Archive for December, 2011

December 31, 2011

China Miéville, Embassytown

For the sake of completeness – I realise I never reposted this review (originally written for Global Comment) here. This version is slightly longer than the original.

 

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When China Miéville’s The City and the City won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2010, there was some debate over whether or not the book was really science fiction. With his new book there can be no doubt. The City and the City was a crime novel set in a fictional part of Eastern Europe: Embassytown is set on another planet.

Arieka (the planet upon which the city of Embassytown is located) is home to a race of aliens known to Terran settlers as “the Hosts” or the Ariekei. What they look like is never very clear. Miéville’s previous books have often contained creatures that cannot be adequately described except through fleeting glimpses – notably the Slake Moths of Perdido Street Station and the Grindylows of The Scar. We do know that the Hosts have “fanwings” which aid in communication, and that they have two mouths.

This last is important because the language of the Ariekei is unique. Firstly, they cannot tell lies. In this language there is no real boundary between the signifier and signified; the word is the thing itself. It’s a clever inversion; two tongues but only one meaning rather the the other way around. This inability to lie makes the use of metaphor rather complicated — the thing to which the comparison is being made must already exist in the world. The Terran narrator of the book, Avice Benner Cho (her initials ABC) is a simile. She is “the girl who ate what was given to her”; a description vague enough to be of use in many contexts.

Secondly, this language relies not only on sounds but on the mind behind them. The two mouths must speak simultaneously, and they must mean what they say, but they must also be motivated by the same consciousness. Most Terrans cannot speak the language: two may speak simultaneously, but unless they share the same mind to the Ariekei it’s so much gibberish. Hence the importance of the Ambassadors, pairs of Terrans who are genetically identical, and raised solely for this purpose. The Ambassadors are seen not as two people but as a single entity; with names like CalEb and MagDa, their individual components only meriting half a name. The events of Embassytown are set off by the arrival of an Ambassador of an entirely different kind, whose voice affects the Hosts in unexpected ways.

This is a setting that allows Miéville to explore various ideas around language and consciousness. There is, for example, the strange place that lying assumes in Ariekei culture. The nature of Ariekei language (referred to throughout as capital L Language) renders it “incapable of formulating the uncertainties of monsters and gods”, and so the Hosts have no religion. However, they do have “festivals of lies” at which people compete in trying to use Language to tell falsehoods. Lying has taken on an almost religious significance here; something beyond Language, impossible and yet apparently conceivable. This raises the question of whether it is even possible for something to be “beyond words”, a notion contested early in the book by Avice’s partner Scile, a linguist. The possibility of a language in which word and thing are the same brings to mind the first sentence of the Bible. If the Ariekei think of lies in semi-religious terms, various Terrans regard Language as an almost pre-lapsarian means of communication, and one that must, by virtue of its unsulliedness be preserved.

Equally, there is the question of the mind (and since religion has become involved, the soul). Are Ambassadors made up of two separate people, or are they one? Does Avice’s friend Ehrsul, an “autom”, have a soul? Can the Ariekei recognise individual Terrans as sentient beings (and not strange, half-minded creatures)? And are even regular human minds ever really that unified?

The issue of colonialism is also raised in the relationship between the Hosts and the Bremen Empire to which most Embassytown residents belong. The Hosts have advanced biotechnology, while the Terrans have the ability to travel and trade, a relationship that seems egalitarian. Yet the Terrans are backed by the larger might of an empire. Later events bear out the existence of a power imbalance, with connections made between colonialism and drug addiction (it is easy here to make a connection with imperialism in Asia) and the Hosts confronting their status as postcolonial subjects.

But this is itself is a bit of a problem for me. Because once you begin to read Embassytown as a book (partly) about colonialism and religion (and if you don’t subscribe to this reading all this is irrelevant), we have a book in which aliens who have their wonderful, prelapsarian innocence destroyed stand in for the brown people and the humans who travel around the universe spreading their culture are the white people. I don’t know how this connotation could be avoided (by making the Terrans not Terran? By having the Ariekei have a more visible cultural impact on the various groups who visit their planet?) Miéville deals with a rather fraught set of questions better than most, but it’s there, and it makes me uncomfortable.

Miéville answers very few of the questions he poses, exploring ideas without coming down on any particular side. It can feel slightly scattershot – there are more questions and leaps of thought from one idea to another than there is deep engagement with any single idea. And yet there are times when this works. Science fiction is often praised for an ability to literalize metaphor, and this is very clearly more a novel of ideas than one where plot, setting and character are central. But here we have something different. So much of the structure of the universe of Embassytown is unknown even to the characters that inhabit it – we learn early on that this is not the first universe there has been, and about the “lighthouses” in the immer, created by unknown peoples. Some of the most fundamental questions about the universe remain unknown. Such a universe is one in which questions can be debated; not necessarily one in which they can be answered.

Miéville’s language has always been both elaborate and richly allusive, and in a book about language this is even more evident. He coins words like “shivabomb” and “pharotekton” without explaining them, and in working out their etymologies the reader is reminded of just how dependant on metaphor our own language is. A number of words are derived from German, since the “Bremen” empire is involved. The indescribable alternate space through which people travel vast distances through space is called the “immer”, German for “always”, while the space we habitually exist in is the “manchmal” or “sometimes”. But “immer” also allows for the word “immersion” to describe space travel.

It’s when the characters are talking about language that Miéville stumbles a little. I’m not sure the concept at the centre of the book (how Language works) holds up, but I was willing for the duration to suspend disbelief and treat it as an intellectual exercise rather than a matter crucial for the functioning of a plot. Avice’s circumstances make it seem natural that she should be able to speak knowledgeably about language (and I appreciate the author’s willingness to use critical terms). Yet some of her explanations seem rather unnecessary. “The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole, and so on.” Indeed, and it’s an apt analogy, but the reader who is familiar with such basic structuralist terms as “langue” and “parole” has probably figured this out. The linguist character, Scile, repeatedly explains things that the text is already making quite clear.

Yet Embassytown (mostly) works. It is unabashedly an intellectual exercise, and at times its characters seem rather lifeless. But it is bursting with ideas, language well used, and is occasionally a good story. These things make it easy to forgive much.

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December 30, 2011

Irresolutions

I did not keep a record of what I read in 2011 – a decision that arose mostly out of laziness. I regret this now. I’d decided at the beginning of the year that I would Read the Russians, and in the event utterly failed to do so. I’m choosing not to see this as a personal failure because my reading habits opted of their own accord to make books about readers the theme for the year. It meant some great books, so I’m in no position to complain.

I did set myself more minor goals: to read/reread my way through Mervyn Peake and Flann O’Brien’s works because it was their birth centenary. I managed this, though in both cases I failed to blog about most of it. I also set myself to reading Samuel Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, and again failed to blog about it. I began a series of posts on Antonia Forest’s Marlow series, and am about four books in. This will continue into the new year.

In 2012 I plan to finish my Antonia Forest reread. I’ll also (since his new book is rumoured to be coming out this year) be rereading my way through the works of Alan Garner with these fine people. I’m also planning to read my way through Gramsci’s prison notebooks. I’ve only read exerpts before, and those were excellent.

By now it is probably clear that I’m not doing a best books of 2011 list. But I’ve been thinking about it, and am reasonably sure that were I to write such a list, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! would top it.

December 26, 2011

P. D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley

I’ve enjoyed what P.D. James I’ve read in the past. And Death Comes to Pemberley was far superior to many of the Austen adaptations I’ve read, but I’m still at a loss to explain the number of positive reviews it seems to have had. Everyone but me is wrong.

I wrote a short piece explaining my woes for the Left of Cool column. An edited version of that column appears below.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that all articles related to Jane Austen must open with some variation on the first line of Pride and Prejudice. Another truth is that Austen is brilliant. This is strenuously denied by some wrongheaded people, but she is read and loved widely enough for them to pale into insignificance.

So it’s not surprising that there have been so many Austen-derived works of art written and filmed over the years. Lots of perfectly respectable writers (Joan Aiken, who featured in this column last week) have written what is basically fanfiction, and much of it is very good.

In recent years, though, there’s been something of a deluge of literature based on Austen’s work – including versions that include Zombies, Sea-Monsters and Mummies, an entire series featuring Austen herself as a detective, the T.V. series Lost in Austen, the film Becoming Jane, the book (and soon to be film) Austenland. It’s all getting a bit excessive.

P.D. James’ contribution to this vast body of literature is a murder mystery and a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. In Death Comes to Pemberley, Elizabeth and Darcy have been married for six years and had two children. The Bingleys (Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband) live on a nearby estate, and all seems to be going well. Until, the night before a ball that Lizzie plans to host, her younger sister Lydia shows up, hysterical and screaming about murder. A body is found in the woods, and to all appearances Lydia’s husband Wickham is the only possible culprit.

As a murder mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley is not bad at all, with a satisfyingly twisty plot based on minor characters from the original text. The shift in genre affords us a glimpse of other parts of Austen’s world. Pride and Prejudice moves between a series of estates of varying sizes – here we see the cottages of the tenants of these estates, the prisons, and London’s criminal courts (much of what goes on would have been considered decidedly unfit for publication in Austen’s own time).

James’ novel is very clear about where it is situated in history. Characters discuss such subjects as the war, the changing role of women in modern society (Mary Wollstonecraft gets a mention), and the efficacy of the legal system. It’s clear that the author has done her research beyond a mere familiarity with Austen’s work.

Yet this ultimately becomes more of a flaw than a benefit. Because it seems unlikely that many people who are unfamiliar with Pride and Prejudice will be picking up Death Comes to Pemberley this Christmas – most of those interested in reading the book will be people who have already read, engaged with, and loved Austen’s work. We don’t need long recaps of the plot of the earlier work; nor do we need to see the main characters thinking over and analysing their own actions in Austen’s original text; we know. As for the politics and the war, these things are present in Pride and Prejudice for those who have looked closely enough. Austen is simply less blatant about it all. “Show, don’t tell” is a rather tired piece of literary critique, but in this case I feel that it is applicable. The only sense of Austen’s England as a complex, vital place comes from James’ characters telling us what a complex, vital place it is.

Moments that are targeted at people who are already Austen fans do occur – there are cameos from characters who appear in Emma and Persuasion. But these moments are few and far between, and like everything else they lack depth.

I’m not an Austen purist and have often enjoyed books and films that bounce off her novels and examine her world. But such works generally meet the reader as equals and take for granted that she is capable of participating in this game. James gets behind a podium and attempts to explain Austen to us; and the only thing we learn is that she lacks the earlier author’s lightness of touch.

 

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But I know there are some great Austen-derived works out there. I’m fond of John Kessel’s “Pride and Prometheus”, in which Mary Bennet meets a young scholar named Victor Frankenstein. Suggestions for others in the comments, maybe?

December 23, 2011

Ann Patchett, State of Wonder

My review of this ran in last weekend’s Sunday Guardian. Patchett is generally a fantastic writer but I certainly wouldn’t consider this among her best work, even if the depiction of the tribes had not put me off horribly.

 

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At one point in Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder the main character, Marina, attends the opera in Manaus, Brazil. It is a performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and Marina instantly thinks of it as her own story. Like Orpheus, she has been sent into hell to bring back someone from the dead.

Officially, Marina is in Brazil to gather information about the work of the elusive Dr Annick Swenson. Swenson’s research into a drug that would drastically extend the years of women’s fertility is funded by Marina’s employers. She has been living among an Amazonian tribe whose women are able to have children long after the age when most women have passed menopause; yet few reports have been sent back. Anders Eckman, Marina’s colleague, had previously been sent to report on Swenson’s work. But Eckman appears to have mysteriously, and his wife Karen has asked his colleague to find the truth.

Marina is forced to stay in Manaus for a large part of the book; with no knowledge of the tribe’s whereabouts, she must wait for Dr Swenson to come to her. This section, filled with disease and insect-filled hotel rooms and all the horrors of a run-down city that is not of the first world, could easily be an enormous cliché. Instead, these are some of the most powerful chapters of the book. If this is a story about a descent into Hell, this prolonged wait, with no end in sight, is distinctly purgatorial. Marina is ill for a significant portion of her stay, and her illness adds a fevered intensity to her perspective, giving her time in the city the feel of a myth. It’s even tempting to look at the Bovenders, the hippie couple who guard Dr Swenson from inquisitive visitors, as some unlikely two-headed Cerberus.

In addition to the Orpheus and Eurydice theme, there’s much of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in Marina’s journey into the jungle. Unfortunately this also means that State of Wonder replicates some of Conrad’s novel’s flaws. The natives are reduced in the main to props and scenery against which the north American characters’ drama is played out. The Lakashi (the tribe among whom Swenson resides) exist as an undifferentiated mass of theft, inappropriate touching and fascination with long hair. A neighbouring tribe have the reputation of killing strangers on sight. The only ‘native’ character to escape this treatment is Easter, a young boy whom first Anders then Marina come to love. Yet even he is reduced to the site for a philosophical debate about moving people out of their contexts.

This apparent racial homogenisation is interesting in the context of Marina’s own relationship with her racial identity. She is half-Indian (her name is Marina Singh) and has visited her father in India multiple times in the past. Marina’s nightmares, when they come, are all of India, and of being lost in a sea of its crowds of bodies (homogenous in her dreams, “their sweat and perfume, the sharp scent of spice carried in the smoke of vendors’ fires and the bitter smell of marigolds strung into garlands”). If this is passable at all, it is because Marina’s dreams are from the perspective of a small child.

Yet she also worries about the ways in which her Indian ancestry causes her to be singled out. In Brazil she realises that she fits in physically in ways that she cannot at home; “she was able to pass in Manaus the way she was never able to pass in Minnesota”. The result of this is that Marina too is vulnerable to the racial assumptions to which her perspective in this book subjects the Lakashi. In one fascinating scene she is mistaken for one of them and becomes an unwilling part of a show put on for white tourists.

Many of State of Wonder’s concerns are ethical ones. Central to the plot is the question of the extent to which the drug company that finances Swenson’s research is entitled to direct or monitor it. In the beginning Marina is wholly with her employer (she is also in a romantic relationship with her boss) – and as the narrative is written from her perspective, so is the reader. Yet Dr Swenson turns out to be more compelling than expected, and her reasoning is hard to dismiss.

State of Wonder is an odd title for a book in which the things one might reasonably expect to be wondrous are all but ignored. The excitement of the science and the grandeur of the Amazon are barely present when compared to Marina’s far realer thoughts of Minnesota. Patchett’s characters are vivid and their relationships finely drawn. Yet they are not this book’s focus. State of Wonder is an accomplished book, but lacks some of the power of Patchett’s earlier work.

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December 18, 2011

Joan Aiken, The Monkey’s Wedding

“The Monkey’s Wedding” is a phrase I’d never heard before, but apparently it exists in multiple languages to describe one of my favourite things in the world. “Sunshine viewed through rain, or the rain seen through the sun’s rays”, according to Aiken. Or sunshower, but I tend, MadeleineBassetlike, to call it “rainbow weather” and show an alarming tendency to skip.

My short piece on Aiken’s collection for last week’s Left of Cool was extracted from this slightly longer one.

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Joan Aiken‘s The Last Slice of Rainbow collection was probably the first book I borrowed and never gave back. People who own a lot of books probably know that this happens all the time. There are some you ‘forgot’ you’d taken; some missing from your own shelves because they were lent out and never returned. They may leave permanent gaps, or you might buy (and lose) them again. Some books never stay long. Some you will never allow out of the room except in case of a fire. Eventually you set your own boundaries, but there’s always the sense that the ownership of books is a little amorphous. Aiken was my first crime, but she also taught me this.

She taught me another thing too; a kind of alienation from the text that is (I think) what made me a fan of the sorts of books that I love. Her stories take for granted the most uncanny events, treating them as mere background for human drama and all the awkward, funny ways in which we exist around one another. Aiken is where I begin; she may not have taught me to read (that was Pat Posner’s Bashful the Clumsy Bear) but she made me a reader. She’d have made me a writer too, if I could have been – of all the writers I love, it’s Aiken (and Garner, who I discovered later) I’ve most wished to imitate.

Aiken is best known for her children’s books, particularly the brilliant alt-historical sequence that begins with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. But she wrote psychological thrillers, ghost stories, even Jane Austen continuations and companion novels..

Since her death in 2004, two new collections of her work have been published. The first, The Serial Garden, collected all of her Armitage family stories. The second was a collection of short stories for adults, titled The Monkey’s Wedding. Both are a source of joy to me; every new Aiken book is a gift.

The Monkey’s Wedding starts with “A Mermaid Too Many”, a story in which a sailor’s attempts to sell or give away a mermaid he has brought home (his partner has refused to live in the same house as it) are foregrounded so that the fact that the mermaid even exists is treated as commonplace. “The Sale of Midsummer” involves a village that is rumoured only to exist for three days of the year, and that is filled with interlocking and contradictory stories about the beginnings of this myth. In “Water of Youth”, a single bottle of this mysterious liquid changes the lives of a number of people connected to the town.

Some stories are outrightly supernatural, like “Reading in Bed”, which involves a visit from the Devil, and “Second Thoughts” in which a priest is reincarnated as a cat, and proceeds to indulge in all the sins his previous career prevented. “The Magnesia Tree” is a horror story about the relationship between a writer and a tree, made horrible by the unobtrusive way in which the victim leaves the story. “Wee Robin” involves a not-very-scary ghost.

“Hair” is another horror story but not necessarily a supernatural one, about the relationship between the matriarch of a family and her various dependants. Even where Aiken’s stories contain no element of the fantastic al, they  seem that way. The family in “Harp Music” live in a bus in a field; the protagonist of “Octopi in the Sky” hallucinates cephalopods. The title character of “Girl in a Whirl” rides bikes across tightropes. In “The Fluttering Thing” a man given a trapped genie and the power to demand a wish a day chooses instead to release it out of human decency. The seller of the water of youth wants to buy his wife a new grand piano, for “though we stood the legs of her Otway in four pans of kerosene, the termites ate it away until nothing remained but the keys”.

In Aiken stories, the most momentuous events are treated in the most deadpan of ways. “Honeymarooned” opens with a woman being swept off a ship by a wave and carried away without anyone noticing – the text explains this matter-of-factly, within a paragraph, before getting on with the story. Later in the same tale the characters greet with unconcern the imminent end of the human race (caused by an uprising of communist mice). A character’s nearly drowning to death in a vat of stout is a mere footnote to “Octopi in the Sky”. In “Wee Robin” a magic bathmat is “such an unsuitable gift for a four-year-old!” And stories  never go where you expect, and they end abruptly or not at all; there’s rarely a traditional arc or sense of resolution. “No moral to this story, you will be saying, and I am afraid it is true.”

If Aiken is noncommittal where wonders are concerned, her language can elevate the most mundane. “Back to his castle then, poor Mr Richards, to live out his final years with owls and ink, in an everlasting third act of spiderwebs” she says, of one unfortunate character. Of another, that “the reverend Paul’s saintliness had been somewhat blunted by the cathood which had been superimposed upon it.”

Aiken’s shifts between the strange and the mundane caught me when I was five or six and made me a reader for life. The Monkey’s Wedding is a fine introduction to her work – and may very well ensnare you forever.

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December 11, 2011

Jeanette Winterson, Weight

A twitter conversation with Maureen Kincaid Speller about Laika stories reminded me of Weight, which I’d read when it came out and remembered very little about. A reread confirmed that it was one one of Winterson’s lesser works, but I find the larger Canongate series of which it’s a part fascinating.

A version of this appeared in this week’s Left of Cool column for the Sunday Guardian.

 

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There’s an Angela Carter quote I keep coming back to in relation to retellings of myths or folk-tales. “Who first invented meatballs? In what country? Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup?” Carter herself is famous for the brilliant The Bloody Chamber, a collection of short stories that reimagined a number of classic fairytales. Most myths and legends don’t have a definite original form. Even those that are credited with some sort of canonical version may be retold in countless ways – as anyone familiar with A.K. Ramanujan’s  essay“300 Ramayanas” and the recent controversy around it will be aware.

The Canongate Myth series began in 2005. This project involved the rewriting of various myths from various cultures by modern authors. The series has included writing by Margaret Atwood (The Penelopiad, a take on The Odyssey), Philip Pullman (The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ) and A.S. Byatt (Ragnarok: The End of the Gods) among others.

Jeanette Winterson’s Weight was one of the earliest books in the series. The author takes on the myth of the Titan Atlas, who in Greek myth supports the Cosmos on his shoulders, and Heracles, the son of Zeus. In received versions of the myth these characters meet one another when Heracles is ordered (as one of his twelve labours) to fetch the golden apples of the Hesperides. The Hesperides were Atlas’ daughters, and Heracles offered to relieve Atlas of his burden for a while so that the Titan could get the apples for him. Atlas planned to abandon Heracles and leave him holding the world, but Heracles tricked him into taking his burden back.

One thing that becomes clear in Weight is how myths can be made universal – Winterson’s version of the Atlas and Heracles story has plenty of connections to Christianity as well as references to the author’s own life. In Winterson’s story, Atlas and his daughters were cast out of the garden for eating of the forbidden fruit. As in the Bible a serpent plays a role – here it is the dragon Ladon who guards the tree. The fruits are heavy because they contain “knowledge of past and future”. Atlas’ burden has a Christlike feel to it. This is clearest in what to me is the most memorable section of the book, though a short one; Atlas finds himself a companion. It is Laika, the dog sent into space by the Russian space programme in 1957. Laika was sent up alive and was expected to die; most children, hearing this story for the first time are properly horrified. So is Winterson. “She was a good dog, a faithful dog, a trusting dog, who loved her master and obeyed him when he put her inside a tiny capsule and strapped her so that she could not move.” And “Atlas had long ago ceased to feel the weight of the world he carried, but he felt the skin and bone of this little dog”. Laika’s fate is the world’s guilt, and Atlas bears it for us.

Laika and space travel might seem incongruous here, but they are not. Weight is about myths, but Winterson’s world is a very physical one. Atlas’ account of the cosmos he holds up begins with the Big Bang, and travels through the evolution of life on earth. At one point he speaks “as the dinosaurs crawl through my hair”.

Jeanette Winterson’s most frequent subject is Jeanette Winterson . Her first book was semi-autobiographical, her most recent a biography, and she usually uses the first-person voice. This is not a criticism – part of the point of rewriting stories that people know is that we already have the ‘original’ story in our heads, adding another layer to the telling. Winterson quotes herself (the phrase “empty space and points of light” in this book, for example, first appeared in her Sexing the Cherry); she compares Heracles’ relationship with his parents to her own. In doing all of this, she turns her life into a similar ur-text for those of us who know her other works.

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December 4, 2011

Erin Morganstern, The Night Circus

Did a rather rushed review of this for the Indian Express this past weekend. I really wanted to like this book a lot more than I did, but it just left me deeply frustrated. I am willing to accept a book that is basically a series of lovely images, but only if the writing itself is so special as to make all of those images seem new. And the dates at the beginning of each chapter are presumably meant to tell the reader where we are in the storyline (the book goes back and forth in time rather a lot) but they only served to remind me how weak the book’s grounding in this historical period was.

Having said all of which, when The Night Circus is made into a movie (it has already been optioned) I think I will love it.

 

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Towards the end of the nineteenth century, two rival magicians enter into a competition. Each chooses a child to be his champion; the rules of the game are not specified, but the children are bound to it for life. They are Celia Bowen, the daughter of Prospero the Enchanter, and Marco Alisdair, an orphan of unknown parentage. The venue for their contest is the Night Circus, an exhibition of wonders that comes and goes without warning and that is only open at night.

The carnivalesque setting of the circus invites inventive literature. The most immediate association is with Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, which also deals with the strange and wonderful and is also set during the fin de siècle. Carter’s is not the only modern classic that Morganstern’s book evokes. Readers familiar with these works may see elements of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. But invoking the greats is dangerous, and after all this what we get is The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern.

The Night Circus is physically beautiful and stylistically quite ambitious. It leaps about in time over a period of four decades, moves between a number of perspectives, and occasionally slips into the second person and addresses the reader directly.  It has its own metatexts – quotes from writings about the circus, generated from within the plot, are used to open each of the book’s five parts.

Unfortunately, it fails to develop its plot or its main characters. We are frequently reminded that the protagonists don’t even know the rules of the game they are playing and this continues even when, late in the book, we realise how high the stakes are. The horror of the inevitable outcome is muted by the fact that we’ve been given no reason to care about the people it will affect. Because though The Night Circus is a love story, we know nothing about its main characters that would cause any emotional investment in their fate.  So although we see Celia’s father torturing her as part of her training and know that her mother thought her evil, we never see how it feels to be in this position. We’re told that Marco regards his patron as a father, but never given any insight into how this happened. Isobel, a tarot reader, keeps referring to the “deep emotions” of the characters as they appear in the cards, and the reader is obliged to simply take her word for it.

The competition (and courtship) between Marco and Celia takes place mostly in the time they spend apart, through their various feats of magic. Celia excels in altering physical objects and Marco in creating beautiful settings. Occasionally they work together to combine these skills. Without a particular focus on plot or character, then, The Night Circus becomes a series of tableaux. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since the titular circus provides some gorgeous scenes. It’s easy to see this translating beautifully to film (it has already been optioned) with its almost-silent, monochromatic circus full of wonders. Sometimes Morganstern succeeds in describing these: “Where the sunlight hits him he is all but invisible. Part of a shoulder appears to be missing, the top of his head vanishes in a flutter of sun-caught dust.” “he takes a dramatic, inverted bow”. Extended descriptions of the circus clock, a carousel, a garden on ice all almost describe something breathtaking.

But it’s that “almost” that undoes the book. The Night Circus could survive its lack of some of the move conventional elements of storytelling if only Morganstern were able to adequately invoke the gorgeous imagery. At times she succeeds, and those moments are truly wonderful. But all too often she does not, and we have descriptions that are too stale or awkward. It’s to the book’s credit that even when the language isn’t up to it we still have some sense of the beauty that is being gestured towards. Yet my primary reaction to The Night Circus is frustration at its many missed opportunities.

 

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December 4, 2011

Rebecca Stead, When You Reach Me

Short bit on this for last weekend’s column – and continuing the November children’s literature theme.

 

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Characters in stories, particularly children’s stories, always seem to find becoming a writer ridiculously simple. Jo March from Little Women, for example, only has to show up with a manuscript before she becomes a successful pulp writer, only giving it up when the man she admires tells her it is tarnishing her soul.

What I can never get enough of, though (and I suspect that this is partly because there simply aren’t enough written) are books about readers. Not just quiet, geeky types who we’re told like to read – I mean people actively reading and reacting to specific books. One of the earlier examples of this that I can think of is Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, where Catherine Morland is completely absorbed in writers like Ann Radcliffe. Austen’s own book, Persuasion, forms an important part of the main character’s consciousness in Antonia Forest’s The Ready-Made Family. This year saw the publication of Jo Walton’s Among Others, in which the main character’s love of science-fiction is as big a part of her development as the actual events of the book. These works tend to assume that the reader has some familiarity with the books that the character is reading; for example, Walton’s book often quotes directly from The Lord of the Rings and expects the reader to know this.

And then there’s Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. This book, published in 2009, is about a twelve year old girl named Miranda. Among the things we learn about her is the fact that she has a favourite book, one that she has reread over and over. Readers who are familiar with the book in question will recognise it immediately – indeed, the references were so obvious to me on my first read that I didn’t even realise that the title had never been mentioned – it is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

When You Reach Me is set in New York towards the end of the 1970s. Everything changes for the narrator on the day when a strange boy hits her friend Salvador without provocation. She and Salvador grow apart and she finds new friends, one of them the boy who hit him. “The laughing man”, an elderly homeless man who speaks what appears to be nonsense, appears in their neighbourhood, and strange, naked men are seen running near the school. This is also around the time that Miranda begins to receive strange notes, left in places that no one can possibly have access to, and offering “proof” of their validity by telling her about things that will happen in the near future. The writer of the notes claims that he is coming to save the life of Miranda’s friend. He (or she?) asks her to write a letter about everything that is happening, and to be as detailed as possible. The book is the letter, the “you” the mysterious sender of notes, and eventually it becomes clear that Miranda has figured it all out.

This is where her favourite book comes in. A Wrinkle in Time sparks off discussions about time travel (readers familiar with it will know why) among the characters, and it is soon obvious that time travel is the only solution to the mystery at the heart of the book. If it seems a little implausible that Miranda should have so much trouble understanding the central conceit of her favourite book, the discussions that result make sure that we’re all very clear on how time is supposed to work.

But When You Reach Me is remarkable for more than the time-travel conceit and the references to L’Engle’s book. The winner of the 2010 Newbery award, it is quiet and realistic, with characters who are flawed and wonderful. It engages in some clever conceits (the way the chapters are ordered, for example), but it is fundamentally good storytelling. And the truth, when it becomes clear, arrives with an emotional impact far stronger than the book’s earlier restraint would lead you to believe. It’s gorgeous; but read A Wrinkle in Time first.

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December 2, 2011

Hari Kunzru, Gods Without Men

Or: in which I manage not to refer to James Wood and “hysterical realism”. A version of this appeared in last weekend’s Sunday Guardian here.

 

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In Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men the desert is not a featureless place. It becomes the subject of Native American myth; the setting for conflict between white men and Indian tribes; the location of a cult striving to make contact with aliens. It is the site of visions for a Mormon miner and an Aragonese friar separated by a century, and of military exercises for the U.S Army. The Pinnacles, a rock formation comprising three columns, to the priest symbolise the holy trinity and to the locals a gateway between the worlds of the living and the dead. It is, in short, the backdrop for a history of the United States, from “the time when animals were men” to the present.

If there is a central strand to this polyphonic novel it is the story of the Matharus. Jaz (Jaspinder) Matharu is the son of Punjabi immigrants who disapprove of his marriage to the Jewish-American Lisa. Despite this, the couple seem happy until the birth of their son Raj. Raj is autistic, and the attendant difficulties this brings put a strain on the relationship. Then on a trip to the Mojave Desert Raj vanishes from his stroller.

Raj is not the first vanished child in the story. In the late 1950s Joanie Roberts, a member of the Cohort guided by the Ashtar Galactic Command, cannot locate her daughter Judy among the crowds camped around the Pinnacles. Judy had last been seen talking to a strange glowing boy. In the 1920s the sight of a white-skinned glowing child walking with a Native American man leads to accusations of kidnapping and a group of white men gather to chase this man and hunt him down. There is another child involved – this particular victim is chosen in part because he has fathered a child on a white woman.

Without this background of missing children (both glowing and otherwise) the story of the Matharus is still a fully realised one. We switch between the perspectives of Jaz and Lisa, seeing them from inside and out, realising that they each have their prejudices and irrationalities. With Raj’s disappearance the couple is subjected to a media circus – complete with badly-punctuated, rage- and conspiracy-filled youtube comments, talk show hosts who complain that Lisa is insufficiently emotional*, suggestions that the parents were to blame and that the couple, being wealthy New Yorkers, are fundamentally unsympathetic. Kunzru is presumably invoking the media discourse around the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007. Lisa deals with the situation by turning to spirituality. Jaz’s reactions to his son are entirely plausible within the framework of a realist narrative. Theoretically one could ignore the aliens completely.

But it would be a terrible shame to overlook the rest of the book in favour of the Matharu plot thread. Kunzru’s ability to switch registers between eighteenth century priests, twenty-first century pop stars and everything in between is truly impressive and fully on display. It’s not entirely clear what some of these characters, particularly the pop star, add to the plot. Yet the very fact that there are so many points of view adds to the presentation of the pinnacles as a sort of palimpsest of (mostly paranormal) meaning.

A minor but important aspect of the book is Jaz’s Wall Street job , which involves working with a computer programme called “Walter”. Its inventor, a Kabbalah enthusiast named Cy Bachman, claims to be searching for “the face of God”. Walter connects everything, bringing together seemingly random and unrelated events and points of data.  Even the unbelieving Jaz begins to think that these are part of a larger pattern and that he is meddling with something fundamental – he thinks he may have caused the collapse of one country’s economy, and the Wall street crash follows soon after. But are Walter’s data points really part of a larger pattern?

This stringing together of seemingly random events to create a meaningful whole might work as a metaphor for this novel. As might the act of “running the old way”, a talent possessed by Mockingbird Runner, the man chased across the desert. As he runs, his strides lengthen so that the footprints his pursuers find are impossibly far apart. But the footprints are part of a single trail. This is a book filled with people looking for patterns. And weaving all these disparate stories together are two figures; Coyote, the malevolent trickster figure of Native American legend and (as far from local as anything could get) the glowing alien child.

The Balzac quote with which Kunzru begins his book (and from which he gets his title) is apposite. In the desert there is everything and there is nothing. We make meaning, or we don’t. And so Kunzru is able to end his book by saying of the desert, which has been at the centre of multiple grand narratives that “there was nothing out there at all”. 

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* For Indian readers, there’s a bit of a parallel here to some of the criticism directed at the mother in the Aarushi Talwar murder investigations.