Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Riff on Grim Fantasy while Reading Nathan Hawke's "The Crimson Shield"

Growing up in in a small town in Texas, nearly every Saturday night I would accompany my mother and father to a drive-end theater near our home and watch a double feature. My father, being who he was, the movies were always Westerns and usually starred John Wayne. Around 1957, we saw a film that basically changed me, turning me into a cinephile; it was "The Searchers" by John Ford. While watching this movie, I discovered or realized for the first time that there was someone directing the action. When I mentioned this to my father, an inveterate movie-goer, he said, "The director is John Ford, the greatest director that has ever lived." Suddenly, this exciting, violent, and psychologically realistic movie started growing in my mind and since that summer night I have watched it over and over again until I have almost memorized it. "The Searchers" showed me a Western (or fantasy) could overcome its tropes and express a higher degree of artistic depth and integrity.

"The Searchers" is an exciting Western but it is also a psychological tale of vengeance, race, miscegenation, reconciliation, and forgiveness. At the time I thought "The Searchers" was one of a kind. And in some respects it was; but, more broadly, something else was going on: the Western was changing, growing up. Directors like Henry Hathaway, Anthony Mann, Fred Zinneman, Arthur Penn, and John Ford were changing it. Maybe it was because they were just back from the war or maybe the genre was maturing naturally like any living being. These new Westerns were satisfying a part of me that demanded depth and complexity but they did not supersede my appetite for the Western. There were other films that were simply fun to watch. So as one type of Western matured and sought the high road, other Westerns proliferated and simply entertained. They existed side by side. I think the same thing is occurring in epic fantasy.

Unlike my father, who was a Western purist, I liked all action films. My favorites starred Errol Flynn. I also liked fantasy. In the late 50s and 60s, most of my reading was either historical fiction or fantasy fiction. In 1967, I picked up a copy of "The Hobbit" at the grocery store, along with my usual purchases of Marvel comics. We only had one bookstore in my town and it was a bookstore/card shop combination, with more cards than books. Most of my books were checked out of the Carnegie Library downtown. "The Hobbit" was another revelation, a seismic quake. Rather than continuing reading anything and everything, I searched for more books like "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings." I sought a combination of romance, myth, action, and world building. And I was in luck, in the sixties and seventies there were a lot of writers trying to continue the "Middle Earth" experience. However, they were pale imitations of an original. These were simply amusements that seemed to be like Tolkien but really weren't.

In 1970, I entered college and majored in English and History. Fantasy dropped by the wayside, to be read at Christmas and summer break. By the mid-80s I was reading fiction sporadically. I had moved on to non-fiction, psychology and history primarily. One afternoon, my brother, also a fantasy fan, gave me "Legend" by Dave Gemmell and told me to read it. Hold on, I thought, as I tore through the book. This was fantasy as exciting and as violent as some of the Westerns I loved. What kind of fantasy is this? I later discovered that "Legend" was based on the battle of the Alamo and that Gemmell was a rabid fan of John Wayne. "Legend" in some ways is an imagining of a Western as fantasy. And in its incarnation this fantasy was as cruel and as violent as an American Western. However, there is also something else going on in "Legend," just as there was another message working underneath the Western tropes of "The Searchers." There was an idea or a philosophy lurking within its pages. "Legend" was Gemmell's response to his experience with cancer. It was an existential exercise for him. He was not trying to recapture the joy he experienced when he read Tolkien, he was working out psychological issues through art. The fantasy battle of Druss illustrates his feeling about death, mortality and courage. Below the fantasy tropes Gemmell employed was a "big idea" about mankind's response to its very existence; consequently, "Legend" possessed a seriousness that transcended a lot of the fantasy of the seventies.

In a fundamental way Gemmell was writing against Tolkien. He admired Michael Moorcock and Moorcock's fantasy was one of the major responses to Tolkien's brand of fantasy. The literary children of Tolkien were growing up and rebelling. Their fantasy emerged from the chaos of the 60s and the fantasy of Tolkien wannabes.  Fantasy fiction was following a pattern somewhat like that of Western fiction. It was maturing and changing.

In 1996, my brother (again) sent me a copy of "A Game of Thrones" by George R. R. Martin. Martin was different from Gemmell in that he writes fantasy as history and horror. Mature, gritty, and sexy. Another seismic shift. Tougher than Gemmell, Martin writes Medieval Romance as American hard-boiled fiction, with a soupcon of Bismarck's realpolitik. Although he says he loves Tolkien, his novels are history without history, sentiment without sentimentality, situated in a world without remorse, a world without the softening effect of  Christianity. Where Tolkien's fantasy is rife with Christianity and its ideals, Martin's is godless and his characters are Hobbesian beasts. I would argue that Martin has created a sub-genre to epic fantasy and that his fiction does not lie on the same genealogical line as Gemmell. His influences are Vance and historical novelists like Thomas Costain and Maurice Druon. Gemmell and Martin both inhabit the bronze age of epic fantasy but they are different in tone, style, and message. Gemmell is still read and loved but Martin currently dominates the epic fantasy landscape like a bitter Smaug. He is the Tolkien of his age; the author that young writers write against as they struggle with the maturing and ever-changing fantasy genre.

After Martin, Joe Abercrombie is probably the strongest proponent of grim fantasy but he is not alone. A slew of  talented writers are crowding the field. Among them is Nathan Hawke. Hawke's "The Crimson Shield" (Gollancz 2013) falls somewhere between Gemmell and Martin. In 'The Crimson Shield," Tolkien-like tropes are conspicuous by their absence. Instead, we have a set-up that could have come from Gemmell's pen. Four nations collide in warfare. The Vathen, a horse culture, attack the Marroc Coast. The Marroc join with their enemies, the Viking-like Lhosir, known to the Marroc as Forkbeards to defend their land. Unseen but mentioned over and over are the Aulians, a ancient and more sophisticated race. The action begins en medias res, tying us to the epic Greek tale, The Iliad, and grounding us in the heroic fantasy genre. The question is, however, where are the fantasy elements? The novel reads like historical fiction: there are no wizards, elves, goblins, or dragons. Instead, human armies vie for power and land. An easy correlation between Romans, Vikings, Huns, and Saxons is made. And the cultural period as determined by the technology lies somewhere before the 1st Century. Fantasy, to the limited extent it exists, is supported by the savage warriors' superstition--a sword is powerful and evil, a shield is powerful and good. These items are probably imbued with some magic but there is also a rational explanation to their power. In this regard, Hawke is more like Martin than Gemmell.

The most essential fantasy trope in the novel and the one that is the sine non qua to emerging grim fantasy is the fantasy land, the map on which the action occurs. Tolkien's created world is all important, just as is his created languages. In grim fantasy fiction, it is the world that supports the fantasy and ties the grim fantasy to its most important ally--the fantasy game. Gaming, whether board, table, card, or RPG is essential to the new grim fantasy. And as such, grim fantasy fiction enhances, informs and enlightens the game and the game transmogrifies the novel, stripping it of its complexities and paring it down to its essential parts so that it becomes cinematic and episodic.
'The Crimson Shield," however, does not seem game-like because it possesses a strong narrative and a fairly consistent point-of-view. The reader spends most of his/her time with Gallow, the protagonist, and only occasionally drifts off with other POV characters. This gives the book a stronger unity and tighter plot. However, there is a historical verisimilitude and an implied unrolling of fate's plan on the protagonist. Magic seeps in around the edges but does not overwhelm the narrative. Consequently, the original impulse of fantasy--to escape into a daydream of power--is absent but so, too, is the depth of the world. Gallow's world is drawn just enough that we believe in it, just as Druss' was. The corollary with history grounds us and we imagine either England or the Northern shore of France besieged. Like a game though, we anticipate more world building, new cultures and the hidden Aulians to emerge in later books.

So, Nathan Hawke's "The Crimson Shield" is an entertaining fantasy novel, written in the vein of Gemmell.  His fiction demonstrates all of the tropes of Martin's emerging sub-genre of grim fantasy but it shies away from its nihilism. Martin says that the great theme in his fantasy work "is the existential loneliness that we all suffer." That big idea is not evident in 'The Crimson Shield." What does come through is a rollicking good tale. It is a hybrid work, closer to Gemmell than Martin. Its strength lies in its battle scenes and well-wrought characters.





Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Reading "Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution" by Mary Gabriel

Mary Gabriel's Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution (Hatchette Book Group 2011) is a painless and very enjoyable entree into the world of 19th century revolutionary politics. In fact, the narrative, which is quite novelistic, is chatty and, at times, almost reads like a soap opera. And like a good novel or a PBS miniseries, the tale elicits emotions: Gabriel possesses both sympathy and empathy for Jenny Marx and her children. I found myself caring for the children during their youth spent in squalor and poverty in Victorian England and I became angry at the callous way in which the three husbands of the surviving daughters treated their intelligent wives. Even, when discussing some of Marx's less than admirable qualities, she is forgiving and gentle.

The strength of the work lies in its minute re-construction of 19th century London, home to Marx from 1849 until his death in 1883. Gabriel goes to great length to describe the city and the Marx family's somewhat Dickensian existence there. In the 19th century, London was crowded, squalid and dirty, and Gabriel describes the poverty and the filth with precision and clarity. Marx knew economics but he seemed unable to put his knowledge into practice; instead, he borrowed from friends, especially Friedrich Engels, who he collaborated with from 1843 on, to simply survive in the city. Engels was a man of action and also a man of means. Marx, on the other hand, was contemplative and scholarly. Gabriel brings this dichotomy out clearly and fully develops the relation between each member of the Marx family and Engels. It is clear that Gabriel is mostly interested in the domestic side of Marx and she spends a great deal of time talking about the financial straits that Marx found himself and the effect his poverty and devotion to his ideas have on his family.  

Gabriel also highlights the political conflicts going on throughout Europe during the 19th century. She is especially good on the discussion of the Commune in France in 1871 and the role that Marx either played or did not play in its outcome. She does not, however, discuss Marx's ideas as thoroughly as one may like. This is not an intellectual biography; it is not about a man and its ideas; it is more domestic in its approach and this is where it succeeds.

In most biographies of Marx, the family is in the background. Jenny, of course, always appears, because she was a partner in Marx's career, transcribing his papers and talking over his ideas. She is as much a revolutionary as he. Gabriel, however, brings Jenny to the foreground. We understand her motives and we come to trust her affection for Marx. So, too, do the children come alive in the narrative. The three grown daughters and their troubled marriages dominate the last third of the book and Eleanor Marx, in particular, stands out as a tragic figure. A brilliant writer and revolutionary, she falls in love with two men, unworthy of her.

Love and Capital is an entertaining read. It fully explores the domestic relations in Marx's life and it brilliantly situates him in 19th century Europe. It does not, however, explore his thoughts to any real extent. If you are looking for an intellectual biography, this is not it. However, if you want a readable, somewhat heart-felt rendition of the Marx family, firmly situated in their milieu, then this is the one for you. For me, this work is an essential part of my collection of works on Marx.





Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reading C. J. Cherryh's "Foreigner"

Most of the science fiction I have been reading lately is disguised fantasy. The science, when there is science, is make-believe or wishful thinking. Space ships travel millions of miles in short-time increments. Human beings do not suffer the exigencies of space: radiation, bone loss, muscle deterioration. Instead, ships slip into voids, find worm holes, penetrate folds, and pop out somewhere on the other side of the universe. On their voyage, they discover ring worlds or a helix fit for human habitation, where they encounter ancient astronauts similar to ourselves but usually angry, psychotic, and definitely hostile.

This science fiction sans science is couched in modern adventure tropes: mystery in space, western in space, thriller in space, morality tale in space, religious allegory in space, political thriller in space. The true hard science novel is rare and can be boring to some. However, there are some novelists that take the science-based tale and surprise us with an interesting and an arresting story. C. J. Cherryh is one such writer.

I started reading Cherryh in the seventies. Her first novel appeared when I was teaching a course on science fiction at a mid-western university. My syllabus consisted of novels from the giants at the time: Asimov, Heinlein, Le Guin, Clarke, Herbert, Miller, Sturgeon, and Vonnegut. The first novel of hers  I read was The Faded Sun: Kesrith (DAW1977) and I immediately thought she was equal to the giants.  

The Faded Sun trilogy made such an impression on me that I often direct readers to it today. Her precise world building and the psychology of the characters impress me and fool me into thinking I am learning something even if it is only made-up anthropology. Like Le Guin her aliens live and breathe: think, plot and plan within the logical confines of their alien psychology and the basic rules of physics. She truly leads the reader to a suspension of his or her disbelief.

So lately, after reading a rasher of fantasy and a box  of modern science fiction, I decided to return to Cherryh to see if she was as good as I remembered. I had not read her since the Chanur novels of the 80s and I chose Foreigner (DAW 1994) simply because I had a copy of it mouldering on my bookshelf. But I was immediately charmed by what appears on the surface to be a dense story of first encounter between humans and an alien race known as the atevi. I say "dense" because Cherryh employs an opaque prose style. She uses a very limited third-person point of view that methodically and slowly reveals through repetition the internal ruminations of her protagonist, Bren Cameron.

Cameron is a paidhi, the only human interpreter and diplomat sent to live with atevi, the sentient humanoids that inhabit the world the humans call, Down. Because dropping down is what they did. They fell to Down in drop-ships without any way to return to the space station they constructed over the planet before their ship, the Phoenix, left them to explore the new universe they had discovered.

The novel begins with a crisis two hundred years after the first humans fell to Down: Cameron is marked for legal assassination by one of the planet's many atevi factions. And when he uses an illegal weapon given to him by his patron, the aiji, of the central association, Bren is swept up into a convoluted and murky political plot. Protected by his bodyguards, Banichi and Jago, he travels into the heart of the country and experiences the true mystery and history of the world.

The narrative structure of the novel is slight with only three or four dominant set scenes. On one level it is game-like but the games it resembles are chess and Civilization not Doom or Starcraft. However, the real thrust of the novel is in the interplay between Bren and the millions of aliens that surround him. Through his ruminations the reader is slowly drawn into the atevi world, where mathematics rule all aspects of life and legal assassins operate in the bright sunlight of the planet.

I highly recommend this book, which as it turns out is the first book in a long running series. (She is currently working on the fifteen volume).

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Reading Eric Brown's "Weird Space: The Devil's Nebula"

Abaddon Books has begun a new series, created by Eric Brown, entitled Weird Space, with the first novel--The Devil's Nebula (Abaddon Books 2012)--written by Brown himself. It's a space opera with horror elements and I predict it will be one of Abaddon's most successful franchises for two reasons: (1) Eric Brown is at the wheel; his fertile imagination has already produced some interesting and unusual takes on a well-worn genre: Kéthani (Solaris 2008) and Kings of Eternity (Solaris 2011), as well as more straight forward space opera; and (2) because within this novel Brown has either employed or alluded to all of the major themes and tropes of both classic science fiction (space opera) and space horror through his mixture of Buck Rogers-like adventure and Lovecraftian terror.  

Nebula, unlike Kéthani and Kings of Eternity, falls into the Niven/Vance camp of science fiction and shares similarities and themes with Brown's Bengal Station Trilogy. Although the similarities with other science fiction franchises also seem apparent--Warhammer 40 K, Star Wars, and Star Trek--Abaddon's proclivity toward genre mash-ups, their brilliant editing, and Brown's deft touch make the Weird series feel unique.

The novel at first blush employs well-known tropes and situations: older man with a past commands a spaceship involved in various forms of illegal activity;  young  woman, athletic and lonely, has secret crush on older man; somewhat erratic and cowardly engineer makes up a third in the Trio; crashed space ships (several) with no sign of the inhabitants (mystery and horror); fascistic government; spies and hidden agendas; deserted worlds with evidence of lost civilizations; and, of course, monsters in space. Even the back story feels familiar: The Expansion, a megalithic authoritarian empire consisting of human colonists, continues to grow and colonize planets until it runs afoul of the Vetch; also a growing empire of warlike humanoids.Other worlds and other aliens are either colonized or destroyed by the emerging forces. While humans and Vetch vie for dominance in the same dimension, other dimensions populated by the horrific creatures, the Weird, monstrous creatures hungry for experience and knowledge, collide with human space and open portals.

Even though the tropes and the back story are familiar, the novel feels fresh. I think one reason for this is the deft way in which Brown handles his materials: his novels tend to unwind rather than follow some movie-like script and the characters act naturally in unnatural settings. Another reason is the fact that fusion (genre mash-up) invigorates well-worn tropes: space men sucked through a tentacle to a Tarzan-like habitat at the top of giant trees is fun and unique.

To provide maximum fusion (mash-up), I imagine Brown and Abaddon intended to provide a wide platform in which to both utilize and develop familiar tropes. In that respect, knowing this was the beginning of a series, I jotted down just a few possible ideas: Vetch verses Human in military-science fiction; Vetch verses Weird in a Predator-verses-Alien story; individuals battling Weird in Lovecraftian horror tales; humans infected with the Weird rebel against the Expansion; Vetch join Human against Weird; Humans use Weird against Vetch; Human crashes on Vetch world and must survive; spies and rebels carry on clandestine operations on worlds infected by the Weird. Permutations seem infinite. I even imagined a domestic horror like The Shining: one mate infected, the other not, both trapped in a secluded location.

Approaching the novel in this way--as a generative rhetoric--illustrates its game-like quality; however, for the series to succeed and grow, novels with well-developed characters and interesting stories must enflesh it. The Devil's Nebula begins that process and I believe succeeds as both an entertaining space opera/horror (romance) and as a precursor to a larger series.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Reading Pat Kelleher's "No Man's World: The Alleyman" and Defending the Portal Novel

Pat Kelleher returns this month with the third volume of his No Man's World series: The Alleyman (Abaddon 2012). For those unfamiliar with the series:I refer you to my reviews of The Black Hand Gang (Abaddon 2010), for Red Rook Review here, and The Ironclad Prophecy (Abaddon 2011), for Hub Magazine here. As you can plainly see, I love Kelleher's heady melange of alternate military history, Edwardian portal novel, death world adventure, dark fantasy, horror, and science fiction. His intentional genre mishmash makes his novels irresistible. 

The Alleyman
(Abaddon 2012) picks up from where The Ironclad Prophecy ended. Four months have passed since Jeffries, the magus, concocted some spell to transfer a large portion of the Somme battlefield to an unknown world, along with an entire battalion of British infantry, the Pennine Fusiliers, a British tank and its crew, a pilot and his plane, and a hand full of nurses. As you can readily see the cast of the series is large and at the beginning of The Alleyman, they are spread over the map of the death world. A large cast and a gigantic created-world present their own peculiar problems to an extended narrative. I faithfully follow a few series: Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files,  Simon Scarrow's Cato and Macro, the Black Library's Gotrek and Felix, George R.R. Martin's  A Song of Ice and Fire, Harry Sidebottom's Warrior of Rome, and now Abaddon's No Man World. And I have noticed that each one shares a common problem: as the narrative extends in length and complexity, the author must find a way to bring the reader along and remind him or her of all that has come before. They usually accomplish this through dialogue as they situate their characters on the stage. Some simply present a data dump, while others spread the summary through the novel . No matter, the solution always results in a slower beginning and so it is in The Alleyman. But be patient; writing a series is a marathon. The reader must sit back, take a deep breath, and enjoy the ride. 

The initial scenes of the novel find the fusiliers recovering from a series of disasters: a vicious attack by the local chatts, sentient insectoid creatures that dominate the world, the loss of the tank,
Ivanhoe, in a gigantic crater, the escape of Jeffries, and the discovery of a bizarre metallic wall.  The men are tired, disillusioned, wounded, and angry. So to complicate matters, they mutiny. Lieutenant Everson deals with the mutiny and then turns to his other tasks: the recovery of the tank, the return of a chatt priest to its people in a bid for peace, and the capture of Jeffries. These three problems form the the major prongs of the plot.

And the novel is highly plot driven with a Saturday morning serial vibe. It's pulp trappings (a la Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard) should not dissuade the reader though. Kelleher is a strong writer with a thorough knowledge of World War I; he has  created a multi-level, nuanced death world populated by a plethora of unique creatures, well-rounded Edwardian soldiers, and two indigenous species with their own religions and civilizations. Additionally, as an Abaddon series, Kelleher has also created so many mysteries that it will take a bakers' dozen novels to fully explore them. I will give you just one example of one of his cast-off mysteries: in the first volume, the magus, Jeffries, finds in the chatt city a Roman coin, a denarius, that immediately alerts the reader that throughout time other peoples, besides the Roanoke colonists and the Pennine Fusiliers, have been drawn to the world. Maybe even the chatts are aliens to the world?  And then there is the world itself? With the discovery of the metallic wall and the existence of an underworld, I wonder about its substance and origin.


Ultimately
, The Alleyman introduces new characters and monsters, propels the plot forward, uncovers new mysteries, employs horror motifs (zombie-like creatures appear), and ushers us to the brink of a new chapter in the series.

As an aside, there has been a lot written lately about the death of the portal novel; most recently Rachel Manija in her
Portal Fantasy: Threat or Menace  discusses agents' and publishers' distaste for the portal fantasy:  They explained that portal fantasies tend to have no stakes because they're not connected enough to our world. While in theory, a portal fantasy could have the fate of both our world and the other world at stake, in practice, the story is usually just about the fantasy world. The fate of the real world is not affected by the events of the story, and there is no reason for readers to care what happens to a fantasy world. 

Let's get something straight: the portal novel has been a staple in fantasy and science fiction since the beginning. C. S. Lewis, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein, Stephen R. Donaldson, among others, have employed the portal novel to transport us from the here and now to the other. There is even an argument that both J.R.R. Tolkien's
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are portal novels.Think about it: Hobbits living safely in the Shire through the machinations of wizards are propelled into a larger more dangerous world. See Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy (Wesleyan 2008).  

Portal novels are a rhetorical convention that take the reader from the real to the fantastic. If the characters are well-rounded and the story of their plight compelling we care about them. As to the agent's statement that the story is about the fantasy world, my response is so what. More importantly, MMORPGs have shown us that people like to be transported to other worlds. They enjoy exploring and facing new creatures. In fact,
No Man's World demonstrates a definite game-like quality: one of the pleasures of reading Kelleher is encountering new creatures,  plants, or viruses. The book's biological richness and diversity of the death world plus the attractive characters make the series a delight.

Finally,
No Man's World fulfills what I suspect is Abaddon's brief: create an exciting, well-written fiction that blends various fantasy memes, motifs, and metaphors into a highly readable narrative.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Reading Jonathan Carroll's "The Land of Laughs"

Thomas Abbey, a schoolteacher, who says he doesn't know what a gerund is, decides to quit teaching and write a biography of his favorite writer, Marshall France, a writer of children's tales, who died at forty-four. France is his obsession and this obsession forms the impetus of the novel, Carroll's first, published in 1980.

Obsession, by a reader, for a writer is a prevalent device in modern literature. Recent examples include Roberto Bolano's 2666 and Lev Grossman's The Magicians. However, in this novel, obsession and writing combine to create a fantasy world, where the artist is the creator and the puppet-master. In fact, puppets and manipulation are major tropes in the work, where France, the demi-urge, created and orchestrated not only the fictional lives of his creations but even the citizens of his hometown of Galen, Missouri.

The novel begins with Abbey's finding a rare copy of France's The Green Dog's Sorrow.  However, the fly in the ointment is that someone else has already purchased the book, placed it on hold until she can raise the requisite cash. Thus begins the meeting of Saxony Gardner and Thomas Abbey and the first steps of the incredible tale of The Land of Laughs.

Saxony collects and carves marionettes and reads the novels of Marshall France; whereas, Abbey collects masks and reads Marshall France. He is also the son of the very famous actor, Stephen Abbey, who died in a tragic airplane crash. Soon after their meeting, it becomes apparent that Thomas needs Saxony's ability as a researcher and editor and she needs his creative ability, his power to create descriptions that bring the subject alive. Together, they leave their home in Connecticut and drive cross country to Galen, Missouri. During the trip they fall in love.

Carroll's description of their romance is very realistic; and, although Thomas is a bit of "dick," I found the scenes between Sax and Thomas believable and realistic. This was made more poignant to me because I had just finished reading three novels by Douglas Kennedy and two by Jim Butcher, who both seem incapable of writing a believable love scene.

Once the two reach Galen, realty begins to immediately warp into a world, less than real, a world perhaps more literary than literal. Galen seems to be ruled by Anna France, Marshall's daughter, who unexpectedly takes a real interest in Thomas. She accepts him as her father's potential biographer and sets a task for him to complete: write the first chapter of the biography.

Carroll's novel, although surreal, seems based on reality. Part of this stems from his use of the first person. Somewhat like Borges, the weirder things become the more realistic and prosaic the language.Ultimately, The Land of Laughs is meta-fiction. It is a book about writing and the creative process. It is also a book about readers, who even after the death of their favorite authors, continue to generate creative energy that enlivens the works and characters of their beloved stories. 



Thursday, August 16, 2012

Reading Douglas Kennedy's "The Moment" and "The Woman in the Fifth"

Douglas Kennedy in The Woman in the Fifth (Atria Paperback 2007) and The Moment (Atria Paperback 2011) demonstrates some of his strongest themes, tropes, and peculiarities in two books that are seemingly very different and yet, at the same time, strangely similar. Both stories are told in the first person; both books concern men experiencing failed relationships with cold, decisive women; both men flee to Europe to hide from their problems and re-invent themselves through writing; both texts are ultimately perceived by the reader as the very text that the novelist/protagonist is writing, resulting in a self-reflexive modernist experiment; both novels are melodramatic in the same way that a Douglas Sirk film is melodramatic; both novels contain exuberant, somewhat Technicolor-like descriptions; both novels are explicitly sexual to the point of almost being  embarrassing; both novels rely of the quotidian to form the foundation of the tawdry events that follow; both novels possess unlikeable and weak-willed male protagonists; and, as a result, both novels seem like cleverly concealed roman à clefs, but are probably not; and, ultimately, both novels are very readable, full of suspense, narrative-driven, although the characters are well-defined and believable, and emotionally manipulative.

The protagonist of The Woman in the Fifth is Harry Ricks, a professor of film at an Ohio university, who flees a domestic disaster to Paris, where he intends to write a novel and look for work. He escapes with all his worldly goods, which amount to a few thousand dollars, and lands in a Paris hotel, sick with the flu. One employee of the hotel takes advantage of him and slowly siphons off most of his money, while another helps him to find a cheap chambre de bonne in a sleazy quartier inhabited by immigrants. Rick's plight worsens with every step he takes until he descends into a dangerous underworld of Turkish mobsters. However, his luck (or destiny) changes when he meets a strange woman at a weekly salon held by an American expatriate. Suddenly, he experiences a coup de foudre, a thunderbolt of attraction. This thunderbolt is a common experience in  the novels of Douglas Kennedy. It usually signals a passionate relationship destined to lead to tragedy and heartbreak. Kennedy is too much of a pro to say it but I suspect he is suspicious of what Goethe called the "elective affinity," "an indescribable, almost magical force of attraction." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Elective Affinities, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1971), 286. The turn of the screw in The Woman in the Fifth is that Harry Ricks is haunted, both literally and figuratively, and his coup de foudre with its attendant madness leads to an existential trap. No one in the love affairs of Douglas Kennedy escape unscathed.

In The Moment, Thomas Nesbitt, a travel writer in Maine is going through a nasty divorce from a successful woman, who he never really loved. After a half-hearted suicide attempt on a cross-country ski trail in Quebec, he reflects on the past, when he receives a package from Berlin. The novel then consists of one story told through two first-person narratives: one narrated by Nesbitt ( the novel we are reading) and the other by Petra in epistolary form. Once again, we have the coup de foudre. Nesbitt meets Petra, a political pawn expelled from East Germany by the Stasi, in Berlin several years before the fall of the wall. They fall madly in love, while working for a CIA-funded radio station, but it is Berlin, during the cold war, and Petra has too many secrets for this story to end well.

Both novels are well written, replete with full-bodied characters, and a rich array of local color. Kennedy started out as a travel writer and his attention to the detail of place is precise and complete. As he said in an interview on French TV, my locations are also characters.

Kennedy is a throwback to an earlier time: his books are page-turners. And, although both novels could be classified as genre: The Moment, as thriller or spy novel; The Woman in the Fifth, as horror or urban fantasy. They ultimately are melodramas in the sense of a film by Douglas Sirk or Rainer Werner Fassbender. And it is their emotional wallop that causes you to stay up past midnight to finish them.