Maybe it’s because I’m not a clocksmith or maybe it’s because this is a bizarre thing to even consider but I’ve never been emotionally attached to a gear. Well, more accurately, I had never been emotionally attached to a gear. And then I read Patrick Rothfuss’ The Slow Regard of Silent Things and goddamn if I didn’t find myself rooting for the continued well-being of a massive, toothy, inanimate object.
Slow Regard is set in the same universe as Rothfuss’ sprawling (and as yet incomplete) Kingkiller Chronicle series and while the novella features one of the many ancillary characters of that universe, it’s decidedly not a prequel or a sequel. Even calling Slow Regard a spin-off story seems a little distant from the truth as Rothfuss has argued that it isn’t really a story at all. I might disagree with his semantics but Rothfuss’ point—that Slow Regard abandons standard storytelling conventions—bears weight. Slow Regard isn’t a plotted story, it’s a character study.
Following a few days in the life of Auri, a near-feral enigma that flits around the borders of The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear (the two voluminous main entries in The Kingkiller Chronicle), Slow Regard does little beyond let the reader into the life and mind of its main character.
Auri is an unusual avatar for the reader. She lives in an abandoned catacomb and rarely speaks—there’s nary a line of dialogue in Slow Regard, though Auri does manage a few words in her other appearances in the series. Her life is governed by rules that are—for the reader, if not for Auri—as arbitrary as they are unexplained, a mystical sort of obsessive compulsive disorder. Because of Rothfuss’ execution, though, Auri’s quirkiness never comes off as pandering cuteness; she’s so endearingly earnest and kind that her foibles only serve to make her more charming.
Surrounding Auri in Slow Regard is not a cast of characters but rather a selection of objects including the aforementioned gear. As the book digs deeper into Auri’s psyche and as Auri ascribes agency to these objects, the reader is led down a path where they too come to care about the state of an assortment of gears, candles and blankets. Rothfuss may argue that this is not a “proper” story but what he has accomplished is certainly a neat trick of storytelling all the same; by focusing so closely on his main character, Rothfuss drives the reader to a sense of empathy that transcends the wide gulf of relatability across which Auri lives.
By no means can Rothfuss lay singular claim to this narrative device, as contemporary media is overflowing with examples of anti-heroes who, by virtue of being viewed closely and empathetically, become the consumer’s avatar despite the fundamental divide between the characters’ actions and the presumed values of that same consumer. While Slow Regard uses this proximity to connect the reader to a lovable underdog, the same techniques can be used in vastly different circumstances. The most recent and relevant example is the Adam McKay film Vice which has absorbed criticism for how some believe it lionizes former vice president Dick Cheney.
I’ve not yet seen Vice and so I offer no criticism of it myself but the conversation around that movie re-emphasizes an important point: Stories matter. The narratives we tell, how we tell them and who we tell them about all shape the world we live in. In some cases that means we’re humanizing a giant gear and in others it might mean making a sympathetic character out of a man who has openly advocated for torture.
Stories matter. And like most things that matter, they’re awfully complicated.