Monday, 1 September 2014
'Damning with faint praise' is a peculiar idiom, isn't it? When I eventually slip down that facile-avernus slope and find myself in Hell, I might well consider myself lucky, on balance, if the chief tormenting devil limits himself to a tart 'well your dress-sense isn't that bad, considering you're a straight, middle-aged academic'; or to saying something passive-aggressive about my hair-do. Shouldn't we expect something a bit more, well, damnatory? What is so bad about inflecting our praise? I suppose our mind's-eye is drawn to the 'faint' rather than the 'praise' part. It could be that we're so down-and-trodden, so used to being criticised, that we've forgotten what 'praise' even looks like. Or is it faintness itself to which we are allergic? How deep into our assumptions has it sunk, that fundamentally evangelical belief that the only proper response to anything is vehemence? So then because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot I will spue thee out of my mouth? 'Faintness' is where many of the most beautiful aesthetic effects are found; pastels and watercolours, nuance and subtlety. What is 'faintness' but a treading lightly, rather than going galumphing on? What is it except an mode of anti-extremism?
You can tell what's coming. Because faint praise is all I can muster for this novel. It's a debut, written by its author at the age of sixteen. Which is a genuinely impressive thing: I mean, not only planning a novel and sketching out maps of one's own Fantasyland (which is what I was doing at sixteen) but actually writing and finishing the whole thing; and then getting it picked up by a major publisher and turned into an actual book in real bookshops. And it's not a wholly terrible novel. It stands comparison with many other commercially produced fantasies. It's set here:
This is sort-of 18th-century Europe, except with robots ('mecha') and television and, most of all, flying sailing ships that soar through the skies. Our heroine is Lucy Hunter, daughter of a posh 'Anglya' family, which nation is to all intents and purposes at aerial war with Mericus. The war means that the children of poor people (not rich people, though) are press-ganged at regular intervals, which is causing a quantity of social unrest. But Lucy's more immediate worry is that her father wishes to marry her off to some brattish young man. So she dresses as a boy, calls herself 'Cat' and stows-away aboard the sky-ship Stormdancer. So let the expected adventures escape and flee/rolling along the grooves of genre Fantasy. There's a lot of stuff chucked-in, and much of it can be dna-tested and located in the reading that its author has done. It's no surprise that a teenage author writes a story about how the war-mongering government cannot be trusted: this is a post-Blair fantasy novel, in which 'war' is a big lie designed to make the lives of adolescents horrible. Nor is it a surprise that 'Cat', by sheer force of her specialness, is able to turn the tide against a system that has dominated for decades. Wish-fulfilment fantasy is a fine and doubtless psychologically healthy business. I've been scolded for lacking a proper sense of 'fun' before, and with good cause.
But there's that other sense of 'faint' which connotes 'mediocre'; and of course that's where the real force of 'damning with faint praise' kicks in. Take Back the Skies isn't a very good novel. Stylistically there are too many adjectives and adverbs; too much telling and hardly any showing; expression reverts so frequently to cliché that it becomes a default: Cat feels sick in 'the pit of her stomach'; a cross person has 'a face like thunder'; eyes linger wistfully, or are rolled ('Fox scoffed, rolling his eyes'), teeth are gritted, gasps are stifled. The pacing is all to whack (as I believe the technical term has it). I would have liked more stuff actually on the rather nicely imagined 'skyships' and less faffing around on the ground, and I would have liked that faffing to be less predictable and generic. The love-story is very much wibble-wibble, only very partially redeemed by an unexpected tragic ending. Fainter and fainter, I could neither greatly love or greatly hate this novel. But then, I am, as the Devil in the first paragraph pointed out, a balding middle-aged geezer. It might just be that a gushing, gnashing YA-romance steampunk fantasy of 'one special teenage girl' leading a world revolution against governmental corruption isn't really aimed at readers like me. So, you know: pinch of salt and all that.
Sunday, 31 August 2014
Let us now speak of the pleasures and pains of tick-box Fantasy. Open the book. What do we have? Map at the beginning? Tick. World-spanning Fantasy empire hemmed about with troublesome nations? Tick. Magic? Tick. Grimdark? Tick. Tagline that aims at melodramatic intensity? Tick ('Shaped by loss. Forged in Flame.' Because swords, see? Because swords are forged in flame, which is here a metaphor for the whole living-through-interesting-times Chinese cursing. And because swords are also shaped by loss! By the loss of, um. Well, by. Iron filings, is it?). Machiavellian courtly intrigue, including murder and sexy assassins? Tick. Ultra-elite warriors who fly big birds into battle? Tick? Big Birds? Wait, like on Sesame Street? You're free to picture the Big Birds that way, if you like. That's a reader's absolute prerogative; so I guess that's another tick. Kick-ass heroine? Well, there are women in this Fantasy Realm, and some of them ride the back of Big Bird and kill people, so I guess so. But the point-of-view character passages are almost entirely divided between the two sons of the murdered emperor, one of whom rides Big Bird, the other of whom is living a pared-down existence as a sort of zen warrior-monk apprentice in the far north. What else? Great stodgy blocks of backstory and exposition? Tick. First in a Jordanesque series of eye-sapping length and forest-felling bulk? Tick ('Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, Book One' saieth the subtitle. That's a decidedly uneuphonious pairing of words, though: unhewn throne. Almost a tongue-twister). Small arachnid of the order Parasitiformes? Tick. Really? Well: they're not specifically described, but this is a quasi-medieval slightly Asian-y imaginary Fantasy land, so I daresay some of the characters suffer from them.
The aim here, as in all such books, is not to rock the reader's boat. Sure, says the book: get into the boat and float away under tangerine skies, assured all the while that your voyage will not provide any seasicky surprises or upsets. Books like this are carefully designed to give the reader that with which she is familiar, embroidered with only moderate innovations, like (here) the fact that the Big Birds are not just called in like Tolkienian eagles at the end, but have been properly integrated into the military hierarchy of the Imperial forces.
Story is sluggish in The Emperor's Blade, presumably because Staveley is planning a timewheely eighty volumes and doesn't want to rush things. The first three quarters is mostly faffing around -- the emperor has been murdered. His three children are disposed in various places around the empire. His son Kaden has spent eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery 'learning the enigmatic discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God.' This was the strand in the novel I enjoyed the most, actually; at least in its earlier sections: it's a touch wax-on-wax-off, but it also manages some real atmosphere. The discipline of saama'an is nicely sketched in, and the intricate pantheon of gods and other deities and immortal elves and whatnot was fairly diverting. Son 2 has been training to become an elite Big Bird warrior, and this whole strand bored and rather annoyed me, padded out as it is with investigating the collapse of an inn that might have been magical murder, followed by other murders and fightings. Then there's a daughter, a porcelain princess whose name -- 'Adare' -- I kept misremembering as 'Adele'. Perhaps the author gave her that name as a dare, huh, huh. Anyway, she is in the eye of the hurricane, at court, and in the 15% of the novel allotted her she does a certain amount of politicking and ruthless manoeuvring. Staveley may feel he's being gender-progressive here, but Princess only manages to survive by shagging (in fact: by gifting her virginity to) a gruff older male soldier, so not so much.
It's not well written. The description is stodged with detail, and the dialogue sucks:
'The people in there were just drinking. They didn't sign on.'It's all like that; with all the flair and verve and Fantasy otherness of teenagers hanging out in a Des Moines shopping mall. But that's also (tick!) a feature of almost all contemporary Fantasy writing, so maybe Stavely is just giving his readership what they want.
'No one ever signs on to get killed'
'You know what I mean.'
Lin fixed him with a hard stare. 'You mean you feel guilty?'
Valyn shrugged. 'Sure.' 
'I asked Ren,' he said. 'He told me you were fine.'There's a lot of violence, and a bit of sex ('the light shirt in which she slept did nothing to conceal the curves of her breasts'  -- bad shirt! naughty shirt! on your bed!). But there's a truth here, too, about the nature of contemporary fantasy.
'Fine?' she asked, glancing down at her hands as if seeing them for the first time. 'Yeah I suppose I'm fine.'
'What happened to you?' Valyn demanded, reaching out a hand once more.
'Bullshit, Lin.' 
'What?' the flier shot back. 'Like the other day?'We may think we go to this form precisely to escape the mundane boredom of our day-jobs governed as they are by secretarial tick-box routines. But in fact many of us seek out fantasy precisely, if unconsciously, to reinforce the tick-box regularity and mechanism of our daily lives. Because this is how we reassure ourselves that our existences are not in vain, a mere chaos of lucretian atoms falling and swerving in the uncaring immensity of Void. A little structure leavens the misery. Even when we're scratching that itch to travel to the mighty Annurian Empire, we here we find profound existential satisfaction in ticking off the tropes. Genre is a way for many of us to justify and even recuperate the hemming-about structures of late capitalist being-in-the-world. Tick!
'You weren't supposes to be on the bridge you idiot.'
'None of this is helping,' Talal said, quietly. He sat on his own bunk, lacing up his shoes.
'Helping what?' Laith demanded. 'It's certainly helping ruin my sleep.'
'Good,' Valyn interjected. 'We've got a lot to work through today and not much time to do it.'
Friday, 29 August 2014
Capsule review: the ghost of a varied celeste.
It's tempting to say that at the heart of Valerie Martin (winner of the Orange Prize for the short, powerful antebellum slave-owner's-wife/female slave novel Property, and author also of the longer, much less powerful Jekyll-and-Hyde reboot from the point of view of the maid, Mary Reilly) ... where was I? Oh yes: it's tempting to say (I say) that at the heart of Valerie Martin's new novel is the celebrated historical mystery of the Mary Celeste. But that's not quite right. The narrative does circle about that ship, so famously discovered floating near the Azores in 1872, unmanned and (to quote the infallible wikipedia) 'apparently abandoned -- one lifeboat was missing, along with its crew of eight and two passengers -- although the weather was fine and her crew were experienced and capable seamen.' But that's not really at the heart of this work. At its heart, really, is a sort of dream-image, or French-lieutenant's-woman-style visual rebus. A woman is haunted by the sea; she may have married a sea-captain, or have lost a loved-one to the waves. She may hear the voices of the dead, or only the waves and gulls and the occasional foghorn. Either way: she falls and hurts her ankle. And then the sea takes her, sinking her down in a weirdly erotic drowning. Martin builds her book around three such women, splitting the narrative between them in a manner slightly wrongfooting although not ankle-breakingly so.
The first section of the book 'A Disaster at Sea' predates the Mary Celeste by more than a decade. It starts 'the captain and his wife were asleep in each other's arms'. The wife here is Maria Gibbs, and she has accompanied her husband to sea for the first time aboard the Early Dawn. In bad weather another ship collides with them; Maria falls and breaks her ankle, then is washed overboard and drowns (her husband follows her).
The next section is 'The Green Book', the first-person narration of Sarah, cousin to the dead Maria. Sarah's sister Hannah sees Maria's ghost wandering, Wuthering Heights style 'outside her bedroom window, her hair and skirts dripping seawater. "She wants to come inside," Hannah told me' . Their father, a preacher, is not sure what to do with his vision-gifted daughter; and Sarah is anxious she will fall into the clutches of the disreputable table-rapping séance-holding crowd on the East Coast. Sarah, meanwhile, enjoys a nicely-written courtship with a sea-captain called Benjamin Briggs; whom she marries. This is the same Benjamin Briggs who captained the Mary Celeste -- and the next section takes us to the reaction to the mysterious fate of that ship (Sarah and her small child Sophia had accompanied Benjamin on the voyage, and have vanished).
Now the novel introduces two new characters. One is Arthur Conan Doyle, on a voyage to Africa, and then later as the successful author of his fictionalised version of the (as he blithely mis-named the ship) 'Marie Celeste' ["J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement" Cornhill Magazine, 1884], which by fictionalising the mystery deepens and popularises it. The other is Phoebe Grant, an American journalist who investigates 'Spiritualist movement' frauds, and who reads the story. Some of the best writing in the novel comes as Grant meets and befriends a famous American clairvoyant, 'Violet Petra' (this is the pseudonym under which Hannah, from earlier in the novel, is working). Doyle's star rises, and Martin writes him as a slightly clunky, good-natured but unobservant fellow. He does not believe all the Spiritualist nonsense; but a séance with 'Violet Grant'/Hannah seems to put him in touch with his dead father. He persuades her to go to Europe. Alone on the S.S.Campania in 1894, Violet/Hannah suffers a series of well-written spooky experiences. She recalls how it was she ended up an old maid: the love of her life, Ned Bakersmith, chickened out of marriage when faced with the disapproval of his parents. Abandoned, she trips and hurts her ankle ('the heel of her left boot snagged in a fissure of stone and she came down on her hands, twisting her ankle cruelly', 226). With this memory sharp in her head, Biolet/Hannah sees the ghost of her drowned sister Sarah (from the Mary Celeste. Do try to keep up), follows her out onto the deck of the ship as it sails through nighttime fog -- and over the side, into the ocean. The book ends, as I stray into the more egregious of this review's spoilers, with an older Conan Doyle following Holmes-style clues to uncover the lost logbook of the Mary Celeste, which turns out to have been written by Sarah. Her husband drowns, and she is bereft, haunted by the ocean. She falls ('as the ship pitched, my feet went out from under me'). And then --
Now this is all very readable; and if the writing is sometimes rather, shall-we-say, fruity ('the full moon suspended like a porcelain disk drew a slender skein of white across the softly rustling blue-black meadow of the sea', 299) that's at least party justified by the fact that most of these segments are not only first-person narratives, but first-person narratives by highly-strung sensitive types with a passion for pre-Raphaelite poetry and Tennyson. The novel makes some play with ending mid-leap, as if it is a daring thing to do; but the fate of the Mary Celeste, or Martin's version of that fate, is easy enough to intuit (it's standard stuff: basically this) from the earlier sections. And that's the thing: dividing the novel between so many different kinds of narrative segment, and layering them in a slightly chopped-off manner, doesn't work as well as I'd like it to work. The problem, as with the more neatly layered but similarly recirculating Cloud Atlas (which may have been an inspiration for this novel) is that some of the segments are just better than others. The one where the aging Phoebe interviews washed-up Violet and realises that they have become friends almost without realising it is very powerful. The Conan Doyle ones were much less effective. The tone is a bit all over the place. Some of the nineteenth-century pastiche works, but the characters talk about sexual attraction and physical love in a very 21st-century manner. As I say: it's too varied, in the sense of intermittent, to pull off the proper celestial 'coming alive' thing. The mere ghost of a nearly Celeste.
One other note. To get the best of this novel I'd say you need to read it in conjunction with Doyle's famous story. Lucklily for you (a) it's a great story, and (b) it's available freely online. Martin plays some interesting intertextual games with this.
Thursday, 28 August 2014
Since I admire Smythe as a novelist very much, and since this novel does many of the things that made his earlier books so admirable and memorable—what I mean is, it shares their clarity, inexorableness and force—I’ve been trying, since finishing it, to work out why it didn’t really work for me. Could the problem be … me? Perish that thought.
Laurence Walker is a shoe-in for the Democratic Party Candidature and therefore a shoe-in to be the next President of the United States of America. But early in his campaign for the party nomination tragedy strikes: his young son drowns in the lake at their family cabin. After a period of mourning Laurence picks up election momentum again, back on the campaign trail. Only there’s a glitch. Amit, his campaign manager, has elected to use ‘ClearVista’, a company that provides predictions of future outcomes based on a brilliant algorithm that synthesises all the relevant online data. The impression from the early portions of the book are that ClearVista has achieved a kind of social saturation, with people using its phone-app to help make everyday decisions (later in the novel the company comes across as more marginal than this; I may have missed something). So Amit makes Laurence complete the 1000-question ClearVista survey, expecting the return to endorse his perfect POTUS-worthiness. In fact it returns 00% chance of Laurence winning the nomination; and also supplies a video as a sort of visual animation encapsulation of its assessment. This shows Laurence in a very poor light. Furious, Amit tries to reach people at the company and is brushed off (the first point in the novel to make my improbability compass needle wobble). He requests a re-run and it is performed; but the numbers come back the same, but now the video shows Laurence threatening his own family with a gun. These results are leaked to the media, and Laurence’s campaign is toast.
SPOILERS from hereon in, by the way.
From here, and after a perhaps too diffuse 200 opening pages the novel picks up pace, and Smythe pitilessly follows through on the inevitable breakdown and tragic end of poor old Laurence. The denouement is very tense; the ending nicely judged and I liked the way Smythe crafts a hamartia-free tragedy that nonetheless reads as an intimate character study. The arbitrariness of the downfall makes for real pathos.
So why, then, did I finish with a nagging sense of something awry? In a nutshell: I didn’t -- quite -- buy it. This partly has to do with the whole suspension of disbelief thing. Towards the end we discover that [SPOILER! Weren't you paying attention, above?] no humans actually work for ClearVista; the algorithm has become, in some flattened way, self-aware. But what might have been a Demon Seed-style moment of horrified realisation instead made me think of the ending of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, in part because Smythe deliberately down-plays the idea that the algorithm is properly sentient. He doesn’t want a grinning villain in his tale, which is all to the good; except that I just didn’t believe a world that relied on ClearVista to the extent portrayed wouldn’t know that the company’s entire Human Resources checklist is one guy in a blue jacket who used to be a security guard and now kind of mopes about the otherwise empty offices. The video, leaked to the press, instantly annihilates Laurence’s credibility as a candidate, even though it is a 3D animation of something that has never happened. Nobody outside Laurence’s immediate circle seem struck by the fact that it’s a pure fabrication—again, in part because Smythe wants the tragic inevitability of the thing portrayed to send vibrations along the story thread from the beginning.
There were other grinchings. Laurence’s early electioneering seemed a touch too West Wing final series to me: and for a plausible candidate for the most powerful job in the world he’s a strangely solitary individual, with only Amit (apparently) on his campaign team. And the death of the child reminded me of the storyline attached to the Matt Damon character in Syriana. Ordinary people in this novel act en masse: they all support Laurence at the beginning; they all immediately change their opinion of him when the video is released; and at the end they actually come storming his house with pitchforks and flaming brands (well: with guns—but with fire too) like an instamob from The Simpsons. All these TV/film references! But that’s part of the way the novel felt to me, too: a novelisation of an imaginary movie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It's just that I didn’t think that Laurence, a previously highly intelligent and clear-sighted man, would have persevered so assiduously with terrorising his family with a gun at the end. To be clear: of course it’s true that men have terrorised their families with guns many times under the malign self-justification that they are somehow ‘protecting’ them. But the extra element in this scenario is that the thing that sent Laurence mad was precisely a video of him terrorising his family with a gun. As the scenario unfolded with its horrible inevitability, it seemed to me that Laurence would have clocked that he was acting in a way to make the video come true, and stopped. Showing the world that the video was a lie was his whole rationale. Anyhew. Not to nitty-pick.
In the end I wasn’t sure what the novel was saying. If it's aiming at a symbolic articulation of the grief of bereavement at losing a child, it would be meagre indeed—for such grief is not a matter of society ganging-up on you, the snake-like morals of the mass media or of hiding in cabins armed to the teeth. As a psychological portrait of mental breakdown, it is hamstring both by the exceptional nature of its protagonist (war hero! POTUS-plausible!) and by the slightly airless nature of its time-loop conceit—the prophesy that ensures its own coming-true. There’s much here that is powerful and well written, but somehow it did not win me over.
Wednesday, 27 August 2014
The publisher's website for the book is here. This is an endearing if uneven YA fable about a traumatised South African orphan being raised by her aunt in an apartment block who befriends the minor Devil on the top floor. Said demon (‘Devilskein’) trades souls, but takes a liking to the precocious young Dearlove; indeed he—and his talking cricket, the metamorphosed soul of an ancient Chinese warrior—come to love the girl, for all that she is exceedingly bratty. To begin with he hopes to snaffle her soul, together with the soul of her ‘soul mate’, the dishy young teen hero who also lives in the block; although the course of the novel—not without some sentimentality—traces his path away from such evil. But Devilskein has in his gaoler-care the Son of Satan, one ‘Julius Monk’, devilishly handsome and deeply wicked, who more-or-less seduces Dearlove into releasing him. The Unique Specialness of Erin Dearlove is repeatedly insisted upon without ever quite coming alive (that is, it’s told not shown) in the novel itself. The whole is too long, the story structure is on the baggy side—where YA is concerned it has very much not gotta be a loooose fit—and the dialogue is pretty feeble. On the plus side, there’s enough left-field-ness in Smith’s imagination to make many of the episodes really stick in the reader’s head. The SA setting is treated as a normal backdrop, rather than being played up for its SA Tourist Board Qualities, which is very good; and there is something beguiling about Dearlove’s bland courage as she repeatedly engages with creatures monstrous, dangerous and evil
One problem, though, bugged me. Reading this I thought more than once of Dahl, and specifically of James and the Giant Peach: another story about an orphan who goes to stay with aunts (thought Smith’s aunt is considerably nicer than James’s two), whose meeting with a weird fellow sets in motion bizarre adventures involving talking insects and other inventive monstrosity. But Dahl’s book somehow works in way Smith’s doesn’t. It may have something to do with the implied Christian superstructure of Smith’s fantastical narrative (though no specific reference is made to Christianity in the novel). But I think it’s something else. Dearlove lost her family in an assault on their humble farm; the robbers shot her parents and brothers dead, but missed her because her mother had hidden her in a cupboard. A magazine in that cupboard furnishes her with the materials for a compensatory fantasy that enables her to deal with the terrible emotional pain—her father was a millionaire and her family lived in a huge glass mansion until a crocodile ate her parents. Her aunt colludes with this fantasy because she understands it to be part of the process of coming to emotional terms with the horrible events through which Erin has lived.
But wait: where does this leave Devilskein, the talking cricket and Julius Monk? Are they also fantasies spun out of Erin’s imaginative but damaged head? The comparison with Dahl’s story is interesting, I think. Like Erin—or like Fantasy-version Erin—Dahl’s James loses his parents to a large African beast: you’ll remember that on a shopping trip in London, James’s mother and father are eaten by an escaped rhinoceros, despite the fact, as the narrative specifically tells us, that rhinoceroses are herbivorous. James’s two aunts are cruel to him: he doesn’t have enough food to eat, has no friends and is horribly bored. The story that follows is pure imaginative compensation: a vast embodiment of succulent and delicious food squashes both his tormentors dead; inside it he finds a group of new best friends and goes on amazing and diverting adventures. In other words, what James and the Giant Peach never spells out, but what is implicit in every page of its narrative, is that James’s adventures, like the impossible mode of James’s bereavement, are figments of his imagination. (Not that James is not bereaved, for he is clearly that; but that he has constructed a more ‘interesting’ narrative to explain his parents’ death in a traffic accident, or of Spanish flu, or whatever) Read this way the book becomes a testimony to the prodigious power of kids to imagine their way out of present misery. And this could be what Devilskein and Dearlove is about too, except that by specifically drawing our attention to the fact that Erin has fantastically reimagined the mode of her parents’ death, the novel confuses the ground of its subsequent fantasy elements, and dilutes the effectiveness of the whole. Or so it seemed to me.
Sunday, 24 August 2014
I wonder if this was work that took its jumping-off point, conceptually, from Aldous Huxley’s splendid but rather neglected novel After Many A Summer (1939). In that book a Californian millionaire called Stoyte is interested in developing treatments for immortality, and hires a less-than-scrupulous research scientist called Dr Obispo (and his blithe young research assistant, Peter) to investigate possibilities. There’s also a spiritually wise neighbour called Propter, who is cased on Huxley, and who has a good effect on young Peter. Propter’s philosophy is a three-horned striving after ἀρετή: “every individual is called on to display not only unsleeping good will but also unsleeping intelligence. And this is not all. For, if individuality is not absolute, if personalities are illusory figments of a self-will disastrously blind to the reality of a more-than-personal consciousness, of which it is the limitation and denial, then all of every human being's efforts must be directed, in the last resort, to the actualisation of that more-than-personal consciousness. So that even intelligence is not sufficient as an adjunct to good will; there must also be the recollection which seeks to transform and transcend intelligence.” Anyhow, Obispo sleeps with Stoyte’s mistress; Stoyte wanting to kill him in revenge instead kills Peter; Obispo colludes in this murder for money and the book ends with a breakthrough in the immortality research—a compound derived from carp, which are famously long-lived fish. The characters travel to Europe, where they discover that an eighteenth-century nobleman called Lord Gonister had stumbled upon the carp treatment in the 1730s and is still alive. They finally track him down, only to discover that he has become sort of mindless brutish man-ape, locked up in a cellar.
Huxley’s novel is in part about the paucity of material, as opposed to the richness of spiritual, craving for continuance; and partly about the brash youth-obsessed vigour of America as against the superannuated decrepitude of Europe. Yanagihara’s novel has a similar conceit at its heart: eating not carp but a special breed of turtle, found only on a remote Micronesian island, confers immortality; but only the body is preserved from decay. The minds of the Opa’ivu’eke people of Ivu’ivu crumble away leaving them hale but mindless brutes. Like Huxley, Yanagihara focusses on a set of morally myopic and materialist human characters; but in other ways her narrative is quite different to the earlier book.
The People of the Trees is mostly the first-person memoir of Norton Perina, a Nobel prize winning scientist based, not so loosely, on Daniel Carleton Gajdusek. Like Gajdusek (and this is the first thing we discover about him) Perina has been raising a great many micronesian kids in his American home, and is gaoled for child sex offences against some of these. Unlike Gajdusek, Perina takes 400 densely-printed pages to tell his story, from growing up with his cold-blooded brother, his early days as a scientist, his trip to the island of U’ivu (Ivu’ivu is a smaller island off this main one) as part of the team of a man called Tallant. Most of the novel is set here, and Yanagihara does wonders with evoking the richly colourly and strange flora and fauna, most of it imaginary. The book is slow-burn throughout, and only slowly does the nature of the turtle’s power to prolong life come clear. Then, against instruction, Perina smuggles some turtle meat and several of the ‘dreamers’ (as the mindless, ever-middle-aged natives are called) back to the States. The discovery makes his reputation; and the final third of the novel detail the events leading up to his disgrace.
All this is framed and indeed spun by a preface, epilogue and copious lengthy footnotes throughout the narrative—some explanatory, others nakedly exculpatory—written by one of Perina’s former students, Ronald Kubodera. Yanagihara doesn’t play as many pale, fiery games with this conceit as she might have done, actually; except (in one of the book’s rare missteps, I thought) for a few pages editorially excised, and shunted to the back of the volume. These [spoiler] include a horribly vivid account of the rape of a child. If the idea was to try to raise narrative suspense of the did-he, didn’t-he abuse those children kind, it falls flat; Yanagihara does such a good job in ventriloquizing Perina’s voice that you don’t need to have his bad actions painstakingly spelled out to understand how bad a man he is. This is not a matter of ‘evil’. In many ways Perina is not only not evil, he is exemplary in his goodness: he is scrupulous, observant, considered, hard-working, dedicated to improving human existence on this planet. He is moreover conscious of moral obligations as obligations—in a slightly Sheldon Cooperish way, but palpably—and acts upon them, giving a home, educations and new lives to scores of underprivileged children as personal costs that are both financial, practical and emotional. He is not an absolute moral relativist, but Yanagihara carefully makes plain, in a shown-not-told way, that encountering the different social mores of ivu’viu, where for instance adolescent boys are sexually initiated by older tribal men as part of an honoured tradition, reinforces his own sexually predatory nature back in the USA, where such a context does not exist and where such sex is therefore inevitably abusive. I have seen comparisons with Lolita, but they don’t seem to me really to fit the novel. Humbert Humbert knows he is doing wrong; he simply prioritises his individual aesthetic-erotic ‘joy’ over social mores. But Perina gives the impression really of not knowing that what he is doing is wrong. The novel understands that it is; but one of the clevernesses of Yanagihara as a writer is that the novel knows this despite the fact that neither of its two narrators comprehend it.
Yanagihara’s prose is slow, accumulative and her overall effects (however shocking) are never forced. Similarly unforced are the parallels she draws between the sexual abuse of a child by an adult and the ‘rape’ of third world environments by the West in pursuit of profit. The before and after of U’ivu in particular is very powerfully written: the despoiled and degraded latter day island a genuinely pitiful sight. According to Perina, his adopted children go through a teenage phase of ttacking him as an imperialist and a racist but always grow out of this, and come back as adults to apologise and thank him. This is the closest the novel comes explicitly to condemning the Western Colonial Project, and the reticence is well judged: agit prop obviousness of moral condemnation would cruidify the book. The parallels are unmissable anyway. In fact, the tricky thing to triangulate is what part ‘immortality’ plays in the book’s symbolic schema.
This is what brings me back to Huxley: Yanagihara is not suggesting (I think) that commercial exploitation is a kind of senile immortality—nor that imperialism is either. However dead-behind-the-eyes imperialism was, we can at least say that it was a mortal phenomenon, in the sense that empires, from Hittite through Roman to British, die. Huxley’s point is that a focus on purely physical or material pleasures is deeply wrongheaded; and that whilst the end-point of such a focus is not necessarily death, it degrades the capacity of the mind. Something similar, perhaps, is at stake in The People in the Trees. But having finished the book about a week ago, and found that it refuses to vacate my mind (that I keep thinking and thinking about it is one of the surer signs, I'd say, that it is a kind of bleak masterpiece) I find myself wondering. Immortality is life without end, and ends are necessary things. All ethics are teleological as well as local; all metaphysics are the mapping of finite spaces. To appropriate another Huxley title (though this novel has nothing to do with immortality): Time Must Have A Stop. It is the endlessness of consequences, perhaps, the ineradicability of certain modes of harm, that gives the immortality aspect of this novel its rightness.
Saturday, 23 August 2014
Quite jolly, but hardly the Second Coming, and not (as I have seen bruited about) the best Marvel movie ever. The plot was varied, there were lots of inventive details scattered about and some of the banter was funny; but by the same token there was never any real tension or drama, since nothing was ever really at stake. The more hyperbolic the macguffins (infinity jewels that could destroy the galaxy!) the less we believe it, and clearly none of the team are going to snuff it. Still: it would be out of place to carp. Fun was had. The special effects were very detailed and professionally done. Groot was sweet. It bothered me more than it should have done that Drax the Destroyer's inability to comprehend simile or metaphor ('nothing goes over my head' and so on) was so inconsistently applied: many things are said to him in this film of the 'you defeated him single-handedly!' kind that didn't seem to bother him in the least. More debilitating from a dramatic point of view is that the villains all lacked menace. Karen Gillan's Nebula looked like she was auditioning for the mirror-universe's Blue Man Group; Lee Pace's Ronin was camp without ever managing scary camp (which is totally a thing, by the way) and the only evil thing about Josh Brolin's Thanos was his enormous chin. Really: Jimmy-Hill-worthy chinnage.
Big old chin.
One other thing occurred to me as I watched the big SFX-splurgy conclusion, and it was this: when will big budget Hollywood find a way of ending SF movies that doesn't involve crashing enormous planes into a New York City analogue? Avengers; Star Trek Into Darkness; this film. Which is another way of asking: when will that trauma no longer be so overwhelmingly dominant in the US cultural subconscious?