Well, that took longer than I expected. I only averaged 15.29 pages/day given my occasional brief hiatuses. Hiati? Breaks.
During a mild griping session about Demons recently, I was gently reminded that a novel is not a film. This remark, while somewhat insulting (literary criticism majors... what else could one expect?), is nevertheless true and criticism of Demons must be relevant to the idiom. However, basic tenets of storytelling have applied since at least Aristotle's time and never mind that there are scores of people who've built academic and artistic careers around flaunting every one of these rules.
But was Dostoevsky's aim with Demons to be a storyteller? In short, did he intend to entertain? I can't think that he did, at least in the overall sense. Portions of the book are, in fact, entertaining. I quite enjoyed the Pyotr Stepanovich character's manipulations, rabble-rousing and general skulduggery. The high school age kids in the political club made me laugh a couple of times with their rhetoric and head-butting. Fedka the Convict was well-written and perhaps the most distinctive character of them all. The latter portion of Book III is actually paced quite briskly and the scenes of mayhem are vivid and engaging. I found Kirillov's suicide, and the scene immediately preceeding, quite riveting.
The characters feel flat because they aren't characters; they're Dostoevsky's embodiment of various ideas he wishes to explore. This can work, if the ideas are themselves interesting. But here is the great flaw in the novel: they aren't. What we're given are caricatures of extremist (and, in the case of Pyotr Stepanovich, entirely hypocritical) thought. Extremism tends to parody itself, of course, so perhaps Fyodor can't be entirely blamed for that. But one of my cardinal rules of fiction is that that which is true is not automatically interesting, hence the craft required to produce a novel/film/poem/etc. which really grabs an audience.
The ideas are uninteresting because they're facile and clichéd. I'm saying this with the benefit (or detriment, I suppose) of exposure to over 140 years of post-Demons writing in which many of these same themes and ideas have been explored, so I am, of course, both jaded and biased. But what really galls me is that Dostoevsky knew people like those he skewers here. He was part of leftist political groups. He was sent to Siberia for political crimes! And while he succeeds admirably in poking fun at and satirizing his former comrades his desire to point out the evil of their ideas devolves them all into shadow puppets. Why couldn't we have an honest look at real people who maybe believe certain things along these lines? Why couldn't we live with them and discover why they felt this way, how they can be easily corrupted by power-seeking megalomaniacs? No, instead, let's have a ponderous thesis on how the abandonment of God creates misery.
Another stumbling block is nothing lesser or greater than time itself. Dostoevsky spends a huge amount of Demons parodizing the works of his contemporaries and even with all the footnotes the value of this is simply lost on those many of us who aren't deeply familiar with nineteenth century Russian literature. Perhaps Dostoevsky's original audience could be expected to point at a passage and exclaim "OH SNAP, TURGENEV!" (or whatever the equivalent may have been), but it's all lost on me.
In summary, Demons is not a bad book. There's quite a lot of beautiful writing in it, for one thing. But it's deeply flawed to my eye. I would be very interested in hearing the perspective of an academic who holds this book up to be a great example of literature and hear what they think is so important about it. I, in my ignorance, can't simply claim there's nothing to it... but I am moved to ask what "it" may be.