Monday, January 16, 2012

Pocket Universe, Fissure, Hernia, or Portal Novel: A Reading of Adam Christopher's "Empire State"

When I first heard about Adam Christopher's debut novel, Empire State (Angry Robot Books 2012), I immediately began to imagine a world similar to the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing, intermixed with a panoply of superheroes à la Alan Moore.

As my imagination took off, I heard Scott Joplin tunes playing in speakeasys in Harlem and wild nights spent at the Cotton Club, listening to Cab Calloway, dancing to Minnie the Moocher. Around the city, Murder Incorporated butchered its enemies and bloated bodies floated on the East River, while out-of-work veterans lived in a make-shift Hooverville in Central Park, forgotten men panhandled on Fifth Avenue, and a William Powell and Myrna Loy film runs at a theater on Sixth Avenue. Communist cells spring up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, enlisting Jewish immigrants, disenfranchised blacks and poor whites. Irish cops, maybe one of my relatives, walk their beats in Manhattan and the FBI dukes it out with gangsters bringing in whiskey from Canada. Raymond Chandler writes The Big Sleep and the first-person noir voice is born.

Unfortunately, my imagination got ahead of me. Adam Christopher's novel contains some of the same elements delivered by my fevered imagination but his novel is something different, more original than just a science fiction novel set within a historical period. His novel owes more to the strange, almost bizarre comics that emerged in the thirties and forties. Anyone who grew up in the forties and fifties is familiar with the strange comic world of Chester Gould's Dick Tracy. Tracy appeared in 1931 and received its impetus and story lines from gangland violence in Chicago. Gould imbued his comic with violence, strange science and villains so evil that they expressed their personalities through their tortured and deformed flesh. Christopher's novel does not allude to Gould but it certainly hums with comic vibrations from the work of Bob Kane. Kane, the creator of Batman, entered the field in 1936. His characters, like those of Gould, are dark, haunted creatures who live in a Gothic universe. Christopher is a young man, who admits that he came to comics late. His sensibilities rely more on Doctor Who, Alan Moore, the Disney film The Rocketeer and Grant Morrison. Consequently, his vision formed in the cauldron of modern pop culture envisions something unique and slightly grotesque; a pocket world, hernia-like, is formed when two superheroes-- disputing lovers--wage a combat to the death over the skies of Manhattan in 1930. From their duel a fissure is formed and a new world created. But it isn't just one world that springs fully formed from New York; it is a mirror image similar to a series of soap bubbles, forming world after world. The first world on the string is Empire State, a pocket world born in 1930.

Within the first fissure, doubles live, unaware of their counterparts above them. It is a strange gaseous place, similar to the world of the film Dark City, where people from both sides of the fissure wander, fall, disappear, and work. The protagonist, Rad Bradley, is a down and out gumshoe, existing without any visible means of support, waiting for that one femme fatale to walk into his seedy office. And , of course, she enters, as sexy as Veronica Lake and as rich as Croesus. Katherine Kopek is looking for her lover, who has disappeared without a trace and she hires Rad to find her. His search will connect him to intrigue emanating from the fissure and the machinations of the cognoscenti within the fissure. So begins his quest and the adventure.

Within the structure of the noir, Christopher creates a comic-book sensibility with enough ideas in this book to fuel a long run of subsequent tales, after all there are a million stories in the Naked City or Empire State.

Empire State, however, is not a re-creation of New York in the 30s; it is a comic book facsimile with modern tonalities and an understanding of various genres--noir, science fiction, portal novel, time travel (of sorts). It is a unique work, although it has borrowed memes from a panoply of authors and genres and it is some-what raw at times, carving its own niche in a field  and a publisher known for its unique works.

Finally, Empire State is a veritable petri dish of ideas and images.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Catabasis into the Underworld or Nykia in Fillory: A Reading of Lev Grossman's "The Magician King"

Lev Grossman sets off on a night-sea journey to skirt the edge of the genre where fantasy literature and literary fiction collide in his second "Fillory" novel. His artistic journey is a dangerous one, fraught with beastly memes and tropes that could scuttle his novelistic vessel at any moment. Always in danger of losing tone and voice, he navigates through the known waters of myth and psychology to give us one of the bravest fantasy novels of 2011.

The Magician King tells of Quentin Coldwater's catabasis into the underworld; a psychological tale wrapped in fantasy. Purporting to be  a"portal" novel, its devices sometimes seem taken from a classic Dungeons and Dragons scenario or mimic the frenetic world hopping of a magus through a series of constructed portals in World of Warcraft . The truth of the matter is that Grossman is well-versed in games, fantasy literature, literary memes, and psychological tropes and he employs them freely and liberally in The Magician King. The result is a somewhat disorienting meta-fiction that is self-referential and self-defining, resulting in a novel that cannot be ghettoized to the fantasy section of the book store or sit comfortably in the literary fiction section.

In this second book in what is developing either as a trilogy or a series, Quentin, the protagonist of both The Magicians and The Magician King, is a whiner; a self-involved, immature jerk, who lacks self-knowledge and whose involvement in magic results more often than not in mayhem and chaos rather than in order. In this novel, Quentin progresses from a student in a bildungsroman to a hero on a journey (a quest). He begins his journey as a blind hero (metaphorically sightless, as in King Lear and Oedipus the King) and as obtuse as that idiot savant--Parsifal. And because it is a second book, he undergoes a series of tests, leading of course to his apotheosis.

In The Magician King, Quentin rules as one of the magical-realm Fillory's four sovereigns--two kings and two queens. He lives in luxury but he yearns to be a hero. However, he has none of the obvious qualities of a hero; instead, he demonstrates a non-delineated yearning for heroics without the requisite skills or mindset at the same moment that he suffers from a solid dose of youthful ennui and a soupcon ( maybe a barrel) of egotism. In other words, he is a twenty-something kid who has had a good education at Brakebills, a secret school of Magic in upstate New York, and some luck, but he hasn't really changed, i.e. matured, yet. It is Quentin's psychological state and Grossman's meticulous control over his material in relating that state that raises The Magician King to a level of adult-fantasy.

Called upon by Ember to launch himself on a quest, Quentin sails east to find the seven golden keys and adventure, while Julia, one of the Queens, accompanies him on his voyage. Her presence and her past interact with the plot of the quest to form a two-fold plot: Quentin's adventure to find the keys and  Julia's education and ultimate apotheosis. Of the two Julia's education as a hedge-Magus informs and supports the action of Quentin's tale. In modern parlance, Quentin went to school, while Julia was schooled. Of the two, she is the more powerful and the strongest at the conclusion of the novel.

Through the telling of Julia's story, Grossman delves into what I think is his ultimate interest: an exploration of the source and meaning of magic and how we respond to it in fiction. His project is ultimately an encounter with the genre literature he loves but a type of literature he is not always comfortable with. At times, I feel him struggling with the genre, wrestling like Jacob and the angel. Rather than jump into fantasy literature head first like George R.R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie, Grossman seems to be skirting the edge of the enchanted fountain, checking it out, examining its contours and its depth. He is a thinker and a reader who has emotional ties to C. S. Lewis, also a thinker. His fantasy is based in reality and ultimately a dialogue with the genre itself. We feel him struggling and thinking and we feel his pain as we follow him through the portal and then down the yellow brick road. Hopefully, we find treasure at the end of the rainbow.

Grossman's struggle with genre is not unique. What is unique is that he, along with Jonathan Lethem, Laura Miller, Colson Whitehead, Mat Johnson, James Hynes, Junot Diaz, and Michael Chabon (to name only a few), are the first generation of young, articulate, powerful American writers, who were raised during a period in which comics, genre movies, RPGs, MMORPGs, and genre fiction were ubiquitous and wildly seductive.This seduction is obvious and evident in their writing and as a result they are changing the landscape through a re-evaluation of genre and a re-definition of literary fiction.

See my review of The Magicians here: