(You saw these last year, but they are still good. By Chris Bishop).
I Audit Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (Part 2 — In Which I Make Some Game of Thrones Comparisons and Share a Van Gogh Sketch)
1. For context/overview/summary/brief review, read part one.
2. I’m about three-quarters of the way through Bring Up the Bodies, and have thoroughly enjoyed it so far. Rich and detailed, full of ideas and keen perceptions. Mantel posits protagonist Thomas Cromwell as one of the first English Renaissance figures—pre-Elizabeth, pre-Shakespeare. The big payoff of this reading is to see the machinations of a character whose grand task is to make the rest of the world’s ideals (and illusions of those ideals) fit with his own emerging plans for a more egalitarian and democratic world. This isn’t to say that Cromwell is always a nice guy—he can’t be, he has to keep spoiled King Henry happy—but he’s generally sympathetic.
3. Mantel’s Cromwell recalls to me Tyrion Lannister, my favorite character of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire epic (I enjoyed the first three books very much). In his role as Hand of the King (chronicled this season on the HBO adaptation Game of Thrones), Tyrion faces the thankless task of protecting the people (common and royal) of King’s Landing through a difficult time. Like Cromwell, Tyrion is seriously misunderstood and even hated; he does great good for the “small folk,” yet they will never understand or credit him with these efforts.
Tyrion is also extremely shrewd and cynical, yet also honorable—just like Cromwell. Both characters must play the game of thrones (a game, Martin’s characters remind us and Cromwell equally understands, that you either win or die), but they do not play solely for their own gain. Sure, Cromwell is making boatloads of money from his gig as Henry’s chief minister, but he ultimately has the good of his family and the good of the English people at heart. He and Tyrion want the best for average, common people, and these characters’ humble origins have ensured that they actually understand the needs and wants of average, common people.
4. Why am I belaboring a Game of Thrones comparison? I don’t know. It’s just what’s running through my head as I audit the Bring Up the Bodies audiobook. I guess I think a lot of Martin fans would dig Bring Up the Bodies (and vice versa). Mantel and Martin both do an excellent job at showing the plotting and the scheming, the crafty intrigue that underwrites politics. Both writers have a keen ear for sharp, ironic dialogue, and both writers know not to tip their hands too much to the reader, instead letting the reader puzzle out the shady circumstances for himself.
5. Perhaps off track: Here’s a sketch by Vincent van Gogh of Austin Friars, where Cromwell lived:
6. The thread of language that links Mantel and Martin in my reading is undoubtedly their sources: I am sure that when my ears perk to certain shared phrases (terms of heraldry, descriptions of a plague, “bedwarmer”), what’s really happening is that I’m reading through them, reading their origin texts.
7. Martin handles female perspectives in a patriarchal world with savage aplomb. His women transcend their limited circumstances (as well as the stock conventions that can beleaguer genre fiction). Mantel provides her own subtle critique of patriarchy in Bring Up the Bodies without tripping on historical reality. There’s a remarkable moment when one character—I don’t recall exactly who, but probably a member of Henry’s Privy Council—questions why God didn’t make women’s bellies transparent so that the important matters of succession, inheritance, and paternity might be made, well, clear to all. And while Anne Boleyn is hardly a sympathetic character in Bodies, keep in mind that we’re limited to Cromwell’s perspective. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell showed great concern for Thomas More’s wife and daughters, who were punished for (perceived) crimes that they had no possible agency in abetting. In Bodies, Cromwell shares similar concern for Jane Parker (among other women), wife of George Boleyn (Anne’s brother). Of course, Jane is going to help seal the case against Anne Boleyn for—
8. —brother/sister incest.
9. And yes, bro-sis incest may be lurid (lurid enough, I’ll admit, to get its own tidy spot on this list)—but it’s to Mantel’s credit that she never exploits the lurid attraction of historical reality (see: Showtime’s The Tudors); she doesn’t have to. That’s not Cromwell’s bag and it’s not necessary anyway. (Here is an obligatory sentence pointing out that one of the major plot points of Game of Thrones rests on brother-sister incest: One of the major plot points of Game of Thrones rests on brother-sister incest ).
10. I’ll end by sticking to Bring Up the Bodies but obliquely suggesting that everything I say about Mantel’s book could apply to Martin’s books, but I’m not going to belabor this post through example (we can chat in the comments section, should you care to, gentle reader). Here’s that ending:
11. Some of my favorite passages in Bring Up the Bodies have to do with Thomas Cromwell’s imaginative capacity,which Mantel channels with fierce brilliance. Cromwell taps into his past in order to shape the present into the future he envisions (an episode with an aging Portuguese knight is especially entertaining). In a few wonderful scenes (perhaps coming to fruition at game’s end?) he imagines a dinner he’ll host with all the courtiers he’s pushing around like pawns; the way he imagines their interactions at table helps him to determine his course of action (or inaction). But the most chilly episodes of imaginative capacity involve Cromwell’s own understanding that his unnatural death is probably a foregone conclusion. He’s too perspicacious to not see that eventually his favor with Henry can only eventually fail. But that’s for the future—for Mantel’s last book in this trilogy, I’m sure, The Mirror and the Light.
1. Just Kids, Patti Smith
Really slowed down on this one, mostly because the spring semester hath begun, wreaking all sorts of destabilizing tasks on me. Momentum and reading habits will inevitably return. Anyway, Smith’s book is more or less a litany of famous meetings and infamous moments with lots and lots of descriptions of talismanic objects. The scene where she meets Allen Ginsberg is pretty cool. Smith presents herself as earnest, passionate, but also somehow at odds (or at least outs) with the whole Chelsea Hotel scene.
2. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Vol 1, Hayao Miyazaki
Completed the first volume of Miyazaki’s groundbreaking manga and started the second. The art is well crafted and distinct, but often extremely busy and even frenetic. It sometimes feels squashed in the panels, like it needs room to breathe. I can’t help but compare it to the film that followed, which is visually richer and more expansive. The film, in a sense, helps me to fill out the scope signaled in Miyazki’s inky illustrations.
The story in the manga so far differs subtly but significantly from the film; without adding spoilers (I think fans of the film will enjoy the book), the political dimension of the plot is heightened and gender roles are explored with greater concern. Nausicaä’s initial rashness is also presented with greater intensity (read: violent consequences). More to come.
3. Imperial, William T. Vollmann
Chapter 3 of Imperial, “The Water of Life,” is some of the best gonzo journalism I’ve ever read. Vollmann (along with an improbably game ex-Marine/hotel clerk) takes a raft—a cheap rubber dinghy, really—down the infamous New River, purportedly one of the most polluted waterways in North America. This river is filled with dead birds, dead fish, probably dead humans, lots and lots of garbage, industrial runoff, and lots and lots of human shit.
Of course, Vollmann can find beauty and strangeness and ugliness all at once:
The chapter does everything one wants from the book, and if you’re at all intrigued, there’s a version in the excellent Vollmann reader Expelled from Eden, which is a good starting point for his work.
The next chapter, “Sublineations: Lovescapes,” is this awful emo exploration of a bad breakup and the following heartbreak Volls feels after. It was torturous to get through, the sort of thing that screams for an editor. It also underscores how deeply deeply deeply personal the book is to him, though. More to come.
4. A Dance with Dragons, George R. R. Martin (audiobook read by Roy Dotrice)
Well goddam if I didn’t finally finish it. As I’ve lamented elsewhere in these e-pages, Martin’s fourth and fifth books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series (I hate that name, by the way: Game of Thrones (without the indefinite article) is way cooler sounding) are bloated, sagging, overfilled beasts sorely in need of an enema. Still, Dragons picks up in its final third, and ends with some shockers that, if I remember them 12 years from now when he finally finishes the next one, I may want to read it. Roy Dotrice = a very gifted reader. A great audiobook (still, I can’t believe this one topped so many year end lists).
5. JR, William Gaddis (tandem reading with audiobook read by Nick Sullivan)
Big thanks to Dwight at A Common Reader for suggesting the audiobook of JR read by Sullivan. I’m a few hours in; I’ve also been rereading bits immediately when I get home (I listen mostly in the car or on walks), retracing the lines that I’ve mentally underlined. Sullivan is a gifted voice actor who brings the many, many voices of JR to vivid life (that line seems hackneyed but it is in no way insincere. If I weren’t riffing I’d revise. If I weren’t riffing I’d edit parenthetical excuses. I’m gonna drink more red zin now). I’m reminded in some ways of RTE’s full-cast unabridged recording—performance really—of Joyce’s Ulysses. I’d read Ulysses twice before, but I feel like the full-cast production was an equally definitive version to the one in my head. Like Ulysses—especially the Sirens episode—JR is extremely aural; it’s mostly dialogue.
I’ve laughed out loud several times so far—had no idea the book would be this funny. Also, reading/hearing it, I can’t help but see how profoundly David Foster Wallace was influenced by Gaddis here: the bizarre corporate-speak, the disjunctive rhythms, the absurd humor, the satire on modernity, the ironic-earnest axis—even the passages of naturalistic description.
On deck: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, Open City by Teju Cole, Smut by Alan Bennett and more more more.
Thrones, Kings, Swords — I Review the First Three Books of George R. R. Martin’s Postmodern Saga, A Song of Ice and Fire
Last month, I listened to audiobook versions of the first three novels in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series—A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords. These are long audiobooks, thirty or forty hours each, and they engrossed me, held me hostage even. Martin’s plot is a page turner, a beautiful balance of cliffhangers, mystery, intrigue, and action telegraphed in bristling, energetic prose. Actor Roy Dotrice turns in an amazing performance here, differentiating dozens of characters and communicating the emotional depth of Martin’s novel. If you’ve had a passing interest in Martin’s ASOIAF and you like audiobooks, you might be interested in checking these out.
So what are these books about?
I’ve read and heard Martin’s works offhandedly compared to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, and it’s true that there are similarities, both superficial and structural : Both engage an epic scope; both are very long, comprising multiple volumes; both employ multiple character perspectives; both share a love for music, philology, and history; both are about war; both are very well written. Perhaps the central comparison is that both ASOIAF and LOTR are works of world invention, which is to say that these books are set in respective worlds that are not our world, worlds that have been, for better or worse, ghettoized as “fantasy” worlds. Another way of comparing these series is to point out then that one is more likely to find them in the “Fantasy” section than in, say, “Literary Fiction.”
It’s true that both LOTR and ASOIAF contain the signifying tropes of fantasy fiction: thrones, kings, swords. Magic. Dragons and shit.
In LOTR, magic is still very much alive in Middle Earth. Indeed, the plot of the book revolves around destroying a magical ring to defeat a foe of pure evil and restore the true king to his true throne; a wizard orchestrates these events (dying and being reborn in the process). At the end of the trilogy, the elves leave Middle Earth, sailing off into the sunset to live happily ever after, perhaps taking much of the world’s magic with them, leaving the humans to perhaps evolve as the dominant beings of that world. There’s a teleological neatness here, a reassurance of ideal order.
LOTR is all about the restoration of true identity and the return home after the great journey. I’ve run into readers who’ve expressed frustration with the end of The Return of the King; the book’s ending seems stretched out, elongated. After epic battle, there’s something deflationary about the hobbits’ returning to the Shire. But this is one of the major points of Tolkien’s process: the heroes must return to the domestic sphere, authority conferred upon them by their dramatic encounters with the sublime. They will now put to their own community back to order.
Martin’s book could not be more opposite. While LOTR is about restoring order and expunging the polluting evil (from the swarthy south and the dark east) from a pure, now stable realm, ASOIAF explores the disruption, dissolution, and fragmentation of a continent in the midst of civil war. Tolkien wrote of war too, with bitter darkness, to be sure, but his epical, heroic mode makes little room for depicting the visceral horror of war. Nor does he concern himself with the Machiavellian intrigue that harnesses and exploits the rage of war. Tolkien’s characters are motivated by pure, intrinsic, and very black-or-white ideals; characters without these ideals (like Gollum or Denethor) are presented as insane.
In contrast, Martin’s plot catalogs the constantly shifting allegiances (both intra- and inter-family), betrayals, alliances, and upstarts that repeatedly throw his characters into new roles, new stations, new names. Martin’s camera is also keenly attuned to the Darwinian struggle that underwrites all existence, a struggle that war dramatizes. Martin’s books are, quite frankly, some of the most violent stuff I’ve ever read, full of beheading, mutilation, disemboweling, rape, and murder. He also takes great pains to show the way that war impoverishes the most vulnerable of people, taking food out of their mouths and obliterating their families. Martin’s engagement with political machinations and radical violence put his books closer to Blood Meridian or Wolf Hall, in many ways, than to standard fantasy fare.
To be clear, I am in no way arguing that LOTR, one of my favorite books of all time, is “standard fantasy fare.” LOTR obviously established many of the tropes and codified the themes and archetypes for the contemporary publishing genre that we call “fantasy.” We can also all recognize that much of what comes out of this genre (Robert Jordan comes to mind) is vile, flat, affectless dreck. Reductionist attitudes and vague misconceptions still keep some readers from recognizing that LOTR is a fully-realized work of meaningful, historically and artistically important literature. Similar attitudes and misconceptions might keep readers away—unnecessarily—from ASOIAF, a work that, like LOTR before it, invents a new idiom in storytelling. ASOIAF complicates claims of narrative truth, critiques patriarchy, reconceives what constitutes family, disrupts traditional archetypes, destabilizes ideal identity, decenters moral authority, and subverts narratological expectation. In short, Martin may have given us the definitive postmodern “fantasy” novel.
Martin layers these themes through his strange (and estranged) characters, shifting between them in point of view chapters written in the free-indirect style of late modernism. LOTR codifies an allegorical good vs. evil narrative, one that rests on the destruction of a magical object and the restoration of a “true” king. The narrative of LOTR is thus direct, teleological, and closed to outside narrativization. Put another way, we’re not getting the orc’s point of view (although that has been done). Martin’s narrative rejects the notion of a stable absolute truth, authority, or even identity. A civil war drives his narrative, a bloody competition between self-proclaimed kings, whose war machines dramatize Darwinian competition; this theme doubles in the Oedipal infighting and conflicts between and within the great Houses of Westeros, Martin’s world.
There are a few “traditional” epic heroes in Martin’s work, or at least the types of characters one might expect a fantasy adventure to focus on—dashing knights, regal kings, wise old men. Instead of focusing on these people and their hopes and fears and desires, Martin trains his camera on characters marginalized, outcast, or outright threatened by the patriarchy: a dwarf, an little girl, a mother, a bastard with no rights of inheritance, a crippled boy, an exiled teenage girl who must create her new identity piecemeal . . . As a point of contrast to these characters, who find their circumstances constantly inverted and disrupted, in the first book, A Game of Thrones, Martin allows his POV chapters to hover around the consciousness (and rigid conscience) of Lord Eddard Stark (“Ned”), arguably the closest thing the series has to an initial hero (uh, BIG SPOILER ahead; skip the rest of this paragraph to avoid it). Ned’s worldview is rigid and clear, tempered by a love and duty for both his family and the people he has sworn to protect. He is a good man, but his goodness, his love and his righteousness are not sentimental. In a key opening scene, Ned carries out the execution of a man who has broken an oath. As Lord, it is his duty to condemn the man, but Ned chooses to behead the man himself, not because he relishes bloodshed but because he finds bloodshed revolting—in short, he must remind himself at all times of life’s cost. In an ironic plot twist, Ned is beheaded himself in an act of betrayal; the moment is shocking. It signifies, on one hand, Martin severing his book’s narrative from traditional ideals of honor and justice; narratologically, it removes its characters from the protection of ideal and honor. Ned’s death is not a death of self-sacrifice. It is not heroic, nor does it posit apotheosis or rebirth. It is simply grim, ugly, and violent. The violence of war does not follow the narratives that we might like to subscribe to.
Although Martin’s books are gritty and concrete, with characters motivated by ever-shifting tendrils of intrigue, they nevertheless contain metaphysical elements. However, the magical parts of ASOIAF are slight, obscured to most of its characters who treat the idea of magic and magical beings with the same skepticism and cynicism that we find in our own world. If LOTR shows a world where magic is slowly leaving the world to make way for a new age, ASOIAF describes a world where the metaphysical detritus of the past begins to improbably thaw and return. These small but important magical eruptions are set against the the political infighting and civil war of Westeros. The great arc of A Series of Ice and Fire, which will reportedly run to seven books, seems to point to a larger conflict between the humans and a strange group of beings, significantly named The Others.
As much as I enjoyed and admire Martin’s first three books, I’m unsure if I will continue the series. I consumed Thrones, Kings, and Swords with a greedy gusto—even when he killed off characters I’d grown to care about, or otherwise disrupted my expectations. These narratives are rich, complex, and engrossing. Martin has a keen ear for Medieval dialogue, his mystery plots demand engagement, and life-or-death drama evokes adventure and invokes pathos without ever dipping into crudity or sentimentality. What’s most intriguing though is Martin’s analysis of war and politics; ASOIAF, through its many viewpoints, evaluates a world in turmoil with a precise intelligence and surprising wisdom. So, why do I say that I’m not sure if I’ll keep going?
Simply put, I started the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, and it’s just bloody awful. Could be that I just can’t stand the narration of John Lee, who seems to be channeling Christopher Lee doing Vincent Price doing Edgar Allan Poe. I hated Lee’s narration of China Miéville’s novel Kraken so much that I abandoned it. Roy Dotrice did a marvelous job bringing spirit to Martin’s novels; Lee’s sonorous sing-song is an amorphous mess. I was taken aback, to be sure, but I also wanted very much to know what the hell happened to my favorite characters after Swords. The mp3s of the book are titled after the character that they follow; a quick scan followed by some basic research revealed that this fourth book wasn’t going to pick up much about the fates of the characters I’m interested in. Scanning a few reviews of Crows, I see that it was not well-received, even by (especially by) Martin’s hardcore fans. The consensus seems to be that the book sprawls too much, splashes over the early boundaries Martin had set for himself. Teleological narratives like Lord of the Rings guarantee tidy resolution for their audiences; Martin’s post-modern narrative seems to insist, even before its half-way mark, that even an archetypal conclusion will be impossible. So I’ll follow his lead, and leave my review open-ended. I’d love to hear from any readers who have suggestions about the fourth and fifth books of A Song of Ice and Fire.
With Memorial Day ’11 just a memory and Labor Day warning off the wearing of white, I revisit some of the best books I read this summer:
Although I posted a review of Roberto Bolaño’s collection Between Parentheses two weeks before Memorial Day, I continued to read and reread the book over the entire summer. It was the gift that kept giving, a kind of blurry filter for the summer heat, a rambling literary dictionary for book thieves. For example, when I started Witold Gombrowicz’s Trans-Atlantyk a week or two ago, I spent a beer-soaked midnight tracing through Bolaño’s many notations on the Polish self-exile.
Trans-Atlantyk also goes on this list, or a sub-list of this list: great books that I’ve read, been reading (or in some cases, listened to/am listening to) but have not yet reviewed. I finished Trans-Atlantyk at two AM Sunday morning (surely the intellectual antidote to having watched twelve hours of college football that day) and it’s one of the strangest, most perplexing books I’ve ever read—and that’s saying something. Full review when I can process the book (or at least process the idea of processing the book).
I also read and absolutely loved Russell Hoban’s Kleinzeit, which is almost as bizarre as Trans-Atlantyk; like that novel (and Hoban’s cult classic Riddley Walker), Kleinzeit is written in its own idiom, an animist world where concepts like Death and Action and Hospital and even God become concrete characters. It’s funny and sad. Also funny and sad: Christopher Boucher’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (new from Melville House). Like Trans-Atlantyk and Kleinzheit, Volkswagen is composed in its own language, a concrete surrealism full of mismatched metaphorical displacements. It’s a rare bird, an experimental novel with a great big heart. Full reviews forthcoming.
I’ll be running a review of Evelio Rosero’s new novel Good Offices this week, but I read it two sittings at the beginning of August and it certainly belongs on this list. It’s a compact and spirited satire of corruption in a Catholic church in Bogotá, unwinding almost like a stage play over the course of a few hours in one life-changing evening for a hunchback and his friends. Good stuff.
On the audiobook front, I’ve been working my way through George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series; I finished the first audiobook, A Game of Thrones, after enjoying the HBO series, and then moved into the second book, A Clash of Kings, which I’m only a few hours from completing. I think that the HBO series, which follows the first book fairly faithfully, is much closer to The Wire or Deadwood than it is to Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films—the story is less about fantasy and magic than it is about political intrigue during an ongoing civil war. This is a world where honor and chivalry, not to mention magic and dragons, have disappeared, replaced by Machiavellian cunning and schemers of every stripe. Martin slowly releases fantastic elements into this largely desacralized world, contesting his characters’ notions of order and meaning. There are also beheadings. Lots and lots of beheadings. The books are a contemporary English department’s wet dream, by the by. Martin’s epic concerns decentered authority; it critiques power as a constantly shifting set of differential relations lacking a magical centering force. He also tells his story through multiple viewpoints, eschewing the glowing third person omniscient lens that usually focuses on grand heroes in fantasy, and concentrates instead, via a sharp free indirect style, on protagonists who have been relegated to the margins of heroism: a dwarf, a cripple, a bastard, a mother trying to hold her family together, a teenage exile . . . good stuff.
Leo Tolstoy’s final work Hadji Murad also depicts a world of shifting power, civil war, unstable alliances, and beheadings (although not as many as in Martin’s books). Hadji Murad tells the story of the real-life Caucasian Avar general Hadji Murad who fought under Imam Shamil, the leader of the Muslim tribes of the Northern Caucuses; Shamil was Russia’s greatest foe. This novel concerns Murad’s attempt to defect to the Russians and save his family, which Shamil has captured. The book is a richly detailed and surprisingly funny critique of power and violence.
William Faulkner’s Light in August might be the best book I read this summer; it’s certainly the sweatiest, headiest, and grossest, filled with all sorts of vile abjection and hatred. Faulkner’s writing is thick, archaeological even, plowing through layers of Southern sediment to dig up and reanimate old corpses. The book is somehow both nauseating and vital. Not a pleasant read, to be honest, but one that sticks with you—sticks in you even—long after the last page.
Although David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King was released in the spring, I didn’t start reading it until June; too much buzz in my ears. If you’ve avoided reading it so far because of the hype, fair enough—but don’t neglect it completely. It’s a beautiful, frustrating, and extremely rewarding read.
Speaking of fragments from dead writers: part two of Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich, published in the summer issue of The Paris Review, was a perfect treat over the July 4th weekend. I’m enjoying the suspense of a serialized novel far more than I would have imagined.
Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation is probably the funniest, wisest, and most moving work of cultural studies I’ve ever read. Unlike many of the tomes that clutter academia, Humiliation is accessible, humorous, and loving, a work of philosophical inquiry that also functions as cultural memoir. Despite its subject of pain and abjection, it repeatedly offers solutions when it can, and consolation and sympathy when it cannot.
So the second posthumously published, unfinished novel from a suicide I read this summer was Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden, the sultry strange tale of a doomed ménage à trois. (I’m as humiliated by that last phrase as you might be, dear reader. Sorry). Hemingway’s story of young beautiful newlyweds drinking and screwing and eating their way across the French Riviera is probably the weirdest thing he ever wrote. It’s a story of gender reversals, the problems of a three-way marriage, elephant hunting, bizarre haircuts, and heavy, heavy drinking. The Garden of Eden is perhaps Hemingway at his most self-critical; it’s a study in how Hemingway writes (his protagonist and stand-in is a rising author) that also actively critiques his shortcomings (as both author and human). The Garden of Eden should not be overlooked when working through Hemingway’s oeuvre. I’d love to see a critical edition with the full text someday (the novel that Scribner published pared down Hemingway’s unfinished manuscript to about a third of its size).
Also fragmentary fun: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Notebooks. Like Twitter before Twitter, sort of.
These weren’t the only books I read this summer but they were the best.