A monologue that doesn’t drone on – too much

We just read THE PORTRAIT (2005) by Iain Pears for the book club. Not to keep you in suspense, the book club loved it which is interesting because THE PORTRAIT is 211 paperback pages of a guy talking while he paints the portrait of another man. The sitter never speaks and the portraitist, Henry MacAlpine, creates a tightly constructed picture of this man, his nemesis, in words even as he does in paint. As the reviewer for the Washington Post wrote, MacAlpine “seems like a man who has been talking to himself for years and now is talking to himself in front of someone.” We might add that MacAlpine seems to have been talking about the same things for years, perfecting the monologue that is this book.
What is interesting about this style is it creates problems for the reader who can only participate in the book in a second-hand way. There is no interaction between characters, no conversation, no opinions other than MacAlpine’s through which the entire book is filtered. This is a book that breaks that cardinal rule of writing: show, don’t tell. THE PORTRAIT does nothing but tell, and the guy doing the telling is not a nice fellow. For example, he started out his career by stealing all his mother’s retirement savings. His voice is full of smarmy, self-satisfaction.
The style does not work for everyone. Reader reviews from Amazon warn of its potential to “become tedious” and scream that it is “dull, dull, dull.” That other readers, including the book club, liked the book says a lot for Pears’ skill, both as a writer and an art historian. He does manage to build suspense in terms of the plot which unfolds in a masterly way and holds some surprises, although the ending seems a foregone conclusion. To us, the real interest of the book is the creepy character of MacAlpine himself. Is he reliable? What makes him tick? Why did he lure the sitter to the barren island where he now lives? Note the ambiguity in the following quote, the hidden conversation MacAlpine is having with himself:
“It was I who summoned you. I who knew you would come, would have to come see me. I lured you here. I needed to see if you would come.”