Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions

By: Daniel Wallace

In his prime, Edward Bloom was an extraordinary man. He could outrun anybody. He never missed a day of school. He saved lives and tamed giants. Animals loved him, people loved him, and women loved him. He knew more jokes than any man alive.

At least that’s what he told his son, William.

But now Edward Bloom is dying, and William wants desperately to know the truth about his elusive father—this indefatigable teller of tall tales—before it’s too late. So, using the few facts he knows, William re-creates Edward’s life in a series of legends and myths, through which he begins to understand his father’s great feats and his great failings.

Big Fish was recommended by my boyfriend, Keaton since he loves the Tim Burton movie from 2003. Admittedly he’s never read the novel and there seem to be a quite a few differences narratively after discussing it with him. The major divergence is in the way the story is framed. In the film, Edward’s tale is focused on the love he has for his wife and how that drove him throughout his life. William’s parents are seen as deeply in love and their tale is far more romantic than the novelization. William also seems less bitter towards his father though the resentment is still clearly there.

In the book, William’s retellings mention how his parents got together but it varies widely from the movie in that the tale is far more subdued and kind of mundane. After that, his mother doesn’t play much of a role so the story is more about Edward alone. Towards the end of the novel, William tells the myth, “In Which He Buys a Town, and More.” In this story, it is revealed that Edward had an affair or at least William believes he did though he doesn’t tell the story with any particular anger or feelings of betrayal. It’s told in the same way the others are, with cool detachment. William also never talks to Edward on his deathbed about the infidelity, so it’s just a story the readers hear.

The way the story is framed, we were left to speculate whether it really happened at all. Edward was an absent father, and it feels like William attempted to justify why Edward missed so much of his life. It had to be because he found another woman and not just because Edward was selfish and cared more about traveling or work than his family. Wallace later stated in an interview that there was hostility between Edward and William and that Edward could be seen as a rover. Wallace also didn’t deny the infidelity when the interviewer asked about it. In the book, Edward is a deeply dislikable man. At least to me but in the movie, you grow to like him at least in the limited capacity that we get to know him.

In the book, William spends the remainder of his father’s life asking him to share something true about himself. What were his religious views? What was he really like as a boy? Unrelenting, Edward only responds with jokes and more tales ultimately denying his son the glimpse into his life that William so desperately craves. When Edward finally succumbs to his illness, William has learned only two facts about his father: Edward wanted to be a big fish in a big pond, and he wanted to be seen as a great man. The saddest realization as a reader was recognizing the moment William accepts that he will learn nothing more and chooses to perpetuate the myths on his father’s behalf. To us, even Edward’s death is a legend, and his son gives him the chance to live on forever. There is even a line in the story where William writes that fatherhood seemed to diminish Edward, so when Edward later says he was a good father on his deathbed, it made me angry.

The easiest way to identify whether a myth was passed down to William or written by William is the light his father is shown in, virtuous or flawed. The virtuous stories are those Edward told him as a child. The flawed narratives are those William creates with the limited information he has. While I can appreciate what Wallace tried to accomplish and that the story reflects his relationship with his own father, I didn’t find the story particularly impactful. Perhaps that is because I have strong ties with my own family and my dislike of Edward as an absent father was so total that I could only pity William. I’m still going to give the movie a try because it sounds like more of an emotional ride with maybe a bit of closure. I guess I just expected more from Wallace’s version since I’m that reader that typically believes the book is better.

Overall rating: 3

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