reef that slashes boats to pieces. But Jamie’s determined to go there and persuades Banda that what they need is a raft, which will obviously solve all these problems by floating over said evil reef, and then providing the necessary transport home. Well, this part of the adventure involves more near-death experiences than I care to recount, but by the power of fictional narrative, that can make anything happen and frequently does, they get their loot, become rich and the path is clear for a more concerted plan of revenge.

If you are worried that I am giving away masses of spoilers, don’t be! This barely accounts for the first 100 pages out of almost 700, and there’s squidillions of plot left to go, not to mention another three generations of family to account for. Jamie has a daughter, Kate, who is in fact the book’s main protagonist (I was describing the first part of the story to my son who said in horror ‘You mean all of that is just back story?’), who is, yup, you’ve guessed it, determined and ambitious to the point of psychosis, although that’s okay as that’s what it takes to make a good businesswoman. She has a son, Tony, who wants to be an artist, which falls very flat indeed with a mother whose defining characteristic is a borderline personality disorder, but before more tragedy strikes, he manages to squeeze out twins! Yes! And of those twins, one is pure evil, and the other pure saintliness, and the remainder of the book traces the evil one’s attempts to kill the saintly one. And I can tell you all of this, still quite safe in the knowledge that if you read the book, you would have many and varied surprises in store.

Sidney Sheldon sets a cracking pace. The First World War passes in a chapter. Three years spent in a prisoner of war camp for Kate and her mother during the Boer War only warrants a paragraph. And you’ll understand that Sheldon has a taste for placing his characters in extremis. Nothing less than survival, or sanity, is usually at stake. It’s all very silly to the part of the brain that takes reality checks, and all very gripping to the part of the brain that indulges fantasies. But Sheldon does it well; his prose is not beautiful, but it’s exquisitely economical. He zooms his reader through the decades with ease and never ever leaves you bewildered or confused as to what’s happening, despite the myriad twists and turns of the plot.

But the thing about books I love is that they cannot help but tell the truth, even in the most implausible and fantastic of scenarios. Master of the Game was published in 1982, the start of the greatest era of selfish capitalism the world has ever known, and although the book quite possibly intends to stand as the exact opposite, it provides a startling indictment of the obsession with creating wealth. In Sheldon’s novel, his characters seek to be masters of the game because the only alternative is slavery. That’s the binary opposition across which the whole caboodle of plot is balanced; you win or you lose, you live in extreme wealth or you die in humiliating poverty. But once in a position of mastery, his characters become tyrants. It’s intriguing to note that there is no distinction between heroes and villains; his favoured protagonists commit a multitude of appalling crimes, although no judgement is ever passed. That’s because power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely and Sheldon’s novel accepts this with an unnervingly straight face. The desire to be rich, and the advantages wealth brings lead only to an obsession with making more money that is heartless, blinkered and ultimately insane. That’s what this book really shows; the wild excessiveness of selfish capitalism, which is a timely reminder as we’ve got so used to looking at it, we don’t see the ugliness of its outline anymore. I’m not sure it’s the first thing every reader would retain from the novel, but it certainly struck me.

But please tell me you noticed the miracle that is the book cover image at the top of this post? I send huge thanks and hugs for fantastic computer support from dear blogging friends Stefanie, for the image,  Jodie, for uploading photos (which I will do as soon as I’m up and about) and Teresa for twitter, where you will now also find me. Their explanations have been so clear that even I could follow them!


20 thoughts on “Master or Tyrant?

  1. I feared that you’d succumbed to the plague when I noted your absence. I’m glad that it wasn’t too severe and that you’re emerging from it relatively quickly! It sounds like you’re having great fun with the blockbuster project and I appreciate you sharing the fun here. I felt delightfully swept along by your post in proper blockbuster fashion! Congratulations on your new technical skills–the book cover photo is an arresting adornment. And I look forward to following you on Twitter. I didn’t think the brevity of it would suit me either initially but I’ve really taken to it.

  2. Ooh Kate are you on twitter? I will find you. At present it’s really difficult to follow conversations, but that’s my dim-wit non-techie side, which I will endeavour to overcome. I didn’t realise my image would have a red border, and I seem obliged to have it, but it is fun to put the book cover up, and very unusual for the reading room. Sheldon was fun – dreadful in its way, and good in its way, which is such an interesting kind of reading experience!

  3. I was beginning to wonder, “Where has Litlove gotten to?” Figured the nasties hit you. I’ve heard it’s the worst winter Europe has seen in years – maybe ever. But now things seem right again. Very happy you are all feeling better. I tried Twitter. I signed up a while back but was never able to figure out how it worked (or what it was for, actually), and can no longer remember my sign-in or my password. I’ve never read Sidney Sheldon but he has the reputation of being a good yarn spinner from those of my friends who have. I really am interested to hear what you think of GWTW. You know, it takes place in Georgia. As you may know, General Sherman burned a path from Atlanta to the sea, but he spared Savannah and gave it as a Christmas present to President Lincoln-intact…which is why we have so many ante-bellum mansions that have been preserved, including some of the old plantation houses.

  4. Welcome back and I’m glad you’re better. This post made me laugh and now I feel no need to wade through the 700 pages! (Even though I hear you on the plot per page that would await should I ever feel the need.)

  5. So good to see you, Litlove. As you might suspect, for one who counts his words so carefully, I took to twitter immediately and now find it hard to think thoughts that require more than 140 characters to express. I have, of course, found you there already and now faithfully follow you there too.

  6. I’m so glad you’re feeling better. It’s still summer here, but despite that and it being a lovely sunny Saturday I’m lying on the couch with a sore throat after thinking I had escaped the latest spate of colds at work. For a second I thought I had clicked on the wrong site when I saw your book cover photo, then remembered your blog improvment project. It looks good and you’ve obviously had excellent techie help. I must admit I find it hard to control where my images end up on the page on the odd occasion I use them. I’ve never read Sidney Sheldon before, and although I probably wouldn’t pick him up, from your review I know if I did I’d probably keep reading until I finished. 🙂

  7. Goos to see you back and well. I don’t do Twitter or anything like that owing to only just coping with the technicalities of what I do do, being a techno dinosaur, but I hope it goes well!

  8. Very nice book cover! Well, I think I can safely say that the Sheldon book is not for me, as I’m not sure I can handle that much plot, but I was glad to hear a report about it from you!

  9. I love the super-subtle cover design, with the seductive faces in the outlined figure’s crotch. 🙂

    Your description of the book made me think a bit of American Psycho as far as the overall message, though Psycho is a pretty disturbing read (though very funny) whereas the Sheldon appears to be more a roller-coaster of behemoth plot. 🙂

  10. What a surprise to see your blockbuster hero landing up in South Africa and in a place called Klipdrift (which is the name of a cheap but popular brandy here)! And well done on the photo. Looks good. Your hero reminds me of Leo di Caprio in Blood Diamond. Great to have you back.

  11. Bluestocking – thank you. So am I! 🙂

    Grad – how very kind of you to wonder! And we have had certainly the coldest, snowiest winter of my lifetime (although I think my parents can recall worse). I cannot wait for the spring. Twitter is still a bit of a mystery to me, although I am trying to move with the times! And I am looking forward a great deal to GWTW. As it turns out, I started Valley of the Dolls the other day, but that clearly won’t take long to read. I have a very romantic and enticing image of the deep South and it’s one of the places I’d love to visit. We’ll have to see what reading GWTW does to me!

    Lilian – oh thank you – it’s lovely to be back and catching up on everyone’s doings in the past week. And I read ’em so you don’t have to! 🙂

    David – I know you’re a genius with concision, but I’m a terrible dunce! At present I’m finding it incredibly hard to follow conversations, and if anyone said anything to me, I’d be bound to miss it. But I’m endeavouring to get my brain up to the necessary speed! I’ll look forward to reading you there.

    Apice – I’m so sorry to hear that you are poorly! Believe me, you have all my sympathy as we gradually haul ourselves back to normal health! I would never have managed to post a picture without quite astoundingly good help and you made me laugh when you said you thought you’d made a false navigation. I can’t quite get used to it myself! And Sheldon is not for everyone, I quite agree, but he was fun while he lasted. 🙂

    Bookboxed – it’s all a bit of an enigma to me, but I’m trying to figure it out. In the meantime, I’ll just keep typing. 😉

    Charlotte – let me know if you twitter. I can only do this one step at a time at the moment and I don’t want to miss you if you join!

    Dorothy – lol! No, Sheldon not for you, I don’t think. But I’m glad you like the image – it’s the product of other’s technical genius!

    Nicole – I wouldn’t put him top of my list for you, although I did enjoy the read myself. He was very good convalescent reading!

    David – lol! I must say I sort of looked twice at the cover and wondered as to its design, but the colours are quite harmonious. You have Sheldon down to a tee. Mister Litlove has read American Psycho and found it most intriguing. I will have to pick it up one of these days.

    Pete – lovely to be back here with my dear blogging friends! I did think of you when all the South African stuff was going on, and to begin with there was a big political plotline, but that sort of died out when the evil twins came along, otherwise I would have talked about it. Although its demise is perhaps significant in itself. I laughed a lot to know that Klipdrift is a kind of brandy – how entertaining is that?

  12. So, you found the diamond in the rough. (Sorry, just could not resist.) Really, I wouldn’t expect any less of you, though, to find the truth hidden in a blockbuster full of plot. Congratulations on posting the cover, which caught you up to my computer speed. Your being on Twitter means you’ve surpassed me, though. I signed up back in 2008 but never used it and promptly forgot my password. So, if you search for me and see me there (which some have done), no point in trying to follow me, as I’m quite hidden down some dark alley somewhere.

  13. Yea for you! You conquered the germs and managed to learn new technical skills in the bargain 🙂

    I have to admit that were it not for my son (who makes a living off people like me who can’t tell their html from a hole in the ground) I would never have dared venture into the world of blogging at all. I have learned much in these past three years, and found many wonderful friends in the bargain.

  14. As much as I love a good plot driven story I’ve yet to give Sidney Sheldon a try. I had to laugh when you said he covered WWI in only a chapter. Sweeping is definitely the way to describe a story like this! 🙂 I bet it was a fun read when you weren’t feeling too well! Kudos to you for the photo of the cover (it’s always nice having visuals). Alas, I am not a Twitter aficionado, so I will stick to your longer posts here! Hope you’re feeling better and am looking forward to reading about another blockbuster!

  15. You’re welcome, I look forward to seeing photos pop up here 🙂
    Your blockbuster book kind of makes me want to crack open a Danielle Steele book, it sounds similar with all that talk of eighties greed – I bet there are shoulder pads in there too.

  16. So glad you are feeling better. I was getting rather worried about you. Good work on the book cover! The border is a browser thing I believe that I haven’t been able to quite figure out. You’ve made the Sheldon book sound quite entertaining. I am glad your illness hasn’t harmed your sense of humor 🙂 Looking forward to your posts on the other blockbusters!

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