Archive for August 31st, 2009

August 31, 2009

Pride/ The Crowded Shadows

September the first is Outer Alliance pride day.

As a member of the Outer Alliance, I advocate for queer speculative fiction and those who create, publish and support it, whatever their sexual orientation and gender identity. I make sure this is reflected in my actions and my work.

Since I haven’t written any fiction (queer or otherwise) in a while, I’m going to to talk about someone else’s work instead. Some of you will remember this post a few months ago when I talked about being disappointed in the lack of gay men (or indeed women though men seemed more likely) in Celine Kiernan’s The Poison Throne. What I couldn’t discuss at the time was the rather important relationship between two male characters in the next book in the series. But The Crowded Shadows is finally out and I’m free to talk about it as much as I like. I should add that I asked Celine if I could write something about her book for today and she went out of her way (and she was away on holiday)to get it to me on time.

The first time I read The Poison Throne I stayed up all night and just gulped it down. It’s an incredibly fast-paced fantasy, there’s tons of political intrigue, and it’s utterly uncompromising when it comes to killing people off. I was expecting more of the same from The Crowded Shadows.

The second book in the series is a complete change of pace from the first, however. It helped that The Poison Throne was set in a relatively confined space, if you can call a castle confined. At the end of that book all three main characters leave to go out into a world that the reader knows very little about. Which is why, I suppose, so much of The Crowded Shadows is about world-building. It’s rather skilfully done, seeing that the entire action of the book takes place in the wilderness. But it does mean that the plot moves slowly – a large chunk of the book has the main characters travelling by themselves and by the end of it they still haven’t reached their destination. But then there are the sections involving the Loups-Garous where the text seems to pick up some of Christopher’s frenzy and rushes breathlessly through them.

The world-building itself is interesting. Partly because Kiernan bases the geography (and aspects of the culture) of her world so heavily on our own, making the minor differences particularly worth noticing. I’m not sure yet (and I can’t be until the final book of the trilogy) how uncritically or otherwise she’s doing this, but I have hopes. And as the book progresses we do finally find out more about these characters; about Razi and Christopher’s friendship, about Wynter’s family and why she has that awful name.

Plot-wise, as I’ve said, not a great deal happens in this part of the trilogy. Relationship-wise, it is fascinating. I was not particularly invested in the relationship between Ashkr and Sol on a first reading – on a second, knowing what is to come, it can be gutwrenching. And setting it among the Merron, where it is accepted with as little question as any heterosexual relationship works for me as well. It saddens me that that relationship is unlikely to play a role in the next book – the events of this one would make it seem impossible.

However, for me the most interesting relationship in this series is still the one between Chris and Razi. This is in part because Wynter’s relationships with the two men are relatively uncomplicated; and Wynter herself has so far not been particularly interesting to me. I don’t know if this is because she’s the narrator – we haven’t really had the chance to see her and what makes her interesting through the eyes of her companions. I’m hoping she will show some amazing diplomatic skills in the next book and I will be made to love her. The main male characters are both fascinating in their own right (Razi particularly so) and Wyn deserves a chance to be more awesome.

But my interest in Razi and Christopher is also because I still believe that in only slightly different circumstances that relationship could have been physical as well. I know the author doesn’t mean it that way, that it’s supposed to be “just” a very deep, intense friendship. But if either of these men were a woman I couldn’t not see it as an incredibly strong romance. If the author hadn’t made it clear in the first book that this was not the case, I’d think this was probably what it was.

So I guess even if it were not for Sol and Ashkr that this would be a queer review based on my reading of the text? I don’t know, and I suspect the author and I are never really going to agree on this, and that’s fine. But I like the book and if it didn’t make me lose sleep as its predecessor did, it did make me cry a bit.

August 31, 2009

Toilet humour

Samuel Beckett estate, you have made me sad.

I came to Beckett in the most unliterary of ways. I was fifteen, there was a boy, he was older than me and probably very, very pretentious. And I wanted to know what had excited him so much and I read Company, then some of the shorter plays, and it went on from there. At seventeen I thought the fart-counting in Molloy was hilarious and got raised eyebrows from friends. In college I writhed in a back bench when gloomy classmates whined about the depressingness of Waiting for Godot which I had finally read, a few years after I’d started reading the man’s work.

There’s a wonderful introduction by Salman Rushdie (who I love most when he’s talking about other writers he loves) in one of the Grove Centenary Beckett collections that expresses a lot of what I feel for this writer. Here’s a bit:

Death was as you might say still a word in a book to me. I had not at that time washed my father’s short, heavy corpse or murmured a farewell to the open-mouthed body of the first woman I ever loved or wept tears of rage when I was denied by circumstance the right to stand beside my mother’s grave. Consequently, I still felt immortal, and immortals deal differently with the subject of mortality, knowing themselves to be immune from that strange, incurable affliction. Thus, when as a young man I first faced these texts that deal so intensely with the matter of our common ending, which Henry James had called the Distinguished Thing but which, in Beckett, is always grubbily undistinguished, a bleak prat-falling business made up of flatulence, impotence and humiliation, I experienced the books, their ferocious hurling at death of immense slabs of undifferentiated prose, as essentially fabulous, fantastic tales told by the voices of antic ghosts. I experienced them, in sum, as comedies, and so they are, they are comedies, but not of the sort I then imagined them to be, darker, and, yes, even heroic, for all that comedy scoffs at heroes, pulls down their drawers and pushes custard pie into their faces, still there remains, in the comedy of these broken, scrabbling personages, a stale whiff of odorous heroism. Some of this I when green in judgement only half perceived or neglected entirely to grasp. However, in failing to respond glumly to an oeuvre that wears glumness like a favourite unwashed shirt, I got something half right, at least.

I’m 23, and I suspect that over the next howeversomany decades my way of reading Beckett is going to change too. And that’s fine. Because I’ve always felt welcomed by his work; it has never situated itself above me. And that is at least partly because it’s never been on its dignity with me. The slapstick, the toilet humour, the banana peels; they’re important .

I know that the technical aspects of the plays are vital as well, and that Beckett himself did not like even minor deviations from his directions in productions with which he was involved. And I don’t blame him. But I can’t imagine that the man who wrote Murphy (whose main character wants his ashes flushed down a toilet – the novel ends instead with them scattered on a pub floor “with the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit”) would be particularly bothered by this version of his play.

[Fun fact: On the evening I first heard about this story I discovered "wait for me Godot!" scrawled on the inside of a pub toilet wall. Positively copasetic.]