When winning the lottery is the best thing that ever happened to you and the worst for everyone else you ever knew
When i was college i had a classmate who was probably the world's biggest science nerd, the kind of person whose fondest wish was to take extra science classes and do his own research with the professors on the side (let's put it this way, after finishing a clinical degree in pharmacy, he went and became an actual doctor). but one day during a walk to class the topic of favorite books must have come up and he told me that his all time favorite was "the count of monte cristo", because, in his words, it was "about this guy who gets wrongfully accused and imprisoned and when he gets out does his best to take his revenge on the people who did him wrong." the focus on vengeance stuck with me, probably because reading about people who give people what's been coming to them never gets old no matter when the book was written and so it was with some eagerly that i finally sat down to read it, over a decade and a half since we had that conversation. of course, you really can't sit down and read it, as the weight of it will probably cut off the circulation in your legs. abridged versions probably abound, mostly to focus on the results of that sweet, sweet vengeance but if you want the full unadulterated stuff then you have to prepare yourself for about twelve hundred pages of slow burning ruination. its about two hundred pages shorter than my edition of "war and peace" and at times feels like it crams in twice the plot and characters, probably because unlike tolstoy's paperweight, just about every person here figures into the main plot somehow, one more tiny puzzle piece in the count's grand scheme. fortunately, for a book written and serialized in the mid-1840s, the translation (mine is by robin buss) gives the text a very modern feel in tone so that the prose seems to move constantly, never turning into that stilted feel that 19th century literature can sometimes suffer from. i won't go as far to say its a page turner (it is an adventure novel so it does move at a nice clip) but dumas' writing style via this translation is easy to devour and is probably the closest you're going to get to reading it in the original french. old as it is, though, its famous enough that pretty much everyone can recite the basic premise of the plot . . . edmond dantes is a young guy who's got it all. he's moving up the ladder on his ship, he's got a great girl that wants to marry him, his dad is the best and he's got the best friends a guy could ever ask for. or so he thinks. thanks to some timely mentions of napoleon (something else it shares with "war and peace" are the cameos by emperor shortstuff himself) and some motivational jealousy on the parts of his "friends", its not too long before the truth is toyed with rather loosely and before too long he becomes a spiritual ancestor to the a-team, framed for a crime he didn't commit and sentenced to the worst jail the french have, basically with the intention of locking him up and throwing away the key. that's the first chunk of the novel. the second is equally straightforward and deals with poor edmond stuck on a lonely rocky out in the middle of nowhere watching the years go by. fortunately he's been placed in a cell next to a crazy fellow, who like every crazy fellow in literature, is more than willing to teach him everything there is know about the world, good and bad, as well as hint at a fabulous treasure he's got squirreled away somewhere. as you can probably guess, he gets out (in fairly exciting fashion) and then discovers he's basically won the bitter man's lottery. rewarded with an ungodly amount of money, he does with any other person would do if they had nothing left to live for except to see their enemies driven before them while composing symphonies based around the lamentations of their women . . . he emerges from the fires as a vengeful phoenix, laying all the groundwork to reemerge as the count of monte cristo before reentering society to turn it upside down, all the while keeping his eyes on the prizes, namely the image of him laughing over their slowly cooling corpses. that's the biggest part of the book and while that's where all the ultimate excitement lies (in a sense everything prior is preamble) its also a vast expansion of the world of the book as the number of characters suddenly balloons out exponentially, as if the book suddenly becomes nothing but subplots that are going to reassemble into the main plot like a transformer made of fractals. it becomes a heck of a lot to keep track of, as not only have the original conspirators expanded their families in the years that edmond was imprisoned, but they've got friends and servants that are important as well, some of whom know the count in various guises. if you want to frighten yourself before tackling the book, wikipedia has a hideously complicated looking chart of how everyone relates to everyone else and as maddening as it appears, its basically right. that focus on the secondary characters sometimes threatens to bog down the pace slightly (the book was written originally for serialization so it possible that dumas was padding it a bit to keep the checks coming, although it means you get frequent recaps) as everytime the book shifts from the count you lose that tension of "when he's going to bring the hammer down?" yet that intertwining of relationships is key to the book, as part of the joy of reading it is watching edmond reinvent himself as 19th century french batman, basically as if bruce wayne took all his money and resources and focused it on the dude who killed his parents. to that end, the count is knowledgeable about literally everything that could do damage to someone, from poisons to manipulating markets to ferreting out skeletons in closets and hanging them where everyone can see them while painting them neon in the process (and probably creating his own poisonous paint). couple that with a morality that can be easily discarded in the name of retribution and more money than scrooge mcduck and he does what anyone in his position would probably do, make the pain last as long as possible. and to that end its a slow burn as we're not often privy to the count's thoughts, so every time we see him we're aware that he's advancing his agenda somehow but since he's playing the long game its not always clear how he's going about it. but once you see the shape of it there's something both glorious and horrifying as the men who have wronged him are completely taken in by his wealth and culture (while forgiving his eccentricities, like his strange servants) and are almost all too willing to be led down whatever path he lays out for them, not realizing that the only destination at the end is a wall of knives, and probably dull ones at that. what's amazing, despite the focus on righting wrongs, is how deep and rich the novel is. it moves through years and countries, gives us characters from young ladies to old men, has room for romance and infidelities, betrayals and alliances, a whole history that could take up another novel on its own. its got space enough to give us both a touching romance and a badass "diving bell and the butterfly" often in the same scene, as valentine and her remarkable grandfather (paralyzed by a stoke, he can only communicate by blinking) do their best to piece together all the various intrigues going on around them, before the count's taste for vengeance threatens to sweep everyone up in it. its how dumas deals with that all consuming thirst that gives the book its real power. he doesn't shy away from making the characters real people (albeit melodramatic at times) and then detailing the callous cruelty as the count begins to intricately dismantle their entire lives, like he's encased them in a web of razor wire that will slice them to ribbons no matter which way he turns. its extraordinary as it starts to come down, even moreso in how dumas has no problem depicting the collateral damage (and there are some grisly moments, particularly an early execution) or the ultimate cost of what the count is trying to accomplish, sometimes forcing his main character to question if he's gone too far. its a commentary on society and faith and what we're capable of doing to each other, both out of deliberate cruelty and casual neglect. it forces us to question whether, given the chance the means and method to accomplish something dire but perhaps personally satisfying, if we should. maybe we should, the book suggests, if we're prepared to live with the consequences and we feel we have no other choice. the count has the luxury of being right and even as we want to heartily cheer him we see how his quest has transformed him and wonder where he can go when its over, if a feeling like that can ever be turned off. the book seems to suggest that its a trajectory that will take him forever downward, until one moment when, cackling over a poisoning of a family member of one of his enemies, he learns that one of his friends is in love with that person and understands in that second what he had been neglecting all along, that true vindication doesn't come when the innocent are swept away with the guilty and that to be given all the gifts he has only to use them for destruction is a waste. whether you feel that realization will come too late is up to you, but despite the ultimate wreckage the count causes the book still ends on a hopeful note, with a hint that perhaps true vengeance doesn't come from hate, but from loving in the face of it and even if we can't orchestrate the demise of everyone who ever wronged us, its quite likely that in the face of everything else, just staying alive and keeping on with an eye toward the day it gets better is all the revenge we ever need to take.