Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Readings 2K9: Pretty Monsters

Pretty Monsters
by Kelly Link

This is a recent collection of Link’s stories aimed at the Young Adult market. One piece, the title story, is new; the rest have appeared elsewhere, some of them in previous collections by Link. I know some people are annoyed by this, and I can see their point. On the other hand, this was my first exposure to Link’s writing, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Would I have enjoyed it if I’d been a younger reader? I don’t know. I might not have liked the storytelling perspective of Link’s work; all but one of the stories are told in the third person, with a narrator who comments on the action in asides directly to the reader. I can remember not caring for that point-of-view when I was younger. Then again, the one first-person story seemed to me to be one of the weakest in the book, so who can say? Most of the stories here focus on children or teens, which presumably gives the book its promotional focus, but I have no idea whether it’ll actually appeal to its presumed audience.

In some ways, that’s a good thing; the best books usually don’t have built-in audiences. Link’s stories are a good example: they confound expectations. They’re not structured the way stories normally are — a plot description might sound like a series of random elements, but Link crafts these often-surreal events into something that feels like a narrative. In part that comes through a strong grasp of language, of pattern and rhythm; also of imagery, but not in any usual way. Typically one watches an image develop over the course of a story, and extracts meaning based on the way the image is used in different places. It’s difficult to do that with Link’s work, because the images she uses are so strange, and recur in such unexpected ways; also because connections are so plentiful. If a typical pattern of images in a work of fiction is additive (this occurrence, then this one, then this one, illustrating this thematic development), Link’s use of imagery is somehow multiplicative, or even exponential: a new appearance of an image can cast a theme, a major plot element, or even the story itself in a completely new light.

This probably makes the stories sound more complicated than they are. In fact, they’re very intuitive; that’s how they work. Link’s authorial voice is calm, precise, and infinitely suggestive. There’s a clarity to the pieces, even when Link is juggling multiple layers of narrative and fictionality. Yet at the same time there’s a dreamlike feel to much of this material, something emphasised by the relative lack of conventional characterisation. Or, at least, lack of individuated characters. Link generally provides hints about things, letting the reader fill in details of scene-setting, plot, or other aspects of the story. That doesn’t necessarily work the same way with character — lacking detail, Link’s characters tend toward the archetypal. Not flat, necessarily, but not clearly defined, one against another. This may be for the best; Link is not necessarily at her best with character — in the first-person story, “The Surfer”, we’re told that one character isn’t terribly smart while another is a genius, but that doesn’t come through in the behaviour of the characters (or in their perceptions, as far as I could see). 

Abigail Nussbaum gave a favourable review to Link’s story “Magic for Beginners” — also included in Pretty Monsters — while noting that her fiction often lacked an easy emotional connection (for Nussbaum, the element of television fandom made this story more accessible; I don’t have that experience of fandom, but this story, and the collection in general, worked for me just fine). Nussbaum notes, I think correctly, that Link is more surrealist than fantasist, and further suggests that the surrealism could be what’s alienating her from a direct connection with the work while she still nevertheless enjoys it. It sounds likely to me, and it would seem to me that most people who appreciate Link’s writing at whatever level would be dedicated readers of one stripe or another. People who like to think about what they read, and why it works, and how it all fits together. 

On the other hand, this review at Locus notes that Link made a conscious effort to develop more traditional approaches to plot and character in her work. I think that’s there in the work, especially in the stories the reviewer cites. But I don’t know if it represents an improvement, in that I’d have a hard time arguing that those stories are better than “Magic for Beginners” or the other more surreal work in the collection. They do seem to me to be probably more accessible, though, and who knows where it will lead? Who knows what new kinds of fictions might come out it?

If I'm struggling with these questions — surrealism versus standard narrative, audience expectations and marketing versus what's there on the page — it's because Link's stories most often feel like distinct creations of a distinct sensibility. They're not written for a marketing category. So to me there's a level where Pretty Monsters feels like a bit of a misstep purely for that reason — a category error. On its own terms as a fiction anthology, it's excellent. In terms of its packaging, and specifically its positioning as a Young Adult anthology rather than a general story collection, I wonder whether it's the best possible presentation.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Comics Recently Read

I’ve been writing about books on this blog as a way of encouraging myself to cut down on the number of unread books in my apartment. Thus far I've been making slow progress, being somewhat hampered by my habit of taking out books from my local library. But never mind that. The point is, because of this plan, I’ve so far written only about books, not music or movies or other media. But I do have a few quick thoughts on some graphic novels (or as we used to call them, comic books) I’ve read lately, so why not try a quick change-up?

Start of Darkness
by Rich Burlew

This is a spin-off from the popular web comic Order of the Stick, which follows a group of characters adventuring in a world that operates according to the rules of a game bearing a staggering resemblance to one iteration of Dungeons & Dragons. The trick is that the characters know that they’re in a game-world — manipulating rules, pausing fights to argue about interpretations, that sort of thing. It might sound facile, but Order of the Stick makes the concept work. It works because the characters come alive, and because Burlew has a wicked sense of comic timing — although maybe ‘comic layout’ is the more accurate phrase, since we’re talking about comics as a form. The point is: he’s funny.

While the online strip is free, this trade paperback isn’t. It’s all material which hasn’t appeared on-line, one of two such spin-offs (there are several collections of the web-comics as well). This one gives readers the backstories of some of the villains of the piece. It’s an occasionally brutal book, but then Order of the Stick has never been afraid to be cynical. It’s clever, and what’s more, it’s morally consistent. Funny, yes, but funny in the way the best of Terry Pratchett’s humour works — it gets at a larger point. The character work is often touching, and the ending, with one character firmly subjugating another, suitably crushing. Good work.

by Scott McCloud

This is a thick volume reprinting issues 11 through 36 of Scott McCloud’s comic Zot!, originally published from 1987 through 1991. It’s some strong material, though I think the decision to omit the first ten issues was ultimately a mistake. Those issues were in colour, while the reprinted work was originally (as it is now) in black-and-white; but they were perhaps more of a piece with the rest of the work than McCloud realised, introducing characters and setting up certain givens of the series. In those issues, Jenny, a girl from our earth, travelled to the futuristic utopia of 1965, where science had eliminated poverty and disease, and where the greatest problems the world faced were the many super-villains which plagued it — but who were themselves inevitably defeated by the heroic teenager called Zot. 

The first ten issues of the series introduced Zot and his villains; the next twenty-six issues contrasted that world with this one, with our world becoming increasingly prominent. McCloud’s interest is clearly in the interaction of his real-world characters, with the issues and complexities of their daily life. He makes it work, but it’s Zot who makes the stories live — he’s what makes the series unique, what gives it its voice. The presence of the larger-than-life metaphor transforms the stories, and lends them a unique sense of scale. McCloud expresses some doubt about the use of the super-hero figure in his commentary on the series, but in fact it’s that element of unreality that makes the “real world” of the series cohere. And without the first ten issues, the collection seems weirdly unbalanced; we don’t have the greatest sense of the contrast between Zot’s world and Jenny’s, we don’t really know the givens by which Zot operates.

Technically, McCloud’s craft is superb, as you’d expect from the man who literally wrote (and drew) the book on the subject of the comics form. His art is pretty to look at his, his stories are structured effectively, and the storytelling gives his material pointed shape. It’s strong material; I wish McCloud was less self-conscious, less Puritanical, about the element of fantasy within it.

Fun Home
by Alison Bechdel

Subtitled “a family tragicomic”, this book is Bechdel’s autobiography and also a meditation on family. It’s interesting, and deftly done. Bechdel’s questioning of gender identity and self-identification as a lesbian is balanced by descriptions of incidents from her youth and her father’s inability to explore his own sexuality. Constant literary allusions help sustain and structure the book, giving Bechdel’s story resonance beyond her own individual experience.

It’s an effective book on a number of levels. The storytelling is strong, and Bechdel’s art is both expressive and realistic — she captures a number of different eras very successfully. I found her language occasionally strained, especially when she reaches for a particular literary connection, but also often quite moving. Crucially, Bechdel understands that autobiography needs a shape to be understood; she’s found a good shape here, borrowing from a number of key texts. Still, one comes away with a touch of regret that the glimpses we get of the journal she kept when she was an adolescent has to be put in context by her adult self; there’s a liveliness to some of the entries, a window onto a developing sensibility that’s quite charming — but then, of course, the realisation hits that the sensibility in question has come to fruition in this book.

The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard
by Eddie Campbell and Dan Best

This is a remarkably strange book about a not-very-good circus acrobat who has a series of improbable adventures ending in an equally-improbable apotheosis. It’s very amusing. Campbell’s humour is wry and absurd, recalling the Terry Gilliam of Time Bandits. This is a clever, fable-like, and touching work. 

It also, without making a big point of it, plays around with comics storytelling. Characters hold conversations in the gutters between panels, or fly through the air off the page and back on. Yet all these things seem natural. It matches the surrealism of the tale itself, which rambles here and there but somehow makes a consistent kind of right-brain sense. Campbell even plays around with his own history, as Inspector Abberline, the Scotland Yard detective who featured in From Hell (Campbell's collaboration with Alan Moore), turns up to investigate Leotard. This is a slight book, in many ways, as character ends up secondary to formal trickery, but worth reading nonetheless.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Readings 2K9: Watching the Watchmen

Watching the Watchmen
by Dave Gibbons

This is a coffee-table book with some process art from Watchmen, the mini-series/graphic novel Gibbons drew from a script by Alan Moore. It’s not uninteresting, but neither is it particularly revelatory. There are no great secrets about the making of Watchmen which come out here. Instead, the core of the book is a series of initial breakdown sketches Gibbons made for the pages of the graphic novel; but since Moore’s script is so intensely detailed, and Gibbons himself is meticulous in his craft, there really isn’t much of a variance between the breakdowns and the designs of the finished pages. Even the original character sketches don’t change that much.

There isn’t much text in the book, either. Most notable are a few chatty descriptions of what the experience of drawing Watchmen was like, a piece by the colourist about the process of coming up with colours for the comic, and some discussion of the book’s reception in the 80s. But Gibbons decided not to include any material about the estrangement between Alan Moore and DC Comics which followed the publication of the book. I can understand his reasons for doing this, but there is definitely the feel of a man skirting the elephant which dominates the room.

Consider the following quotes. Here’s Gibbons (p 237):

Looking back, it seems almost inevitable that Watchmen became one of the first graphic novels, although the fact that it has remained in print and sold consistently well over more than twenty years would surely have been beyond the wildest dreams of any DC marketing executive of the time.

It was certainly beyond the imaginings Alan and I had as its creators. We expected that three years after the original series had gone out of print the rights would revert to us, as stated in our contract. Instead, it has been in print ever since. We’ve received a constant stream of royalties and it has become a perennial presence in mainstream bookstores. Indeed, Watchmen has become ‘required reading’ for any novice comics reader and is widely recommended as the ideal entry point to the medium.

When you're talking about [movies being made from] things like V for Vendetta or Watchmen, I don't have a choice. Those were works which DC Comics kind of tricked me out of, so they own all that stuff and it's up to them whether the film gets made or not.

Gibbons is of course entitled to his perspective, and if he’s happy with his situation vis-a-vis Watchmen and DC, that’s great. But there seems a bit of an odd disconnect here.

Again, consider this quote from Gibbons (p 261):

Far more upsetting to Alan and I [than another DC artist producing a poster to advertise Watchmen merchandise] was a suggestion that we produce spin-off series from Watchmen or, failing that, that DC would produce them without us. Proposed titles were Rorschach’s Journal and The Comedian’s Vietnam War Diary. DC wisely shelved the proposals and, to their credit, have managed to resist the temptation ever since.

— Though one should note that there is a video game featuring the characters coming out in conjunction with the forthcoming movie. At any rate, here’s Moore on the above events speaking to Gary Groth in issue 139 of The Comics Journal, back in 1990:

I suppose if there was a final, tiny straw that broke the camel’s back [and led to Moore breaking from DC], it was when people at DC at one point very subtly made the suggestion that ... We were talking about the future of the Watchmen characters. We had been assured that we would be the only people writing them, that they wouldn’t be handed to other creators just to make a fast buck out of a spin-off series. There was a point where a highly placed person at DC did make a not terribly subtle — I think it was intended to be subtle but it wasn’t — insinuation that they would not give our characters to other writers to exploit as long as we had a working relationship with DC. It’s perhaps just me, Gary, but that was a threat and I really, really, really don’t respond well to being threatened. I couldn’t tolerate anyone threatening me on the street; I couldn’t tolerate anyone threatening me in any other situation in my life. I can’t tolerate anyone threatening me about my art and my career and stuff that’s as important to me as that. That was the emotional breaking point. At that point there was no longer any possibility of me working for DC in any way, shape, or form.

Different people have different takes on events, but these are fairly widely divergent perceptions. In one case, the company is briefly misguided, perhaps afflicted with an over-eager middle-manager, but on their own sees the error of their ways. In the other case, their attempt to bully creators badly backfires. There’s not really enough information to reconcile these versions; they are what they are.

So Watching the Watchmen does have this going for it: it gives Dave Gibbons a chance to get his thoughts on Watchmen out in permanent form. That’s nice, and interesting reading. But there’s not an awful lot of content of that sort in the book, and what there is to it doesn’t seem terribly significant. It’s likely that in years to come, scholars will appreciate the resource. At the moment, though, the average reader can do without it fairly easily.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Readings 2K9: Tesseracts Twelve

Tesseracts Twelve
edited by Claude Lalumière

Best to get the potential conflicts of interest out of the way first; I know Claude, and submitted a story to this anthology. It didn’t get in, but my girlfriend also submitted a piece which was accepted (Claude didn’t know she was my girlfriend at the time). Such, I suspect, is the claustrophobic world of Canadian publishing.

This volume of the long-running series of Tesseracts anthologies, which feature Canadian science-fiction stories, has a special focus on the novella. Each of the stories is at least ten thousand words long. That’s a rarity, and nice to see right off the bat.

Even better, to my mind, all of the stories seem to hit what they’re aiming at. They do different things, and which you like best will probably depend upon which project you’re most sympathetic to; but what they do, they do well. For me, leaving Grace’s story “Intersections” out of the equation (which I really do think is a lovely work), the stand-outs were E.L. Chen’s Arabian Nights update “The Story of the Woman and Her Dog” and David Nickle’s bitter media satire “Wylde’s Kingdom”. Chen’s is probably the most structurally inventive story in the anthology, while Nickle’s is to my mind the best at sustaining a specific voice and tone.

Are there any consistent themes through the book? Are there any specifically Canadian approaches? Actually, in some ways, I’d argue that the book is most notable for its avoidance of typical Canadian themes. The father-and-son generational conflicts which seem to me to dominate much of Canadian literature are nowhere to be found; equally, the traditional man-versus-unbreakable-nature theme isn’t really present, especially in its usual form of settlers breaking a hostile land. Northrop Frye’s ‘garrison mentality’ (colonists alone against a harsh wilderness) is notable by its absence, with the arguable exception of “Wylde’s Kingdom”, which really inverts the whole concept by presenting a nature thoroughly disrupted and exploited by human agency.

At the same time, nature is strongly present in the anthology in the form of animals; but these are animals which in one way or another blend into the human. “Intersections” is probably the only story without an animal presence. Humans and mammoths share mentalities in Derryl Murphy’s “Ancients of the Earth”, Michael Skeet and Jill Snyder Lum give us fox spirits and a surprisingly talkative tanuki in “Beneath the Skin”, Chen has men and women changing into dogs and goldfish, Randy McCharles’ story “Ringing the Changes in Okotoks, Alberta” has witchcraft linking a man and a goat, Gord Sellar’s super-hero tale “Wonjjang and the Madman of Pyongyang” includes a Japanese cat-woman, and “Wylde’s Kingdom” is the story of a man hunting and being hunted by a giant squid — with, inevitably, a hint of empathy between hunter and hunted towards the end. So perhaps this anthology represents a new Canadian mentality; no more of the garrison, no more of the conflict between man and wilderness, now our stories are those of man and nature merging. 

Further: based on this book, Margaret Atwood’s thesis in Survival, that Canadian fiction is dominated by victims whose stories are simply about living through tragedy, can be discarded. Only “Wylde’s Kingdom” seems to fit her template, and even that’s debatable. The characters in these stories typically learn how to take control of their lives; how to grow out of being the victim. Atwood aside, there is a stereotype of bleakness in Canadian fiction, of pessimism and darkness — but, by and large, that sterotype finds no reflection in this anthology.

So instead of dreary stories about European immigrants breaking the land, we have a wildly multicultural selection of stories. Sure, “Ancients of the Earth” takes place in a northern frontier town in the nineteenth century, but it has a conclusion different from any trope of Canadian literature I know. Other stories are set in feudal Japan, in Korea, in a small Albertan town influenced by Celtic witchcraft, or in a Toronto inflected by a wealth of different cultures — and Chen's Toronto, as I said above, is most defined by The Arabian Nights, itself a polyglot collection of tales from different lands, reflecting the multicultural environment of Toronto. 

So Tesseracts Twelve may signal, ultimately, a change in Canadian literature to mirror the changes in the country itself. Where the country has seen its demography shift, has managed with surprisingly little strain to incorporate a wealth of voices and cultures within itself, has changed its traditional narrative of its own founding and development, the book suggests new themes for Canadian writing, new models for its story. Hints of the old are still there, certainly, as they should be, but not given the stress they might have carried in the past — for a Francophone (however bilingual) to edit a major English-language anthology, for example, likely would have been noteworthy ten years ago, and I think certainly would have attracted comment twenty years ago or more. I haven’t noticed that so far. One hopes this is a good sign. One hopes that the promise of Tesseracts Twelve is borne out in the stories yet to be written in this country. At the very least, this is a good start on the literature of Canada’s future.

Readings 2K9: The Enchantress of Florence

The Enchantress of Florence
by Salman Rushdie

Rushdie’s latest novel is a generous, extravagant dollop of story and metaphysical speculation, leaping wildly from India to Italy and back again in the heady days of the fifteenth and sixteenth century. It’s a novel of magic and tale-telling, of imagery and reflections, of love and of desire. A traveller comes to the court of an Emperor with a strange story. Telling it will change many things, reveal much that was hidden — if the tale is true. It will change its hearers, and it will change its teller. The Enchantress of Florence is the story, and the story of the story, and the story of its telling.

So, yes, it’s one of those stories about stories. And an exuberant one, deliberately calling up echoes of The Arabian Nights and Orlando Inamorato and Furioso and Marco Polo and Machiavelli and, and, and ... and always, it seems, more. It’s a dizzying book, thick not only with narrative colour but with theme; there are many and interpenetrating analyses of love, there are characters discussing the nature of divine revelation and its possible subordination to democratic dialogue, there are stories told inside stories. It’s hard to keep track of what the novel’s about, because it seems to be trying to be about everything.

Curiously, given much of its tone, the book shuns adventure and heroism. Perhaps this is not so curious, given that it certainly can be seen as resolutely humanist — celebrating the earthiness of life, the common man rather than the hero. But then on the other hand, its characters are anything but common people; even if the book does try to indicate the commonality within their experience, the story’s own nature seems to be trying to pull it in the direction of the larger-than-life. There may be a tension in the book, then, glorifying story while being highly aware of the ideological baggage of traditional storytelling and traditional heroism.

In any event, this is a great book. Its language, its structure, its deft use of imagery, its ability to play with history and with storytelling tradition — it’s the sort of book that could be described as an intellectual puzzle-box, except that there’s something more of life to it than the phrase implies. Rushdie has a knack for creating mythopoeic tableaux; for coming up with images, characters, situations that seem resonant, that seem to carry meanings beyond any that can be easily or confidently ascribed to them. This novel is brim-ful of such things, wonder upon wonder. It’s not an easy book, necessarily, but it is involving, and, perhaps, enrapturing.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Worth Looking At

Through the montreal city weblog, I came across this article in the Guardian about A.M. Klein. As the piece notes, Klein is too-little-known; good to see this story, then, with its brief but perceptive take on The Second Scroll.

Fiction Update

My short story, "Kreisler's Automata", is in issue 10 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a webzine dedicated to literary fantasy. I'm quite pleased, and very appreciative of the sensitive editing job I received. Check it out here.

Readings 2K9: Briefly Noted, Part Two

I've read A.S. Byatt's first novel, Shadow of the Sun; I'll have more to say about it later, either here or elsewhere. Oddly, that's actually only the second book off my own shelves that I've finished this month, the others being from my local library. It's the fifth book I've read this month, the seventeenth so far this year. And I've so far reduced the overall number of unread books in the house by ten.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Readings 2K9: Matter

Iain M. Banks

This is science-fiction with a lot on its mind. Stylistically, there’s nothing much out of the ordinary, though a certain ironic tone does provide for something close to humour; it’s not unlike The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, if Hitchhiker’s had been written as serious SF. But this is, in essence, a straight-ahead adventure story with pointed political parallels.

The book concerns itself with Sursamen, a shellworld — a world made up essentially of several planets one inside another, like a Russian doll. The human civilisations on the eighth and ninth levels of Sursamen are at war; they’re at about an eighteenth-century level of technology, but there are overseers from a more sophisticated civilisation watching them. And then another civilization watching the watchers; and then another watching them. In other words, the physical construction of the planet is mirrored by the technological, social, and political hierarchies of the people who live on and around it. Meaning threatens to become abstracted by the differences in scale in all these things; conversely, a symbolically-freighted conversation lends the book its title — insisting that these hierarchical structures are ultimately insignificant and that life, well, matters.

But all these themes remain comfortably unobtrusive; essentially, this is an oddly-paced adventure story. Oddly-paced, because very slow-paced. There are many massive infodumps all throughout the book; they’re well-written, but still slow forward momentum to a crawl. That’s a shame, because some of Banks’ unorthodox structuring tricks work very nicely — the main villains of the piece turn out to have had almost no set-up, having been mentioned by-the-way hundreds of pages before their big revelation, and yet this makes sense, this hits you with an unexpected force. Unfortunately, much else of the conclusion falls flat; because of the range of scales of technologies and powers, all the fireworks on display at the very end seem random and abrupt.

This is not a bad book, but there’s a curiously unreal sense to it. In part I think that’s a function of the character-building and world-building; in part it’s a function of a certain lack of human depth. And then also it’s a function of a plot that wanders about, and never really frees itself of exposition to move at any velocity. The result is a book that’s highly readable, but ultimately unmemorable.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Briefly Noted

My review of Kristen Cashore's Graceling is out in today's issue of The Montreal Gazette. The article doesn't seem to be online, though. At any rate, I didn't much care for the book.

Edit: And a couple of days later, I've found the review. Here it is.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Persians

The Persians
by J.M. Cook

Originally published in 1983 as The Persian Empire, this edition was republished by The Folio Society — meaning that the book is a nice package, with some fine maps, and some truly spectacular photographs of a Persian archaeological site. The text itself is informative, though very much focussed on the reigns of the Achaemenid kings; that is, it deals chronologically only with the era up to Alexander the Great, and sociologically with a very narrow slice of Persian society.

Which to some extent is understandable. The sources Cook was working from were primarily the Greek histories, which dealt with Persia mainly in terms of how the Persians affected Greece. A writer like Herodotus gives some description of the whole extent of the Persian Empire, but the viewpoint is still mainly Greek, mainly focussed on the western part of the Empire. Cook does a strong job of trying to reconstruct events and personalities from a Persian perspective, but the weight of his sources can’t help but pull him back to the Greeks.

I’m no expert in Persian history, but Cook’s own text seemed fine to me. He sedulously presents different interpretations and readings of sources; of course, it’s impossible to present all the evidence for and against an interpretation in a general history, but at least some note of other ideas is there. The writing is fine, if not gripping; structurally, the book reads well, though the next-to-last chapter, a geographical overview of the Persian lands, would probably have been better off at the start of the book. This is a solid book that tries its best to give a Persian focus to Persian history; I can’t help but wonder how much farther that aim has gone in the past quarter-century.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Readings 2K9: Lavinia

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin’s latest novel is incredibly strong, moving, and human. It’s the story of Lavinia, the wife of Aeneas, the legendary ancestor of Rome; it gently revises and expands Vergil’s Aeneid, with Vergil himself in a supporting role. So at one level the book is dealing with matter at the root of the Western cultural tradition — but at another level it’s the simple human tale of a woman in an unsophisticated society navigating her way in the world, building a life for herself and her loved ones. It’s a success both ways.

The language of the novel is simple, but resonant. Le Guin consistently finds the right phrases for the characters and their situations; the phrases echoing with the most meaning. One of the first descriptions of Aeneas comes when Lavinia, later in life — the novel elegantly shifts back and forth in time — describes her husband’s gear: “To see his armor hanging there is to realise what a large, powerful, man he is. He doesn’t look large, or even very muscular, because his body is in perfect proportion, and he moves lightly and gracefully, considerate of who and what is around him, not shoving forward as many big, strong men do. Yet I can hardly lift the armour he wears so easily.” How much is in those three sentences; how much of the character of Aeneas, how much of his essence, and how much of Lavinia’s emotion for him, how she sees him relative to other men, her understanding of power and responsibility.

The first two-thirds or so of the book follow the Aeneid from Lavinia’s perspective, with the remainder following her life after the close of the poem. There is a subtle but distinct shift in this later part of the book. The action is less pre-ordained, but also less freighted with meaning. But then this also means Lavinia is freer; this part of the story has not been written for her. 

One of the most impressive aspects of the book is its consciousness of its status as a story, and Lavinia’s own understanding herself as a character. Early in the book, she meets the figure of Vergil, a ghost of the future; she learns much of the story he will write. But then he himself admits he has been wrong about some things. Lavinia is haunted throughout the rest of the book by her knowledge that she herself is a character in this writer’s text, perhaps not even a text he finished or was particularly satisfied with. 

Le Guin plays with the question of how alive even the most self-aware of characters can be — “I am, now, only in this line of words I write,” says Lavinia near the beginning of the book, acknowledging her own status as a fiction: “As far as I know, it was my poet who gave me any reality at all.” Hardly living, she cannot die. “My life is too contingent to lead to anything so absolute as death.” And yet, and yet. After her husband’s death, Lavinia lets his best friend tell the tale of his slaying again and again: “So long as Achates told me the story,” she says, “Aeneas was not dead.” Life and death have a complex relationship to stories.

Earlier, Lavinia mourns the poet’s absence in an unwittingly resonant phrase: “I have lost my guide, my Vergil.” And this recalls an earlier passage in the book, when she asks Vergil if he was with Aeneas in the underworld: “Who else would I be with?” asks Vergil, before becoming suddenly uncertain. “What man did I guide?” he asks himself. “I met him in a wood, like this. A dark wood, in the middle of the road. I came up from down there to meet him, to show him the way ...” And so we are gently reminded that even poets can be characters; and that this poet certainly is, a character in a book called Lavinia. Thus Lavinia has just as much life as he. By making Lavinia a character, a living, breathing character, Le Guin paradoxically gives her the ability to die — to go among the shades and to be with her husband, if only in our imaginations.

Lavinia is a subtle, marvellous book, which gives more rewards the more closely it is read. Le Guin has a knack (you can see it in many of her earlier books, the Earthsea series not least among them) for imagining and conveying the nature of life in a pre-literate or nearly pre-literate society; for bringing out the relationship of the people and the gods, for showing the shapes of communities, for illuminating the distance and the power of words. This in addition to her gifts for character and language and structure. All these things come together in Lavinia. Fittingly, like the best Roman art, it’s austere in style, and from that austerity derives a harmonious beauty; one imagines that Vergil himself would approve.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Monsters of Templeton

The Monsters of Templeton
by Lauren Groff

In many ways, this book ought to be a hard sell for me. Set in, and dominated by, a small New England town named Templeton, which is strongly based on Cooperstown, New York, home of novelist James Fenimore Cooper and the Baseball Hall of Fame, it follows a young woman named Willie Upton, returning to her old home town to be confronted with a mystery about her past. I’ve never read any of Cooper’s work, and ever since the Expos moved Major League Basebal has been Dead To Me. But Willie’s story, and the stories she finds about her ancestors, are engaging; Groff’s a talented writer, and the structure of the book, with interpenetrating narratives and shifting voices, held my interest.

The book is nominally fantasy, filled with ghosts, pyrokinetics, a possibly-immortal apothecary, and the titular monsters (though it’s a safe bet the title’s also meant to refer to some of the human characters as well). You could call it magic realism — it’s a novel set in the recognisably real world, into which there are intrusions of the uncanny which nevertheless don’t alter the real setting are not necessarily the main point of the action of the story. In the end, it’s a strong blend of both the everyday and the unreal.

The writing is very strong, with smooth prose. The characters are engaging, if occasionally a trifle flat. On the other hand, this is a busy book, moving swiftly through scenes and incidents; you don’t notice that some of the characters have, let’s say, an archetypal quality to them. 

The town is well-detailed, well-imagined, but I felt could have used a bit more life to it; and by that I mean it would have been nice to see some of the secondary characters react strongly to some of the events which happen in the town. I would have liked to have seen the town, as a community, deal with a dead monster washing up on shore (as happens at the beginning of the book) in a more extensive fashion than we get. I don’t mean that the book should have focussed on that in a plot sense; only that none of the characters seem particularly interested or touched by the event or its aftermath.

More disappointing to me is the fact that Willie’s voice is less distinctive than that of many of her ancestors. Groff has a good touch with voice; the collective speech of a running club, almost incantatory, matching the rhythm of their jogging steps, or the rough dialect of an eighteenth-century frontiersman, or the excited yet stilted tones of nineteenth-century ladies in private letters — all these tones and vocabularies come across, all these speakers are vivid. Willie, by contrast, has her moments, but suffers by comparison.

This may be an extension of the tonal shifts between the present-day stories and the past tales Wille uncovers. Events in the present are sweetly comic, with relatively little tension to them; things in the past are bloody and often tragic. It’s something I find common in novels called ‘literary’ as opposed to those considered ‘genre’: in the literary novels, events in the past define the present, the main story takes place in extended flashbacks, and the climax often mixes both by revealing in the present some previously-unknown truth to which the flashbacks have been building (or presenting a capstone flashback tying past and present together). The genre books tend to be more focussed on the present; the key events unfold right now, obviously shaped by history, but nevertheless making the current moment the main field of action. I don’t mean for this to be an absolute statement, only an observation of a trend. My point is that it describes The Monsters of Templeton nicely, and in this case is exacerbated by the differences in the types of story being told in past and present.

At any rate, in the end, it’s a strong book, a fine read. I picked it up from the library looking for books from 2008 I could reasonably nominate for a Hugo Award; this might end up fitting the bill.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Readings 2K9: Who Can Save Us Now?

Who Can Save Us Now?
edited by Owen King and John McNally

One the great merits of this book is that it’s not straightforward. It’s an anthology of twenty-two prose short stories about super-heroes; but the genres and tones cover such a broad range that this statement means less than it seems. Some of the pieces here use the super-hero as an image or symbol to inform a highly literary fiction; others aim at direct parody; some are effectively unusual science-fiction stories; very occasionally a story plays it straight, but even then, usually in a way you don’t expect — Tom Bissell’s “My Interview With the Avenger,” for example, has a reporter interviewing a real-life super-hero, but there’s nothing science-fictional or fantastic in the story as such. Many of the stories cross genres, presenting literary fiction with a satiric tone, like Elizabeth Crane’s “Nate Pinckney-Alderson, Superhero”, or starting as an unconventional parody that becomes a sweetly mythic parable, as Will Clarke’s “The Pentecostal Home for Flying Children”. Impressively, it seems that every story in the anthology works, on at least some level.

It’s difficult to pick a story that stands out as the best of the bunch; none really merits being tabbed as the worst. If I had to pick a few top stories, I’d go with Cary Holladay’s “The Horses Are Loose”, a splendidly-written tale about a girl who believes that she has the power to change her life — once; Scott Snyder’s “The Thirteenth Egg”, a taut story about war and what it does to men; Michael Czyzniejewski’s “When the Heroes Came to Town”, a disturbing and evocative short-short story without a misplaced word; and “The Somewhat Super,” by David Yoo, a story of gentle mockery with an ending both downbeat and entirely right.

Are there any common themes in the book? It seems like a number of them have to do with the limitations of power. A lot of them are concerned with loss — loss of a loved one, loss of youth and innocence, loss of ideals and illusions. Many of them have to do with infidelity or suspected infidelity, with thwarted love. Now, powerlessness, loss, and infidelity are good super-hero comics themes, going back to the dawn of the genre — think of Bruce Wayne losing his parents, or the almighty Superman unable to do anything to save his exploded home planet. With infidelity we might have to go as late as early Marvel comics to find examples, but they’re certainly around. (Reed, Sue, Namor? Matt, Karen, Foggy? Peter, Betty, Ned?)

What isn’t in these stories? Generally, they don’t pound their points home. They leave you thinking; putting the pieces together, or meditating on a resonant image. There are surprisingly few fight scenes — some, but not the required regular diet of fisticuffs of even the more sophisticated hero comics. There’s an avoidance of pat moralism, of simplicity; there are moral viewpoints expressed, of course, but with an awareness of complexity. Some stories, like Bissell’s piece, have more thought about right and wrong than an entire year’s worth of certain super-hero comics I could mention.

Personally, I find it interesting that in a number of stories — Snyder’s, Czyzniejewski’s, Jim Shepard’s “In Cretaceous Seas” — the hero tales turn into something resembling horror. It’s always seemed to me that the super-hero story is the daylight form of the gothic; the same focus on out-sized personality, on forces beyond the ken of man, on good and evil made manifest — but slightly different costumes, slightly different narrative strategies. Consider Victor Frankenstein and Victor Von Doom; different in many ways, yes, but with a certain genetic similarity, I think. I suppose it’s one of the marks of success of Who Can Save Us Now? that it seems to capture the nature of super-hero stories while at the same time so many of its tales push the boundaries of the form. 

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Readings 2K9: Tailchaser's Song

Tailchaser’s Song
by Tad Williams

This book was a pleasant surprise. I’ve read a couple of other books by Williams, and didn’t particularly connect with them. For whatever reason, though, this one worked for me, at least a little. It’s an animal story; when the lady-love of a young cat named Tailchaser vanishes, Tailchaser begins a great quest to find her and save her from a mysterious evil which is threatening cats everywhere.

Williams’ writing is acceptable YA stuff. What makes it stand out here is a sense of the world of cats which is at least occasionally genuinely mythic, not in a grand epic style, but in a gentler, almost Dunsanian way — folktale rather than legend. It’s not really sustained through the novel, but the touches where it does work are enough to keep you going through the book.

Oddly, I found it unfortunate that the great evil of the story derives from that mythic realm. The book seems to me to be at its best when we’re getting the real world, the human world, from a cat’s-eye view. Like a number of fantasy writers, Williams seems to follow Tolkien a bit too much. It’s a pity. But this book is still the best thing I’ve seen by Williams, and it’s got me interested in finding out whether there’s more to his stuff than I’d previously realised.

Readings 2K9: Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!

Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers
edited by Sean Howe

This anthology of essays about comics is the definition of ‘mixed bag’. That said, it’s interesting to engage with, if only to see some of the preconceptions comics still have to deal with; to see how widespread a lack of understanding of the medium is, even among those with experience reading it. Most of the writers in this book have no experience writing comics, or writing about comics — though Jonathan Lethem has since gone on to write for Marvel, and Brad Meltzer famously for DC — and it shows; in terms of valuable criticism, the average issue of The Comics Journal beats the book all hollow. What I find interesting is the reason why.

Probably the best essays in the book are Greil Marcus’ piece on Uncle Sam and Luc Sante’s on Tintin. Aimee Bender (writing about Yummy Fur) and Myla Goldberg (on Chris Ware and Renée French) have interesting essays dealing with issues of storytelling — I take issue with a couple of points they make (I profoundly disagree, for example, with Goldberg’s assertion that reading is “a quest for communion”, reinforcing experiences and emotions the reader already knows; it seems to me rather a kind of exploration, giving the reader some new way to understand the world) — but overall appreciate their writing and their approach to their subjects. I never much cared for Ware’s work, and I don’t know that Goldberg’s work shows me anything new in his stuff, but her enthusiasm is catching; I at least know what she likes about Ware.

Tom Piazza’s piece is a clever narrative conceit, and it’s amusing to read Brad Meltzer’s fannish love letter to the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans. John Wray’s piece on Jim Woodring is a good try at capturing the uncapturable essence of Woodring’s work. Geoffrey O’Brien’s piece on Streanko’s Nick Fury has some solid analysis of narrative strategies, and some understanding of basic comics grammar — how panel transitions work, how significant they are to the medium. Geoff Dyer has an enjoyable essay about the importance of Silver Age Marvel comics to his youth. But although on its own terms it’s a fine piece, this is also a symptom of the greatest problem with many of the other essays in the book.

Too many pieces here fall into an uninteresting narcissism — the literary equivalent of a particularly uninteresting 1990s indie autobio comic. Jonathan Lethem, Christopher Sorrentino, Andrew Hultkrans, and to a lesser extent Glen David Gold turn in essays essentially about themselves, not about comics. Gold’s piece almost works, as it’s a piece about collecting artwork, and one of Gold’s own experiences in that area; I can’t agree with him when he writes, in his first sentence, “All stories about collecting are about self-loathing, self-love, and self-deception confused with the piquant cologne of loathing, love, and deception that drenches the object so desired.” Not only is it an inelegant sentence (the repetition of ‘deception’, the trailing-off at the end), it’s a sentiment I don’t recognise in either my own experience collecting or the stories of other collectors I’ve heard or read. Still, the rest of the essay at least explains why Gold comes to think the way he does, and in that way justifies his opening.

Most of the essays in the book refer back, in one way or another, to the writer’s childhood experience with comics. It’s a theme so recurrent you wonder whether it was part of the editorial brief the authors were given. If so, it was probably a mistake. Some of the essays are able to move beyond childishness; Lethem, Sorrentino, and Hultkrans don’t. Each of their pieces is concerned with their own personal experiences as a child, and the importance of comics, primarily Marvel comics, within those experiences. Those experiences are not inherently interesting, though, and their writing isn’t good enough or insightful enough to make up for it. Lethem’s essay is particularly fatiguing, with a kind of facile cleverness — he arranges his text into unusual shapes! Heavens, the ingenuity! This sort of thing is “facile” because it’s not connected to anything profound, anything truly moving. It’s a writer attempting to justify an exercise in self-indulgence.

The worst aspect of this fixation on childhood is the fact that it seems to get in the way of actual critical thought. In some cases one might question the critical perception or understanding of the medium of the authors involved. Perhaps the worst essays in the book, Steve Erickson’s piece on American Flagg! and Gary Giddins’ on Classics Illustrated, demonstrate an incredible lack of any grasp of comics’ form or history. Erickson, unbelievably, says Flagg! “kickstarted the independent comics movement,” — ignoring Cerebus and Elfquest, to name only two books which preceded Flagg! by several years — “and also provided the door through which the medium rushed to the likes of such eighties landmarks as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, the Hernandez Brothers’ Love and Rockets, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.” While it’s true Flagg! was an influential and significant comic, Erickson’s list mixes up great work with the merely flashy (yeah, I’m talking about Dark Knight), and throws in one book — Love and Rockets — which preceded Flagg! by a year or two, and actually grew less like Flagg! as it went on. 

Giddins, meanwhile, makes such odd comments as “A computerized list, for example, of the popular songs published during the first half of the twentieth century reveals an infinite treasury of found poems: Flip to any page, put your finger on any title, and track the first ten songs upward or down, and voilà, instant lit.” This is the sort of thing that gives postmodernism a bad name. Still, had Giddins focussed on issues of canon formation and the like, he might have produced something halfway interesting. He doesn’t, instead giving a rambling overview of the art of the Classics Illustrated line, littered with asides — for example, criticising the company for transliterating Dostoevsky’s name as ‘Dostoyevsky’, a perfectly acceptable spelling.

Giddins concludes his essay by writing that the comics he’s been talking about “are, after all, childhood pulp, and one wouldn’t go home again even if one could.” If so, why bother to write the essay? This attitude, that comics don’t matter, bedevils many of the other essays. Lethem can’t put together three sentences describing the work of various comics creators without saying “Enough: I fear I’m losing you.” In the context of his essay, it’s an example of the self-loathing (to use Gold’s word) which comics seem to inspire in him. Conversely, Sorrentino is never able to rise above the Marvel-versus-DC paradigm of his youth to talk about what really matters in comics and why. Hultkrans, meanwhile, not only indicts his old comics as charged with “squirmy prepubescent freight”, but even appears to slight the book he’s writing for: “The intervening years have seen the justifiable and largely successful efforts of creators and fans to make comics worthy of adults (Exhibit #8,166: this book)” — this actually makes less sense than it appears, since the book isn’t a comic; I can only assume Hultkrans means that creators and fans are trying to justify comics to adults, an effort I think the rest of the essay implicitly condemns as futile without actually coming out and saying so.

Too many of these essays shy away from grappling directly with whatever real power there might be in the comics they’re talking about. Far too many are far too obsessed with social status and hipness. On the one hand, the writers are trying to reassure their audience that they, the authors, are above being truly interested in mere comics. On the other hand, they’re also concerned with the peer pressure and alienation experienced as children. This has potential as a subject, but nothing is actually said; nothing of worth is put across. In the end, the reader is left to wonder why they bothered; many of the writers seem to have the same question.

Editor Sean Howe, in his introduction, quotes Salman Rushdie as saying “ unlikeness, the thing that makes it impossible for a writer to stand in any regimented line, is a quality novelists share with the Caped Crusaders of the comics.” This is at once more insightful, more mature, and arguably more articulate than most of the essays which follow. Howe’s own introduction includes many of the problems I find with the rest of the book — a concern with undigested autobiographic incident, obsession with acceptance by others, a lack of thought or understanding of what comics are. “The fragility of the stapled pamphlet,” he writes, “hardly designed to withstand travel, is testament to the medium’s resignation that there will be no exposure to the outside world.” But this is the same form children devoured during family trips, in the back seats of cars; the same form that sold, at its peak, hundreds of thousands, even millions, of copies of a given issue per month. Howe’s lack of comprehension of the form, and the creations begot by it, has created an interesting book — but a book mainly to react against.