The OF Blog: October 2012

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

2012 National Book Award finalist in Poetry: David Ferry, Bewilderment

Then, truly, wretched Dido, overwhelmed
By knowledge of the fate that has come upon her,
Prays for death; she is weary of looking at
The overarching sky.  And to make sure
that what has been begun will be completed
And that she will depart from the light, she saw
As she set out her ritual offerings
Upon the incense-burning altars, how – 
The horror! – the holy water darkened and
The wine was changed to an excremental slime.

– From "Dido in Despair," translation of Aeneid, IV, lines 450-473 (p. 40)

Translation is a difficult art as I have come to know over these past few years as an occasional freelance translator.  The rhythms differ from tongue to tongue, as idiomatic expressions do not traverse freely from idiom to idiom.  This is doubly true when it comes to poetry.  Good translators will not be afraid to "break" the structure of a poem composed in another language in order to do what Humpty Dumpty's would-be repairman could not:  to put it all back together again, the "yolk" now housed in a new form.

Acclaimed poet-translator David Ferry's latest collection, Bewilderment, is an odd collection, in that the author's poems on the experiences of advanced age (he is now 88 years old) and his various translations from the Latin verse of Horace, Marcial, and Vergil often seem to clash in terms of content and even form.  As I read through this collection, I kept trying to understand why the poet's verses appear next to the translator's renderings with such frequent interminglings.

When considered separately, the translations perhaps are slightly stronger than the original verses.  In reading the excerpts published within Bewilderment of his forthcoming verse translation of Vergil's Aeneid, I found his translations to highlight the emotional impact of such scenes as that of Dido's impending demise over her despair of Aeneas' departure from Carthage.  The images are generally faithful to those of the Latin original (which I consulted before re-reading Ferry's verse translation), although the imagery does change curiously on occasion.  One such example would be the changing of the wine, which is "latices nigrescere sacros fusaque in obscenum se vertere vina cruorem" in the original.  Ferry's "excremental slime," while evoking the scatalogical or the horrors of certain natural excretions, does not fully capture the literal bloodiness of this change as "the sacred water darkens, pouring out obscenely, changing into gory wine [my near-literal translation]."  Yet this is one of the few occasions where Ferry's departure from the imagery of the Latin original is noticeable (not to mention questionable, at least for this particular image); otherwise, he eloquently captures the spirit of the original verses.

Ferry's original compositions, such as "Soul," contain some eloquent lines:

What am I doing inside this old man's body?
I feel like I'm the insides of a lobster,
All thought, and all digestion, and pornographic
Inquiry, and getting about, and bewilderment,
And fear, avoidance of trouble, belief in what,
God knows, vague memories of friends, and what
They said last night, and seeing, outside of myself, (p. 7)

Here the poet lays forth his bewilderment over his life, his need to confront the development that he is now old, that he is confused, trying to recall what memories he has of life, food, friendship, and love.  Ferry's images and metaphors ring true in this poem and in several others like it, for they address directly those life questions that we have had at various points of our existences.  Yet at times the free verse is a bit too formal in feel, as those Ferry trusts not his metaphors and images to be unbound.  When working with classical motifs, this is acceptable, but there were a few times were I sensed that too heavy of a hand was placed upon some of these poems, that perhaps they were stuffed into models too strait for comfort.

This is not so much a condemnation of the poet (or the translator) as it is an acknowledgement that there was this sense of a missed opportunity in places to take greater risks and thus "free" the poetic metaphors and images to be more daring, original works, unconstrained by conventions or expectations.  Bewilderment is a good collection, but it is not an excellent one and in comparison to other National Book Award poetry finalists, it perhaps suffers due to its perceived shackling to older conventions.

William Faulkner, "A Rose for Emily" (revised review)

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant – a combined gardener and cook – had seen in at least ten years. (p. 119)
Out of all of his fabulous novels and short stories, William Faulkner’s 1931 short story, “A Rose for Emily,” has long been a personal favorite.  In only a few thousand words, Faulkner creates a multilayered tale that works as a personal tragedy, an allegory, and a pointed social commentary, among other things. It is a story that I’ve re-read on a few occasions since the time I was first introduced to it in a freshman English Composition class back in 1992 and each time, new elements come to the fore of my thoughts on “A Rose for Emily.”

Take for instance the opening paragraph. We see, through the perspective of the third-person narrator, the combination of duty and morbid curiosity of the townspeople of the fictional Jefferson, Mississippi (the final resting place of Addie Bunchen from As I Lay Dying, also published in 1930) regarding the death of that “fallen monument.” This description of Miss Emily evokes images of grandeur fated to decay. In the five sections of this tale, decay looms prominently:
“…only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps…” (p. 119)
“When the Negro opened the blinds of one window, they could see that the leather was cracked; and when they sat down, a faint dust rose sluggishly about their thighs, spinning with slow motes in the single sun-ray.” (p. 120)
“And so she died. Fell ill in the house filled with dust and shadows, with only a doddering Negro man to wait on her.” (p. 128)
Yet there is more than just the tragic fall of Miss Emily into decayed disrepair. Faulkner’s mixture of the literary past and present accentuates a larger change that is taking place in Jefferson that has largely bypassed Miss Emily’s mostly-shuttered relic of a home. A new generation is emerging in the 1930s, one that has no first-hand recollection of the horrors of the Civil War and its traumatic aftermath. The complexities of a Colonel Sartoris, who is referenced in a single sentence as being a courtly gentleman who remits Miss Emily’s city taxes in perpetuity while, as Mayor, creating an anti-black ordinance that serves as a reminder of the Jim Crow era, and his era are slowly giving way to a different generational outlook. There are a few fleeting references to how that “monument,” Miss Emily, has had to battle city leaders who seek to revoke the Colonel’s roundabout way of “providing charity” to the nearly indigent scion of an old Southern family. This connects with other references to social mores and the ways that the neighborhood around Miss Emily’s home is changing. Decay is much more than a person or home mouldering into dust.

“A Rose for Emily” is littered with foreshadowings of the final event. From the purchase of arsenic, “for rats,” to the spreading of lime to the drastic changes in Miss Emily’s figure, nearly every paragraph contains portents for what follows after. The narrative suspense developed from each of these little clues actually improves upon a re-read, as much of the joy derived from the story comes from seeing how adroitly Faulkner weaves these references to Miss Emily’s past and present, overlain with commentary on the townspeople and their myriad responses to the events surrounding Miss Emily and her later seclusion, into a narrative tapestry that is a delight to read and re-read.

Furthermore, the two most powerful “voices” in this novel never “speak” from a point of view perspective. Miss Emily we come to know through her curt politeness to the city leaders, but beyond that and the recollections offered by the narrator, tinged with innuendo as those are, we never see her in action, yet by the story’s end, when the tragedy of her life is revealed, her life, or rather, her descent into animated decay, has come to dominate the story. Yet over this looms another, more hidden figure, that of her father. His control of Miss Emily is only hinted at in a couple of places, yet the insidiousness of it permeates the action of the story. Faulkner’s use of allusion in regard to Miss Emily’s father (and apparently, his own role as another symbol of the fading post-war generation) tinges “A Rose for Emily” with an allegorical quality (one that Faulkner once noted was the origin for the “rose” in the story’s title; even the most destitute deserve that “rose” of respect).

Each of the elements discussed above combine to create an absorbing read that rewards the reader who pauses and reflects upon each sentence, as there is so much occurring under the surface of the narrative. Miss Emily is a fascinating character and the background townspeople serve to underscore the divisions and social changes that are taking place around the core tragedy of this story.  When compared to As I Lay Dying, “A Rose for Emily” is not as experimental, as we see no use of stream of consciousness or multiple point of view narrators, yet it complements well that novel’s exploration of duty in the face of near-farcical happenstance, not to mention that like Addie, Emily here is defined as much in how she dies as in how she lived.  Before re-reading both stories, this connection was not readily apparent, but upon further consideration, it could be argued that what drives both of these 1930 Faulkner tales is a sense of absence.  Addie is departing and yet in dying she relentless drives the family that she mostly resents toward a discovery of life that they might not otherwise have made.  Emily has long departed life before she breathes her final breath, yet despite the absence of a direct point of view of hers, her unspoken “voice” dominates the story.  Taken together, As I Lay Dying and “A Rose for Emily” complement each other and showcase Faulkner’s burgeoning talent to depict setting and its effects on character (and vice versa) in an honest and moving fashion.

Originally posted in January 2012 on Gogol's Overcoat as part of a weekly "Faulkner Friday."  Novels reviewed from January-April will be reposted here on Fridays, while the short stories will appear on Wednesdays.  The review of "A Rose for Emily" was revised from its original publication on this blog in May 2011.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

2012 National Book Award finalist in Poetry: Susan Wheeler, Meme

I learned how to make ring tum ditty when your father and I didn't have two cents to rub together.

    Well, these saltines are a little stale. (p. 6, from "Splitting Hairs")
     Lace our shut eyes shut.

Don't you ping my machine.  Young lady. (p. 20, from "Judas Priest")

Susan Wheeler's National Book Award-nominated poetry collection, Meme, is difficult to sum up in a few pithy paragraphs.  Divided into three parts, the first of which, "The Maud Poems," being based on Wheeler's mother, Meme explores several themes, among them the trials and travails of motherhood, the dangers and joys of childhood, the temptations of life, and cruel humorous ironies of life through protean verses that shift in register, tone, and form to fit the characters contained within.

Take for instance the two citations provided above, both taken from "The Maud Poems."  Here we hear one half of a conversation, or perhaps "Maud" is caught in a soliloquy over her past poverty before interrupting herself to respond to her children's needs.  This alternation between reminisce and response catches the reader reacting on two levels, the recalled past and the immediate present.  Wheeler's lines are deceptively simple.  Vivid images are created through the use of alliterations, such as this combination found within "The Devil – or – The Introjects":

She's got your hand moving out for a dish, for a drink, for a doughnut. (p. 30)

Wheeler is more than a one-trick poetess.  Further on in "The Devil – or – The Introjects," she creates memorable descriptions through twisting, turning, moving, mutable descriptors:

She's driven you out here with her taunting, pushed you out to the 
extremities of town where the dust coils in the wind and your own 
parched throat rasps.  Go on, missy, jump, but the land's straight and flat, 
and the prefab arsenal by the side of the road bears unbankable walls.
Jump. (p. 35)

But it is in the third part, "The Split," where Wheeler's talent for imagery and expression shine fullest:

Spangled like showgirls in the gleam of our fears,
shiny Christians in chain mail, with our faux-lizard shingling,
whores limping to West Street from the Bank Street piers, (p. 39)

There are few duds in Meme.  Even the relatively weaker segments contain a warmth of characters and a vividness in metaphor and image that makes reading and re-reading the poems a delight.  Wheeler's expert use of language creates poems that even in simple actions, something profound is being expressed:

I am tired.  Today
I moved a book from its shelf
to the bed.  The span
of its moving was vast. (p. 83)
Out of the four poetry finalists that I have read to date, Meme perhaps will be the one that lingers longest for me.  This is not to say the others, yet to be reviewed, are not good or excellent in their own right, but Meme is the work that connects closest with the wild, weird vastness of human life and emotions and Wheeler's ability to stretch metaphor to cover this broad emotional expanse is impressive.

Brief summary of thoughts of the 2012 World Fantasy Award finalists for Best Novel, plus some mention of the Anthology/Collection shortlists

Compared to previous years, this year's World Fantasy Award novel shortlist was underwhelming.  Although I did not actively dislike any of the finalists, I could not help but wonder why other 2011 releases did not make the shortlist.  Then again, looking back at my Best of 2011 25 Most Notable Releases, there were very few genre-marketed works of speculative fiction listed.  Considering my relative antipathy toward the Clarke, Nebula, and Hugo shortlists, perhaps a case could be made that 2011 simply was a poor year for excellent SF/F works.

Maybe part of the problem is that the shortlists this year, with few exceptions, have fairly conservative with their selections.  While there are some smaller presses represented on the various shortlists (including the World Fantasy one), virtually all of the works that appear on them seem to be written in the mode of previous SF/F works.  Whether one wants to cite a combination of ode to fandom/fairy dreaming (Walton), epic fantasy mid-volume (Martin), noir/Philip K. Dick melange (Tidhar), generic Southern-tinged horror (Buehlman), run-of-the-mill alt-history (King), none of the World Fantasy Award finalists stands out as sui generis.  As noted above, this conservatism is rampant across virtually all of the Anglo-American SF/F shortlists, with the possible exception of the Shirley Jackson Awards, which included nominated works from Michael Cisco, Glen Duncan, and Donald Ray Pollock which do not fit snugly into pre-fab categories.

Perhaps that is the nature of the generic beast, as SF/F genre writing in particular appears, at least at the level of award shortlists, to have become more hidebound in recent years.  Books that kow-tow to the notion of fandom as being a wonderful nostalgic entity rather than a potentially problematic force that seeks to force ideological debates down through narrow, antiquated channels appear to be on the ascendent in these awards.  The joke some SF/F fans like to tell about literary fiction and their awards, that of it revolving around which adulterous professor most in mid-life crisis will win, is in danger of being turned into a mockery of "fandom" awards that celebrate one's ability to cite references to authors whose prime was before the PC began popular, as well as how well those narratives appear to be "in dialogue" with those works.

I heartily detest these sorts of works, as I noted in my otherwise fairly-positive review of Walton's Among Others.  It vitiates any sort of evolution in approach and outlook if the author (and subsequently, the reader) tries too much to be "in touch" with previously-established "standards" for particular stories.  I do not want yet another alt-history that contains references to how changing the past could be deleterious for future existence.  I have grown weary of noir-based fictions that do not push the narrative envelope and which fail to deconstruct the premises that underlie such narratives.  Another Southern Gothic/rural horror tale?  I yawn when such fail to say much about the locales/value systems, as "window dressing" for someone who is a native of the American South can be trite at best, irritating at worst.

So perhaps this is just a phase in the maturation of what at times has seemed to be a perpetually adolescent genre.  Perhaps.  But if the trends that I note above continue, it is hard to keep a pleasant demeanor and act like these finalists are worthy of praise.  As it stands, none of the finalists would have made my 2011 Top 25 (although Tidhar would have been close) because of the flaws and weaknesses that I noted in my reviews.  But for those of you who like "rankings" and who would prefer to eschew the review essays themselves, this is how I would "rank" the World Fantasy Award novel finalists:

1.  Lavie Tidhar, Osama
2.  Jo Walton, Among Others
3.  George R.R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons
4.  Christopher Buehlman, Those Across the River
5.  Stephen King, 11/22/63

Now I have chosen not to review the finalists for the other categories, although I have read all or parts of two books in the Anthology category (Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's The Weird and The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities) and three in the Collection category (Caitlín R. Kiernan's Two Worlds and In Between, Maureen McHugh's After the Apocalypse, and Tim Powers' The Bible Repairman and Other Stories).  In the case of the Anthology category, I am too biased to select a winner, as I have a translation that appears in The Weird and I am an irregular contributor to the associated Weird Fiction Review website.  I would like to say that I would almost certainly choose The Weird as the best in that category if I weren't involved slightly in work, but for propriety's sake, it is best to demur.

As for the Collection category, I do not have the desire to read the remaining two works at this time (although I have heard good things about Reggie Oliver before; I am totally unfamiliar with Lisa Hannett), in part due to time and in part due to budget constraints.  But out of the three, I liked McHugh's the best, as it was the most diverse of the three.  I thought the Kiernan retrospective contained some excellent stories, but also some very weak tales that lowered my opinion of the work somewhat.  The Powers was good, but with very few standout stories; it was also a bit on the brief side.

I have not read any of the novella and only one of the short stories, so no comments on those beyond this admission.  Just not that into genre short fiction these days, mainly for the reasons noted above.

2012 World Fantasy Award finalist for Best Novel: Lavie Tidhar, Osama

Pornography?  And yet it seemed to fit.  Sex and violence,  he thought.  hand in hand through the smoke  The image startled him, seeming to awaken something inside.  The smoke smelled sweet and the silence was complete – he shook his head, searched for his cigarette, realised he had left it in the dirty-glass ashtray on the second shelf and that it had burned away.  He shook the pack out of his pocket, liberated a cigarette and lit it.  'Know anything else?' he said.

Alfred looked at him and the old eyes were suddenly hooded.  'No,' he said.  'If it's Mike Longshott you're looking for – if it's Osama Bin Laden you're after, for that matter – then I suspect you would not find the answer here.  But Joe –'


The old man stood up.  There was ash in his beard.  He scratched a vein in the craggy, limestone visage of his face and lumbered towards Joe.  Suddenly the space in the bookshop felt that much closer.  'Are you sure you want to find out?' (p. 30)

Lavie Tidhar's short novel, Osama, is perhaps the most ambitious of the five World Fantasy Award finalists for Best Novel; it is also one of the shortest, at barely over 270 pages.  Yet within those pages, Tidhar attempts to tell a fiction that melds elements of noir police procedurals and alt-history conceits that play with the identity of perhaps the most infamous man of the early 21st century, Osama bin Laden.  Too easily such a mixture of narrative modes (not to mention the titular character) could implode, leaving a work that is hollow and devoid of any real narrative or thematic substance.  For the most part, Osama manages to avoid these potential pitfalls.

Osama's narrative possesses many characteristics of a noir mystery.  There is the prerequisite tough, no-nonsense detective, Joe, who is based in Laos, when he decides to take up the mystery of "Mike Longshott," the pseudonymous author of the popular Osama Bin Laden:  Vigilante novels.  Over the course of dozens of short chapters (rarely extending more than two or three pages), Tidhar shows Joe traveling across Asia to Paris, London, and New York in search for the elusive writer.  Along the way, certain odd descriptions, many of which contained within the excerpts from the Vigilante pulp fictions, begin to creep into the narrative.  By roughly the halfway point, if the premise has not given it away at the beginning, it has become apparent that there is some sort of parallel world interaction (perhaps "intersecting worlds" would be a more mathematically correct phrase?) occurring and that events from "our" world are beginning to bleed over into Joe's world, which is not as technologically advanced yet which also does not suffer from the spate of violence and terrorism that has plagued our world for the past two generations.

"Cool" premises and well-conceived milieus can only carry a story so far.  There has to be some else about the story, perhaps its prose, characters, and/or themes, that would enable it to stand out and be more than a competently-executed work.  For much of the first half of Osama, this was not readily apparent.  Although the short, staccato sentence bursts pushed the exploration forwards and onwards, it just felt rote, as if Tidhar were concentrating too heavily on getting a particular narrative tone down and not enough on developing the milieu in which the action transpires.  However, the second half of the novel improves somewhat, as the parallel/intersecting worlds element becomes more apparent and the implications of actions undertaken by Joe and others becomes clearer.

Yet despite these improvements, Osama felt like an outstanding novel-in-progress that ultimately failed to achieve all of its ambitions.  For all of Tidhar's dedication to getting the narrative tone down, the story rang a bit hollow in places, as the setting felt at times a bit too sketchy and underdeveloped.  The premise, however, was very strong, and the problematic issue of identities was handled very well.  Osama, like the other World Fantasy Award finalists, did not completely succeed in fulfilling its narrative and thematic ambitions.  However, considering that this tale dared to do more with its structure and with its narrative, it is the strongest of the five finalists for this year's award.

Monday, October 29, 2012

2012 World Fantasy Award finalist for Best Novel: Stephen King, 11/22/63

"If I asked you who starred in The Graduate, I'm sure you could tell me.  But if I asked you to tell me who Lee Oswald tried to assassinate only a few months before gunning Kennedy down, you'd go 'Huh?' Because somehow all that stuff has gotten lost."

"Oswald tried to kill someone before Kennedy?"  This was news to me, but most of my knowledge of the Kennedy assassination came form an Oliver Stone movie.  In any case, Al didn't answer.  Al was on a roll.

"Or what about Vietnam?  Johnson was the one who started all the insane escalation.  Kennedy was a cold warrior, no doubt about it, but Johnson took it to the next level.  He had the same my-balls-are-bigger-than-yours complex that Dubya showed off when he stood in front of the cameras and said 'Bring it on.'  Kennedy might have changed his mind.  Johnson and Nixon were incapable of that.  Thanks to them, we lost almost sixty thousand American soldiers in Nam.  The Vietnamese, North and South, lost millions.  Is the butcher's bill that high if Kennedy doesn't die in Dallas?" (Ch. 3)

Time travel stories have long fascinated writers and readers alike.  What if one could go back to _____ and change what happened?  Would the world be a better place?  Would we even exist as we are now?  What would change and how so?   These alternate histories (alt-histories) have been a staple of American SF for decades now, usually focusing on events such as the failed assassination of Adolf Hitler, the course of the American Civil War, and the November 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas by Lee Harvey Oswald (or insert your favorite conspiracy theory actor(s) here).  In his 2011 novel, 11/22/63, Stephen King tackles the Kennedy assassination and its antecedents in a sprawling 800-plus page novel that is in turns fascinating and pure dross.

The premise is relatively straightforward:  a mid-30s high school teacher in 2011 Derry (the setting for It), Jake Epping, is being prepped to be sent back in time via an anomaly in a local restaurant pantry.  Relatively uninterested in the Kennedy assassination or even in the social/political affairs of that time, Jake is coached up on the events of Oswald's life leading up to the Kennedy assassination by a local named Al, who for certain reasons is not able himself to make the trip back in time to 1958.  As ends up being the case for much of the novel, King devotes several pages worth of exposition toward laying out the nature of the time travel and the possible dangers involved.  It would not be the last time that he would describe things minutely at some considerable length.

11/22/63's strongest writing occurs in the middle of the novel, as Jake, now going by the pseudonym of George Amberson, has moved to a small Texas town three hours' drive south of Dallas and become a schoolteacher of this era.  Although Jake/George is rather sketchy for a character (there is virtually no development in his personality or character outside of strict plot demands), the small-town school life that King describes here is very vivid and life-like.  The budding romance between Jake/George and a soon-to-be-divorced young librarian, Sadie, is treated at some length and at times is interesting.

But even here, the excellent moments and scenes are swamped by pages upon pages of extraneous detail.  King has five years to wast...err, develop the events leading up to Jake's attempt to stop Oswald and this necessitated certain subplots, including Sadie's crazed ex-husband, that detract from the overall narrative arc.  By the time the final days leading up to the assassination have arrived, it is hard to tell if 11/22/63's main story is the romance, the stalking of Sadie, or the prelude to assassination itself.  Yet even when the fateful 11/22/63 arrives, the prose is rather bland, in part due to the lack of development of place and atmosphere.  Thus what could have been a suspense-filled moment instead comes across more as a sluggish, turgid affair, mostly devoid of narrative tension and intrigue.  In addition, the events that transpire after Jake's intervention feels half-baked and ill-conceived, as there is nothing in the events leading up to the assassination attempt that indicate the dangers of Jake's act to change history.

11/22/63's component parts could have made for two or three very good-to-excellent 300 page novels.  Yet when viewed as a whole, its narrative focus meanders too much, the characterizations are uneven, and ultimately the story is devoid of true value as a literary work.  It is doubtful that a re-reading would accentuate the book's positive; the negatives, however, might be even clearer after a second reading.  Out of the five novel finalists for the 2012 World Fantasy Award, it perhaps is one of the two weakest in what appears to be a rather mediocre year for eligible novels.

Cloud Atlas (2012 film)

I first read David Mitchell's 2004 novel Cloud Atlas almost three years ago.  At the time, I read it rapidly (if I recall, I was at a walk-in clinic, waiting to get treatment for a sinus infection) and only the vaguest of impressions stuck with me at the time; I did not choose to review it, despite recalling that I was impressed with how Mitchell structured his six tales to create something that was much more powerful than the sum of its parts. 

So when I learned that there was a movie version coming out this past weekend (I am not much of a cinephile), I was intrigued, more by wondering how in the world the Wachowskis could take a story that was comprised of an intricate series of chronological "first halves" (ranging from the mid-19th century through the early and mid 20th century on to contemporary, 22nd century, and post-apocalyptic times) that then reverse their course until the first story is completed last and make a coherent movie out of it.  The only solution that I could conceive of before attending a showing this afternoon is to utilize a series of cut-ins that tell a series of parallel thematic/plot events similar to that employed in D.W. Griffith's 1916 masterpiece, Intolerance.  More or less, my guess was correct for how the Wachowskis chose to adapt the book.

Cloud Atlas was a very ambitious book, striving to tell through the medium of parallel, reincarnated lives humanity's struggles to define itself between the poles of order and freedom; equality amidst deprivation and inhumane treatment of others; and love versus hatred and fear.  The novel's six stories contain echoes of the other tales, yet each has the time and space to create its own haunting melody that underpins the others.  This works well for a tale from which the reader can take a few minutes (hours, days, weeks...) to pause and to consider the connections.  A movie is much more immediate, requiring sharper transitions and more clear parallels for it to work for those who are not familiar with the source novel.  In this regard, the movie stumbles at times, as in order to preserve a thematic unity between the tales (as the lovers encounter and re-encounter each other; their fight against the repressive social order of the times; the ways of fight or flight embodied in action; and the resolutions), much is left unsaid until near the end, confusing many audience members (including my father and uncle, among others in the audience with whom I saw the movie) who are not used to such rapid-fire transitions without bridging dialogue.

Yet this is a quibble; the movie certainly is not for those who are not willing to invest a lot of time puzzling out the various connections beyond the easy ones such as the comet-shaped birthmarks.  The decision to have a core cast of characters (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, among others) is not strictly necessary from the perspective of those who have read the book, yet it does provide a grounding point for those who are new to Mitchell's original story.  The actors, for the most part, provide subtle connections between the eras/tales through their varied responses to events that resemble those of their prior "lives."  Hanks in particular shows this sense of interlife moral development in his role as Zachry, yet most of the others also possess these moments of personal crisis in their scenes. 

The novel focuses much more on the issue of collective humanity than does the movie, which at times relies too heavily on standard Hollywood tropes such as romantic love interests, shoot-em-up action scenes, and other "action-oriented" scenes in an attempt to appeal to viewers who favor such elements in their films.  This fixation on these tropes occasionally weakens the impact of individual scenes, as the car-chase in the Luisa Rey era felt too much like a pastiche of other such scenes and a bit gratuitous in light of the unfolding stories.  Despite moments such as this, there were virtually no longeurs during this nearly three hour-long film, as the cut-ins, especially toward the climactic final 40 minutes, serve to augment the power of each individual scene.

It is hard to imagine this film finding universal appeal; familiarity with the novel is a major plus (as the stories, despite the constraints of cinematic technique and audience expectations for "action," are very faithful in spirit, if not always in word, to the novel) and multiple viewings may be required for the full effect to be achieved.  Cloud Atlas is perhaps the most ambitious movie that I have seen ever since I watched Intolerance on Netflix earlier this year.  Its use of parallel stories that interrupt each other until the final crescendo of resolutions does resemble Griffith's classic favorably, not to mention that its themes will resonate with most readers once the initial confusion is dispersed.  Cloud Atlas may not be the sort of movie that many viewers will "like," but it certainly will be one that several may "admire" for its adroit presentation of a complex story and for the lingering thoughts that may persist long after the final credits roll.

2012 World Fantasy Award finalist for Best Novel (2012 Nebula, Hugo winner): Jo Walton, Among Others

Sunday 21st October 1979 

James Tiptree, Jr. is a woman!  Gosh!

I never would have guessed though.  My goodness, Robert Silverberg must have egg all over his face.  But I bet he doesn't care.  (If I'd written Dying Inside I wouldn't mind how much of a fool of myself I made about anything ever again.  It might be the most depressing book in the world, I mean it's right up there with Hardy and Aeschylus, but it's also just so brilliant.)  Ant the Tiptree stories are good, too, though none of them quite up to "The Girl Who Was Plugged In."  I suppose I can see doing that so as to get respect, but Le Guin didn't, and she got the respect.  She won the Hugo.  I think in a way Tiptree was taking the easy option.  But think how fond her characters are of misdirection and disguise; maybe she is too?  I suppose all writers use characters as masks, and she was using the male name as another layer.  Come to that, if I was writing "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death" I might not want people to know where I lived either.

I was the only person not to get a bun today, not that I care.  Even Deirdre got one from Karen.  Deirdre looks at me in a strange puzzled way, which is actually worse that anything.  I understand Tiberius' reliance on Sejanus much better now.  I also understand how he became peculiar.  Being left alone – and I am being left alone – isn't quite as much what I want as I thought.  Is this how people become evil?  I don't want to be.

Is it possible to detest quite a bit of what a fictional work is all about and yet admit that it achieves its aims in such a way that it would be churlish not to acknowledge its triumphs?  Jo Walton's award-winning novel, Among Others, is the sort of tale that I do not enjoy reading, yet at the same time, it is one of the better examples of the dreaded "SF fan coming of age tale" (with fairies) that I have encountered in recent years.  Perhaps an exploration of these poles of personal perspective and reaction will be a suitable angle for this review essay.

Among Others has the sheen of autobiographical experience; there are too many allusions to past reads and habits for there not to be this sense that Walton has mined some of her own youthful thoughts and experiences for this tale.  The story just has that feeling of "authenticity" about it; perhaps those who did grow up young SF fans in Wales in the late 1970s and early 1980s may have found themselves relating to the tumultuous world in manners similar to the narrator.  After all, why wouldn't a fan of Tiptree and Le Guin (among others) view the changing world around her in terms similar to those encountered in favorite stories?

Yet, for some (and I admittedly am one) readers, such confessional tales alienate.  There is sometimes the sense that the repeated allusions to SF tales and writers obscure what is transpiring in the narrator's life, covering up what might otherwise have been an interesting life with the occasionally dull references to books that were read and processed.  There is real pain and heartache to be found in Among Others, but at times the focus on the SF reader Bildungsroman blunts the impact of those scenes, leaving open the possibility that some readers will find the narrator to be a rather dull character when perhaps the opposite would be closer to narrative truth.

Among Others' focus on the narrator's past feels a bit incomplete.  All we witness occurs between 1975-1980 (mostly 1979-1980), when the narrator is between 10 and 15 years old,  during what often is the most "awkward" years of a person's social life.  Quickly we get the sense of the narrator's loneliness and her desire to turn inward, toward what she is reading and what she obsesses over, to avoid certain issues in her life; this is stated quite clearly at the beginning of the fictional diary that comprises this novel.  Walton does capture this sense of introspection present in the journal entries.  There is very little about the historical scenes of this time (for Americans, 1979 would have meant the Iranian Hostage Situation; for those in the UK, Thatcher's ascension to the Prime Minister post); instead, there is a running thread regarding SF and the fairies that the narrator perceives (the reality of which is not revealed until near the novel's end).

For those who love SF in all its disparate and occasionally warring forms, Among Others will ring true to them.  It is easy to understand how this novel would appeal to those who do enjoy the form; the longing for something different from the surrounding mundane reality; the desire for the fantastical to take shape around them; the wish for a better life than the one currently being lived.  All of these are present within the narrative and they occupy a central part.  But some readers did not have such wishes or desires when growing up.  For myself, reading Among Others was frustrating, because the world view being expressed was so alien to that of my own youth that it was difficult to relate to what was happening or to sympathize with the narrator's opinions.  It felt wrong, even, which perhaps says as much about the novel's ability to describe and present a certain worldview as it would be a commentary on perceived deficiencies.

Contrary to what some may presume, stories that spark a sense of "wrongness" are not necessarily poor ones.  Among Others does an outstanding job in portraying a particular type of juvenile reader and her worldview during a certain time.  The prose masterfully captures the essence of this point-of-view and although the issue of fairies perhaps was the least-interesting element for myself, even it is integrated nicely into the narrative.  Despite all of this, however, the more I consider the novel's themes regarding reflection and on SF genre writing, the less I find to admire about it.  This is not surprising to me nor does it dismay me; personal tastes do play a role in enjoyment.  However, regardless of my personal preferences as a reader and as an adult who lived a childhood far different from the narrator's, Among Others may be one of the two most accomplished and realized novels on this year's World Fantasy Award shortlist for Best Novel.  Those who do not share my qualms about its themes will likely enjoy Walton's prose and the slow unveiling of events that transpire around what was recorded within the entries.  It is a deserving finalist (and winner, in the case of this year's Nebula and Hugo Awards), but it may be polarizing for those who do not share the narrator's (and presumably, the author's) sensibilities.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

2012 World Fantasy Award finalist for Best Novel: Christopher Buehlman, Those Across the River

By and by I slept.

And, alas, I dreamed.

Not of the trench fight; that was the worst.

And not of Metzger's death, which was nearly as bad.

But I did dream of the trench.

Something about a gas attack, and I couldn't find my mask.  But there was a dead guy half in the mud gripping his mask in his hands, I couldn't get it loose.  I was holding my breath and jerking at it, and pulling at his fingers, but they were like iron, even though his head was lolling.  He was being stubborn.

I was going to die.  I woke up gasping.

But I hadn't yelled; Dora was still sleeping.


Yes, morning.

It was dark, but the roosters were going at it.

Goddamn roosters.

How did I end up in Georgia?

I stuffed the pillow over my eyes and ears and just lay there for a long time, still mad at the dead guy who wouldn't let me have his mask. (Ch. 3)

Christopher Buehlman's debut novel (although not new to writing; he is a published playwright and poet), Those Across the River, is perhaps the closest to a traditional horror novel of the five finalists for this year's World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.  Set in a fictional rural Georgia small town in 1935, Those Across the River attempts to portray the legacies of inhumane treatment of the enslaved by a particularly cruel master while also decking this tale with all of the trappings of werewolf lore.  Of the five, it is perhaps the most frustrating to consider, as there is much that it does right, only to be undone ultimately (and ironically) by the relative lack of focus on the "little things."

Buehlman does an excellent job in establishing his main (although not exclusive) PoV character, Frank Nichols, a veteran of World War I who suffers nightmare from his time in the trenches during the last months of the war.  Frank and his new wife, Dora, have moved from Chicago to his ancestral home in rural Georgia.  There, the townsfolk have been under the grip of a mysterious ritual, in which two pigs are sent "across the river" at the beginning of each full moon.  This monthly event, which had been taking place since the 19th century, puzzles Frank, who is then revealed to be the descendent of a local plantation owner who was infamous for his cruelty to his slaves.  Foe one of those reasons that make sense in horror tales and not necessarily in real life, the townspeople decide to end the monthly sacrifices, after which a series of brutal attacks and disappearances begin to occur.

The premise is rather Horror 101, yet Buehlman's prose often makes it feel intriguing.  Like those movie goers who scream at the screen, "Don't open that door!," the events follow logical (sometimes clichéd) patterns that allow the reader to anticipate what will transpire next.  This is double-edged, however.  While Buehlman's plot permits readers to anticipate the plot and at times to feel a heightened sense of awareness as to what is occurring beyond what Frank (and another PoV) narrates, over the course of the novel, it has the deleterious effect of reducing the setting and circumstances to yet another horror tale, one devoid of true vitality.

Buehlman's lack of attention to establish the secondary characters (even Frank's wife, Dora, who should be more fleshed out, instead ends up being more of a silhouette of a character rather than a fully-realized, dynamic one) and setting strips the novel of palpable atmosphere.  While the Antebellum era precursors for the events could have led to a more meaningful discussion of the sense of "otherness" (which Buehlman at times does appear to strive to do), his lack of detail makes this potentially-intriguing element feel like raw dough that should have been baked thoroughly before presented to the audience.  Time and time again, the character dialogues, their interactions with each other, and the presumed purpose behind the horrors feels incomplete and sketchy.

This is a shame, as Those Across the River could have been more than just a competently-told horror story.  Too often, there was this sense that Buehlman had some good ideas for making the horror work on multiple levels, only to be foiled by his lack of character and setting development.  It is not a total failure, as he does a good job in developing the final scenes, but it just feels as though it lacks a true "heart" to it; it is a good paint-by-numbers tale, but even the best paint-by-numbers works lack that sense of originality or creativity that the best works possess.  It is not a "bad" novel, just merely a mediocre one that could have been very good.  Those, perhaps, are the most damning novels of all.  Those Across the River was the weakest of the five World Fantasy Award novel finalists that I read.

2012 releases that will receive some consideration for year-end Best of 2012

With just over two months to go in the year, I guess I might as well list the 2012 releases that I've read to date, those that I currently own but haven't yet read, and perhaps a few I hope to have in my possession before Christmas (which is when I cut off reading for Best of 2012 consideration).  There will be a mixture of various literary genres here; my reading tastes are a bit catholic in comparison to many other "best of year" awards I've encountered over the years.  Many of the titles I'll list below will not make a final list; this is only a list of those I deem eligible for consideration (either 2012 US release or I bought an edition originally released elsewhere in 2012).

Already Read (In reading chronological order)

Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet

Saladin Ahmed, The Throne of the Crescent Moon  

Ian Cameron Esslemont, Orb Sceptre Throne

Eduardo Jiménez Mayo and Chris N. Brown (eds.), Three Marriages and a Warning:  Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic

Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child

Lászlo Krasznahorkai, Satantango

Gonçalo M. Tavares, Joseph Walser's Machine

Jordi Soler, El Estrangulador

Steve Erickson, These Dreams of You

Matt Bell, Cataclysm Baby

Leah Bobet, Above

Matthew Stover, Caine's Law

Brian Evenson, Immobility  

Elizabeth Hand, Available Dark

Anne Enright, The Forgotten Waltz

Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles

Jac Jemc, My Lovely Wife

Brian Evenson, Windeye

Mario Vargas Llosa, La civilización del espectáculo

Nalo Hopkinson, Chaos

Nathan Englander, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jesse Lamb

Tupelo Hassman, Girlchild

Joyce Carol Oates, Mudwoman

N.K. Jemisin, The Killing Moon 

Toni Morrison, Home

Hari Kunzru, Gods Without Men

[Author X, Obliterated Manuscript]

Josip Novakovich, Shopping for a Better Country

Michael Cisco, Celebrant

Steven Erikson, The Devil Delivered and Other Tales

Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles

Leopoldo Brizuela, Una misma noche

Victoria Foyt, Save the Pearls:  Revealing Eden

Danilo Kiš, Psalm 44

Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies

Lavie Tidhar (ed.), The Apex Book of World SF 2

Dean Francis Alfar, How to Traverse Terra Incognita

Junot Díaz, This is How You Lose Her

Steven Erikson, The Forge of Darkness

Molly Crabapple, The Art of Molly Crabapple Volume I:  Week in Hell

Deborah Levy, Swimming Home

Christian Kiefer, The Infinite Tides

Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis

Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse

Will Self, Umbrella

Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk   

Padgett Powell, You & Me  

Alan Shapiro, Night of the Republic  

Andrzej Sapkowski, Los guerreros de Dios

Steven Erikson, The Wurms of Blearmouth

Karin Tidbeck, Jagannath:  Stories

Cynthia Huntington, Heavenly Bodies

David Ferry, Bewilderment:  New Poems and Translations

Patricia McCormick, Never Fall Down

Carrie Arcos, Out of Reach

Susan Wheeler, Meme

Eliot Schrefer, Endangered

Brontops Baruq, O grito do sol sobre a cabeça

Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds

William Alexander, Goblin Secrets

Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King

Brandon Sanderson, The Emperor's Soul

In-Progress or Owned but Yet to be Read in Full

Mark Helprin, In Sunlight and in Shadow

Peter Heller, The Dog Stars

Jennifer duBois, A Partial History of Lost Causes

Louise Erdrich, The Round House

Adam Wilson, Flatscreen

Adam McOmber, The White Forest

Nick Mamatas, Bullettime

Samuel Delany, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders

G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen

Graham Joyce,  Some Kind of Fairy Tale

To Be Bought/Ordered

Tim Seibles, Fast Animal

Ian Cameron Esslemont, Blood and Bone

Steve Sheinkin, Bomb:  The Race to Build – and Steal – The World's Most Dangerous Weapon

76 volumes, 63 of which have already been read, with 13 more to be finished soon (or whenever the orders arrive).  Perhaps I'll be able to discover more and get it near to a good 100 or so, which would make selecting a representative "Best of 2012" a bit easier for me, or so I would like to delude myself.

2012 World Fantasy Award Finalist for Best Novel: George R.R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons

This is a revised version of a review that I originally wrote in July 2011.
He knew what he would face today, and found himself tossing restlessly as he brooded on Maester Aemon's final words.  "Allow me to give my lord one last piece of counsel," the old man had said, "the same counsel that I once gave my brother when we parted for the last time.  He was three-and-thirty when the Great Council chose him to mount the Iron Throne.  A man grown with sons of his own, yet in some ways still a boy.  Egg had an innocence to him, a sweetness we all loved.  Kill the boy within you, I told him the day I took ship for the Wall.  It takes a man to rule.  An Aegon, not an Egg.  Kill the boy and let the man be born."  The old man felt Jon's face.  "You are half the age that Egg was, and your own burden is a crueler one, I fear.  You will have little joy of your command, but I think you have the strength in you to do the things that must be done.  Kill the boy, Jon Snow.  Winter is almost upon us.  Kill the boy and let the man be born." (p. 103)

If there ever were a common adjective for epic fantasies, particularly American-written works of the past twenty years, that word would be "sprawling."  More characters, more plots, more scenes, more political intrigue, more deaths, as well as more plot inertia, according to some.  One merely has to glance at various forums devoted to epic fantasy discussions to see readers complaining about the slow "pace" of "middle volumes," or of (in their minds) unnecessary delays in volumes being written to see that this "more" sometimes ends up as being a bit "less" in the eyes of many erstwhile fans.  One particular target of these accusations has been George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has "expanded in the telling" from a trilogy to six volumes to (for the moment) seven volumes; some are now fearing eight or even nine volumes will be required for this saga to come to a close.

In order to discuss the fifth volume, A Dance With Dragons (recently nominated for the 2012 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel), these fan concerns have to be noted because they will likely shape how this volume is perceived.  Anticipation inflicts cruel stings to both reader and writer alike; the first because they build up expectations for how the story should flow, the latter because the story cannot aspire to be what it is, but must instead contend with the phantoms of past volumes built up by readers to be something other than what the author might imagine.  For A Dance With Dragons, the fewer expectations the reader has going into it, the better this book will be for them.

There is much to like about this story-in-progress.  Characters not seen since 2000's A Storm of Swords reappear and there are noticeable signs of character growth.  The passage I quote above marks a turning point in Jon Snow's nascent career as Commander of the Black Watch.  He is leaving behind adolescence and having to contend more directly with the intrigues and betrayals around him.  Martin does not radically shift his character as much as he organically develops Jon into being the person who may (or may not, based on late developments) be someone more than just a precocious military commander.

The tone of the various PoV chapters varies considerably, making it easier to read large portions of this 1000 page volume.  Tyrion – dwarf, kinslayer, acerbic wit – serves as the cynical, sardonic counter to the weighty solemnal tone of Jon's chapters.  His flight to the east leads to a host of new developments, including an introduction to a character who might upset the precarious balance of power in Westeros.  It was refreshing to see that there were some surprises still in store, things that I did not recall any fan prognosticators foreseeing on the various fan forums.

But beyond the richness of the characterizations (I could easily spend time on Daenerys, Reek, and a few minor characters), what was striking is the atmosphere looming in places.  Martin was a horror writer before he ever wrote an epic fantasy and there have been times in the series where he has utilized those motifs to create memorable scenes.  One particular boatride in particular stands out because of the creeping horror that threatens to envelop the people on board.  These touches, while not always strictly necessary for the plot, do add considerably to the overall enjoyment.

However, there are some serious structural problems with A Dance With Dragons.  Due to the enormity of the plots in motion (succession issues in Westeros and the East and the northern threat of the Others), Martin is faced with tricky timeline issues that have plagued many epic fantasists as they ground on toward the end of their series.  With so many characters in motion, it is tricky to move them about and to develop their characters and situations adequately within the space of a single novel.  This become very evident in the preceding volume, A Feast for Crows, where the northern and eastern-based characters were left for this volume while the southern characters came to the fore.  A Dance With Dragons does cover a little of the southern situation, but it is hard to tell which scenes are congruent with the fourth volume, which are coinciding with even the third volume, A Storm of Swords, and which are occurring months later.  Although there is some resolution of these timeline issues toward the end of the novel, Martin still seems to be manipulating the narrative chessboard, trying to place his character pawns in place for a planned attack.  There is no resolution to any of the plots here; everything is in a state of suspension, awaiting the sixth volume.

Perhaps it is inevitable that this would occur; after all, there is much left to be done before the series is complete.  For some, knowing that there's a wait ahead (some fear the 5-6 years that plagued the publication of the last two volumes) will curb their appreciation for A Dance With Dragons considerably.  For myself, however, Martin's prose and his characterizations were very strong here.  He continues to develop the theme of what one does in the aftermath of devastation that began in A Feast for Crows.  It might not be as "sexy" as wars, battles, betrayals, and so forth, but it does provide a depth to these events that make them more palatable and meaningful.  It is not a perfect novel by any stretch, but A Dance With Dragons is a solid addition to a long-running series that I suspect will be more important in the scheme of matters once the series is completed. 

Yet "solid addition to a long-running series" is a descriptor that often does not bode well when considering a "middle volume" for an award that often favors initial volumes or self-contained, "stand-alone" works.  A Dance With Dragons' lack of narrative resolution puts it at a serious disadvantage to the other four finalists, each of which are complete narratives that do not promise sequels to come.  Excellent as several of its individual scenes are (some of which are the equal or superior to the best scenes from the other contenders), the structural problems noted above do hamper the reader's ability to assess it in toto; it is very much a volume of pieces that have yet to merge to create a wider, more vivid tapestry.  A Dance With Dragons is not the poorest finalist on the list (at least one other has more serious narrative and prose flaws), but its narrative-in-state-of-suspension does make it inferior to some of the other finalists for Best Novel.

Friday, October 26, 2012

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Jewel stops at the spring and takes the gourd from the willow branch and drinks.  I pass him and mount the path, beginning to hear Cash's saw.
When I reach the top he has quit sawing.  Standing in a litter of chips, he is fitting two of the boards together.  Between the shadow spaces they are yellow as gold, like soft gold, bearing on their flanks in smooth undulations the marks of the adze blade:  a good carpenter, Cash is.  He holds the two planks on the trestle, fitted along the edges in a quarter of the finished box.  He kneels and squints along the edge of them, then he lowers them and takes up the adze.  A good carpenter.  Addie Bundren could not want a better, a better box to lie in.  It will give her confidence and comfort.  I go on to the house, followed by the
Chuck.           Chuck.         Chuck.
of the adze. (Darl, p. 4)
It's because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering and sawing on that goddamn box.  Where she's got to see him.  Where every breath she draws is full of his knocking and sawing where she can see him saying See.  See what a good one I am making for you.  I told him to go somewhere else.  I said Good God do you want to see her in it.  It's like when he was a little boy and she says if she had some fertilizer she would try to raise some flowers and he taken the bread pan and brought it back from the barn full of dung. (Jewel, p. 11)

William Faulkner polarizes many readers these days.  There are those who hear how brilliant his works are, yet are baffled by the experimental prose in several of his novels, notably his 1929 novel, The Sound and the Fury, which I plan on covering late this year.  Or maybe their first exposure is through his short fiction, such as "A Rose for Emily" (1930) or "Barn Burning" (1939) in a high school or university American literature anthology and they struggle to understand the techniques and motifs Faulkner employs, needing guidance from instructors who often use a checklist to denote what Faulkner is doing here or exploring there.  I once was that 18 year-old university freshman who had to endure the instructor telling us what Faulkner was doing rather than being able to decide for myself what it was about his fiction that might appeal to me.  I chose to devote the Fridays of 2012 to discussing Faulkner's fiction, both novels and short stories alike, because despite being considered one of the 20th century's greatest writers, relatively little is said about him in a non-academic setting.  As I Lay Dying (1930) was chosen to lead off this commentary series because its structure, characters, and themes provide an excellent point of entry for those readers who have either never read Faulkner before or they found other works, possibly the ones listed above, to be incomprehensible or not what they expected.

As I Lay Dying was one of the first novels to utilize heavily a multiple point of view, stream of consciousness narrative approach.  For readers accustomed to a primary narrative voice, this switching back and forth between 15 different narrators over 59 short chapters was a novelty unlike most anything they had read.  This continual switching of narrators, however, is essential to making As I Lay Dying work as a narrative.

The story revolves around the death of Addie Bundren, the matriarch of a Mississippi farming family in the early 20th century who struggles to make a hardscrabble life.  Addie is dying of a long-term ailment and she makes her family of four sons and one daughter and her husband to promise to bury her in the town of Jefferson, a few days' horse travel away from their farm.  Although this request, mysterious as it is to characters and readers alike at first (we soon learn the reasons behind this dying wish), is on the surface a straightforward plot (get Addie where she wants to rest for eternity), Faulkner's use of multiple points of view, replete with their own passing thoughts and conjunctures, turns this novel into a tragi-comedy that reveals much about ourselves.

In the passages quoted above, we experience two of the Bundren children's (the second son Darl and the third son Jewel) thoughts on what the third son, Cash, the eldest, is doing as he joins and sands the boards that will constitute their mother's coffin.  Darl's slightly detached narrative is the one that is repeated most, as he is the one who is simultaneously closer to the other characters and most distant from their mother.  His is the voice that grounds the narrative in the difficult, trying times where despite the toils and pains of subsistence farming, families there tried to honor the wishes of the deceased.  We see through him the narrative equivalent of a cinematic pan-out, with his brothers', sister's, and father's actions placed in a larger perspective.

Despite Darl receiving the most point of view chapters, the key passages in As I Lay Dying turn around the "close ups" of the other characters.  As Addie is dying, we see the youngest son, Vardaman, a mere lad of around seven or eight, thinking of the fresh-caught fish that had just been gutted and skinned.  His reaction to his mother's death is the short but resonating observation, "My mother is a fish."  This observation, when combined with Darl's earlier observation of Cash's dedication to building the best coffin for their mother and Jewel's irritation that Cash is doing so where Addie can hear (and if she is able to move, see) the coffin making, creates a memorable composite experience.

Faulkner easily could have settled for just making a strong statement on familial bonds, but in the second half of the novel, as the family is moving Addie's body to Jefferson, we encounter more.  Peering into thoughts of Addie's husband, Anse, and their daughter Dewey Dell, we see ancillary concerns that help recast the events transpiring into something more universal than just a single family's honoring of the dead's request.  It is here where the stream of consciousness, with Anse thinking of his desire to pick up some false teeth and Dewey Dell's fretting about the pregnancy that she has not revealed to the other characters, that we see the petty concerns and desires of humans even when tragedy is unfolding around them.  It would have been easy to condemn these characters (or the sons for their conflicted attitudes toward bearing their mother for days toward her grave site) for being self-centered, but Faulkner instead presents these as common, perhaps typical responses to such events.  In doing so, the narrative opens up and as we experience a few key point of view chapters near the end of the novel, we begin to see that in letting us believe that one sort of tale was unfolding, Faulkner actually is telling a second composite narrative behind the first.

As I Lay Dying works because the characters construct a narrative that is deceptive in its simplicity.  We are not "told" about the characters' qualities, but instead through the views of others and then their own self-images, we begin to get a composite portrait of each character, including Addie, who is the heart of this tale.  As I Lay Dying reveals a host of truths to readers, some of them comic in the classical sense of commedia, others more tragic, but what Faulkner accomplishes here is creating an epic tale in the space of barely 170 pages through a masterful manipulation of character perspective.  Here he has refined the stream of consciousness approach that he utilized in his previous novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929), and he makes it more "personal" and yet more universal through the seemingly simple decision to let the characters speak for themselves and through them allowing readers to take from the narrative what they may.  The result of this is a brilliantly-constructed story where each character point of view joins tautly with one another to create a complex, composite narrative whose appeal ranges far beyond the early 20th century setting to move readers over eighty years later.

Originally posted in January 2012 on Gogol's Overcoat as part of a weekly "Faulkner Friday."  Novels reviewed from January-April will be reposted here on Fridays, while the short stories will appear on Wednesdays.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How readily can you discern a literary "genre" from samples?

Yet another "literary"/"genre" herpes outbreak has occurred, this time with pieces posted on The Millions and The New Yorker's "Page-Turner" column.  After reading the two pieces, shrugging, and then glancing at books nearby, I thought a more productive exercise would be to test the "generic" qualities of the debated "genres" by posting a few excerpts from books and letting readers here guess which genre(s) the passages belong.  This way, perhaps the arguments presented, whether facetious or serious, in the two linked articles can be tested.  So here goes:

1.  But it's easy to judge, we're born to judge; we live for it, really.  It's the way we decide that we are the self we are instead of all the other selves we might have been.  And I judged enthusiastically, mirthfully, even him, the man whose disaster was the perfect template for my own – maybe I judged him especially.  I thought when I was young that I would have the certainty to do it, that prevailing ethics and aesthetics would win the day, and that as long as suicide could be chosen rationally, thoughtfully, then the catastrophe was only the universal one, nothing more or less – as long as agency could be maintained, as long as the conscience could have the last word, then there was nothing more for a human being to ask from a lifetime.  I judged him for not doing.  I resented him for not doing it once he'd disappeared entirely and no longer had to deal with it, and I saw it as a failure of sympathetic imagination on his part, a failure of honor – not the only failure, most likely, nor possibly the biggest one, but the one we'd had to live with longest and thus the one we would always remember.  The failure was the legacy.  The failure was the only thing left.
2.  So when all this happened I reckon it was late March, when the snowdrops start to wilt and crocus stick their buds out of the ground, when gravel and salt still litter the streets.  It was dusk, and the first blackbird warbled in the pine next to the building.  You opened the balcony door to let some air in, and you wouldn't have looked down at the sleeping flower pots if it weren't for that scraping noise.  There was a very small creature between two of the pots, trying to escape attention by standing very still.  It was shivering from the cold.

It was knotted and dusted with soil, knees and elbows worn shiny.  It was perhaps four inches tall.  It made no resistance as you bent down and picked it up, lifted it into the kitchen and put it down on the table.  You looked at each other for a while.

3.  Already late.  I'd been wading all afternoon and the current was cold where it pushed up against my knees and thighs but my feet were long numb with that kind of dead warmth.  Starting to get chilled.  I caught a fifth fish, smaller, cleaned it and pushed the butt end of a hooked stick through its gills and slid it down to the others on the stringer.  Lay it in the sled.  Rubbed my naked legs to get the blood going.  The sun was gone, the creek now luminous in early dusk.  I felt what?  Happy.  We were thinking of nothing but the creek, but dinner, but making a camp just upstream on a sandy bar I liked to visit.  I slipped my pants back on, sat on a rock and put on my boots.  Jasper was revived after the fish, watching me with his mouth open, smiling because he knew we weren't going far and there would be another fish or two, this time cooked and salted.
4.  But I never end up keeping these white secrets from Mama, because their light shines up all my other ones, shows how dirty the ones I keep, the ones I swear I'll keep, really are.  It starts with the gray one about not telling Mama that Carol leaves me alone with the Hardware Man so that she can be alone with Tony, and they just get darker from there.  I can't keep this little pretty lie for my own, I blurt it out the next morning, "I-stayed-up-past-bedtime," and she's not ever mad because when I say this then she can believe that's it.  I've told all there is to tell.  Mama needs to believe in my truth-telling.  That's her little lie, that it's possible to raise a child clean and safe without rows of secrets somewhere, shelved like the boxes of fuses and circuit breakers at the back of the Hardware Store, coiled like garden hoses forgotten until inventory time.  And I need her to believe in this too so she won't start doing an inventory of her own and ask about the places my bathing suit does or doesn't go, the skin that burns pale underneath the Hardware Man's hands.

5.  Edie Banister is feeling like a cow.  More, she is conscious of sin.  Not in any fleshy way, alas, but in her heart.  She has transgressed against Joshua Joseph Spork.  She has, in fact, stitched him up like a kipper, albeit for the good of mankind and the betterment of the human race.  She persuaded herself that it was not personal.  That this was the best way.  Now, gazing at the little toy soldier he repaired so deftly, and recalling the stifled disappointment on his face when he saw that that was all she proposed to show him, she feels wicked.  She is increasingly certain that some part of her has borne a grudge for longer than J. Joseph Spork has been alive, and has chosen this method to revenge itself.  Duty, love, idealism and spite all discharged at once.  She contemplates her soul, and finds it wanting.
6.  Because she did not love them!  Because she was lonely in the dark-brick house on Mt. Laurel Street despite the efforts of Agatha, and Konrad, and Puddin' – despite the shelves of books beckoning to her like shut-up little souls, as in some kind of mausoleum, inviting her Open me!  See what I am! 

Because–maybe–the woman who'd been Momma–the woman who was still Momma– had burrowed into her heart like a mean little worm that could not so easily be extricated.  Just when she believed that Momma was faded and left behind that very night a dream would come to her leaving her sweaty and shivering for it was clear to her – it was meant ot be clear to her – that her new mother and her new father were not Christians but emissaries of Satan like all city-people and courthouse people who had stolen Marit Kraeck's children from her forcing her to drastic measures to protect their souls.  So very different from the Neukirchens who had not an idea what life is

7.  Outside on Sinuiju Street, even in the dark, I could see that troops of Juche girls had chalked the sidewalks and walls with revolutionary slogans.  I heard a rumor that one night an entire troop fell into an unmarked construction pit on Tongol Road, but who knows if that's true.  I headed for the Ragwon-dong district, where long ago the Japanese built slums to house the most defiant Koreans.  That's where there's an illegal night market at the base of the abandoned Ryugyong Hotel.  Even in the darkness, the outline of the hotel's rocket-shaped tower stands black against the stars.  As I crossed the Palgol Bridge, pipes were dumping sewage from the backs of pastel housing blocks.  Like gray lily pads, shit-streaked pages of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper slowly spread across the water.

8.  Then, one at either end, Dynamite and Eric carried the re-boxed Bowflex into the house, Eric going backwards, Dynamite going forward and giving grinning grunts:  "Left–no, right!" (The first two confused Eric, since they were Dynamite's right and left, not his – but then he switched them in his mind.)  Eric backed along the hall, and onto the porch.  As Dynamite's side bumped a doorframe, and he moved over to get it past, with a smile on his unshaven face as though he were inquiring about the operation of an eccentric sex toy, he asked, head cocked and looking lackadaisically at Eric, "What the fuck is this goddam thing, anyway?"

9.  He could replay with such precision and intensity what he had seen, heard, or felt that these things simply did not lapse from existence and pass on.  Though his exactitude in summoning texture, feel, and details could have been bent to parlor games or academics, and in the war had been made to serve reconnaissance, he had realized from very early on that it was a gift for an overriding purpose and this alone.  For by recalling the past and freezing the present he could open the gates of time and through them see all allegedly sequential things as a single masterwork with neither boundaries nor divisions.  And though he did not know the why or wherefore of this, he did know, beginning long before he could express it, that when the gates of time were thrown open, the world was saturated with love.  This was not the speculation of an aesthete, or a theory of the seminar room, for this he had seen with his own eyes even amid war, darkness, and death.
 10.  Farukhuaz he could sense.  She – or it, the primordial thingness of her, invented yet eternal – lurked at the edge of his perception like a cautious predator waiting for its prey to tire.  Of Farukhuaz he was most afraid, certain now of what she truly was, and when he could remember, while he could remember, he recited holy verses under his breath.  He felt like a charlatan; he knew it could see the indifference of his faith.  As his verbal self declined, he felt it getting closer, a fetid presence that stalked his shrinking perimeter of sanity.

NB:  All ten passages are from works released in the US in 2012.  In addition, five are from works written by women, five others were written by men.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Andrzej Sapkowski, Narrenturm

The early 15th century CE was a fascinating time all across Europe.  Two generations after the 1348-1350 Black Death had decimated (or worse) Southern, Western, and Central Europe, the feudal social order was in flux.  In England, Wycliffe's Lollards continued to be such a threat to established Church hierarchy that in 1415 the Council of Constance declared him to be a heretic nearly 30 years after his death (his body was later exhumed in 1428 under orders from Pope Martin V and was burned, with the ashes scattered in the River Swift).  There were military innovations, such as the Turks using crude cannons and the precursors to guns in their invasion of southeastern Europe following their recovery from the bloody 1389 Battle of Kosovo.  The English annihilated a larger French force at the 1415 Battle of Agincourt with their use of longbows and pikemen. 

In this climate rose a movement in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) that threatened to overturn the socio-religious/military orders:  the Hussites.  Followers of the Czech reformist Jan Hus (who was burned at the stake in 1415 at the Council of Constance), the Hussites (who in actuality were two distinct branches, the more moderate Utraquists and the more radical Taborites) rose up in Bohemia in protest and soon began nearly 20 years of warfare that engulfed not just Bohemia, but also neighboring states and principalities, including Moravia and Silesia (as well as Poland, Prussia, and several other states within the Holy Roman Empire).  Comprised largely of the lower classes, the Hussites managed to not just stave off repeated "crusades" against them, but to go on the offensive due to their use of handcannons and innovative mobile defensive fortifications that rendered ineffective cavalry charges against them.  The fighting also took on a religious characteristic, not just in the Catholic forces arrayed against "the heretics," but also in the more apocalyptic language used by the Hussites (the Taborites in particular).

This tumultuous era provides an excellent setting for Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski's Hussite Trilogy, which begins with Narrenturm (its name being derived from the German term for a madhouse).  Readers who expect Sapkowski's writing and structure to be similar to those of his Witcher novels may be surprised to see that his writing here takes on more of a historical fiction quality, but with the twist of having certain characters capable of utilizing witchcraft/magic in order to battle their enemies.  The melding of the historical with the magical can be problematic, as the author is constrained by actual events and cannot deviate too far from known events/personages in telling his/her story.  If one deviates too far, such as the case with Naomi Novik's Temeraire series (which contain dragons in Napoleonic era Europe), the author risks downgrading the "seriousness" of the events in favor of "lighter" fare that might be diverting yet ultimately empty entertainment devoid of anything beyond a mindless reading romp.

This is not the case here in Narrenturm.  Sapkowski clearly has imbued this novel (and presumably the trilogy, of which only the first two volumes have been translated so far into Spanish) with references not just to historical events (his prologue consists almost entirely of narrating the historical trends noted in the introductory paragraphs above) but there is a wealth of songs, religious motifs, and other cultural elements that add a richness to the narrative.  In reading Narrenturm, I was reminded not only of Umberto Eco's excellent The Name of the Rose for Sapkowski's citations of Latin, medieval High German and medieval Czech, but also of Serbian writer Goran Petrović's The Siege of the Church of Holy Salvation for its treatment of the chaotic nature of late medieval/early modern society under both literal and metaphorical siege.  As a historian who remembers some of his undergraduate courses on the pre-Charles V Holy Roman Empire and associated lands, Sapkowski's detailed description of the locales and customs is near pitch-perfect.  From his description of a particular Narrenturm to the tactics used by Hussite soldiers to certain medieval customs and beliefs, the setting in the novel is well-realized and dynamic, providing surprising level of detail for a historically-based fiction.

Although the magic scenes do not dominate the action, they are an important part of the narrative, particularly toward the end of the novel.  The magic is based on folk beliefs and does not feel contrived or separate from the religious/social themes explored during the course of the book.  Too easily this magical addition could have weakened the novel's sense of plausibility; here, it feels almost too "natural" to be remarked upon while reading, a testimony to Sapkowski's skills as a writer.  The scenes involving magic serve to add to the compelling events transpiring on stage; they do not distract nor detract from the reader's enjoyment of the historical fiction.

Characterizations in a historical novel can be tricky.  A balance has to be struck between having created characters knowing too much about actual events and characters and having these fictional personages be passive observers.  Sapkowski's characters, particularly that of the star-crossed lover/young scion of Silesian nobility/budding alchemist Reynevan, are knowledgeable, active participants in the chaotic events of the 1420s in Silesia and Bohemia, yet they are not so active that they play a direct role (as yet) in the fighting in Bohemia.  Instead, their main role is to provide a closer look at the transpiring events, to add a sense of "we were there" to theological (and magical) debates, conflicting customs and new-fangled social beliefs, and other, less bloody but still important conflicts of the 1420s.  Reynevan and those around him do not come across as clichéd, static characters; they delve, probe, and they change their minds and attitudes based on what they encounter in their travels (including a sojourn in a "tower of the crazies").  Historical personages are met with along the way, but not to such a degree that it is implied nor stated that Reynevan, Scharley, and others directly influenced the course of events.  Instead, they are witnesses to these massive changes and they serve as a sort of avatar for readers who may find themselves imagining what it would be like to live there at that time.

Narrenturm is a challenging read at times.  Readers who are unaware of the events surrounding the Hussite Wars or who lack knowledge of Latin and medieval dialects of German and Czech (and a bit of Polish) may find themselves consulting the glossary of terms/translations at the back of the Spanish edition.  Yet if a reader is curious to learn more about the Hussite Wars while accepting the fantastical elements presented within at face value, s/he may discover that Narrenturm is one of the finest meldings of historical and fantastical fiction that I have read in quite some time.  Hopefully, there will be an English translation at some point in the future, but for now, there are versions available in Polish, German, Czech, Russian, and Spanish (for the first two volumes; the third is forthcoming) for those readers in those languages.
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