They had wanted him to be a Van Gogh, Jesus Christ and Zapata all rolled into one.
The line is from Peter Carey's Bliss, and "they" are the hero's madly idealistic parents. Carey is one of my favorite writers--and his books perfectly support a notion I'm convinced of: that all great novels have something fundamentally wrong with them. In other words, the very creative gunpowder one holds a match to in the hope of creating something unforgettable tend to become the force that knocks the book into the zone of the quirky. Carey, for example, goes spectacularly haywire. The first half of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith has some of the most compelling prose and fascinating characters I’ve ever encountered. The second condemns its midget narrator to wearing a Mickey Mouse suit (all the time) and becoming a fetish object for the degenerate powerful.
That line in Bliss got me thinking about the art of saying volumes about a character in a single sentence. Here's another example, preposterous and irresistible (to me at least), from García Márquez:
Florentina Ariza, on the other hand, hand not stopped thinking of her for a single moment since Fermina Daza had rejected him out of hand after a long and troubled love affair fifty-one years, nine months, and four days ago.
Gabo might just have more of these per novel than anyone who ever lived. A few pages earlier in Love in the Time of Cholera, describing the wedding night of Dr. Juvenal Urbino and the doe-eyed Fermina, he sums up her cloistered past in ten words: "He was the first man that Fermina Daza heard urinate." What more needs to be said?
I thought I'd make a collection of these zingers. Any favorites out there?