Archive for May, 2012

May 5, 2012

Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman, Why We Broke Up

From last weekend’s column, Handler and Kalman on the end of a teenage romance.

 

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Partnerships, when they end, leave physical debris. The movie and television tradition of ending relationships by returning one another’s possessions acknowledges this – physical objects may have a number of powerful memories attached to them.

I recently discovered The Books They Gave Me, a blog that collects stories of former relationships as documented by the books that partners exchanged, ranging from volumes of The Babysitters Club to rare first editions. In Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman’s Why We Broke Up, two books are exchanged by teenage couple Min and Ed. One is a recipe book titled Real Recipes from Tinseltown, bought in an odd little second-hand shop called Tip Top Goods.   The other is Why We Broke Up itself, ostensibly written by Min.

Min and Ed have broken up. Min drops off a box of items accumulated during the couple’s relationship and, with reference to each of these objects tells of the couple’s relationship and the circumstances in which it ended.

Under the pseudonym “Lemony Snicket”, Daniel Handler is the author of the darkly hilarious Series of Unfortunate Events books. Here he teams up with writer and illustrator Maira Kalman to tell the story of a teenage romance. Each chapter begins with one of Kalman’s bright, whimsical illustrations of an item from the box.

This is a classic story of opposites attracting. Min (short for Minerva) is “different”, as all Ed’s friends keep telling her; she wants to study film, her friends plan elaborate theme parties, and she knows nothing about basketball. Ed is a basketball player who has dated most of the popular girls at their high school, but he has hidden depths. It’s a story everyone has heard many times before, and the subject of countless movies.

Cinema is important here because, as mentioned above, Min loves films. At numerous points during the book she tries to explain her feelings in terms of obscure films – obscure within the universe of Why We Broke Up; Handler has seized the opportunity to create a whole set of fictional references. On their first date Min takes Ed to see a classic film, they sight someone who may be an old movie star, and the evening turns into a rather stalker-ish adventure that would not itself seem out of place in a movie. “I gave you an adventure, Ed, right in front of you but you never saw it until I showed you and that’s why we broke up”. And Min’s recounting of the couple’s time together does often feel like a movie montage of small, remarkable adventures. “You know I want to be a director, but you could never truly see the movies in my head and that, Ed, is why we broke up”.

But the reader is not Min, and sometimes we can see more than she can, and her tendency to turn her story into a movie romance is often undercut. Stripped of the romance that Min gives it (but then, why should it be stripped of romance?) the reader can see that in many ways there’s nothing particularly remarkable about this break up. The incident that triggers the end of the relationship is about as mundane as it could possibly be. And yet, though Min ends every other chapter with “and that’s why we broke up”, this is never one of her reasons. It is only a symptom of a larger problem; that this is a different medium to a romantic movie, that reality is in the wrong genre. “We couldn’t only have the magic nights buzzing through the wire. We had to have the days too, the bright impatient days spoiling everything.”

None of this is to imply that this couple are mundane, or that Min’s perspective is entirely off. We’re given much to like about them both; but if they’re unique and interesting in the way that most people are, they’re also ordinary like most people. And that’s why they broke up.

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May 4, 2012

Sheri S Tepper, The Waters Rising

I wanted to like The Waters Rising. Tepper’s book had been dismissed by practically everyone who had talked about it at all; I’d have liked to be the one to discover some brilliant, redeeming reading of the text, and one that would cause its inclusion in the Clarke award shortlist* to make sense to me.

Dan Hartland and Maureen Kincaid Speller have both reviewed the book in the past week – I share most of their opinions about the book’s flaws. I did occasionally wonder if the theme of the book had something to do with free will; Xulai and Abasio both struggle in the later parts of the book with the idea that their lives and futures have been manipulated in such a way as to give them very little choice. And in one of the scraps of the world’s history that we gather, it is discovered that a large portion of the population was wiped out by machines able to find and eliminate people who were thinking the wrong thoughts. Charles Stross suggests in a recent post that his Rule 34 (also on the Clarke shortlist) is in part about a world where, among other things, ” our notion of free will turns out to have hollow foundations”. It’s just possible that Tepper planned to do something along those lines. If so, it would not change the fact that the book is directionless, bizarre, and flaps around for ages before suddenly cramming all manner of lunacy into its final quarter.

But what I really want to think about is Dan Hartland’s comment about feeling forced to read a text as satire. While reading the book I found myself thinking (or tagging bits of text with) “you’re joking” so many times that I had to eventually consider the possibility. Dan concludes that the novel as a whole is too incoherent to allow for a reading as sustained satire, but I can’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that the point of this book is an author trying out what she can get away with.

“In order to allay suspicion, I am about to sing something pastoral and suggestive of bucolic innocence.”

There’s nothing particularly notable about the prose, except that the human-horse interactions (and human-chipmunk interactions) are rather too Narnia. What is interesting though, is the text’s approach to providing information – the shifts in perspective from one character to another seem designed to conceal rather than reveal information. The result of this is a situation in which it is obvious to the reader that some form of manipulation is happening, and that the book knows far more than it’s willing to tell just yet. I found myself admiring the sheer audacity of it.

So if this blatant teasing with information is one of the things Tepper is trying to get away with, what are the others? There’s the talking horse which so upset Christopher Priest; presumably because talking animals traditionally fit better with fantasy than science fiction. But there is a reasonably scientific (by the rather elastic values of science that most SF employs) explanation for this in-text. Plus, as Farah Mendlesohn says, “any sufficiently dilapidated far future planet is indistinguishable from fantasy”. Sometimes the far future planet in question is the Earth. (The “any sufficiently advanced technology” maxim might equally be used to excuse the fantastic elements that are not explained – souls that glow and shapeshifting animals among them). Ultimately the strongest argument I can make against the text’s being science fiction is the one Adam Roberts makes here - its flavour is not sfnal. (And once again I’m reminded that applying rasa theory to the Western concept of genre might be rewarding; I wonder if Roberts is familiar with it?) And – keeping in mind that intent means very little – I wonder how much of this determined non-SFnality, in a book about global warming and genetic alteration, was deliberate.

‘Here, madam, you seem a pleasant cephalopod, please accept this with my compliments.’ 

The Sea King is another element of the book that makes me wonder. Because SFF has done giant squid so often by now, that each new giant squid seems as much or more comment on the genre than a plot element in its own right.

Then there are things like this:

“Oh, mares,” said Blue**, shaking his head. “They always have to be whinnied into it. Or . . . subdued.”

“Why, Blue,” cried Abasio in an outraged voice. “That’s rape.”

Blue snorted. “I have long observed that human people do not care what they do in front of livestock, and believe me, what some humans do during mating makes horses look absolutely . . . gentle by comparison.” He stalked away and stood, front legs crossed, nose up, facing the sea.

“Isn’t Abasio your friend?” the Sea King asked him.

“Friends do not call their friends rapists,” said the horse without turning around.

 

It seems incredible to me that I’m supposed to take this seriously. I must assume I’m not.

 

None of this necessarily adds up to any sort of unified reading of the text as parodic; but then, as I said above, I don’t think it’s supposed to be. But I think we might be being trolled, and on the whole I’d feel more kindly towards the book if this were the case.

 

 

 

*The award finally went to Jane Rogers’ The Testament of Jessie Lamb, a book I thought was excellent. It’s nice to be proved right.

** the talking horse

 

May 3, 2012

Some fantastic voyages

Last weekend’s Mint Lounge was a travel special, and I was asked to talk about some of my favourite journeys in fantasy. Hopefully I don’t need to clarify that I wouldn’t necessarily want to be on all of these journeys; but they’re lovely, and they’ve stuck with me.

A link to the Lounge version here, or a slightly edited piece below.

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It’s a cliché of the genre that most works of fantasy begin with a map; from Tolkien’s beautiful depiction of the route to the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit to the steampunk-inspired beginning of HBO’s Game of Thrones. A big part of the joy of secondary world fantasy is in exploring the worlds created; world-building may often serve as an excuse for shoddy writing, but it can also be a joyful thing in itself.

Many works of fantasy are built around a quest of some sort. The quest is one of the most basic forms of narrative there is, but it also provides an excuse to further explore these worlds. There are people who complain that, for example, the bulk of The Lord of the Rings is basically a long walk through Middle-Earth. This is absolutely true, and it’s wonderful if you like that sort of thing (most of the time, I do). But the fantasy journey can contain scenes of genuine wonder even for the unbeliever, and I think the examples below achieve just that.

 

Ged’s Pursuit of the Shadow:

In Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea a young wizard, unleashes a terrifying shadow that haunts him for long after. Eventually he comes to the realisation that he must face the thing that he has released into the world, and he follows it into unchartered realms of the ocean. Many fantastic journeys are made memorable by an undercurrent of fear. Characters are pursued by enemies, or face the knowledge that there is danger all around them. Ged’s pursuit of his shadow is completely different. The hunted becomes the hunter, and a sense of triumph colours the whole venture.

With hand and spell Ged turned his boat, and it leaped like a dolphin from the water, rolling, in that quick turn. Faster than before he followed, but the shadow grew ever fainter to his eyes. Rain, mixed with sleet and snow, came stinging across his back and his left cheek, and he could not see more than a hundred yards ahead. Before long, as the storm grew heavier, the shadow was lost to sight. Yet Ged was sure of its track as if he followed a beast’s track over snow, instead of a wraith fleeing over water. Though the wind blew his way now he held the singing magewind in the sail, and flake-foam shot from the boat’s blunt prow, and she slapped the water as she went.

 

Arthur Gordon Pym goes South:

The voyage documented in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is not one that a sensible reader would wish to be on, replete as it is with shipwrecks, cannibalism, and ghost ships. Eventually most of the ship’s crew is slaughtered by a tribe of savages.

This is all very unpleasant, but the book’s most memorable journey is the small section after this litany of horrors has come to an end. Pym, Peters, and the ‘native’ they have taken captive drift further towards the Antarctic in a canoe. As they travel South the narrative takes on a numb, detached quality. Yet “we were entering upon a region of novelty and wonder”; the water turns white and warm, and white ash occasionally rains down upon the travellers. And then, in a sudden burst of activity, the boat rushes towards a cataract, a chasm opens, and Pym sees “a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow”. And on this weird, ambiguous note, the book abruptly ends. Pym’s journey is no one’s idea of a dream vacation, but it’s impossible to forget.

 

…and Caspian goes East:

C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian embarks upon a quest to find the seven lords who remained faithful to his father. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is most people’s favourite Narnia book. There are echoes here of The Odyssey, with its perilous seas and series of strange and magical islands, and of Coleridge in a nightmarish episode in which an albatross figures strongly.

Yet the best part of the voyage comes after all islands have been left behind. In a way this is the reverse of Pym’s journey above. In both cases the sea becomes warmer and calmer, but where Poe’s book speaks of drowsiness, Lewis gives the impression of extreme clarity. The sun becomes bigger and brighter; where Poe’s ocean turns milky, here the water is so clear that entire civilisations of mer-people can be observed fathoms below. And when the water does turn white, it is because it is covered in flowers.

We never find out what is at the utter East; we are left with the image of Reepicheep the mouse paddling his coracle over the wave at the end of the world, “very black against the lilies”. It is enough.

 

Dhrun in the Forest of the Tantravalles:

About half of the plots in Jack Vance’s Lyonesse books involve people travelling on one quest or another. And yet Dhrun’s journey in the first book, Suldrun’s Garden, stands out.

The eldest child of princess Suldrun, Dhrun is fated to rule the Elder Isles. But he is kidnapped by the fairies, and a changeling left in his place. After a childhood spent among the fairies of Thripsey Shee, Dhrun is cast out to make his own way in the world. To help him he has a magic purse and a sword that comes when called. But he is also cursed to carry seven years of bad luck.

There’s something of the fairytale to Dhrun’s story (as he insouciantly defrauds trolls and defeats ogres before joining a medicine show), and Vance makes use of a droll, courtly style that is reminiscent of Perrault. But the real wonder here is in Vance’s ability to tell a genuinely dark story full of things like slavery and sexual abuse and still infuse the whole with the luminousity of something remembered from early childhood.

My God, it’s full of elephants:

An elderly hero is on his way to the city of the Gods, which he plans to blow up. What he doesn’t realise is that if he succeeds it will mean the end of the world. Someone has to stop him, but he already has a massive head start.

This is the problem that confronts the characters in Terry Pratchett and Paul Kidby’s Discworld graphic novel The Last Hero. The solution, naturally, is to build a spaceship powered by specially-fed dragons, fly off the edge of the world, and count on gravity (or whatever the equivalent of gravity is for a flat world on the back of four elephants on the back of a turtle) to make sure that ‘down’ eventually turns into ‘up’.  Needless to say, things go horribly wrong. This is expected when you have a mad genius, a cowardly wizard and a simian (“Ankh-Morpork, we have an orangutan…”) on board. There’s a moon landing, all sorts of shenanigans involving flatulent lunar dragons, and somehow it all ends happily enough.

 

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