Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Review: The Wake

The Wake The Wake by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This one feels like the kind of album a good band puts out after it breaks up and gets back together again. A couple of the “songs” sound familiar, reminding you of what you liked about the band in the first place. (That would be the first couple episodes, the ones that Gaiman tells us in the afterword were colored by the memorial service for the great Roger Zelazny, who died around that time and whose Amber chronicles are, for me, one of the great fantasy accomplishments.) One is a real hit – “Sunday Mourning” – and others take the comeback too far.

For me, “Sunday Mourning” is Gaiman doing what he does best: exploring the human contradictions within the mythology he has established. Robert Gadling has lived almost forever. We’ve seen him as Morpheus’s friend throughout, and they had a once-a-century appointment. He’s a fairly ordinary man with an extraordinary gift, and here he confronts a metaphysics changed by Morpheus’s death. It’s interesting at a human level – will he want to continue living if yet another of the consistencies of his life has vanished – and it’s interesting as an allegory. He is Everyman, and Morpheus has been his guide in many things. Morpheus’s death means he has to find his own way more dramatically than ever before.

We readers are, of course, Everyman and Everywoman ourselves. If something ancient of Dream has shifted, we too have to confront new classes of dreaming. It’s frightening but exhilarating, and that’s how Gadling comes to see it.

And, throughout, Gaiman is funny, something he sometimes misses the mark on.

At the other extreme, I don’t have much patience for the final episode, “The Tempest.” Gaiman tells us in the afterword that he thinks the series has always been about the nature of writing – and I’ll buy that at some point – but I find the whole Morpheus/Shakespeare collaboration overdone. I didn’t like it volumes ago when Morpheus essentially commissioned A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I don’t like it here. If you don’t know The Tempest, I assume it’s frustrating. If you know it fairly well (and I suppose I do, having studied it in grad school and read it many times) then there isn’t much new.

Instead, the gambit works for people who sort of know the play, who, for generally admirable reasons, want to know it better. It feels good to be able to acknowledge one of Gaiman’s references to the play or to Shakespeare’s life and friends, but the bottom-line question is whether Shakespeare saw himself as Prospero breaking his staff. With the answer implicitly yes, there’s the deep awkwardness of Gaiman very publicly breaking his own “staff” – the franchise that is The Sandman.

Look, this is good stuff, but it’s embarrassing to ask to have it measured against the best of Shakespeare. This isn’t that at all, and the very good one-hit “Exiles,” in which the new Daniel/Dream intervenes in the life of a strikingly drawn Chinese vizier, would have been a far more compelling wrap-up.

Otherwise, this one is solid Sandman, which means it’s better than most graphic story work you’ll find. Still, with it getting uneven toward the end, it feels as if it was time for Gaiman’s band to break up for good and move on to its solo careers. I’ve gotten through all the albums now, and I may go back to hear some favorite cuts, but I’m ready to move on.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review: Silent Hall

Silent Hall Silent Hall by N.S. Dolkart
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I found my way to this book because I very much enjoyed Noah Beit-Aharon’s essay at Prosen People about how he came to write it as an experiment in what Jewish fantasy literature might look like. That’s an articulate essay, and it asks some of my own questions from some of my own premises. Yes as Dolkart (aka Beit-Aharon) puts it, there is a strong tradition of Jewish fantasy – think of I.B. Singer or Cynthia Ozick or Steve Stern – but there is less of a tradition of Jewish “high fantasy.” As Tolkien gave that to us, there is a Christian topos woven into the DNA. So, nu, is it possible to do it Jewish style?

(As an aside, I think there are some who have tried, most successfully Lev Grossman, whose Magicians series strikes me as an attitudinally perfect Jewish teenager’s response to the saccharine Christianity of the Narnia books.)

(As a further aside, I think there are a lot of “high fantasy” forebears – like Fritz Lieber and E.R. Eddison – who give us models of the genre without the powerful Tolkien effect. I also think that the current ‘dungeon master’ of the genre, George R.R. Martin, does a fine job of altering the Christian dualism of the form. Still, the question is a good one and worth pursuing.)

And yet, as much as I wanted to like this, I can’t. I’m afraid I can’t even finish it.

Beit-Aharon seems a fine nonfiction stylist, but I’m afraid this simply doesn’t work. The prose here is just too choppy, too awkward in its structure and tone to conduct the experiment with anything like the competence it demands.

I’ll begin with my concerns about the chapters themselves. Each of these is strikingly short – we get 8-9 pages to introduce a character, then we move onto the next. I get that this is a coming together, an origin story for our merry band, but there isn’t enough character development. It’s quantity standing in for quality.

Then, he handles the change in perspective badly. It does make sense that, say, Bandu would lack the vocabulary to name something the others know at a glance, but before long it gets clumsy. We’re moving quickly through the story, but slowly through the exposition. We too often see the same instant through different eyes. In the end, without the depth we need from fully characters, they’re all coming from the same place anyway.

And, finally, there’s a deep problem with tone. For a novel with this sort of ambition, it’s awfully fairy-tale like in its voice. We get broad strokes and dependence on an implicit sense of childhood’s mystery and danger. I can see something like that working for a novel that merely suggests the dark elements it confronts, but then it gets complicated by the devastation described: an entire island’s population dies of a god’s curse, an old woman falls overboard and drowns, men get torn to pieces by a wild boar, and bodies rot in the hot sun. Even more clumsy, we get theological/magical speculation, but it comes to us like something taught to fifth-graders.

In other words, the technique just isn’t here. I suspect I’d enjoy meeting this author very much, and I’d love to trade notes on something we both want to accomplish. This feels too much like something he wrote as a young man, though, or even as an adolescent, to be anything like the success we’d both want to see.

It pains me to say it, but I can’t recommend this at all.

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Review: The Kindly Ones

The Kindly Ones The Kindly Ones by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, this one brings it all together. I know there’s a final volume (I’ve even begun it) but this is clearly the payoff, the coming together of the whole mythology and tone. We see the high and the low, the siblings and creations of Morpheus as our Sandman slowly disintegrates.

Parts of this are stunning. At a conceptual level, I like the idea that [SPOILER] Baby Daniel becomes our new Sandman. He has the same powers but, as someone explains toward the end, he is a new perspective on things. The Morpheus we knew is gone forever. The distant human elements of him no longer exist, and the dreaming alters with his passing. Since the dreaming is different for each of us every time we enter it, we humans may not see all that that implies, but we see enough. I’m a believer that the modern dream is the ancient dream but different. You can’t spend your life seeing images on a TV screen without having that affect the kinds of dreams that come to you in your sleep.

The sweeping quality of this is nice as well. We have an ingathering of major and minor figures that feels a bit like the end of a beloved TV series with guest appearances from all the actors we saw in earlier seasons. That did make me regret yet again that there’s been no consistent artist; it’s hard to welcome someone back when, in effect, it’s a different actor portraying him or her, but I’ll let that pass for now. The illustrations here are superior to the earliest volumes, and there’s a strong visual element. Our new Dream, clad all in white, makes an effective contrast to the old one, and he promises a new range of potential stories.

So, in the end, I find this has most of the virtues of the best of the series, but that it retains some of what kept this from being as magnificent as its reputation holds. The biggest problem for me is the way Gaiman seems to know the effect he wants and therefore twists things to produce them. We’ve seen Morpheus with more power than any other than his siblings, and then we’ve seen him bested by a two-bit British antiquarian. We’ve seen him rise above all emotion, and we’ve seen him fall deeply in love. With all that, you get the classic Superman problem: how do you invent effective adversaries for someone who can beat anyone you throw his way? You do it by creating a handful of characters who are so strong that they require rewriting the rules of the universe.

And we hear a lot about “the rules” here. That seems the catch-all excuse Gaiman throws out when someone asks, with common sense, “Why did you do that if you knew it would kill you?” I don’t remember Morpheus worrying over what it would mean to kill his son Orpheus way back when, but that’s the crime he’s on the hook for. (Wouldn’t someone of Morpheus’s omniscience have a sense of what that would mean from the Furies? Maybe it’s there, but I don’t remember. And I don’t see why the Furies would then take so many volumes to get around to doing their thing.) And, sure, he promised Nuala he would grant her a boon, but couldn’t he explain that leaving the Dreaming would make him killable?

A lot of people admire Gaiman for the vastness of his mythos, but I’d prefer a tighter cast of characters, one that more clearly held to both the narrative and the tone he’s telling. Others, like the author of the introduction here, talk about when Gaiman ‘found his voice’ for the series. I’m not sure he ever does. I think he’s perpetually retrofitting what he recounts.

But, again, I’m inclined to forgive all that. If I hadn’t heard so often that this is one of the great graphic novels – the equivalent of The Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, or even Maus! – I’m sure I’d have enjoyed it even more. It isn’t at the level of those, in large part because (despite my impression from the first volume) it isn’t a graphic novel. It’s a comic book series comprised of different volumes that try different experiments. It’s full of episodes I imagine Gaiman would not redo, and it takes a while to find its full story.

This is the climax of that full story, and it clearly contains some of the best of Gaiman’s most ambitious material for the series.

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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review: Men Without Women: Stories

Men Without Women: Stories Men Without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t describe myself as one of those crazy Murakami fans, someone who’s always reading (or recently finished reading) one of the big fat ones – 1Q84, Hardboiled Wonderland, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or Kafka By the Shore – but I think I act like one. I’ll read the lesser works and, enjoying them, find myself thinking about the others. I’ll tell myself I merely enjoyed (as opposed to admired) something of his, but then I’ll keep talking about them.

In other words, it’s time to give myself an auto-intervention: I am a Murakami-aphile. I had other things on the shelf, but I couldn’t bring myself to getting to this one while it was still hot off the press.

And my reaction here is my typical reaction to Murakami: it’s good, but it isn’t quite as good as his other stuff. In this case, I think that’s probably true, but I realize now that I always feel that way about Murakami because, up close it’s provocative and ambiguous. It takes distance, a distance in time mostly but also, weirdly, from the physical experience of reading the book, for its themes to resolve themselves.

In any case, there’s less ‘weirdness’ to start this collection than I expect from Murakami. With one exception (“Samsa in Love”), each of these stories features a man who is in love with a woman who’s more intimately involved with another man. That’s an intriguing motif to put so central – something the title clearly evokes – but it works.

These are all men who are not quite fully alive. (And that’s a common Murakami concern.) In the first, for instance, “Drive My Car,” an aging actor has a platonic affair with a young woman who becomes his driver when his vision deteriorates. Little happens in the still moving story, but he gradually comes to terms with his feelings about his dead wife and her affairs. He doesn’t end up understanding much more at the end, but he does begin to come to terms with his own willingness to be led by her.

The next three stories explore such similar concerns, that reading them feels a bit like looking through a kaleidoscope. The pattern rearranges itself, but the fundamental pieces are the same: a man who understands himself as “normal” (a word a dislike in anyone’s hands other than Murakami’s who uses it as a powerful shorthand), in love with a women who directs her energy elsewhere, trying to come to terms with an old hurt.

I wouldn’t characterize Murakami as a master of the short story form, but the insistence in his explorations makes these work.

Things get different with “Kino,” the story I would put forward as the strongest candidate for anthologization. This may not be the strongest overall – though I’d be hard pressed to say which one is – but it is the one that most fully echoes the themes of Murakami’s larger works. It’s the only one to explore the supernatural, and it does so by demonstrating that the action of the world-whose-physics-we-cannot-understand has an effect upon our experience of this world. I like it for many reasons, among them that it most clearly echoes the gangster themes from the Hemingway collection from which this takes its title.

I have often shared my copy of “The Strange Library” with people who want a quick taste of Murakami. That will likely stay my go-to recommendation, but “Kino” is now on my list, too. Murakami gains in power the longer his narrative, but this one gets to the meat of his method pretty quickly.

The story that seems to be getting the most attention, “Samsa in Love,” is the one real outlier here. It’s such a clever idea that I can’t help but enjoy it: a bug wakes up to find he has been transformed into a man named Gregor Samsa. It’s a reverse “Metamorphosis,” and it sets up a potentially wonderful exploration into what it means to be human.

Promising as the story is, though, and as much fun as it is in its opening pages, it ends before it fully engages its inquiry. It doesn’t fit thematically with the other work here, and it is almost uncomfortably “Western” where so much of Murakami’s best work spans Japan and the West. I suspect we’ll see this one reprinted in all sorts of places, and Murakami deserves the recognition; I just think “Kino” is more the representative ‘keeper’ of this bunch.

I picked this up as a start-of-summer celebration and a way of satisfying my jones for some new Murakami. I’m satisfied for now, but I also hope he’s working on yet another of the big, ambitious ones.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Review: Bad Teeth

Bad Teeth Bad Teeth by Dustin Long
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One annoying thing about hipster novels – as a genre – is that they imply a community of conversation that you, as the reader, are closed off from. And the basic rhetoric of the hipster is to leave large elements unexplained while focusing instead on the mundane. (The classic instance of that, of course, comes in Pulp Fiction when the hitmen, on their way to kill a group of teenagers for reasons not worth explaining, have a passionate debate about Big Mac and foot rubs.)

One beguiling thing about hipster novels is that they give the impression they represent the vanguard of a new way of seeing the world. They’re the organs of the next wave of culture, and they carry the promise that this different weighting of what warrants attention will matter in time to come. Andy Warhol, for instance, elevated the Campbell’s Soup can to iconic status, in part, because he was commenting on the nature of superficiality – on the role of image in contemporary culture – and he turned about to be powerfully prescient.

Somehow, I don’t think Dustin Long is all that prescient. The opening section here has a nice tone, and I enjoyed the unfolding of Judas’s drive to translate a novel by an obscure Tibetan writer. I understand that the subsequent sections are supposed to comment on the action of that first part by transposing the ‘drama’ to other cities that are tangentially related, but I found the holes between the stories distracting. Don’t tell us the end of Judas’s story if you don’t want to, but don’t imply that it’s unfinished state is somehow the point. That sounds like an insight that seemed profound when you were stoned but pedestrian when you sobered back up.

I’d spend more time contemplating the nature of the interconnectedness and the deliberate gaps of the book if what we had were better written. Instead, these characters have little self-awareness and often mere two-dimensionality. Sela is supposedly a humanities graduate student. Instead of contemplating her circumstances with the tools of her field or through the lens of some hard-won understanding, she writes in a journal as if she were a teenage girl. Even worse, she writes in the form of letters to the boyfriend she left behind. From a male writer, that seems like the worst type of cliché, the woman who secretly wants him even as she has told him otherwise.

This feels like a novel that wants to be meaningful. It cites philosophers every so often – in that lazy hipster way – but it doesn’t seem to have a sustained philosophical point. It may be an insight that even the most thoughtful of people is still embodied, still horny, but that’s hardly an original one. When we do finally meet our obscure novelist, he’s a smooth talker who’s always on the make. There’s no sign of what might make him worthy of contemplation, nothing like the suffering and deep experience of Roberto Bolano’s Archimbaldi in 2666, or – to go to my personal favorite chestnut – the sustained writer’s block of Mordecai Richler’s Moses Berger in Solomon Gursky was Here. He’s just an old man on the make, maybe even a plagiarist. It takes a substantial writer to imagine a substantial writer, and, from the evidence here, Long is not that substantial.

I suppose there may be a worthwhile ‘play’ of form here, and I can see how the unfinished stories, broken up by geography, make for an interesting formal experiment. But even there, Long sells this short by creating a genuine climax at the end, bringing his characters together in conventional ways. And that’s undercut still further by the adolescent nature of the general yearning here.

This one got me at the start, but it got more and more frayed as it went. I’d have bailed on it if I hadn’t been three quarters of the way through by the time I realized just how disappointed I was. It may be that I’m not hip enough for it, but I’m more inclined to think it’s simply all pose and no substance.

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Review: The Shoplifter's Apprentice

The Shoplifter's Apprentice The Shoplifter's Apprentice by Ellen Lesser
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ll confess my bias from the start: I’m signed up to work with Ellen later this summer in a creative writing workshop, so I’d better like her work. And, with some provisions for parts of it as somewhat dated, I’m glad to say I do.

The early stories here deal mostly with establishing unusual friendships that cannot last. In the title story – actually not one of my favorites – we see a young woman befriend a man who shows her the art of shoplifting. In another, “Stinking Benjamin,” we meet a young reporter who spends a season or two close to an older woman with a gift for gardening and a broken past. And in probably my favorite from the early part of the collection, “Sara’s Friend” tells about yet another young woman, this time new to the city, who finds herself befriended by a woman with special needs in the group home down the street.

Each of those stories has in common a protagonist who finds herself suddenly and circumstantially close to someone very different from herself. Since I’m looking to Lesser for some advice in my own writing, I’m struck by the essential clarity of that structure: inhabit a first-person character, expose her to someone who threatens her understanding of the world, and see where the conversation of character takes you.

One of the consistent things I like in these stories is that Lesser does not take us to the same places. Some of her characters embrace a casual sexuality; others recoil from it. Some return to the embrace of parents; others flee. As a collection, it feels as if she is parsing the challenging question of how to establish a sense of self as a young adult. What makes the succession of experiments compelling is that slight changes in each protagonist and each situation produce different results. She’s not repeating her experiments – and she’s certainly not repeating herself – as she moves from one to the next.

The later stories begin to go in some different directions, and some break away from the formula of the first half. My personal favorite is “Dream Life” – maybe because I can relate more immediately to the male protagonist, but certainly because its premise is so funny: his girlfriend has left him because, night after night, she dreams he is cruel and inconsiderate. In waking life, he’s a good guy, but she can’t forgive him the conduct she imagines for him. I can imagine the often wonderful Max Apple giving us something similar, but I can’t see him having the same fundamental sympathy for the girlfriend. He’d draw her thoughtfully and give her a consistent philosophy, but Lesser makes her whole. She’s kooky – at least by my lights – but she has a point. Getting the story from his perspective doesn’t diminish her. In fact, the end of the story suggests that he finally comes to understand her sense that the world of experience has to accommodate dreams as much as waking.

My other particular favorite here is “For Solo Piano” in which a young woman spends a week distracted by the house sitters in the apartment upstairs. She’s unattached, and they’re passionate in their lovemaking and piano playing. It’s almost as if she experiences the soundtrack of a movie she can’t see, a movie she thinks, but isn’t certain, she’d enjoy. It’s short and poignant, and her appetite and hesitation balance each other with real skill. It’s the story that most makes me want to hear Lesser talk about works in progress.

This is clearly a strong collection throughout, and its final story is a fitting wrap-up. In “Madame Bartova’s School of Ballet,” we follow a girl who grows to young adulthood as a ballet student, one without deep native talent but with a clear love for dance and, perhaps even more, love for the idea of dance. The story ends with Madame Bartova’s sudden death, and there’s a compelling emptiness. The protagonist can’t envision starting a relationship with a new teacher, and she finds she isn’t quite the girl she was when she began dancing years before. Instead, she dances to the echoes of her teacher, and, as those fade, she gradually gives up the art altogether. It’s a sad culmination to Lesser’s explorations, but it feels like a fitting invitation to reflect on a different art – the short story – that can sometimes hurt almost like standing point at the barre.

And I look forward to the conversation with her.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review: American Philosophy

American Philosophy American Philosophy by John Jacob Kaag
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Inasmuch as this is a story, it comes up short. Ostensibly the account of how our narrator dug himself out of an experience of what we might call false consciousness – life in an unhappy marriage with a range of career choices before him – most of this is instead a record of the cataloguing of the library of William Ernest Hocking, a mostly forgotten one-time titan of American philosophy. We don’t get the details of a traditional love story – in fact, all of the romance between Kaag and the woman he eventually marries would fit in a handful of pages.

Of course, I realize the intent of that subtitle. It’s a reference to any number of potential love stories: not just Kaag and Carol, but also Kaag and the library, Hocking and his own wife, Hocking and life itself, and Kaag and a discipline he’d embraced only through his intellect rather than his full emotional register. We don’t get details of the meaningful but mundane romance that brings Kaag his new wife. Instead, we get a range of biographical sketches and interpretations of philosophical trends.

I am, in many ways, the target audience here. I’m a scholar of American literature, and I know the literary siblings of the philosophers who stand on center stage here. (That’s literally true in the case of William and Henry James, but it’s metaphorically true of the many writers who come in as friends of the philosophers in question.) I know the joy of finding some puzzle piece of information or insight in a forgotten text, and I have tried to share it with others myself. (And I have generally failed.)

So, my verdict is that this one is too much of a mess to be a full success. It’s part memoir, though I took it for fiction, and it’s part philosophical treatise. It fails to come entirely together… but I want to put an asterisk to that observation.

It takes a while, but Kaag eventually gives us a wide and working definition of what distinguishes American philosophy from the more familiar continental strain. There are vast schools of thought that find their roots in Descartes, that take as axiomatic that we begin thinking as individual selves. As Kaag develops a series of interconnected arguments, he presents us with a compelling alternative. That is, some thinkers (such as C.S. Pierce) proposed that our experience originates not in the self but in our interaction with others. It is not so much the thunderbolt of “I think, therefore I am,” as it is – and I paraphrase from my own understanding – “We love one another, therefore we are.”

That, of course, is the central notion of “love” at the heart of the subtitle, and it’s a powerful one. (It’s just one that I’m convinced could have come more efficiently and with more power in some other form – memoir would be fine, but it would need to be memoir that didn’t so fully parrot the structure of the novel and instead found some fresh approach.)

In fact, while I find the form of this book disappointing, I’m genuinely inspired by what Kaag has to share in these seemingly dry old characters. As he tells us, American philosophy stood in contrast to the continentals in that it attacked the problems of what it means to live an everyday life. It found a middle ground between pure logic and the abstract contemplation of morality. Because the founders of American philosophy, from Emerson through William James, Pierce, Josiah Royce, and eventually Hocking himself, wanted always to explore “experience” (something I knew to be at the heart of Emersonian thought but that it has taken Kaag to help me understand in this new light) they wrote about overlapping ideas.

In other words, one reason we have seen the tradition of American philosophy wither is that it is, from its axiomatic beginnings, messy. It doesn’t start with self, but with community, with a people between or among whom lies the potential for love. (For Emerson and his literary sibling Whitman, that love is both between individuals and in the nature of citizenship.)

So, to the asterisk in my judgement of the book over all: Kaag’s very moving take on the nature of this tradition is messy enough that it seems to have inspired a messy structure in its work. (And, if you want to see “messy” done masterfully, check out almost any of Emerson’s essays.) I think this book falls short of the masterpiece it suggests, but I think it does so in part because Kaag, for all that he embraces this tradition, sees it as a tradition that failed to keep its foothold in our culture. To put it sadly, he’s fallen in love with a ghost, and he can’t quite bring himself to pronounce his new love dead.

There’s real potential in the metaphor of the library, a decaying place that stood for a generation as the ultimate coming together of a century of the finest thinkers our nation could produce. And note that the library, put into an order that perhaps only Hocking himself fully understood, is beautifully and inspirationally messy.

I am certainly glad I read this one, but I can’t recommend it entirely to others. I’ll keep thinking about it, I’m sure, but I’ll be as aware of the faults in its structure as I am in the deep wisdom – and love – that it circles around so messily.

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Friday, May 12, 2017

Review: The Book of Lost Things

The Book of Lost Things The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a magical book, one of the finest adult fantasy novels I have ever read. (I think I have it slotted at number three, behind Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell and The Night Circus and ahead of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.) I didn’t see it coming, and I really just stumbled upon it, but it begins beautifully and gets only stronger, and stranger, as it goes.

There’s something timeless in a true fairy tale. It’s not just that you know the story of Hansel and Gretel, or Goldilocks, or Little Red Riding Hood; it’s that those stories feel as if they are the way they have to be. They’ve always existed, and our telling and retelling them is one piece of how we build the walls of the world in which we live. They are as old as human memory, as old as imagination.

Somehow, and I wish could figure the method out, Connolly takes those stories and changes their DNA. Gretel doesn’t merely push the witch into the oven; she bakes the old woman until her flesh comes off, and Hansel, even after he gets home, can’t control his wanderlust and eventually gets himself killed. The Seven Dwarves serve Snow White, but they do it under court order, trumpeting their syndicalist theorizing in the open but cowering in fear at her every whim. And Red, somewhat older than stories generally have her, sleeps with the Big Bad Wolf, giving birth to the first of the werewolves that terrorize this fantasy kingdom.

Don’t let those separate summaries give you the wrong impression, though. There’s been a wave of reimaginings of fairy stories – The Hero’s Guide to Saving the Kingdom, Wicked, and the underrated film Hoodwinked to name a few – but this is something else. Those all return to fairy stories with the eyes of adults, giving us an ironic take on stories that once had power to shape our imagination. In each case, we know we’re seeing the “old stories” from the perspective of someone who’s outgrown them.

Eerily, Connolly recounts his stories without a trace of irony. These are fairy tales that come with the same power they had when we were children hearing them the first time, seeing them as pillars of the world we were just discovering. The longer I listened (and I read this as an audiobook which only reinforces the kid-listening-rapt tone of it) the more I found myself in suspense. I didn’t know how this would all turn out because there’s something primal to it. It’s a story about how stories shape our world, but it shapes its own world as it goes.

One of the motifs running through this is the sense of dismemberment. There’s an evil huntress who cuts the heads off children and attaches them to animals. There are wolves slowly turning to humans but possessing parts of both beasts and humans. And there are characters who’ve had their hearts taken out of them. The effect is powerful and at times terrifying (but terrifying in a way that made me feel like a kid scared of thunder) but it’s also a metaphor for the way the entire novel feels. We have stories grafted together, familiar beginnings that take us to surprising endings, but the stories feel whole all the same.

As a bottom line, it feels as if Connolly is giving us fairy stories that reveal what such stories traditionally hide: the fact that life is cruel and disappointing. No one is guaranteed a happy ending. Princes don’t marry the sleeping girls they awaken. Children restored to their homes don’t stay children for eternity. Heroes don’t show up and handily slay all the monsters. Instead, people die young. Optimistic do-gooders get eaten by wolves or worse. And promising marriages fall apart.

If all that weren’t accomplishment enough, though, Connolly pushes even harder to remind us that stories of this sort are, in their way, their own reward. In the midst of disappointment, pain, and death, these eternal stories – in their original and dismembered form – still have the power to shape our experience. They don’t save us from the bad things on our path, but they can save us from despair. They can show us that our lives – our hopes as well as our fears – are the stuff of story. Our lives matter because they are always pushing to be told, always pushing to move from abstract dreams and fears into experiences that really happen.

There are many other things to talk about. This works well alongside Grossman’s excellent and fun Magicians trilogy because it features a similar send-up of the C.S. Lewis fantasy-as-sugar-coated theology trope, but I think is subtler than Grossman and, while its world is drawn in smaller size, it stays truer to its eerie tone.

I don’t want to reveal too much here, but part of its joy is that you “know” its story every step of the way, even when you really have no idea where it’s going. It’s a real gem, and I recommend it (and look forward to others’ thoughts on it).

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Monday, May 8, 2017

Review: Last Argument of Kings

Last Argument of Kings Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

OK, on the down side, this remains really, really long. As much as I enjoyed it through the end – and I did – I was also wishing it were over. I know it’s the genre, but I think we could have gone without 300-500 pages (of the trilogy) here and still gotten all its many virtues.

Still, that aside, this really does hold up. Abercrombie may not be challenging the structures of the genre, but he is very much going after its implicit values. This is dark and apocalyptic. There’s no Tolkien-esque sense of a fundamentally benign universe. Instead, like George R.R. Martin, he is upending the conventions and giving us a universe that does not particularly love us back.

At the heart of all this is Bayaz, the aged, sometimes gentle-seeming wizard. As it turns out – in ways that Abercrombie has been hinting at from the start – the entire story here is a showdown between powerful wizards. This is not about the bravery or politics of ordinary humans, not even of humans as extraordinary as Logen or Ferro. Instead, people are a kind of “cattle” to Bayaz, and he is willing to sacrifice any and almost all of them in his millennium-long showdown with his rival.

In other words, Bayaz is not Gandalf. He’s like Jaffar from Aladdin except that he has no desire to wear the crown himself. He’s even more like Henry Kissinger or Dick Cheney or Steve Bannon. He’s an advisor wedded to realpolitik. He sees the world in terms of power relationships and, in a world of wizards, no one has any real power except him and his ancient adversaries. He’s an autocrat of the worst kind, philosophically opposed to the tendrils of democratic representation and equitable distribution that Jazel (modestly) and High Justice Marovia (tangentially to the plot) put forward.

[SPOILER] In that light, it makes perfect sense that Bayaz is the only one who sees anything like a “happy ending.” He gets to return to his library where, presumably, he can recruit a new apprentice who may or may not survive – an outcome of only minor significance to him.

I’ve seen some reviews that bemoan the way everything ends, but I say respectfully that I think people who feel that way don’t see what Abercrombie’s been up to from the start. This has always been about an indifferent history, an indifferent universe.

None of the apparent couples wind up together. Once Ferro discovers that some of the seed’s powers have remained part of her flesh, she pursues her vengeance without a thought for Logen. Once Jazel acknowledges the truth of Bayaz’s charge – that he is a coward at heart (a truth the novel bears out from the beginning) – he settles into his marriage with the Princess, unable to distinguish the sex Glokta has extorted from her from anything like real love; and, with him losing all thought of Ardy (who is wonderfully drawn at the beginning of this volume), she accepts Glokta. And Glokta, who’s loved the spice merchant from the start, returns to his heartlessness long enough to terrorize her into becoming his informant. Things don’t even work out for West who, briefly, seems to survive with the promise of marrying his old comrade’s wealthy and beautiful cousin; in the end, though, he’s another casualty of Bayaz’s arrogance, sickening under the Nagasaki-like aftermath of the wizard’s boundless self-centeredness.

And none of the characters escapes his or her worst traits. Logen never finds the way to become a peaceful, better man. Instead, he keeps on pushing for revenge until he finally finds a battle that even he can’t win. Jazel never finds anything like an authentic self, but gives in to Bayaz’s bullying and realizes how much he has always been clay in the wizard’s hands. Even Glokta, who ‘gets’ the girl and discovers a full-blown apprentice/protégé in the closing pages of the novel, remains miserable – remains wedded to a life he’d prefer to see ended.

It’s an axiom of high fantasy that we get to escape our 20th or 21st century world to spend time in a universe where secret bravery gets recognized. Abercrombie breaks that “First Law” and breaks it mercilessly. It’s as anti-genre as is possible to imagine, with bravery, decency, and ‘goodness’ all utterly irrelevant terms. Still, the whole work remains rooted in the form and tone of that same genre. I admire this as an experiment and mostly enjoy it as a written work. I wouldn’t have given this much time to something like this if I didn’t, bottom line, enjoy it, and Abercrombie does a fine job of redeeming his purpose at every turn. Full of surprises and characters going against type, this is ultimately a lot of fun.

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