Archive for ‘genre’

April 10, 2013

Bet Me, choice and body horror

About halfway through Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me, the protagonists have decided that they want to stay away from one another. Neither of them particularly wants a relationship with the other person (though they are attracted to one another), and (naturally) a series of increasingly unsubtle signs that they are destined for one another makes them uncomfortable.

Bet Me was recommended to me as a funny, fat-positive romance novel. It’s certainly the first, and to some extent the second–though I take issue with some aspects of it. It’s also a book that bases its plot on a well-worn trope of the genre, only to completely to undo it. Because the bet plot is a staple one. Our hero (or in at least one book I’ve read, our heroine) bets he can seduce our heroine (or our hero, presumably), but finds himself falling in love with her; heroine finds out about the bet at the worst possible time and will not believe he really cares for her; true love prevails and our hero is forgiven because men will be men or something. In Crusie’s book this is all a misunderstanding– it’s Min’s evil ex-boyfriend who tries to make the bet with Cal, and though Cal doesn’t accept it, Min, overhearing, thinks he has (we’re not told if she is a romance reader).

But as these characters struggle to deal with their increasing tolerance for one another,it seems fate has other things planned for them. A childhood treasure lost by Min turns up again after she has joked about loving Cal forever if he’ll get it back for her. Attempts by both parties to avoid one another result in their sitting next to one another in a movie theatre. As Min’s friend Bonnie complains, “True love is beating you over the head to get your attention”.

A lot of the romance I’ve read (and I can’t claim to be an expert) is in dialogue with the idea of love as irresistable, overpowering force that overrides the free will of its protagonists and gives them no choice but to be together. Characters seen as resisting this (because who wants to lose the ability to choose?) have to learn to trust in whatever higher power is in this case seen as being in charge of things – destiny becomes an external, supernatural force that a) cannot be countermanded b) knows what’s best for us all anyway.The supernatural force that, at multiple points in the book, is literally yelling “THIS ONE” in Min’s or Cal’s ears. If Bet Me bases its plot on the undoing of one of the genre’s tropes, it also literalises one of its most enduring metaphors.

And so I don’t think the violence of Bonnie’s “beating you over the head” metaphor is accidental, particularly when it turns out to be less metaphorical and more violent than you’d expect.

 

“She said yes,” Cal said, reaching for his toast. “However, I cannot bring her because I will not be seeing her ever aga—” His fingers brushed the metal top of the toaster and he burned himself and dropped the phone. “Damn it,” he said and put his scorched fingertips in his mouth.

“Calvin?” his mother said from the phone.

He picked up the receiver. “I burned myself on the toaster. Sorry.” Cal turned on the cold water and stuck his fingers underneath the stream. “Anyway, I will not be seeing Minerva Dobbs again.” He stepped away from the sink onto something hard and his foot slipped out from under him and smacked into the cabinets. “Ouch.”

“Calvin?” his mother said.

“I stepped on a knife.” Cal bent to pick up the peanut butter knife and smacked his head into the counter. “Hell.”

 

Cal and Min will [spoiler alert! except not really] get together, of course, and the book suggests they will be very happy. But you have to wonder to what lengths destiny would have gone had they not succumbed exhausted to its machinations. From the middle of the book onwards Cal and Min are hostages, not protagonists, of the romance plot–a supernatural entity that they cannot see or control is forcing them together and inflicting physical violence upon them when they do not immediately go along with it. Imagine destiny as a child playing with dolls, smashing their faces together and making kissing noises. Now imagine those dolls are sentient.

 

November 29, 2012

Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home

Blaft recently published an English translation by Aliyu Kamal of this Hausa novel. Quite besides the merits of the book itself (and I enjoyed it) what I’m really excited by is what it represents to have an Indian publishing company commissioning and publishing Nigerian genre fiction. There’s already a lot more south-south collaboration than a lot of people are aware of (apparently Bollywood is an influence on Hausa literature, though I don’t think that’s so much the case with this particular novel), and I’d be even more thrilled if someone would publish translations directly from, say, Hausa to Hindi. But I’ll take English too.

 

From last weekend’s Left of Cool column.

**********************************************

Judging by past example, when a form of literature becomes associated with a particular place it’s probably not going to be spoken of in the most flattering of ways. In the eighteenth century, Grub Street in London was famously associated with literary hacks and news writers – some of whom were probably perfectly good writers, though you wouldn’t think it to hear some of the more respectable contemporary writers on the subject.

In Nigeria in the 1980s, the label “Kano Market literature” began to be applied to Hausa language popular fiction, also known as Littattafan Soyayya, or “love literature”. These books, apparently, have often been condemned – for corrupting young minds, for being too heavily influenced by Bollywood, for being vulgar, or formulaic, or trivial. The usual complaints, in fact; particularly since this is now a field of literature dominated by women. Early critics of the novel made similar arguments (though maybe not the Bollywood one), and even now the same arsenal is regularly brought out to criticise the romance genre, another field dominated by women writers. Which isn’t to say that some of these criticisms aren’t true.

Indian publishers Blaft recently brought out Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home, a translation by Aliyu Kamal of the soyayya novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne… by Hajiya Balaraba Ramat Yakubu.

At first glance, this is clearly a novel of wish fulfilment. Rabi is the virtuous wife of Alhaji Abdu, a prosperous man who despite his wealth hardly gives her enough money to pay for the household goods to feed herself and their nine children. Matters get worse when Abdu takes another wife, who fights with Rabi. Soon, Rabi and her children have been kicked out of the house with no means to support themselves other than the help that Rabi’s and Abdu’s horrified families can give them. Despite this, Rabi prospers, setting up a successful cooking business, sending her oldest son to college, and finding a wealthy husband for her eldest daughter. Meanwhile, things rapidly go downhill for Abdu. His wife is unfaithful to him and his business fails when a fire in the market burns down his stall and most of his stock.  In the end, destitute and remorseful, he is forced to come back to his wife, hoping that she will take him back.

In her introduction to the book, Balaraba Ramat states that she’s purposely writing against men who treat women “as a sort of slave to be bought or sold at the marketplace”, “[believing] her to be completely worthless”. Yet although the book’s primary impulse is against treating women as discardable, as a woman I sometimes found it an uncomfortable read. In the world of the novel, women are constantly pitted against one another in order to better their own positions. Rabi’s situation at the beginning of the novel is bad enough, but it’s the presence of the new wife, Delu, that makes it intolerable. And then there’s the marriage of Rabi’s daughter Saudatu to Alhaji Abubakar, who has already discarded his two quarrelsome previous wives, after beating up one of them. What seems to be a happy ending for Saudatu thus has an undercurrent of unease. At the beginning of the book Rabi consoles herself with the thought that at least Abdu “didn’t marry and divorce his women friends at will”. Saudatu has been the perfect wife and daughter-in-law, but is she really safe from the same fate as her mother’s?

There’s also the discomfiting situation at the end of the book, when Rabi states repeatedly that she does not want her husband back (and why would she?) but is pressured into doing so by the men around her. Power has shifted drastically within the household, but Rabi is still in a marriage that she does not want, and it’s clear that the novel recognises this.  And it’s at moments like these that Sin Is a Puppy That Follows You Home leaks out of its formulaic structure and becomes something darker and more complex.

**********************************************

July 3, 2012

Constance Myburgh, “Hunter Emmanuel”

 

The last of the Caine Prize stories. I’ve fallen hopelessly behind on this project, and the winner of the prize was to be announced today. I’m not sure why it took me so long to start writing about what was probably my favourite of the shortlisted stories (pdf here). This is an opinion that I don’t think most commentors on the prize share – and I suspect the difference is that I come to it as at least partly a genre reader. Because Hunter Emmanuel, Myburgh’s titular character, has read his noir.

The story begins when Emmanuel and his colleagues find a human leg hanging from a tree. Emmanuel is a former policeman who now works as a lumberjack, though we’re told nothing of the circumstances that led to this shift in career. When the mysterious leg shows up, Emmanuel is seized with a need to discover the truth. To do this he draws on his own training and contacts, but also on the crime fiction he’s evidently fond of reading.

Hunter Emmanuel’s debt to fiction is hard to miss. He’s constantly narrativising events as he experiences them, and the syntax of the story changes whenever this happens. An idle thought about the weather turns into “Either way, he knew the wind would howl tonight”; he needs the drama of story.

This concern with narrativising himself extends to the women in the story – Emmanuel is hideously sexist. Ugly women have no place in the story he’s writing for himself – he refers to the policewoman Sgt Williams as having failed in her duty somehow simply by not being attractive enough. When the leg is traced to a young prostitute named Zara Swert (“a one-legged whore. Friday nights didn’t get better than this”), Emmanuel’s attitude towards her is just creepy. He enters her hospital room under false pretenses, touches her face while she sleeps, and expects her to be someone he can confide in. “she looked like someone, someone he could talk to”. As for her physical appearance, “She looked washed-out, but after what she’d been through who wouldn’t be? Also, she was, he thought, probably prettier that way.” Later;

The world seemed suddenly very unpleasant, and Emmanuel had to imagine Zara Swart’s face and also her bandages from many different angles before it began to feel like a place he could deal with.

Zara asks Emmanuel why he is so interested in her case and his answer, I think, is central to this story.

He leaned closer to her, he couldn’t help ut.

‘I was there. I found your leg. That shit is traumatizing. I need closure.’

He loved those words. They made sense, even when they didn’t.

 

And so Emmanuel will pursue this mystery, not out of concern for the victim but out of a simple desire for narrative closure that is entirely focused on the mechanics of the case rather than on the people involved. But Myburgh will not give him that closure. The people responsible for hanging the leg up the tree are found; but their action was seemingly random. The people responsible for cutting off the leg are found – but Emmanuel does not learn what they wanted with it, or why they should have subsequently abandoned it in a forest. We know that the shadowy villains of this story are covered with Vaseline so that one cannot get a grip on them – this, apart from feeling utterly random (unless my reading of crime fiction is a lot narrower than I realise) could equally apply to the facts of the case. Emmanuel realises that “how” isn’t enough knowledge for him; he wants “why” as well, and it turns out that human motivations simply will not fit into the story-shaped spaces he has left for them. There’s a point to be made here about the arrogance of the detective story’s desire to know the world and to place it into ordered sequences of motive and method. And about its inevitable failure to do so.

And I think the story does its best to make the world seem alien and unknowable from the beginning. A couple of paragraphs into what seems a work of basic crime fiction we have the phrase “a hundred-year-old alien crashed to the ground” and we’re left hanging for a few further paragraphs before it becomes clear that we’re talking about alien pine trees.

It’s tempting to quote the whole of the final section of this story (please just read it and make it easier on us both); Emmanuel begs Zara for a reason, but she only connects his need for answers with a seeming masculine need to “save us” and walks away leaving Emmanuel to reflect on how differently this all should have gone.

Why was he here? He was so sure this would all end back in the forest, that whatever trail of blood he’d find would lead back to the shadows there. And yet here he was. On a fokkin street corner on Main Road. No, it was as he feared. The shadow was everywhere.

[ ... ]

If it wasn’t for the fact that I can’t even solve my own fokkin life, thought Hunter Emmanuel, I could make a best ever, real-life private investigator.

 

Here are some other people who wrote about “Hunter Emmanuel”:

The Reading Life
Black Balloon
Ikhide
bookshy
Backslash Scott
The Mumpsimus

 

 

Earlier today, after rereading the story, I decided that my own favourites for the Caine Prize were this story and Rotimi Babatunde’s “Bombay’s Republic”. I think, based on the reactions of the people who blogged this award with me, that Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s  “La Salle de Départ” was the favourite, and while I admired the story very much I’ll always pick messy and ambitious over well-executed and familiar. I stand by my seemingly unconventional reading of Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial”, but the very fact that it was so unconventional means that perhaps it didn’t do as good a job of conveying what I thought it was as I thought it had (read back through that sentence, weep for the English language).  Billy Kahora’s “Urban Zoning” pulled me in just with the sheer goodness of its writing but what is more important is, of all the stories on this shortlist, Kahora’s is the one that most strongly invoked in me the feeling that talking about and judging ‘African writing’ should be a complex thing, worthy of as much self-doubt as we can muster up.

The winner of the prize has now been announced on twitter, and it’s a choice I’m very pleased with. But I’d recommend going through all the stories on this year’s shortlist – it’s an exciting collection and I’m glad to have read it.

June 12, 2012

Sarah Wendell, Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels

I was going to write a long, self-indulgent thing here about how I read romance novels, but a few hundred words in, even I couldn’t be that interested anymore. Sarah Wendell’s most recent book did make me think about what I do as a reader of this genre, though, and some of this thinking was quite uncomfortable.

Nevertheless.

I wrote about Wendell’s book for last Sunday’s Left of Cool column. The mysterious book in question is Sarra Manning’s Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend (whether it is a Romance Novel is up for debate); my fellow readers will doubtless out themselves in the comments if they feel like doing so.

**********************************************

A few months ago a new book by an author I like was published. For days afterwards, as we read in our separate cities, two friends and I would text and email one another constantly. Between the three of us we have multiple English degrees and two of us are professional reviewers. Our comments to each other did not reflect this; we were entirely caught up in the heroine’s bad relationship decisions and our own concern and frustration with them.

The whole experience made me think about whether we read differently when faced with certain genres. I was reminded again of this set of interactions by Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels.

Wendell is one of the founders of the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, which takes an irreverent but loving look at romance novels. Wendell had previously collaborated with the blog’s co-founder, Candy Tan, on Beyond Heaving Bosoms, a guide to the genre. For all its ostensible purpose as a primer, this was clearly a book for the romance fan. Its flow charts, extended snarking at cover art featuring Fabio, and exasperated fondness for hackneyed plot devices were all addressed to an audience who know and love these books for all their ridiculousnesses.

On the surface of it, Everything I Know About Love … is more of the same sort of thing. Once again we have the irreverent tone. The alarming alpha males of some earlier romance novels are stigmatised as “rapetastic assclown heroes” and the phrase “sword o’ mighty lovin’” appears – strictly in a what-not-to-do sort of sense. But something else is going on here.

The central thesis of Wendell’s book is that readers of the romance novel learn from it valuable lessons that help them to negotiate real life romance – though, as the author hastily informs us, this does not mean that they -we- are unable to distinguish between fiction and reality. This isn’t a contradiction but there is a tension here throughout; is romance just another genre that happens to take human relationships for its focus, or is it unique in the way its readers engage emotionally with it?

Part of the problem is that it’s not very clear what these lessons are that readers are learning. Wendell herself admits that most of these valuable lessons are learned in kindergarten (fitting, since the book’s title is a nod to “all I really need to know I learned in kindergarten”). Chapters are headed with glib lessons of the type “we … know our worth”, “we know how to ask for what we want”, “we know that happily-ever-after takes work” (Wendell ruefully acknowledges where these spill over into self-help clichés. What about more specific lessons? A reader says she learned “that sex can and should be good for the female,” and I am simultaneously happy for her and saddened that this needed to be said. Another claims “I finally know what a butt plug is for.” This is great, but it’s not exactly an apologia for the genre.

Romance, arguably, does not need to be defended – though the level of kneejerk dismissal it inspires in many makes it very tempting to do so. But the book is framed as a defence; its argument is that the genre is worthwhile because it provides its readers with something useful. Yet this is ultimately a bit pointless. It’s hard to imagine that non-fans would buy this book, and certainly only fans will know the joy of arguing with Wendell’s list of the best romantic heroes. In any case, a spirited defence of a genre needs to do much better than “reading and thinking about relationships leaves people better equipped to handle relationships”. Yet as ultimately toothless as it is, Wendell’s book does have me thinking about my own strategies of reading, and my sometimes-uncomfortable relationship with the Romance. If Everything I Know About Love … needed a reason to exist, (and as with the genre itself, why should it?) this would be a good enough one for me.

 

**********************************************

 

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.

**********************************************

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.

 

**********************************************

March 26, 2012

Jo Walton, Tooth and Claw

My co-columnist and friend Aadisht is taking a break from the Left of Cool column, and so from April I will be writing it every week. For now, here is last weekend’s column.

 

**********************************************

Five siblings gather at their father’s deathbed. As the oldest son, a parson, deals with the last rites and some alarming revelations about their father’s past, the youngest son and son-in-law wrangle with each other over the will. The two youngest daughters must resign themselves to the fact that they can no longer live in the ancestral home. They must also cope with smaller dowries than they had hoped for, coupled with the added social stigma of a father whose fortune was made in (and whose title paid for by) Trade. The world which these characters inhabit is an elegant, civilised one, but it’s also one in which those around you are quite willing to eat you alive. Because Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw differs from most works that invoke the nineteenth century in one rather important particular. All of her characters are dragons.

Fans of the author’s previous work will be familiar with Walton’s propensity to play with the mixing of genres. In Farthing she fused a traditional country house murder mystery with an alternate-historical universe in which Britain had continued its policy to appeasement. Tooth and Claw draws heavily on the concerns of the Victorian novel, but because it is fantasy, it is able to do something more; it literalizes these concerns, and makes them far more concrete.

The book’s title comes from Tennyson’s In Memoriam, where he describes nature as “red in tooth and claw”. The inherent savagery of nature is an idea that is easy to associate with the Victorians (this is after all the age of Darwin, and the survival of the fittest in the animal world). But there’s also the savagery of Victorian society – in putting ruthless, cold-blooded creatures into this extremely civilised setting, it’s hard to miss the underlying idea that Victorian society was an equally bloodthirsty place.

For fans of the Victorians (and of Austen, who is not Victorian but forms a part of this story’s influences) the greatest pleasure afforded by Tooth and Claw is the manner in which tropes of nineteenth century fiction translate to Walton’s fantasy universe. The legal quibbles would fit well into something like Dickens’ Bleak House (although unlike Bleak House, and with far greater excuse, Tooth and Claw contains no incidents of spontaneous combustion). The role of women in this dragon-centric world also has some striking parallels to nineteenth-century fiction. Rules of etiquette around proper conduct are transmuted into social mores around flying, hunting and (in the absence of elaborate dresses) hats. There’s the issue of female virtue; a primary preoccupation of novels where too much perceived proximity to a man, however unwanted on the woman’s side, might lead to social ruin (see the plot of nearly every Regency period romance ever written). Walton is able to invent dragon biology and so creates a situation in which fallen virtue is made concrete and visible. In this universe, female dragons begin life with golden scales. It is only after they have their first romantic or sexual encounter that they “blush” and begin to turn to the shade of red or pink that they will sport for the rest of their adult lives. Selendra, a young female dragon, is pursued by the local parson (a sleazier Mr Collins) and by blushing over a dragon she refuses to marry, faces the prospect of ruin. Her brother has as his mistress another fallen woman, the scion of a great family who is – another trope of Victorian fiction, the orphan returned to her rightful position – triumphant at the end. This is perhaps the one unconvincing subplot; society’s willingness to forget her dubious past simply doesn’t work as well when her scales are visibly pink. A book in which everything implied is made literal may find it hard to adequately depict hypocrisy.

Given the preponderance in recent years for literary mash-ups that bring together classic literature and all manner of supernatural creature, it’s surprising that there haven’t been any dragon-centric attempts. If Walton has shown us anything, it’s that dragons make most things better.

**********************************************

 

March 9, 2012

Jedediah Berry, The Manual of Detection

Written for last weekend’s Left of Cool column.The Manual of Detection was an absolute joy to read – clever, and playful, and beautifully written. I have just discovered (though lurking at his twitter profile) that the author is a fan of Flann O’Brien, and this makes a lot of sense to me – there’s a similarity in that they both have this exuberant, comical voice. And bicycles, obviously.

 

**********************************************

 

Books about books are probably the most self-indulgent form of literature there is, and it is probably the duty of all persons with consciences to condemn them for this. It’s not a new idea (and hasn’t been since at least Don Quixote), yet some of us continue to love these books anyway.

Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection is a detective story about detective stories. But it’s many other things as well.

There’s a city (and though no name is mentioned, it’s seems appropriate for the genre to assume that it is New York) that is all seedy bars, thugs, nameless crimes and beautiful, inscrutable women. This is the world of Travis Siwart, a detective who made his reputation with such cases as The Oldest Murdered Man and The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker.

There’s another city, though; the one that is inhabited by Mr Charles Unwin. For twenty years Unwin has been a clerk in an office; he rides a bicycle to work, carries an umbrella, and is entirely preoccupied by routine.

These two men, who have never met, are connected by the huge investigative organisation known as The Agency. The Agency employs Siwart for his skills as a detective, and Unwin to record his cases for posterity. If Siwart’s cases are considered classics of the genre (and they are incredibly intriguing – in one, a villain manages to steal an entire day in November) this is at least in part due to Unwin’s accounts of them. But Siwart goes missing, appearing in Unwin’s dreams to ask his help. An unwilling Unwin is promoted to Siwart’s position and he takes as his first case Siwart’s disappearance, hoping to thus win back his old job and return things to normal. Down the mean streets of Siwart’s New York this unlikely detective must go, then, armed only with his umbrella and a copy of that useful handbook for detectives, The Manual of Detection.

To have a book within a book and to give both books the same title is an act of cruelty to the hapless reviewer, who is forced to explain at every point to which book she refers. But Berry’s real world novel The Manual of Detection (MoD 1) bases a good deal of its structure on the fictional Manual of Detection (MoD 2) – it bears the same number of chapters with the same titles, and each chapter opens with a quote from the same section of the book’s meta-text. Some editions of the book even look physically identical to the manual described.

Yet the novel’s worth does not stem only from this central conceit. It is incredibly funny, for one thing, with much of the humour derived from the complete mismatch between Unwin and the classic noir thriller world he is forced to enter. In one brilliant scene he follows a lead to a bar named The Forty Winks where he must order a drink (he can think of nothing but a root beer) and play a game of poker (he does not know the rules) for information. Yet for all his seeming unfitness for his new position the reader never quite forgets that Unwin has made Siwart – he is the faithful recorder, the Watson to Siwart’s Holmes.

Unwin is seemingly surrounded by people who fall asleep at the drop of a hat – his new assistant, Emily, is among them. The city is full of somnambulists, and the novel slips easily between waking life and dream, and from dreams to dreams within dreams, allowing Berry to indulge in all manner of surreal play.

Books within books, crimes within crimes, dreams within dreams. It’s tempting to see The Manual of Detection as an earlier (2010), cleverer Inception. Yet the high comic tone is what really stuck with me. For all its wild, glorious imagery of carnivals and Kafkaesque bureaucracies, Berry’s book really works because even the image of Mr Unwin on a bicycle clutching his umbrella is elevated into something special.

**********************************************

November 9, 2011

Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, The Inheritors

My monthly Kindle Magazine column focuses on out of copyright books. For the October issue I wrote about the product of a collaboration between two great authors. It’s not, however, a particularly good book.

**********************************************

I’ll never understand how it is possible for two writers to collaborate on one work of fiction without creating a disjointed mess, but it evidently is. My favourite example of this is Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens; a wonderful, heart-warming account of the apocalypse and the end times. But Good Omens, for all its excellence, wasn’t too far from the sort of thing for which Pratchett and Gaiman were already known. What would be far stranger would be for two literary novelists were to get together and work on something completely alien to their genres.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Joseph Conrad and Forx Madox Ford collaborated on a set of novels – The Nature of a Crime, Romance and The Inheritors – covering a variety of genres. Of these, The Inheritors is perhaps the best known.

What makes The Inheritors surprising is that it is in part a science-fiction novel. There exists a Fourth Dimension inhabited by creatures that seem human. Except that they are “a race clear-sighted, eminently practical, incredible; with no ideals, prejudices, or remorse; with no feeling for art and no reverence for life; free from any ethical tradition; callous to pain, weakness, suffering and death, as if they had been invulnerable and immortal.” And they are going to take over the world.

At the beginning of the book Arthur, the narrator, meets one of these Fourth Dimensionists; she appears in the form of a beautiful woman. Pressed to tell him more about herself she reveals her identity and even performs some alarming magic to convince him (in the process she renders the nearby town, and significantly its cathedral, ‘contemptible’). Her willingness to share her evil plan with him seems at first the sort of terrible decision supervillains make, allowing the hero to thwart them. But there will be no thwarting from Arthur, who is contemptible himself. Filled with vaguely-formed high ideals about great art but also a strong desire to be important, Arthur is the perfect pawn. He soon finds himself drawn into Fourth Dimensionist power politics. While the mysterious woman (who is now posing as Arthur’s sister) manipulates him on the one hand, he also finds himself encountering two other Fourth Dimensionists – one of whom claims to be creating a Utopia in Greenland. He does make a few half-hearted attempts to thwart our eventual masters but, being incompetent, he fails miserably.

The Inheritors starts out as disjointed and abrupt – the opening scenes in which the narrator learns of the Fourth Dimension are dreadful. Yet as the power games between these terrifying beings set in, as the secondary characters become more rounded out it begins to be rather good.

And beneath the rather gloomy subject of our demise as a species (and its subtext of the decline of the human race) there is, oddly enough, a ray of hope. At the beginning the woman suggests that our ancestors too came from the Fourth Dimension, and “caught” weaknesses: “beliefs, traditions; fears; ideas of pity … of love”. By the end of the book, it seems that she may have caught some of these diseases as well. Humanity, it seems to suggest, will always be arrived at somehow, even if the humans themselves (ourselves?) are no longer around.
**********************************************

November 7, 2011

Further thoughts on Snuff

[For a far more lucid account of many of the things that bothered me about this book, see Abigail Nussbaum’s piece here.]

I posted a review here a few days ago, but it had a limited word count and was for a general audience. But there were other aspects of Pratchett’s new book that I wanted to discuss. Obviously there will be many, many spoilers. I’m dividing things into subheadings to keep it all coherent.

 

Race

There’s a thing quite a lot of SFF has done – discuss race relations using actual different races (dwarves, trolls,etc) as opposed to merely people with different coloured skin. One of the problems with this way of talking about race is that it has tended to make the various other races represent people of colour (or any other group that is non-mainstream, as ridiculous as it seems to talk of nonwhite people being non-mainstream when they surely make up most of the world’s population) whereas the ‘humans’ have tended to represent white westerners. A recent example of this for me was China Miéville’s Embassytown, which I read as partly based on British colonialism in Asia.

In the Discworld no race is an obvious stand in for a real world community – there are obvious similarities, but the roles which particular races assume may shift with each plot, and (sometimes) with whichever classic fantasy trope Pratchett is currently playing with. And there are sympathetic, real characters from most races. Yet I think there’s still a tendency to centre the human. Human characters on the Disc can be marginalised (see werewolves, vampires, zombies) but in a generalised manner that shows the dynamics of the process more than it references any realworld racial group. In Snuff, the victims of the slave trade are goblins, the people doing the trading humans. But also in Snuff, I think there are signs that Pratchett is acknowledging this. The quoted bit below is from a section in which Carrot and Angua interview an elderly goblin lady.

[Angua] waited with Billy Slick while Carrot went on the errand, and for something to say, she said, ‘Billy Slick doesn’t sound much like a goblin name?’ Billy made a face. ‘Too right! Granny calls me Of the Wind Regretfully Blown. What kind of name is that, I ask you? Who’s going to take you seriously with a name like that? This is modern times, right?’ He looked at her defiantly, and she thought: and so one at a time we all become human – human werewolves, human dwarfs, human trolls … the melting pot melts in one direction only, and so we make progress.

 

Edit: I’m now wondering how it would be to Unseen Academicals in the light of this book. With UA’s focus on racism in other books (the main character is an orc) rather than – if such a distinction can be made at all – real-world racism.

 

Slavery

I’ve touched on this in my official review: the Discworld books may deal with some very serious subject matter, but they generally end nicely. Sometimes characters have died and the ending is bittersweet, but it’s never entirely bitter. On my twitter feed a couple of weeks ago Alex Keller said  he was in the mood for Pratchett because he needed a “human decency boost” and I felt that was an apt description of how I feel reading these books.

So how do you fit the history of slavery into that framework? On the front inner flap of Snuff (I have the HB) we have “They say that in the end all sins are forgiven. But not quite all…” But how far can you approach something as vast and awful as the slave trade and tie it up neatly into a happy ending?

One of the things I think the text does to deal with this is to have a comparatively minor character discover what is happening. It’s not nice – there are piles of bones of corpses and tortured goblins on the verge of death. But Wee Mad Arthur has never been given a point of view in the earlier books – we don’t know what the inside of his head looks like and we don’t learn much about it here. As a result we’re distanced in ways we would not have been had a character with more depth – Angua or Cheery, or even Colon – seen what Wee Mad Arthur sees.

There’s also the fact that this book is comparatively muted, and that is despite the poo jokes. Of the characters that tend to provide the comic relief, Nobby is barely present until the end and Colon is (for a major chunk of the plot) unconscious. There are even less footnotes than usual.

But at the end the book seems completely at a loss. You have one evil instigator (who is offstage throughout) transported to Australia. The others involved get away all but completely – which may be an accurate depiction of history. But there’s an incredibly ill-judged moment when Colonel Makepeace, whose wife is one of the major figures behind the crime, pleads for her to be treated leniently because while he fully agrees that the slave trade was wrong and needed to be stopped, his wife “is a rather foolish woman”, “I do love her” and “I’m very sorry you’ve been troubled”. And this is framed in terms that suggest the reader is intended to feel sorry for him.

 

Children’s Books and Evidence

Snuff came out a few days after my birthday. One of the presents I received this year was this Dutch edition of The Story Of The Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business - for those unfamiliar with the book, a mole discovers that someone has defaecated on his head and sets out to find the animal responsible.

Yes there is a reason I have the Dutch edition. No, I don't speak the language.

In Snuff, Vimes’ son Sam is immersed in the works of Miss Felicity Beedle, an author of children’s books whose most recent work is titled The World of Poo (Miss Beedle had previously written Wee). Inspired, young Sam begins to collect samples of the different sorts of poo available (since the Ramkin country estate comes attached to a farm there is much variety) and to observe and record the differences between them.

Reading these two books within the same week brought home for me how forensic in nature many books for very young children are. In Thud!, young Sam’s favourite book had been Where’s My Cow? In this the narrator (who had lost his cow) walks around wondering if various animals are the eponymous cow and eliminates them from suspicion on the evidence of the sounds they make. (“Where is my cow? Is that my cow? It goes “Hruuugh!” It is a hippopotamus. That’s not my cow!”)    The urban equivalent made up by Vimes follows the same principle. The little mole in the book above visits each of his suspects, eliminating them only when they prove their innocence by showing that their faeces is completely different from the sort he has found. (Eventually he calls in the experts – flies – and finds that the dog is the culprit). There’s nothing particularly exciting or revolutionary about the revelation that gathering evidence and learning to make deductions about things are one of the major ways in which we learn about the world. Or that it makes sense that they should therefore be a big part of children’s books. But it pleased me anyway; particularly coming within the context of a detective novel.

 

The Summoning Dark/Landscapes of the mind

One of the major principles upon which the Discworld functions is the power of story – Narrativium. Most books in the series deal with this idea to some extent. Naturally, then, the insides of people’s heads are quite potent. Of late this has had one slightly annoying consequence, which is that every other story now ends with the protagonist playing out his or her mental battles on a literalised metaphorical landscape.

Thud! had something of this sort. In the course of his investigation Vimes becomes possessed? infected? by The Summoning Dark, a powerful, ancient entity from Dwarf lore. This leads to multiple mini-scenes in which the inside of Vimes’ mind is a city, the Summoning Dark is trying to get into the houses and a watchman (because Vimes is the sort of man who will keep a watch on the inside of his own head) follows it through the streets and prevents it from doing so.

Vimes and The Summoning Dark end Thud! on terms of mutual respect, and there’s an understanding that the thing will never completely leave. In Snuff, Vimes seems to have completely made peace with the presence of a demonic entity in his brain, and The Summoning Dark is now being used to give him superpowers – night vision and new linguistic skills. It’s a bit silly. But it also means that the internal/supernatural aspects of the book are more integrated within the action in the physical world. I’ll be interested to see whether Pratchett will find ways to avoid these mental landscape scenes in future books as well.

 

Sybil

Vimes’ wife’s characterisation is a bit patchy through the series. We know that she’s rich and aristocratic (“as highly bred as a hilltop bakery”) and kind. We also know that upon their marriage she signs all her property over to her husband. She’s a play on the (often “horsy”) upper-class woman who breeds dogs – or in this case dragons – and is forceful, hearty, not physically very attractive. She is big, fat, has a large chest, is rather pushy. In Guards! Guards! there’s a sense that Vimes has been swept into their relationship by her sheer momentum. In later books we do see comfortable domestic scenes and can assume (from her pregnancy and the birth of their son) that they have sex. There’s als0 an occasional return to the henpecked husband joke – notably Sybil’s attempts to improve Vimes’ diet.

Which is why I am on the whole delighted by her character in Snuff. We have the assertion that Sam ‘worships’ his wife, we have (Pratchett doesn’t do graphic sex scenes but still) bathtub sex. We have respectable flaws – Sybil’s heritage allows her to be less unsure about her identity than her husband, but her privilege blinds her to things as well. And her real involvement in the goblin cause is triggered by discovering that they can make great music – it’s the sort of petty, selfish, human thing that the text doesn’t draw attention to, but it’s there.