I went through a comic buying phase in the early nineties, influenced by a housemate at college. We focussed almost exclusively on output from the DC Vertigo label: Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, Doom Patrol, Shade The Changing Man and Tank Girl (the exception). I still have a stack of the original comics up in the loft somewhere, they’re probably worth a mint now (perhaps less in the case of Shade the Changing Man). As a teen, I enjoyed the subversion of what I’d thought of as a children’s format, with fantastic, adult themes. By far my favourite then, and one of the few to withstand the gradual honing of my critical faculties since, is Neil Gaiman’s Sandman cycle. I was a little late to the party and only started buying my own copies around season three but my housemate had the graphic novels for Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll’s House and I was hooked from the first issue.
At first, I was drawn in by the phantasmagoric feel of the early episodes: occultists invoking ancient rites to summon beings of unknown power; dangerous games played for high stakes with the legions of hell; bloody carnage in American diners (a good few years before Tarantino appropriated the image); and best of all, anthropomorphic representations of human traits (Dream, Desire, Death, Despair) who dress like fans of the Cure (proper term: Gothomorphic? RobertSmithomorphic?). Preludes and Nocturnes is a very dark opening to the Sandman story. Gaiman has said that he felt compelled to stay close to the horrific expectations of Vertigo readers in the early days, as he established the comic and its readership. From the start though, it’s clear that Gaiman’s ambitions go way beyond the confines of contemporary gothic horror.
The Sandman himself (or Dream, or Morpheus, or Oneiros, or a host of other names from alternative folk traditions – which perhaps already starts to suggest the ways in which Gaiman utterly transcends the narrow confines of the pulp comic-book genre) is a compelling character: proud and aloof, governed by his sense of duty and the trappings of his office as the King of Dreams. But he’s also a bit of a romantic: unforgiving, brooding and prone to spells of thunderous gloom when given the heave-ho by his latest love interest. All the makings of the tragic greek hero then, albeit one with a penchant for the Sisters of Mercy and a few tricks up his sleeve by virtue of being one of the Endless, which is to say both very powerful and immortal. Naturally this means he can’t die, but the less-well explored characteristic also applies: he’s been around for a long time already, he’s got history.
Gaiman uses this premise as a jumping off point for visiting his contemporary urban setting, with overspill from Dream and the realms of the rest of the Endless, while framing the whole in a vast historical and mythical (Mystorical?) back-story, featuring such diverse characters as Augustus Caesar, William Shakespeare, Marco Polo, Orpheus, Calliope, Loki Skywalker, Robin Goodfellow, Lucifer, Cain and Abel as well as an array of Gaiman’s own imaginings from the worlds of Earth, Dream, Faery and beyond. Story arcs may start in the present, but the narrative jumps between realms and epochs, making for a fantastic yet mystorically informed reading experience. Morpheus is only occasionally the central protagonist in the various strands: more often he is depicted pursuing his own interests in the background and at times he’s off-screen almost entirely, interceding briefly at some crucial point in the tale to assert the rules or restore balance to the Dreaming.
While this scope is hinted at beforehand, it is in episode 19 – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – where the series really starts to take off. A standalone piece, it recounts the occasion when Will Shakespeare’s travelling theatre company perform the eponymous play on the Sussex Downs for a very exclusive audience: Oberon, Titania and the rest of the Faery court. Shakespeare owes this performance to Morpheus, who sits in the royal box with the Faery King and Queen gauging their reaction. Memorably, in response to prompting from Oberon, Morpheus says ‘Oh, but it is true. Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes and forgot’, touching on one of the cornerstone themes of the Sandman. Sure enough as the night progresses, the boundaries between actors and audience start to break down, echoing the transition from historical reality to myth. The episode attracted much attention at the time, winning the World Fantasy Award for best short story (1991 – the first and last time that a comic book has done so) and for me, it is a defining moment in the Sandman series, simultaneously breaking with the traditions of the genre, while giving Gaiman the confidence and wider audience, to head off into the unknown.
Freed from the conventions of the medium, Gaiman sets about addressing all the really big themes: responsibility, change, the passage of time, life, death, the stories we tell to remember and make sense of it all. In fact everything that makes us human, as embodied by an immortal dream king who, in Gaiman’s own words ‘realises one must change or die, and makes his decision’. This story arc, set in motion from book one, is finally concluded seventy odd episodes and a multitude of detours later, when the decision is made and the ramifications are only just becoming clear. This is impressive enough for a monthly publication, where the author can’t go back and tinker with earlier installments, but Gaiman continually ups the ante, weaving in endless plot / character / thematic strands over the course of the series, tieing them all up by the end in remarkably uncontrived ways: quite some achievement!
The binding agent throughout is Gaiman’s talent for creating scores of memorable characters, and imbuing them with genuine warmth, humanity and hope, despite the darkness that threatens to engulf them. Perhaps the best example of this is Morpheus’s older sister Death, possibly the most upbeat, sassy and downright sexy depiction of that darkest of all human traits. The polar opposite of the now legendary skeletal figure in black cowl with a big curvy knife, she has long since accepted her lot in death and, while she takes her responsibilities very seriously indeed, never lets it get her down (in marked contrast to Morpheus). In one particularly fine early episode – The Sound of Her Wings – Death berates Dream for moping about and takes him on as work-shadow for the day, reminding Morpheus that he’s not the only one with responsibilities, and perhaps triggering the events that lead circuitously to the eventual denouement sixty episodes later.
Of course, pictures are an integral part of any comic book and in my view the format suits Gaiman much more than prose writing, which perhaps goes some way to explaining his mixed output in the more traditional form. Not only do the beautifully rendered storyboards bring colour and life to his fantastic creations, they bypass the need for elaborate description, turning protagonists into actors on a boundless stage. This allows Gaiman to direct, emphasising action, emotion and voice: colloquial and lyrical, throwaway and profound. A word too about the unique and consistently excellent cover art collages by Dave Mckean, a fitting wrapper for each month’s instalment and nearly as eagerly anticipated as the content itself.
I’ll stop gushing now. You get the idea. Gaiman was incredibly ambitious in attempting a story arc of this magnitude, when he’d initially only been commissioned by DC for a few episodes. The early chapters are a little rough around the edges but that early vision paid off once the series was established, allowing Gaiman the freedom to construct an intricate weave of narrative threads around his ensemble cast, cross-stitching to create a patchwork of interconnected stories. Only when we’ve finished, briefly resisting the urge to go straight back to the start and read it all over again, can we step back and see the whole piece in its glorious entirety: a story about stories and how they shape our lives. A resplendent eider-down, glittering brilliantly across the firmament, under which Morpheus sleeps, perchance to dream.
Alright, a bit more gushing then…. I’ve finished now though. Go on, read it. Then read Hy Bender’s indispensible source book, featuring extensive interviews with Gaiman and a chapter by chapter lit. crit. of the series. Not forgetting the Gaiman authored spinoffs written later or during, including Death – The High Cost of Living, The Time of Your Life, Dream Hunters and Endless Nights.
See also Paul Smith’s recent piece about Morpheus. There’s a more in-depth analysis of the principal characters at the Book Smugglers but here-be-spoilers, so I haven’t provided the link.
Finally, for the musically inclined, I discovered that the early output of His Name Is Alive – Livonia and particularly Home Is In Your Head – provide the perfect Sandman soundtrack: unsettling, ethereal, other-wordly and enchanting. (See also Filigree and Shadow – by This Mortal Coil.)
I’ve been at the Hay Festival for the past week. With baby in tow, we weren’t able to attend as many events as usual but the sun shined throughout, so we spent our days sitting out, drinking wine, eating strawberries and trying not to stare too obviously at the famous types nearby.
I did take some time out of the busy schedule to hear some writers speak though, so here’s a brief summary for Jub Jub readers:
- Adam Foulds read an entrancing excerpt from The Quickening Maze, as part of his discussion about the book. I am now very much looking forward to this one.
- Jub Jub favourite David Mitchell, was interviewed about Cloud Atlas for the Guardian Book Club. In typically self-deprecating mode, he referred to his ‘cowardice’ in writing six short stories, instead of one full length novel. Although he was inspired in part because he felt cheated by Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, which takes a similar approach but leaves much more unresolved. That said he emphasised the concept of ambiguous redemption, as a general aim in his fiction.
- Mitchell signed my copy of Cloud Atlas, which I persuaded him to sub-title Reconstruction of the Fables in reference to the REM album, an idea he’d mentioned at Hay last time he was there promoting Black Swan Green (he signed that one Life’s Rich Pageant – you get the idea REM fans). He also signed my shiny happy copy of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. I asked him about the implied connection between stories in Cloud Atlas arising from the idea that souls cross generations ‘like clouds across the sky’, he said it was a lovely idea and that he hoped it was true. The queue behind me was growing, so didn’t push it but I wonder whether this was something else he ended up having to cut out for space reasons (he originally planned to have nine inter-related stories), as it was never followed through properly. Then again, maybe it’s just ambiguous redemption in action.
- Ben Okri was inspirational in discussion about The Famished Road (Booker winner 1991). Okri also read poetry and talked about finding the African beat to his writing, which hovers somewhere between prose and poetry. His view is that African people have three levels of reality: the physical, the mythical and the spiritual. Myths are important because they simultaneously tell us what we are and what we have lost, (they are both strengthening and commemorating) while ‘without the spirit, you don’t have Africa.’ He also claims that literature is based in dream and dream-logic. The spirit world certainly plays a big role in The Famished Road, though I confess that I didn’t get on with it myself, the dream-like style worked well for a couple of hundred pages, less so extended over twice that length. Even so, I am now minded to read the follow-up, which has the virtue of being much shorter.
- Patrick Ness discussed the final book in his Chaos Walking trilogy, which was talked-up by his interviewer (can’t recall his name but seemed relatively impartial) as being the best conclusion to a three-parter, ever. This is some claim for any book, but is more impressive still for a YA title. My interest is well and truly piqued.
All in, a memorable week. Just one complaint: whither all the fantasy writers? Apart from YA, which slips in disguised as children’s fiction? I’ve seen Neil Gaiman and Iain Banks in previous years, but that’s still slim pickings for such a large event. Is adult genre fiction just not literary enough?
My expectations concerning The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie’s debut novel, were all of the dark and gritty variety. I’d heard that Abercrombie has forged a reputation for fantasy fiction with a very sharp cutting edge, making few concessions to the sympathetic and merciful lobby or indeed any pressure group advocating the idea of emotional attachment to character. I’d even heard the term nihilist thrown in Joe’s direction. In cinematic terms I’d imagined some kind of cross between Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (well you would wouldn’t you?), only with fewer laughs. I was therefore surprised to find myself reminded more than anyone of Terry Pratchett, during the opening chapters.
Pratchett of course, isn’t in the least bit dark and gritty, but he is very funny – think Hitch-Hikers for fantasy fans – and he knows how to weave engaging and gently satirical stories out of his warped fantasy materials. Best of all, he has a priceless ability to imbue characters with genuine humanity (or trollity, to use one of Pratchett’s favourite devices) engendering empathy with his protagonists / antagonists, no matter how unattractive, sordid and downright devious they may be. In the introductory phase of The Blade Itself, Abercrombie ticks all these boxes: skewed fantasy archetypes with by-turns, world-weary, calculating or credulous outlooks on life; strong minority voices who make life difficult for the powers that be; and humorous vignettes establishing the protagonists and their place in the world. Sand dan Glokta, an early favourite, is a once renowned swordsman, crippled by years of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Gurkhul empire, latterly an Atuan inquisitor who’s greatest fears have reduced down to waking up with soiled sheets and climbing stairs. His formative experiences with the Gurkhul – which included the forcible removal of half his teeth and other, more sensitive, parts of his body – have left their mark on him emotionally as well as physically, making him an ideal candidate to commit unspeakable acts of torture in the name of the King. His scenes are accompanied by a withering internal monologue, equal parts resigned insight and calculated manoeuvering, he speaks with economy but he has some brilliant one-liners. In short, he’s a character straight out of Discworld central casting.
This style is all very readable but distinctly cartoon-like, with plenty of opportunity for satire and running gags, but less room for understatement, subtle characterisation or darker themes. The general rule of Pratchett is that the laugh count reduces as each book progresses. By way of compensation we get increased plot emphasis and clever development of the underlying theme (there is always one per book; it becomes a little wearying eventually, as Pratchett reaches ever harder for new subject matters – The Fifth Elephant being the nadir). The laugh count in The Blade Itself follows the same pattern, all but petering out after the oft funny introductory chapters. In its place we get…..well, there’s the thing. Picture if you will, Wile E Coyote, running very hard off a cliff. All that momentum and suddenly no terra-firma. You can see his expression can’t you? And the sign he’s holding up, which reads: That’s All Folks!
Part of the problem, I think, is that this book is almost entirely devoted to scene setting, for the rest of the First Law trilogy. Nothing very much happens for long periods, characters move around, have the occasional fight and interact with each other to no great effect. Like Logen Ninefingers, the battle-weary barbarian, the reader tags along with no idea where it’s all going. Bayaz, the First Wizard, returning to court after a lengthy sabbatical, seems to know, but he’s not letting on. There’s not even a climactic ending to speak of, merely a biggish fight, a revelation about one of the protagonists and the sudden arrival of directional narrative for book two. Worse, the author’s hand is all too often in plain view, nudging characters into unlikely directions for spurious reasons or contriving excuses for a scrap.
The heart of any character-driven work, is in the interactions between the strong personalities and individual motivations of the protagonists. Some recent US TV shows, Madmen and in particular Deadwood, have excelled at this. The multi-season format allows viewers to get to know the characters and their conflicting obsessions over an extended period. We know precisely what characters are thinking, regardless of what they actually say; often it is the things left unsaid, which are the most telling. Crucially, the characters remain true to their identity throughout, and the narrative takes its lead from these interactions, however messy. By contrast, Abercrombie’s leads, caricatures but individually well defined, interact at times in altogether unconvincing ways, becoming either far too passive and accommodating or overly aggressive, and generally erratic. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that their actions are governed more by the demands of the plot than rigorously applied internal consistency; that Abercrombie is joining the dots for the protagonists, from their dispersed starting positions to where he wants them to be by the end of the book.
There is also a jarring lack of evenness in tone, as the irreverent but generally sedate default-setting is punctuated throughout, with passages of extreme violence. I have no problem with extreme violence in itself and to be fair, Abercrombie is at his strongest in the midst of bloody battles; his punchy but otherwise rather flat-pack prose, is best suited to describing action (it works well too, for the occasional witty rejoinder:’ “there are few ills a good cup of tea won’t help with.” “How about an axe in the head?” ” that’s one of them” admitted Bayaz.’). And I have no problem with work which switches between these extremes, Quentin Tarantino style. But where Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction for instance, are genuinely menacing – with that stomach-churning fear of explosive, life-threatening violence hanging over the principal characters at all times – The Blade Itself is no Sword of Damocles and there is no comparable tension whatever. There is gore aplenty but it is reserved entirely for the cannon fodder class: lower even than the bit-part class, those individuals introduced solely for the purpose of being shredded to tiny pieces by more important characters with big swords.
Despite the problems, the usual debut novel disclaimers apply, and I must admit to being intrigued to know what comes next. Overall I’m left with the feeling that promising characters and an engaging over-arching story, have been smothered by poor directing, an inconsistent script and over-reliance on special-effects. Not so much Lord of the Brazils then, more like Star Wars – the prequels, plot-device recidivists all. The much-touted dark tone – which could perhaps have made up for some of my other reservations – while undoubtedly present at some level, in the coarse language and occasional violence, appears to have been all but written out of the final edit. The central characters and the world they inhabit are far too forgiving, attempts at social commentary take the form of one-liners apropos of nothing in the rest of the text, and the romantic interludes are little more than adolescent mush: ‘she couldn’t kiss the way Ardee could, no one could.’ We are several Dulux colour charts away from nihilism here, and too uneven for sustained comparison with Pratchett. All in,the Jub Jub Board of Book Certifications (JJBBC) is awarding The Blade Itself a PG rating (Progenital Guidance): children should be advised, this book contains some scenes which their parents may find disturbing.
A quick link to this interview with Michal Ajvas. I’ve had my eye on Ajvas since Jeff Vandermeer listed The Other City as one his favourites from 2009. Wierd fiction, world fiction, genre-bending and The Golden Age to follow. It all sounds very interesting indeed.
A couple of discussions have been doing the rounds of late: the importance of looking beyond the demands of the mass market (raised by Damien Walter here and responded to by Paul Smith here); and the current state of New Weird and likely directions for Next Weird (discussed everywhere but most recently on Paul Jessup’s blog here). The conversations have been running in parallel but there is clear overlap, and not just because Damien Walter is knee deep in both streams. Perhaps all I’m doing here is summarising the bleeding obvious but I’ll write it down in an attempt to organize my thoughts.
I instinctively share Damien and Paul’s desire to look beyond the mainstream. Scratch below the surface of any area of popular culture and there’s a hidden world of more obscure because more demanding, but potentially more rewarding work. Almost by definition, popular culture has to represent a more sanitised version of the influential but perennially overlooked margins. I’d pick up on Paul’s point about music in particular, as I’ve spent twenty odd years listening to brilliant but largely ignored alternative bands; some eventually make the cross-over to mass appeal others are forever fated to fly below the popular radar. A couple of general rules apply though: 1) The underground is in the vanguard: where it goes, the mainstream eventually follows; and 2) When the mainstream catches up it is usually because the media and the marketing men are able to corral a number of disparate but loosely related artists into a recognizable movement or scene, which it can sell on to a wider audience.
Which brings us to the New Weird. I’m relatively new here but it seems to be broadly accepted that New Weird is a loose collection of writers, and what they have in common has more to do with what they are not, than what they are. Dialectically, they are not fat fantasy (fatasy – to use Adam Roberts’ term), with all its clichéd tropes and derivative associations. New Weird writers fuse together elements from a wide range of genres, only one of which is fantasy, but the distinction is as much about style as subject matter.
To re-phrase Paul’s argument as it applies to New Weird…. Fatasy is inherently conservative stylistically: multi-volumed epics which emphasise world building, epic story-lines and the battle of good against evil, do not lend themselves to progressive evolution of technique, or to more nuanced studies of theme, characterization and society. But real life isn’t an epic, it is contingent, compromised and rough around the edges. No doubt this is why escapist epic fantasy is so popular (it’s a circular arrangement, which the publishing houses perpetuate) but it leaves acres of room for those who wish to explore other aspects of life and meaning in a fantasy setting. So New Weird is a broad church, but on the whole it tends to be more tight (exception being the extended jazz-odyssey which is Perdido Street Station – though even that is a stand-alone novel) and jarring but also more equivocal and contradictory. There are no easy answers and no comfort zones of style or plot, for readers to fall back on. Mainstream territory this is not, the terrain here is far more treacherous; the sharp edges and vertiginous dead-ends have been deliberately kept in place, readers have to find their own way to the summit. The view from the top might not be as easy on the eye, but to those of us willing to make the effort, it is more life-affirming than the smooth certainties, the bracing-but-never-too-demanding walk, up the rolling hills of fatasy.
This is probably as good a definition of literary fantasy as I’m likely to articulate, so I should just knock it on the head now (I should certainly quit while I’m ahead with the mountain-climbing metaphor). In terms of the Jub Jub’s stated aims though, I feel myself drawn increasingly towards the exponents of New Weird and Now Weird, because that’s where the ground-breaking and thought-provoking work is going on; weird is the vanguard. The recent commodification of the movement means that more and more authors who are pushing the boundaries are being brought to our attention, which is great. I believe it will also mean more and more of the weird imagery seeping in to popular culture, inevitably at the expense of the style, which will mean it ceases to be New Weird by (my, embryonic) definition. But the underground will continue to push the envelope and set the agenda; and the rules of the game are changing in its favour, with blogs and on-line publishing making it ever-easier for niche interest groups to come together, on sites like those highlighted by Damien. Marginal literature of all forms, and weird writing in particular, will continue to find audiences regardless of mainstream prejudices, which may themselves become less important as the means of distribution becomes more accessible.
So where next for the New Weird? Well, the mainstream. Continuing the musical theme, I’ve made the analogy with prog-rock / punk-rock before, and it still holds for me (China Miéville is the new Johnny Rotten!). If the aftermath of post-punk is anything to go by, after a massive jolt from fatasy to weird, and the subsequent death of New Weird itself, I suspect we’ll see a gradual expansion of weird themes into other genres and more traditional fantasy areas. We’re already seeing some noir-weird, myth-weird, space-opera weird and horror-weird is well established; some of the more outlandish imagery will be toned down, to suit tastes, or as authors pursue different ends, but the weird influence will percolate further into popular consciousness and become increasingly established as part of the language of speculative fiction. Pop will eat itself of course, so it’s only a matter of time before we have multi-volumed, epic weird fiction; in the meantime I hope we see a host of new, experimental writers, pushing the form in innovative and interesting directions, paving the way for the mainstream of tomorrow.
The Jub Jub’s mission is to shine a light on the very best examples of literary fantasy, and its practitioners. It occurs to me that I should define exactly what I mean by literary fantasy, so I’ve been kicking about the idea of creating a manifesto for the Jub Jub niche: a set of necessary (but not sufficient) conditions to qualify for consideration for the highest accolades I can bestow (note-pad at the ready Rushdie). It’s early days though and I want this to be an organic process, so I’m going to construct my critical edifice one supporting-wall at a time.
I have already defined what I mean by fantasy here. When I came across this, admittedly ancient, but utterly inspired piece by Nick Lowe on plot devices, I decided to make it the first cornerstone of the manifesto. There’s little more satisfying than an elegantly constructed plot, in my book; I have always enjoyed piecing together implicit and explicit narrative elements, to complete the picture of the author’s vision. The corollary to this statement is that there is little to spoil the reading experience more than poorly constructed narrative and transparent plot devices, which break the spell and draw attention to the author’s clunking hand.
Lowe’s piece raises some interesting issues for fantasy readers, myself included, because he challenges some of the basic tenets of the genre. I played Dungeons and Dragons in my youth, and have always had a soft spot for the classic quest story, particularly if the adventure involves reclaiming magic items from dragons in dungeons. I’d like to think that my critical faculties would baulk at anything too formulaic or self-serving but even so, as part of a broader canvas, questing after useful magical items has always fired my imagination. Lowe posits the concept of plot coupons, whereby the seeds of the antagonist’s eventual downfall are placed strategically throughout the book by the author; all the characters need do is collect the magic coupons and save them up for use at the appropriate moment. I love this insight but it calls for a clarification, I think, or perhaps a classification: I would distinguish between works where the author establishes plot coupons at the outset and then spends the book simply joining the dots, and those where there are degrees of tension, characterisation, elliptical narrative or thematic strands, to leaven the otherwise stodgy device and threaten the inevitability of the outcome. Any or all of these extra characteristics could elevate the whole, allowing for considered use of this established fantasy trope, without automatically consigning the book to David Gemmell Award status.
I also found myself thinking about rules in alternative universes. Perhaps this is my genre bias showing through again, but I enjoy reading about worlds that are driven by different sets of rules to our own, whether this be something as straightforward as silver-kills-werewolves, for example, or more complex secondary world traditions of diplomacy, etiquette and rules of engagement. Such rules serve as more than simple plot-devices in my view; they give greater depth to alternative worlds, distinguish them from our own and are often used satirically. In any case, if rules encourage protagonists to come up with ingenious resolutions – as opposed to rules which appear from nowhere at convenient moments in the narrative – the plot device is justifiable.
That said, Lowe brilliantly nails some hoary old fantasy plotting conventions, reminding us all of the dangers of authorial omnipotence in general and in made-up worlds particularly. I will make some allowances in recognition of genre tropes, but plotting which undermines my belief in the fictional world, or serves to remind me of the author’s presence – unless the author is being deliberately post-modern – will be looked upon very gravely indeed. Authors, get out of the way!
Of course, nothing that Lowe says rules out the no-plot plot, an approach with which literary works are often associated. I consider no-plot (not no plotting, which is a problem of an entirely different order), to be a unique subset of plot, potentially the most elegant type of all.
So, without further ado, I give you…..
The Jub Jub Manifesto, Point 1 – Elegant Plotting (Incorporating No-Plot and Post-Modernism).
Towards the end of the Sandman cycle (Neil Gaiman’s now legendary comic book opus), there’s a six episode story-arc called World’s End, which features an inn at the centre of a raging blizzard. The inn is a place where travelers between dimensions can shelter from reality storms, whiling away the time until the storm abates, by carousing and telling tales, in the Chaucerian tradition. The format allows Gaiman to tell multiple short stories, and stories within stories, and sometimes stories within stories within stories. While many of the tales told feature entirely new characters and settings, Gaiman uses the structure to weave in a number of references to the Sandman pantheon of characters and themes. It is also an opportunity to pause and reflect, before embarking on the final climactic chapters, with some explicit foreshadowing to whet the appetite. As storytelling is the very essence of the Dreaming, and the calm-before-the-storm timing is so apposite, World’s End works beautifully. When I read that Catherynne M Valente had taken a similar nested-stories approach In The Night Garden, I was both intrigued and skeptical: intrigued because Valente’s oeuvre, more than anyone else, reminds me of Gaiman’s; but skeptical because nested-stories by their nature, tend to shift the focus away from narrative drive and invested protagonists. I wasn’t sure how well such a structure would work in a stand-alone piece.
The eponymous garden surrounds the King’s palace; this being a fairytale we’re not told which King, or which Kingdom but at times he’s referred to as the Caliph and it feels all very Arabian Nights. There was once an orphan, who was cast out from the palace due to the unsettling birthmarks ‘around her eyes…stained a deep indigo-black, like ink pooled in china pots.’ Deprived of the palace amenities but with nowhere else to go, she lives off her wits, and the generosity of the local fauna, in the grounds and gardens. She is shunned by palace staff as she grows-up ‘while thirteen summers like fat orange roses sprang and withered’ until one day, a young prince (naturally) approaches her to hear her tale. This involves reading aloud the stories which are reproduced in minute detail across her eyelids, a pursuit which takes several nights and this whole book to accomplish.
At first, the tales themselves are the draw. All the usual fairy-folk are present and correct: witches, wolves, foxes, polar bears, stars, serpents, fire-birds, centaurs, grandmothers, satyrs, mermaids, griffins, wizards, princes, maidens and more kings than you could shake a scepter at. As advertised, tales are nested down through several layers at a time, with each narrator meeting somebody new who, in turn, tells their own story. With the narrative voice changing so frequently, it can be difficult to keep track of it all but helpfully each new episode is the subject of a separate chapter – or chain of chapters – with names like: the Witch’s Tale and the Grandmother’s Tale Continued. Valente is an accomplished teller-of-tales and effortlessly adopts a range of voices, drawing the reader in to a series (or should that be parallel?) of engaging tales. The language is at once lush and earthy, restoring that link with nature and the elements, so absent from the majority of our lives today. ‘Now the prince stole into the night, the shadows wrapping around him like slippery river eels, and his footfalls were black and soundless in the pine needles. He journeyed through the forest, stars flooding overhead as though they had burst through some gilded dam…The trees made a roof of many tiles over his head, a scented mosaic studded with blue clouds.’ The effect is to re-create the tradition of stories told to an audience, sitting round a fire or tucked up in bed, purporting to describe and recount actual events; which is of course how folk-tales evolved.
Valente also employs a multitude of fairytale tropes; some she plays straight, others are subverted, usually to restore the gender balance to well-worn tales: maidens climb towers to rescue princes, ships are sailed by female crews, with lady captains and papesses rule spiritual worlds. True to the grim nature of folk-tales, there’s plenty of dark deeds In The Night Garden: patricide, revenge, incest, extinctions – Valente has said that she wrote by continually dreaming up new ways to scare her audience – but surprisingly there’s very little portrayal of physical conflict. Almost all the monsters, when they are tracked down to their lair, have stories of their own to tell, which cast them in a more sympathetic light and lead to some form of peaceful resolution. Where deaths do occur they are accepted with fatalism – ‘to place your hands in the death of a beloved son is the most noble way to perish’ – and described in a matter of fact way. The theme and style invite comparison with the Children’s Book but where Byatt remains steadfastly in the real world, Valente crosses the border into Faery and never returns. The result is a far more fantastical, if less grounded, reading experience.
At times the fantastic elements border on the surreal: dead bodies are inhabited by creatures spawned by, and eventually resembling, the moon; mighty galleons grow out of trees, which have themselves grown from planks of wood; and various characters’ skins are peeled off, to be inhabited by others. Transformation and mutation become running themes: ‘metamorphosis is the most profound of acts…without it nothing grows, nothing evolves, nothing expands.’ This hybridization, the embrace of the different, and the dark, lurid imagery is reminiscent of China Mieville’s New Crobuzon. Many of these appropriated weird images, of course, have their roots in folk tales, which themselves have evolved and modified in their telling down the ages. Valente appears to be going back to the source: New Old Weird anyone?
The stories and their Russian doll(s) structure are intriguing in themselves but inevitably, the individual fragments fit together as part of an over-arching tale. Al-A-Nur is the anointed city, a sparkling metropolis of dreams, with fountains of silver and glass and minarets of diamond and topaz, ‘a carved box which holds the wisdom of the world…the paradise of the rich and wise’. At the centre of the city, organized in concentric circles are twelve towers, each dedicated to a different religion, except for the central Tower of the Papess, which presides over the other faiths and ensures peace. One tower in particular, dedicated to Saint Sigrid, eventually becomes the focus of the principal story arc as we learn about Sigrid herself and the prophesy which foretells her return. Al-A-Nur isn’t introduced until half way through the book, though earlier tales refer to it. Once its presence is established the real arc begins but even then, sub-stories circle around the main thrust of the tale before eventually being drawn in towards the plug-hole of this book’s climax.
There are many thematic strands and my one reservation with this first half of the Orphan’s Tales duology, is that there are perhaps too many for the narrative to bear. On top of those already mentioned, there’s a clear feminist strand: ‘Being a maiden, you see, is not quite the same as being alive. It is more like being a statue.’ Plus ruminations on rules: ‘Where there is a witch and a prince there is a way.’; power: ‘Only princes believe in the greater good. Kings know there is only the reign, and all things may be committed in its holy name.’; pluralism: ‘who can know what happened in the dim dawn of the world? We do our best with how the world appears in our own eyes.’ and dysfunctional families: ‘it is rarely the places that birth us which see our true worth.’ amongst others. The motif’s come thick and fast but with the main thrust of the narrative heading elsewhere, there’s a danger of them descending into aphorism, substituting for profundity. I will withhold judgment on this point, until I’ve read the second installment – In The Cities of Coin and Spice – I hope that some of the more nascent thematic strands will be developed further.
In fact, while In The Night Garden is an engaging and intricate work of literature in its own right, Valente’s ultimate success in crafting a satisfying whole from these extremely promising raw materials, depends on how well the second volume pulls the strands together; something she’ll need to do if the comparisons with Gaiman are to stand up. That said, this is a fantastic start: Valente has distilled the very essence of fairy-tales to fashion a modern and multi-faceted version of the Arabian Nights. The concentric structure leads to continual delights as the true story unfolds elliptically and while I hope there’s plenty more to come, the tales contained in this volume are more than enough to be going on with. ‘I shall tell you another, even more strange and wonderful tomorrow, if you will return to the garden of the night.’ The orphan says to her prince. I’ll certainly be going back, to that enchanted place where stories are told and imaginations can run wild, safe in the knowledge that nothing can harm us, no matter how frightened we may feel; at the end of every day.
Apart from anything else, I’m still waiting for Iggle Piggle to show up.
After a less than convincing introduction to the New Weird (Steph Swainston’s – The Year of Our War), it’s make-or-break time for this hard to define and famously, dead-as soon-as-it-was-named sub-genre. I’ve been working my way through Jeff Vandermeer’s The New Weird, a compilation of short stories by influential and practicing authors (more on that in a future post). In the foreword, Vandermeer cites Perdido Street Station as the genre’s defining text, the one in which Miéville creates ‘just the right balance between pulp writing, visionary, surreal images and literary influence to attract a wider audience’. As Vandermeer is also one of the leading exponents of weird fantasy, it’s going to be hard not to give up entirely, if I don’t get on with Perdido.
Early indications were good however. My complaint about The Year of Our War was over the lack of rigour and consistency in its world building. I know that Miéville places much emphasis on these traits, even if he nonetheless enjoyed Swainston’s debut; and from the tone of the prologue alone, it’s clear that the city of New Crobuzon – with Perdido Street Station at its thrombotic heart – is a far more fully realized and multi-dimensional place. A stranger arrives by river boat and describes his sensations as the city grows around him, becoming a dark, sprawling, industrialized, super-polluted yet disturbingly fecund, urban mass; alive with a kind of decaying dynamism, as life clings on for survival in whatever niche it can find. And some of the niches are bizarre to say the least.
Besides humans, New Crobuzon is populated with a menagerie of different species, including sentient insects – where the females have human bodies and distinctly non-human carapaces for heads; a kind of toad / human hybrid who live in mobile water tanks to prevent dehydration; some green and prickly (in all senses) walking cacti and a couple of races of birdmen, with contrasting degrees of intellect. Then there are the Remades: humans with augmentations, in the form of animal parts as replacement limbs or similar mechanical appendages. These bolt-ons are rarely helpful to the wielder, as they are usually bestowed as a form of punishment. Like The Year of Our War, this isn’t your standard fantasy fare – not an elf in sight and only a couple of swords (and I have a theory about that – for another post). Then again, a bunch of new races living together in a city isn’t in itself especially new, or weird. This is just the platform however, for further strangeness: inter-species sex, mind expanding drugs, caterpillars which feed off said drugs, research into latent crisis-energy, inter-dimensional spiders, ambassadors from Hell, dream-eating monsters, water elementals, parasitic worms who talk through their host, sentient machine minds with ghoulish avatars; the list goes on. Miéville is super-inventive, ramping up the weirdness factor in compound ways.
Crucially, he is able to earth this strobe-light of ideas through a detailed and convincing representation of New Crobuzon itself; its regions, demographics and power-bases. This is very much a study of the city from the bottom-up, using consistently well thought-out detail as the building blocks of a believable whole. So for instance, an event taking place in the city’s red-light district, is preceded by a brief passage on the history of that part of town, how it developed and interacts with the neighborhoods surrounding it; or a chapter chronicling a police-state like intervention in a dockyard strike, imparts information about the underlying causes of the strike and the methods used by militia to police the streets. In the wrong hands, such exposition could become turgid but Miéville gives us enough information to create the impression of a real place – local colour, historical detail and entrenched issues – without interrupting the flow of the narrative. The detail also extends to the philosophical and physiological aspects of Miéville’s world; where for example: academic research into new-weird sciences, or intercourse between trans-dimensional monsters, or sentience-mimicking algorithms in the mind of mechanical constructs, though all wildly fantastic, are nevertheless worked through with sufficient rigor to sound plausible.
There’s lots of information to convey and Miéville allows himself a couple of hundred pages to set the scene. Isaac Der Grimnebulin is an academic with loose connections to the University of New Crobuzon. He and his girlfriend Lin – a khepri, one of those insect / human cross-breeds – are also prominent in the city’s bohemian arts scene; indeed it is only in this libertarian social circle that the two are able to acknowledge their relationship, for fear of ostracism elsewhere. Isaac’s a bit of a jack-of-all-trades academically, knowing just enough about everything to attract the attention of Yagharek, the aforementioned stranger, who turns out to be a birdman without wings – they were amputated as punishment for a choice-crime, his race’s cardinal sin – who now seeks desperately for a way to fly again. Lin is an artist, whose work impresses Mr Motley, one of New Crobuzon’s most powerful organized-crime figures. Both protagonists are drawn obsessively into their own commissions: Mr. Motley wishes to sit for Lin, while Isaac, in attempting to understand the mechanics of flight, acquires – amongst other winged beasts – the caterpillar of a very rare and potentially deadly moth.
This early section is relatively slow-paced but it is by far the most enjoyable, in my view. There is much to learn about the city, its inhabitants, politics and philosophies and a tourist’s sense of discovery, as each new location or concept is introduced and our knowledge of the city blossoms; a very rough guide to New Crobuzon, if you will. Miéville’s language is earthy and at times coarse, it is also rather baroque, loaded with compound descriptions and lurid images: ‘the knot of architectural tissue where the fibres of the city congealed…converging on the great variegated fortress of dark brick, and scrubbed concrete, and wood and steel and stone, the edifice that yawned hugely at the city’s vulgar heart, Perdido Street Station.’ Brilliantly evocative, though over-reaching at times, this style contributes to the feel of New Crobuzon as alien territory; new and weird. There are some precedents however. Miéville acknowledges his debt to Mervyn Peake and M John Harrison in the foreword and, while I’ve read little Harrison – an oversight I’ll be correcting soon – the Peake influence is clear, in the portmanteau names – Vermishank, Rudgutter, Grimnebulin all trace a direct ancestral line from Prunequallor, Sepulchrave and Steerpike – and the pervasive air of entropy. Where Gormenghast is stagnant and decaying however, New Crobuzon is teeming with adapting, evolving, assimilating life.
Thematically, the emphasis on per-mutation underpins Miéville’s depiction of New Crobuzon and is referred to explicitly by Mr Motley – himself a monstrous composite of human and animal body parts, a personification of the city – in justifying his appearance to Lin: ‘This is totality…this is not error, or absence, or mutancy: this is image and essence.’ City life, Miéville is saying, exists in a permanent state of transition ‘from the industrial to the residential to the opulent, to the slum to the underground to the airborne to the modern to the ancient to the colourful to the drab to the fecund to the barren.’ And the city’s inhabitants are themselves part of the kaleidoscope, different races intermingle and interbreed, creating new formations and further mutations; ‘the immigrants, the refugees, the outsiders who remake New Crobuzon every day. This place with bastard culture. This mongrel city.’ Miéville is known for his left-leaning political activism and while he refrains from hectoring, or overtly espousing his views, there’s a clear subtext. Vandermeer talks about Miéville’s ‘surrender to the weird’, I’d say further that he is advocating, indeed celebrating, his surrender to the different, to the dynamic; to the cultural melting pots that are modern day cities and in particular London, Miéville’s home.
All this in the first 250 pages, barely a quarter of the book; I was frothing at the mouth with anticipation at what was still to come. Then suddenly, the narrative shifts into break-neck gear; hairpin bends come thick and fast, life and limb(s) are all too frequently on the line and the body count rises. Incredibly this pace, once set, doesn’t let up for the remainder of the book’s 600 pages! It’s a white knuckle ride as Isaac and his rag-bag collection of allies go on the run, first from the city’s authorities, then from Mr. Motley’s crew and ultimately from the monsters Isaac has unwittingly unleashed on the city. The sheer exuberance of the storytelling is compelling; a series of set-pieces and cliff-hangers keep the pages turning and the various fantasy / weird / horror elements established at the outset, blend into the relentless narrative to create a pulp fiction experience like no other. The climax is well constructed and satisfying, though appropriately bleak and open-ended. It’s a cracking read.
That said, it’s all very linear and there’s a marked reduction in both background exposition and thematic emphasis, as a consequence. A game of two (unmatched) halves then, with much of the early promise – for Jub Jub readers – dissipating as the plot develops. Themes are hinted at but never followed through; several strong characters with parallel story-lines and clear interests in the outcome simply drop off the radar; the character of the city itself becomes far less pronounced; the absorbing political, philosophical and scientific speculation recedes; all are left trailing in the story’s demanding wake. While an element of narrative drive is to be expected in a stand-alone novel, I’d have preferred 600 pages of scene-setting and development followed by 300 pages where we cut to the chase.
Perhaps because my expectations were so high, I’m being unduly harsh on what is undoubtedly still a unique and hugely enjoyable book; perhaps anything would struggle to follow my last read: The Children’s Book. Whatever the cause, I’m left feeling a little disappointed. I remain optimistic however, first that this is a clear step-up from The Year of Our War but also that Miéville’s later works set in Bas Lag will themselves improve upon this promising, if uneven start. In describing the concept of torque – a weird form of radioactivity – Isaac says: ‘It’s an entirely pathological force. We don’t know where it comes from, why it appears, where it goes. All bets are off. No rules apply.’ On this evidence he could be talking about Miéville’s writing. He’s a phenomenon and I return from New Crobuzon, my mind broadened and my consciousness expanded; and though it’s difficult to know exactly what to expect, I’ll be returning there just as soon as my quarantine period expires.
It goes without saying, given the name of this blog and my love for all things Tim Burton, that I’m looking forward to the new Alice Film.
In anticipation, A S Byatt – author of the Children’s Book (reviewed here) and another Jub Jub favourite – has written a long piece for the Guardian, discussing Alice and various other children’s favourites from the late Victorian period. There’s plenty to chew on and much overlap with the Children’s Book itself but too much to take in on one reading. A must read though.
Of the high-profile debut releases in 2010, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N K Jemisin seems to be gaining the most plaudits.
In this interview over at A Dribble of Ink, Jemisin talks about all three books in her Inheritance Trilogy. The shifting time and POV from book to book sounds particularly promising and I’ll be looking to get my hands on a copy of 100,000K in the not too distant.