Friday, January 29, 2010

Readings — The Folk of the Air

The Folk of the Air
by Peter S. Beagle

When Grace loaned me this book, she mentioned that she didn’t know why it wasn’t in print. Casting about online, I found out that Beagle is in fact in the process of rewriting it. Which disappointed Grace, as the book is a favourite of hers, and she likes it as it is. I can her point, but I can also see Beagle’s. The novel’s a fine tale about a wandering musician who gets involved with a group not wholly unlike the Society for Creative Anachronism, and then also with magic and old Gods and time-lost souls. But it’s slightly loose, the plot maybe not so perfectly constructed. Yet there’s no doubt that overall, it’s a very strong book.

What anchors the novel is its sense of emotional reality. On the one hand, it’s about fantasy and the fantastic impinging on and shaping reality; so it’s about a sense of transcendence, about being touched by extraordinary powers. But it’s also about real life, about mundanity, if you will, in the various senses of the word, about love and lost love and moving on from lost loves. It’s genuinely realistic, in that sense. And it has a heft, a credibility, that many attempts to mix fantasy into reality don’t attain.

But, yes, I can see why Beagle would want to rewrite it, if only to reshape its plot; the novel sometimes doesn’t seem to build in any obvious way. There are payoffs at the end, but the book seems to wander into them, with incidents not quite building on each other in the ways they perhaps ought to. The atmosphere of the book is strong, but becomes somewhat diffuse as a result.

Still, this is a fine book. The character work is fine, the prose exceptional. A lesser writer could be quite happy with having produced this novel; I have to think it says something about Beagle that he’s determined to do better.


Grace Seybold said...

Thing is, the diffuseness of the plot structure is a big reason why this is one of my favourite books. I think one of the reasons it succeeds in being more lifelike than most urban fantasies is that it's got this peculiar messy sprawl that I recognize in my own life, which clearly has not been too tightly plotted either. I'm worried that if the structure becomes more conventional, I'll identify with it less and the book won't matter to me as much as it does now.

I'm not saying that I won't read the new version, or that it won't be good; I don't think Beagle could write anything that isn't good. I'm just saying I reserve the right to grumble about it.

Anonymous said...

Dear Grace:

It's doubtful the book will be more conventional when Peter completes his next pass. It's probable that it will be longer. And it's definite that it will be more focused. He wrote the printed version four times over 18 years, without the benefit of a good editor to provide feedback, and he was never saisfied with the result. Now he thinks he knows enough about writing to get where he always intended to go, but never quite reached.

-- Connor Cochran
Business Manager for Peter S. Beagle