If you haven't read Jesse Bullington's The Folly of the World, then you should probably avoid this post, but not before reading this short review—hopefully the article will persuade you to pick up the book, as it did me! Then hopefully you'll come back to this thread and tell me what you think.
It's been a few weeks now since I returned The Folly of the World to the library, but I keep thinking about it, partly to just marvel at how great a book it is (despite the many gratuitous gross-outs at the beginning and some dragging bits in the middle), partly to try to figure out just what the hell was going on with all the eels and resurrections. In the review I linked above, the author says that he discussed theories with friends and family—I don't know anyone personally who's read the book, so I figured I'd try ODeck first before forcing friends and family to read it. I realise it might be a long shot, since the book isn't particularly well known.
This is what I've come up with so far.
The main things that are left unexplained are:
- what happened to Sander when he disappeared/blacked out for months, only remembering an epic fight scene with fish-men once he reawakened;
- what Jo really saw when she entered the dining room in Jan's submerged house;
- how Jan came back from the dead.
It's possible that there is nothing supernatural about this story. Wurfbain's explanation for Sander's lost months is preposterous—he nearly drowned in his escape from that city whose name I can't remember, was rescued by lepers, and was so ill he was unaware of his surroundings the whole time, except for a few hours in which he hallucinated that his rescuers were monsters, and killed them all—but not altogether impossible (although it does not explain who took care of him once he killed the lepers). Sander is, after all, mentally ill, and suffers hallucinations frequently (the appearance of his sword Glory's End being a persistent one). Jo may well have hallucinated the whole scene of Jan's family sitting at the dining room, wearing clothes and drinking wine made out of live eels—after all, she'd been diving in and out of freezing water for hours, holding her breath for absurdly long lengths of time—something like that may well cause to see things which aren't there. As for Jan coming back from the dead, it was just an extremely well-trained lookalike, whose mysterious hints about doing weird things with eels and Count Wurfbain's "true powers", or whatever he says, were just designed to scare Sander/Jo, without there being any true substance to them.
Now that I think of it, I kind of like the idea that there was nothing supernatural about the story—both Sander and Jo often have difficulties figuring out what is real and what is supernatural, and it's neat that readers experience the same thing.
As for the supernatural explanations... I only have one theory, and it's not a very good one. Basically, the Big Unexplained Conspiracy in the book is that some kind of water-entity is trying to take over the Netherlands, but very slowly and inefficiently, with a method that's still in its early stages of development: possessing people's bodies with magical eels. Despite all its problems, the mysterious water entity did have a good idea: try to infiltrate the Dutch aristocracy. Jan's drowned father represented a good opportunity for this, but for some reason the eels wouldn't work properly on him—all the water entity could manage was to make him look like he was wearing them like normal clothes. Then they tried to get Jan himself, through his lover Sander: Sander did die and was probably resurrected through the power of eels—the fishmen were probably worshippers of the water entity and performed the necessarily rituals—but, perhaps because of his mental illness, the treatment didn't quite work on him either, resurrecting him without making him an agent of the water entity (although in one of Jo's chapter it says that he never ate eel, which might be significant). Finally, the water entity gets a break: Jan himself drowns, and for some reason he is a perfect candidate for the resurrection-by-eels experiment.
Wurfbain's role in all this is probably as secret High Priest of the water entity cult/the water entity's chief representative among humans.
This theory has a million holes in it, though. Why would Wurfbain make such an effort of training Sander and Jo to pretend they were aristocrats? What does the whole Cod vs. Hook thing have anything to do with this? Why does the water entity even bother which such crappy methods? Why Jan and some other more powerful Dutch aristocrat, which Wurfbain could simply kidnap and ritually drown?
I hope I don't sound too much like a raving lunatic, and that somebody out there did read the book, enjoyed it, and has also developed theories about it. If not, doesn't matter: I like that so many things are left unexplained.