In Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2015 novel The Buried Giant, a metaphysical mist engulfs sixth-century Britain, clouding the memories of all who inhabit the land. Saxons and Britons alike cannot recall their bellicose past. Against this mist, elderly Britons Axl and Beatrice seek their long-lost son. They meet a Saxon warrior who hunts an ancient she-dragon he’s vowed to slay. He’s aided by a youth, Edwin, who’s been exiled from his village after being bitten by a mythic creature. King Arthur’s aged nephew Sir Gawain lingers as a courtly protector, a figure from an already-bygone era; the mist seems to slowly rot his brain and his conscience, pushing him into paranoia and madness. There are Charonic ferrymen and awful ogres; there are mad monks and terrible pixies. A hellhound, a dragon, a poisoned goat. Rivers and mountains and crypts and villages. But most of all that mist.
Ishiguro makes the reader experience that mist. He obscures. The action that occurs—and yes, there’s action here, measured action (often measured in a literal sense)—the action that occurs in The Buried Giant is almost always oblique, shadowed, indistinct, but also very mechanical. The memory-mist renders the world treacherous, immediate, a dark, vague place that offers its travelers no purchase of reference. Deceptive.
Forgive me for quoting at such length, but I think a longish passage here shows how and what Ishiguro is doing. Almost all of our principals are here, underground—note their procession, their movement—a constant motif in the novel, movement, single file or side by side—and the presence of a light, illumination—also a motif. Note the variety of interpretations of not knowing, not seeing, note the simple horror:
They went on into the tunnel, Sir Gawain leading, Axl following with the flame, Beatrice holding his arm from behind, and Edwin now at the rear. There was no option but to go in single file, the passage remaining narrow, and the ceiling of dangling moss and sinewy roots grew lower and lower until even Beatrice had to stoop. Axl did his best to hold the candle high, but the breeze in the tunnel was now stronger, and he was often obliged to lower it and cover the flame with his other hand. Sir Gawain though never complained, and his shape going before them, sword raised over his shoulder, seemed never to vary. Then Beatrice let out an exclamation and tugged Axl’s arm.
“What is it, princess?”
“Oh, Axl, stop! My foot touched something then, but your candle moved too quickly.”
“What of it, princess? We have to move on.”
“Axl, I thought it a child! My foot touched it and I saw it before your light passed. Oh, I believe it’s a small child long dead!”
“There, princess, don’t distress yourself. Where was it you saw it?”
“Come, come, friends,” Sir Gawain said from the dark. “Many things in this place are best left unseen.”
Beatrice seemed not to hear the knight. “It was over here, Axl. Bring the flame this way. Down there, Axl, shine it down there, though I dread to see its poor face again!”
Despite his counsel, Sir Gawain had doubled back, and Edwin too was now at Beatrice’s side. Axl crouched forward and moved the candle here and there, revealing damp earth, tree roots and stones. Then the flame illuminated a large bat lying on its back as though peacefully asleep, wings stretched right out. Its fur looked wet and sticky. The pig-like face was hairless, and little puddles had formed in the cavities of the outspread wings. The creature might indeed have been sleeping but for what was on the front of its torso. As Axl brought the flame even closer, they all stared at the circular hole extending from just below the bat’s breast down to its belly, taking in parts of the ribcage to either side. The wound was peculiarly clean, as though someone had taken a bite from a crisp apple.
“What could have done work like this?” Axl asked.
He must have moved the candle too swiftly, for at that moment the flame guttered and went out.
Ishiguro gives us mystery, interpretation, and then an incomplete, ambiguous revelation. (This is the basic structure of the novel). Beatrice never relents in her belief that she’s stumbled over a dead child. Brimming with lost children and lost parents and orphans, The Buried Giant is a novel of erasures. But an erasure leaves a trace, a violent, visceral marking into the page’s blankness. Revelation through absence.
We would have no plot, not really, without some overcoming of blankness, and Axl in particular overcomes the mist in his quest. A backstory fleshes out, in watery strokes albeit. The Buried Giant, as far as fantasy epics go, is awfully indistinct. Or rather, Ishiguro offers only mechanical and immediate glimpses into this world, a Britain on the cusp of the Middle Ages. Through Axl’s consciousness (and conscience), we see the vital precision in hand-to-hand combat, for example. Its patience, its slowness, its dependence on muscle memory. Or perhaps (dare I say) more boringly, we feel the very real peril involved in walking in the wild dark as an elderly person. The thrills in The Buried Giant come not from its sword and sorcery costumes, but from its Kafkaesque edges and gaps. This is a novel about not knowing.
And it’s here that The Buried Giant is most successful—as an evocation of not knowing. Axl and Beatrice’s quest unfolds as a series of choices and consequences severed, for the most part, from the anchor of memory. There’s an episodic vibe to the novel, a sense that it’s making itself up as it goes along. (It’s not). The novel strongly reminded me of some of the old RPGs I’d play on a Commodore 64 as a kid. The graphics weren’t great and I had to use my imagination a lot. The games were sometimes frustrating and slow. But perhaps you want a more, uh, literary comparison? Something more recent too? The Buried Giant recalls Ishiguro’s short story “A Village after Dark” a lot more than, say, A Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings. It’s a fantasy novel, but one that feels etiolated, its vivid colors drained. More Gustave Doré than Gustave Moreau.
While a precise indistinctness (forgive the oxymoron) is part of The Buried Giant’s program, there’s nothing indistinct about its heroes’ love for each other. Axl and Beatrice, A & B—can I say I came to love them? Or if I didn’t quite love them, I was rooting for them, say? Rooting for their survival, but specifically their survival as a they, a shared survival. Ishiguro successfully communicates their intimacy, their romance, their love, a love threatened by both the natural world and the supernatural return of lost memory. Their relationship is the heart of the novel upon which Ishiguro fixes his themes of memory, justice, vengeance, and love. Ishiguro’s commentary on those themes ultimately may feel pessimistic to many readers, particularly in the novel’s conclusion.
Excepting the ones that we love and return to and obsess over, we retain little of the novels that we read. What memories remain are kernels—the outline of a plot, a strange lingering phrase or detail, a bright or bold character, a theme, an idea, an image. It’s the love between Axl and Beatrice that I’ll likely recall most strongly from the shadows of The Buried Giant. If we can’t remember, we can at least experience.
RIP Tanith Lee, 1947-2015
Publisher Tor has reported Tanith Lee’s death. She was the author of nearly 100 books in various genres, including fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. I probably read a dozen of those books between the ages of ten and thirteen, but the one I most remember is her first novel, The Dragon Hoard, which I still have a copy of somewhere, nestled neatly by tattered copies of The Once and Future King, The Halfmen of O, and The Hobbit.
I don’t remember the plot of The Dragon Hoard so much as I remember the kind librarian who suggested it to me (I asked for “Something with dragons”). I also remember my reaction to the author’s first name: “Tanith” sounded like the name of a fantasy character. I know I first read the book viat the library but at some point I must’ve conned my mother into buying it for me. I know I read whatever other book’s our little local library held by her. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t conscious of any of the feminist themes in her work, but I’d like to think they seeped in somehow.
I found the pic for this post–it’s Lee’s PR pic–at an appreciation of Tanith Lee by Alison Flood published at The Guardian. I’m glad that it was published when Lee was alive.
“How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art upon the Gnoles”
Despite the advertisements of rival firms, it is probable that every tradesman knows that nobody in business at the present time has a position equal to that of Mr. Nuth. To those outside the magic circle of business, his name is scarcely known; he does not need to advertise, he is consummate. He is superior even to modern competition, and, whatever claims they boast, his rivals know it. His terms are moderate, so much cash down when the goods are delivered, so much in blackmail afterwards. He consults your convenience. His skill may be counted upon; I have seen a shadow on a windy night move more noisily than Nuth, for Nuth is a burglar by trade. Men have been known to stay in country houses and to send a dealer afterwards to bargain for a piece of tapestry that they saw there—some article of furniture, some picture. This is bad taste: but those whose culture is more elegant invariably send Nuth a night or two after their visit. He has a way with tapestry; you would scarcely notice that the edges had been cut. And often when I see some huge, new house full of old furniture and portraits from other ages, I say to myself, “These mouldering chairs, these full-length ancestors and carved mahogany are the produce of the incomparable Nuth.”
It may be urged against my use of the word incomparable that in the burglary business the name of Slith stands paramount and alone; and of this I am not ignorant; but Slith is a classic, and lived long ago, and knew nothing at all of modern competition; besides which the surprising nature of his doom has possibly cast a glamour upon Slith that exaggerates in our eyes his undoubted merits. Continue reading ““How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art upon the Gnoles” — Lord Dunsany”
Brian Catling’s historical-fantasy novel The Vorrh is getting a U.S. publication next year from Vintage. I’m thinking that the actual cover will be that image on the upperish-mid-left side of the back cover of the uncorrected proof I got. Vintage also send this neat little string-bound teaser that consists of Alan Moore’s gushing introduction to The Vorrh and an interview with Catling. The cover is one of Catlin’s paintings.
The Vorrh follows a brilliant cast of characters through a parallel Africa where fact, fiction, and fantasy collide. Tsungali, a native marksman conscripted by the colonial authorities–against whom he once led a revolt–is on the hunt for an English bowman named Williams. Williams has made it his mission to become the first human to traverse the Vorrh, a vast forest at the edge of the colonial city of Essenwald. The Vorrh is endless, eternal; a place of demons and angels. Sentient, oppressive, and magical, the Vorrh can bend time and wipe a person’s memory. Between the hunter and the hunted are Ishmael, a curious and noble Cyclops raised by Bakelite robots; the evil Dr. Hoffman, who punishes the son of a servant by surgically inverting his hands; and the slave owner MacLeish, who drives his workers to insanity, only to pay the ultimate price. Along with these fictional creations, Brian Catling mixes in historical figures, including surrealist Raymond Roussel and photographer and Edward Muybridge. In this author’s hands none of this seems exotic or fantastical. It all simply is.
(More at Nicola Verlota’s website).
News that J.J. Abrams will direct the seventh Star Wars film almost broke the internet yesterday. It’s easy to see why anyone who nerds out over franchise properties would take interest. After all, Abrams helmed the 2009 big-screen reboot of Star Trek, a film that shook the camp and cheese from the franchise’s previous films, replacing it with hip humor, thrilling action, and lots and lots of lens flare. Abrams’s sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness is perhaps the most anticipated franchise film of the year.
I won’t speculate whether an Abrams Star Wars film will be successful or not—you probably wouldn’t want me to, because I hold the extreme minority opinion that Lucas’s Revenge of the Sith is a deeply profound and moving work of cinema art—but I do think that the choice to hand the next big film in the Star Wars franchise over to Abrams represents the worst in corporate thinking. This goes beyond the playground logic of Abrams swiping all the marbles—he gets both the “Star” franchises!—what it really points to is the bland, safe commercial mindset that guides the corporations who own these franchises. J.J. Abrams is a safe bet. I can more or less already imagine the movie he’ll make.
Star Wars: A New Hope came out in 1977, perhaps at the exact moment that the innovations of the “New Hollywood” movement crested (before Heaven’s Gate crashed the whole damn thing in 1980). The films of this decade—Badlands, The Godfather films, Bonnie & Clyde, Chinatown, Nashville, Dr. Strangelove, etc.—helped to redefine film as art; they also captured and illustrated a zeitgeist that’s almost impossible to define. And while plenty of filmmakers today continue in this spirit, their films are often pushed into the margins. The Hollywood studio system is tangled up in big budget spectacle. I have no problem with this, but at the same time I think that there’s something sad in it all—in the bland safety of having Abrams turn out Star Wars and Star Trek films—it all points to a beige homogeneity.
The problem I’m talking about is neatly summed up by Gus Van Sant in a 2008 interview with The Believer:
So, there were some projects I never really could get going, and one of them was Psycho. It was a project that I suggested earlier in the ’90s. It was the first time that I was able to actually do what I suggested. And the reason that I suggested Psycho to them was partly the artistic appropriation side, but it was also partly because I had been in the business long enough that I was aware of certain executives’ desires. The most interesting films that studios want to be making are sequels. They would rather make sequels than make the originals, which is always a kind of a funny Catch-22.
They have to make Bourne Identity before they make Bourne Ultimatum. They don’t really want to make Bourne Identity because it’s a trial thing. But they really want to make Bourne Ultimatum. So it was an idea I had—you know, why don’t you guys just start remaking your hits.
Lately it seems that the studios trip over themselves to reboot their franchises—the latest Spider-Man film (the one you probably forgot existed) being a choice example of corporate venality. In a way, it’s fascinating that Sam Raimi, something of an outsider director, was allowed to do the first Spider-Man films at all. Of course, now and then a franchise film (or potential franchise film) winds up in the hands of an auteur—take Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, for example. Alfonso Cuarón’s third entry in the franchise can stand on its own (it certainly saved the franchise from the tepid visions of Chris Columbus). Even stranger, take Paul Verhoeven’s films RoboCop and Starship Troopers. These films were brilliant subversive satires, and what did Hollywood do to the movies that came after them? These franchises devolved into flavorless, flawed, run of the mill muck.
Of course, entertainment conglomerates have good (economic) reasons to “protect” their product. David Lynch’s Dune remains one of the great cautionary tales in recent cinema history. What could have reinvigorated “New Hollywood” instead proved a disastrous flop. Dune never panned out as the blockbuster franchise that it could have been; instead, it gets to hang out in a strange limbo, greeting newer arrivals like Chris Weitz’s atrocious adaptation of The Golden Compass and Andrew Stanton’s underrated John Carter from Mars. It’s actually sort of surreal that we even got a Dune film by David Lynch, complete with Kyle MacLachlan, Brad Dourif, Jack Nance, and fucking Sting.
What’s even weirder is that Alejandro Jodorowsky tried to adapt Dune, working with artists H.R. Geiger and Moebius. (Jodorowsky also planned to involve Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and Karlheinz Stockhausen among others in the film). What a Jodorowsky Dune film might have looked like is a constant source of frustrated fun for film buffs.
But what about a Star Wars film by Jodorowsky? What might that look like?
Sean Hartter imagines such prospects in his marvelous posters for films from an alternative universe. Hartter’s posters—most of which include not just cast and director but also specific studios, producers, and soundtrack composers and musicians—conjure up wonderful could-have-beens. They posit the kind of daring spirit and experimentalism I’d like to see more of from Hollywood franchises.
Most Hollywood franchises revere the illusion of stability in the property—the idea of a constancy of character throughout film to film. Even a franchise like the James Bond films, with its ever-rotating leads, tries to create the guise of a stable aesthetic along with narrative continuity. I would love to see something closer to the Alien franchise, the only line of films I can think of where each film bears the distinctive mark of its respective filmmaker; even if I don’t think Fincher’s Alien 3 is a particularly good film, at least it feels and looks and sounds like a Fincher film and not a weak approximation of a Cameron blockbuster or a stock repetition of Scott’s space horror (and Jeunet’s Resurrection—how weird is that one!).
But back to Bond for a moment—wouldn’t it be great to see Wes Anderson do James Bond, but as a Wes Anderson film? Or Werner Herzog? Or Cronenberg? What would Jane Campion do with Bond? (I’m tempted to add Jim Jarmusch, but he already made an excellent James Bond film called The Limits of Control). I’d love to see a range of auteur versions of the franchise. (Similarly, I’ve recently been fascinated by the way certain cult artists render major corporate franchise characters, like Dave Sim doing Iron Man, or Moebius doing Spider-Man, or Jaime Hernandez doing Wonder Woman). Obviously this fantasy will never happen—the auteur would have to have complete control—a Coen brothers’ Bond film would have to be first and foremost a Coen brothers film, not a 007 film—but hey, just like with Hartter’s posters, it’s fun to pretend.
Imagine a year of James Bond movies, one a month, featuring different directors, actors, studios, production designs. 007 films from Spike Lee, Tarantino, Almodavar, Lynne Ramsay, Lynch, Wong Kar Wai.
What would a Wong Kar Wai James Bond film look like?
What would a Wong Kar Wai Star Wars film look like?
I don’t know. I imagine it would be beautiful and moody and at times impressionistic. I imagine its narrative would tend toward obliqueness. I imagine it might infuriate die-hard fans (I imagine this last part with a big grin). I imagine that it would easily be the most human Star Wars film.
But beyond that, it’s hard to imagine what a Wong Kar Wai Star Wars film might look and sound and feel like because his films are powerful and moving and evoke the kind of imaginative capacity that marks great art, great original and originating art. Put another way, I can’t really imagine what a Wong Kar Wai Star Wars film would look like—which is precisely why I’d love to see one.
(More at Nicola Verlota’s website).
The spectacle obliterates the boundaries between self and world by crushing the self besieged by the presence-absence of the world. It also obliterates the boundaries between true and false by repressing all directly lived truth beneath the real presence of the falsehood maintained by the organization of appearances. Individuals who passively accept their subjection to an alien everyday reality are thus driven toward a madness that reacts to this fate by resorting to illusory magical techniques. The essence of this pseudoresponse to an unanswerable communication is the acceptance and consumption of commodities. The consumer’s compulsion to imitate is a truly infantile need, conditioned by all the aspects of his fundamental dispossession. As Gabel puts it in describing a quite different level of pathology, “the abnormal need for representation compensates for an agonizing feeling of being at the margin of existence.”
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (section 219).
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 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.
UPDATE (3 Jan 2013):
I ended up reading the fourth/fifth ones.
In the comments section, Jeff Schwaner offers an excellent description of Martin’s project:
Nothing comes to an end in Martin’s book. Fortunes continue to change, that big wheel keeps turning and crushes a few more characters underfoot and, as Melville writes, “then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” Even the most dramatic stories sink and lose their primacy, replaced by the newest wave, which is only the shape of a thing and not a thing itself. Which is, at least I think, part of Martin’s point. Longest story short, it is definitely worth reading the rest.
Martin clearly intends to disrupt (and therefore dissatisfy) our expectations about what a narrative should do. However, there’s only so much of that that I think can stick. Once a reader figures out what Martin’s doing, the project gets rather dull (fourth book in particular)—we’re repeatedly asked to care about characters that we can expect to die at any second; Martin seems more interested in describing clothes and food and drink than getting down to the schemes and mysteries that make the first three books so engaging.
I understand the fantasy he’s disrupting in deconstructive terms: authority (its metonymy in crowns, thrones, swords, armies, dragons, etc.) is always displaced; there is no conclusive “ending,” despite what we are asked to believe (Return of the Queen; Winter Is Coming; White Walkers Are Coming; New Gods, etc.). The story started in media res and will end in media res.For me, this is engaging from a theoretical standpoint, but as a reader (and a reader who wants to read, like, *everything*) so much of ASOIAF comes across as the act of a plate-spinner, a bag of entertaining tricks that distract you from the fact that there’s nothing beyond the act itself.
But I’ll almost undoubtedly read the sixth one if he ever finishes it.
Fantasy gets a bad rap. While science-fiction has enjoyed something of a restoration of sanctified hipness in recent years, thanks in part to the genre-bending efforts of authors like David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Lethem, as well as a reappraisal of the works of authors like Philip K. Dick and Margaret Atwood, novels that find themselves classified in the fantasy genre can often be outright dismissed as having no artistic or literary merit. Amazingly, even the work of king daddy J.R.R. Tolkien still finds itself in need of critical defense from time to time. And while fantasy certainly has more than its fair share of rote genre exercises, including countless copycat cash-ins, it’s also an imaginative space buzzing with invention and the capacity for social commentary. Sandra McDonald’s Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories exemplifies the best kind of invention and social commentary that we might expect from post-modern fantasy.
Diana Comet collects fifteen stories connected via shared motifs, characters, and settings. McDonald crafts a world that inverts or displaces our own. This world, with its lands like New Dalli and Massasoit, is slightly decentered from our own: we find familiar iterations of our history here—there’s war and imperialism, colonialism and poverty, homophobia and racism—but the idioms are all slightly off, displaced enough be paradoxically familiar and alienating at the same time. “Diana Comet and the Lovesick Cowboy,” for instance, seems set in a 19th-century American milieu amidst a civil war (there’s even a poet named Whit Waltman), yet the transposition, articulate as it is, is also nebulous, disturbing even. McDonald’s spare distortion forces the reader to reconsider his own notions of cultural history, and she does this to great effect, whether taking on gender ideologies (“Diana Comet and the Disappearing Lover”), homophobia (“The Fireman’s Fairy”), or racism (“Fay and the Goddesses”). None of these issues are presented glibly, didactically, or clumsily; indeed, it’s through the slightest distortions of fantastic imagination that the reader must re-examine his own society through McDonald’s reflective lens. Most of the stories end with enumerated discussion questions, often silly or whimsical, that serve to puncture the seriousness of the tales; they sometimes force details from our “real” world into the texts of Diana Comet in a way that’s doubly disconcerting. It’s a meta-textual gambit that pays off, however, both in belying any self-seriousness to the narrative proper as well as establishing a thin membrane between fantasy and reality—a membrane of questions that allows the reader to “play,” to disrupt that boundary through his or her own imagination.
McDonald’s world-building in Diana Comet never comes at the expense of good storytelling. With a few exceptions, most of the stories here piece together the frame of a world, leaving the reader’s imagination to fill in most of the gaps. Most of the stories seem to take place in an iteration of the nineteenth century, but some to be set earlier, later, and even in a displaced future, like “Kingdom Coming,” a playful apocalypse tale. McDonald’s expositive restraint does wonders; too many writers of inventive fiction feel the need to tell the reader every single detail and nuance of their worlds. I think here of Ursula K. LeGuin’s marvelous novel The Left Hand of Darkness, a book toward which I believe Diana Comet bears considerable comparison, particularly with respect to the exploration of how gender and sexuality functions in a society. While LeGuin’s book is terrific and fully-realized, she spends a bit too much narrative energy transmitting every detail of that realization to her audience. Diana Comet is rewarding in its gaps and mysteries, as well as its ability to evoke a sense of the uncanny in its reader. Oh, I should probably add that McDonald can write; her prose is elegant, lively, wry, and spare.
Diana Comet is a smart, thoughtful post-modern fantasy that may appeal to the kids out there who have outgrown the narrative simplicity of Harry Potter and are looking for a challenge; it will undoubtedly appeal to fans of writers like LeGuin and Atwood, writers who know how to channel narrative traditional tropes of imaginative fiction through distortion and ambiguity and force their readers to think, even as they entertain. Recommended.
According to a number of sources, including Neil Gaiman and the fan-operated site she approved of, author Diana Wynne Jones has passed away after fighting cancer. Jones wrote dozens of novels, mostly in the fantasy genre, for adults and children alike, although she is perhaps most known for Howl’s Moving Castle, which Hayao Miyazaki adapted into an excellent film in 2004. Jones’s work bears comparison to the Harry Potter series, and recent reissues of her novels insure that a younger generation will have access to her work.
The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, Helen Grant’s debut novel, negotiates the razor’s edge between childhood’s rich fantasy world and the grim reality of adult life. When young girls start disappearing in her small German village, eleven year old protagonist Pia sets out to investigate, armed with her powers of imagination–an imagination fueled by the Grimmish tales spun by her elderly friend Herr Schiller for the pleasure of Pia and her only friend, StinkStefan. Like poor Stefan, Pia is ostracized by the town after her grandmother spontaneously combusts on Christmas. She takes to playing detective, but as she investigates the girls’ disappearances, the illusions of her fantasy life cannot protect her. As the story builds to its sinister climax, it reminds us that most of the folktales we grew up with are far darker than we tend to remember.
The Vanishing of Katharina Linden makes its American debut this month from Delacorte Press.