The OF Blog

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Frances Hardinge, Cuckoo Song

Her head hurt.  There was a sound grating against her mind, a music-less rasp like the rustling of paper.  Somebody had taken a laugh, crumpled it into a great, crackly ball and stuffed her skull with it.  Seven days, it laughed.  Seven days. 

'Stop it,' she croaked.  And it did.  The sound faded away, until even the words she thought she had heard vanished from her mind like breath from glass.

'Triss?'  There was another voice that sounded much louder and closer than her own, a woman's voice.  'Oh, Triss, love, love, it's all right, I'm here.'  Something was happening.  Two warm hands had closed around hers, as if they were a nest for it.

'Don't let them laugh at me,' she whispered.  She swallowed, and found her throat dry and crackly as bracken. (Ch. 1, introductory paragraphs, Kindle e-edition)

The cuckoo bird is famous (infamous?) for its ability to mimic the appearance and sound of dozens of other birds in order to lay its eggs in a "host's" nest.  In certain Eurasian legends, it has served to represent the myth of the changeling, of a replaced body that mimics the voice and actions of an original child, but with subtle differences that serve to warn others that this is a nefarious replacement.  For centuries, changeling tales have appeared in various European folk tales, usually representing a hidden monster or a looming disaster.

Frances Hardinge's latest YA novel, Cuckoo Song, is a mystery tale that appropriates several of the motifs associated with these cuckoo/changeling tales to create a quasi-historical story that is fascinating.  The story begins with young eleven-year-old Triss waking up one day after being unconscious for a week, feeling strangely out of sorts,  As she tries to come to terms with what has unfolded in her family in post-World War I England, a series of nefarious actions take place, some of which surround a mysterious doll that seems to speak to Triss.  As she begins to question what is going on, not to mention wondering why she is oh so hungry all the time, a series of revelations occur that shed light on these mysteries.  It seems there are more monsters out there than what might presume.

The Cuckoo Song depends heavily on its plot structure to carry the story.  Triss begins the story ignorant of her past and as she fills in the gaps in her memory, pieces of the central mystery are set in place.  Hardinge does a good job in doling out information, as there are few apparent infodumps over the course of this story.  Related to this balanced plot pace is the development of Hardinge's characters.  Triss and her family members are fleshed out nicely over the course of this 416 page novel, with their development tied directly to new information discovered.  While at times the mysterious element was overplayed, at least in that character development was too closely tied to corresponding plot developments and not allowed to develop organically, on the whole these characters are dynamic enough that it is easy to overlook this minor flaw.

Enjoyable as the plot was, if there was a major flaw in Cuckoo Song, it might be that the plot progressions are too pat and predictable.  There were times that I skimmed through chapters, sensing that the information provided within could have been pared down some while still maintaining a nice plot-centered origins mystery.  Yet while this high degree of predictability may have dampered my own enjoyment slightly, for others more able to keep their focus on the current developments instead of trying to anticipate each upcoming major development, the story, prose, characterization, etc. will likely prove to be intriguing enough to make Cuckoo Song a very enjoyable reading experience.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Paula Bomer, Inside Madeleine

I don't want to jump out any window.  I just want to breathe something that makes me feel like living.  They pump the air in here out of machines.  It stinks like Play-Doh.  Open a window, please – I won't jump – I'm not a suicide patient.  I just don't eat.

My neighbors don't eat either.  Eye socket girls.  Nurses drag them with their IVs to the scale.  Some girls get weighed once a day, others, two or three times.  Liquids pump into our bodies through plastic tubing, adding pounds to our emaciated frames.  We don't like the pounds.  We look voraciously at one another.  We envy the protruding bones of someone who is that much closer to not being here at all.

You may think that I don't know I'm emaciated.  I know every curve and angle of my rib cage.  I know my breasts have disappeared completely and my nipples lay flat against my chest.  I am aware that the new girl has hair growing out of her face.  This girl's body sprouts hair like moss on a tree stump, everywhere, to keep itself warm, to protect itself.  I know about these things.  I'm aware of the effects of my disease. ("Eye Socket Girls," p. 10 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Paula Bomer's third book, the collection Inside Madeleine, is one of the more direct books on women's issues, particularly body image, that I have read.  The eight stories are raw, sometimes visceral stories of women fighting, often failing, to maintain their sense of identity despite the plethora of pitfalls that await them.  These were not easy stories to read, but Bomer manages for the majority of them to make them compelling reads, leaving me feeling like I was rubbernecking, looking at the carnage of her characters' lives.

The opening story, "Eye Socket Girls," sets the tone for the tales that follow.  Set in a hospital ward for anorexic girls, the first-person narrator pulls no punches when it comes to describing how she and others like her ended up in treatment.  The passage quoted above, taken from the introductory paragraphs, makes it quite clear that this will not be a pitiable character, but instead a more vindictive one who is convinced by that starving herself, she is defying a system that judges young women by impossible standards.  As she continues her narration, the topic switches to a rather uncomfortable topic:

That's why people fight us.  No one likes to see a young girl win.  We're supposed to be nice, well-behaved things.  Pliable, fearful things that cry a lot, especially when we have our periods.  I don't get my period anymore.  I haven't bled since I was fourteen. (p. 12)

This is not the standard cautionary tale and in the next story, "Breasts," the third-person protagonist, Lola, also confounds reader expectations by her uses of her "assets" ending not in trouble, but instead in something more ambiguous.  This is a motif that Bomer returns to several times in the stories that follow, that of a young woman defying social conventions and often, albeit sometimes with visible and metaphorical bruises, making her way through a society that seems bound and determined to see them fail.

Despite the mostly-excellent stories of the first seven tales, it is the novella-length eponymous concluding story that makes Inside Madeleine a memorable read.  It is a tale of a young woman some might call a slut, Madeleine, and how she utilizes her body to get what she wants.  A slightly chubby (this is emphasized at several points early in the story to set up the conclusion) middle school girl, she tries to befriend some high school boys at a local skating rink by going down on them.  As word of her "talents" spreads, her demeanor changes to an outwardly haughty yet vulnerable young woman.  It is her interactions with a socially nondescript boy her age, Mark, and their tumultuous relationship over the intervening years that makes this story a fascinating read.  Bomer pulls no punches, as both Madeleine and Mark have their own issues with manipulation until finally the story spirals down to a conclusion that connects Madeleine's tale, albeit thematically, with others in the collection.  It is a powerful denouement, one that the reader will not forget anytime soon.

Bomer's prose sparkles in most of these tales, as her characters feel alive and defiant thanks to her ability to string emotion and setting together with monologues that seethe with frustration and the desire to spite those who presume to keep them down.  The characterizations are top-notch and the plots surprise without feeling illogical or disjointed.  While the middle tales are not as memorable as the ones discussed above, the novella "Inside Madeleine" alone would make this collection one worth reading.  Inside Madeleine is destined to be one of those rare collections that I'll revisit several times in the years to come.

Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

I encouraged my patients to floss.  It was hard to do some days.  They should have flossed.  Flossing prevents periodontal disease and can extend life up to seven years.  It's also time consuming and a general pain in the ass.  That's not the dentist talking.  That's the guy who comes home, four or five drinks in him, what a great evening, ha-has all around, and, the minute he takes up the floss, says to himself, What's the point?  In the end, the heart stops, the cells die, the neurons go dark, bacteria consumes the pancreas, flies lay their eggs, beetles chew through tendons and ligaments, the skin turns to cottage cheese, the bones dissolve, and the teeth float away with the tide.  But then someone who never flossed a day in his life would come in, the picture of inconceivable self-neglect and unnecessary pain – rotted teeth, swollen gums, a live wire of infection running from enamel to nerve – and what I called hope, what I called courage, about all what I called defiance, again rose up in me, and I would go around the next day or two saying to all my patients, "You must floss, please floss, flossing makes all the difference."

A dentist is only half the doctor he claims to be.  That he's also half mortician is the secret he keeps to himself.  The ailing bits he tries to turn healthy again.  The dead bits he just tries to make presentable.  He bores a hole, clears the rot, fills the pit, and seals the hatch.  He yanks the teeth, pours the mold, fits the fakes, and paints to match.  Open cavities are the eye stones of skulls, and lone molars stand erect as tombstones. (pp. 3-4)

If you had told me before reading Joshua Ferris's Booker Prize-longlisted novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour that a story centered around a depressed dentist whose love for Red Sox baseball was only matched by his failure to maintain any relationship would be one of the funniest novels released this year, I would have looked askance at you.  But it is true, this novel tackles some potentially drab situations (in addition to the above, add the search of an atheist for some sort of meaning) and manages to find brightness within them.  It is an impressive accomplishment.

Paul O'Rourke on the surface has an ideal life.  He is a very successful New York dentist, having a large practice located in a posh Park Avenue office complex.  However, the rest of his life is a shambles, much of it due solely to his self-destructive behavior.  His obsession over religion and meaning, trying on religious customs as though they were thrift store clothing despite his constant declarations that he is an atheist, his repetitive and borderline creepy conversations with former and current employees, his rapid cycling through of hobbies, all of these show a person on the edge of a complete and total breakdown.  Yet as he keeps circling around his core problems, reluctant to tackle what truly is the cause of his insomnia and mild depression, his observations are genuinely funny.  Yet Ferris's humor, like much great comedy, does not detract from the root pain and suffering.  Instead, Paul's humorous observations (including an insane tying in of a dental patient to Ross and Rachel from Friends) about what he experiences happening around him serves to accentuate his inner ennui, his desire to fit in and to find some meaning, any meaning in his life.

Paul's world, jumbled and rudderless as it is, is turned upside-down when it turns out that someone has created Facebook, Twitter, and a webpage using his dental practice name.  Furthermore, these pages contain religious tracts of an obscure group known as the Ulms, who claim ancestry from the few survivors of the first biblical genocide, that of the Amalekites.  As this "other Paul" makes status updates and tweets despite Paul's protests, Paul finds himself more and more drawn into what is unfolding.  People relatively close to him, from family to former lovers, find this "new" Paul fascinating in ways that the maladroit Paul just cannot be.  Paul himself begins to find, if not answers, then at least possibilities, to some of the issues, particularly faith-related ones, that have troubled him for years.

For most of the narrative, the story balances precariously between being intense and tedious.  It is a testimony to Ferris's ability to turn a phrase that moments devoted to the minutiae of matters such as the 2011 Red Sox September collapse end up being wry, attention-grabbing moments that sustain the story through a middle part that is less well-developed than the introduction and conclusion.  There is nothing actively bad about this middle section, but in Ferris's showing the reader precisely how Paul's depression and self-defeating actions have constrained his life, the narrative at times too closely resembles this repetitive downward spiral.  However, even in these less interesting moments, there are still moments of profound silliness that break up the monotony of these scenes, making them more bearable for readers.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour succeeds primarily because Ferris's prose is outstanding.  It isn't just his clever wit and juxtaposing Paul's foibles with his monologues, but it is seen in how he mixes in controversial elements like non-faith and religious sentiment to create sparks that kindle a reader's interest rather than burning away any further desire to read.  The revelations toward the end about who is behind the "other Paul" online identity is handled well and the implications of that revelation tie in nicely with the novel's thematic explorations of non-faith and the desire to create meaning out of life.  This is not to say that the ending is predictable.  If anything, it is a conclusion that, while fitting for Paul's character and situation, does not follow standard conventions and yet, somehow, it all works.  To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is sharp, smart, and yet has a compassionate take that makes the humorous elements feel more humane and less biting than they could be, considering the serious topics that are the targets here.  It certainly is a fitting nominee for the Booker Prize and is one of the better humorous novels that I have read in years.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Felix Gilman, The Revolutions

For the past two and a half years Arthur had been employed by The Monthly Mammoth to write on the subject of the Very Latest Scientific Advances.  He wasn't any kind of scientist himself, but nobody seemed to mind.  He wrote about dinosaurs, and steam engines, and rubber, and the laying of transatlantic telegraph cables; or how telephones worked; or the new American elevators at the Savoy; or whether there was air on the moon; or where precisely in South America to observe the perturbations of Venus; or whether the crooked lines astronomers saw on the fourth planet might be canals, or railroads, or other signs of civilization – and so on.  Not a bad job, in its way – there were certainly worse – but the Mammoth paid little, and late, and there was no prospect of advancement there.  Therefore he'd invented Dr Cephias Syme:  detective, astronomer, mountain-climber, world-traveller, occasional swordsman, et cetera. (p. 11, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Felix Gilman's fifth novel, The Revolutions, is set in that most fertile of alt-history settings, fin de siècle London, that retro-magical place of steam, electrical inventions, and decadent occultism.  Gilman takes full advantage of the images associated with this time period, referencing several period pulps, ranging from Sherlock Holmes to the seances often referred to in contemporary penny dreadfuls, to establish a firm backdrop against which his tale of separated lovers and astral projection warfare occurs.  The result is a novel that possesses many of the charms and some of the shortcomings of its source material.

The Revolutions revolves around the relationship between the former journalist and erstwhile mystery writer, Arthur Archibald Shaw, and his stenographer fiancée, Josephine Bradman, who has been employed by an occult organization to transcribe their meetings.  Arthur and Josephine represent the divides in this alt-London society, as he works, somewhat reluctantly for the scientific community while Josephine's employers employ the dark arts to engage in a series of increasingly violent conflicts with other occult organizations in Europe.  When Josephine comes up missing, Arthur employs any means necessary to locate her, including delving into the very secret societies with which he previously held in disdain.

The novel is divided into nine "degree" sections, corresponding to the astrological division of heavenly bodies.  As the story shifts and Arthur's search for Josephine broadens from the physical to the utilization of astral projection to locate her, the story shifts from a subtly different London (one in which a "Great Storm" struck in 1893 as the novel opens) to an increasingly strange setting in which Arthur's astral projection ends up on Mars, itself a wasteland of previous magical battles of alien civilizations.  As fascinating as the early sections were, with Gilman describing late 19th century England with vividness, the narrative does not really take flight until the action shifts away from the more mundane explorations of contemporary life to the occultists' conflicts and how their secret warfare is related to their discoveries of what is on Mars.

The Martian sections contain some of the wilder scenes in the novel, with dragonfly-winged angelic beings flitting in and out of the picture as Arthur continues his search for Josephine's astral self.  Yet Gilman does not abandon the premise he established in the first few "degrees."  Arthur and Josephine both view these fantastical scenes through distinctly late Victorian era lenses, as can be seen in Josephine's descriptions of her new surroundings:

She saw everything, but she understood nothing.  Did they really have bedrooms, churches, business-meetings, Parliament?  She didn't know.  Their principal industries appeared to be flower-farming and bead-making, the latter of which took place in a multitude of hot little workshops.  She studied this as if she were preparing to make a report to Parliament on the progress of an African mission.  She supposed that they made the beads out of the gems they quarried from beneath the waterfall, though she never did quite understand the process; at least, any more than she had ever understood how coal got to London, or how steel was made. (p. 235)

Gilman does an excellent job in shaping his prose to fit the contours of these strange environs.  These settings feel realistic, despite their obviously fantastical qualities, due to how well he manages to present everything through the eyes of his protagonists.  By grounding the fantastic within more mundane character perspectives, Gilman captures some of the exotic appeal of the adventure literature of the 1890s and 1900s without straying into the more prejudicial excesses endemic in those early pulp fictions.  The plot too possesses some kinship with these adventure tales, sometimes for the worse, as the conclusion feels a bit too convenient and light-hearted in comparison to the early chapters.  Despite this, on the whole The Revolutions was an enjoyable take on late 19th and early 20th century pulp fiction.  It might not be Gilman at his most imaginative, but it certainly is a novel that shows his improvement as a storyteller in the establishment of plot and characterization. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Cara Hoffman, Be Safe I Love You

She had been naked for less than ten seconds when the snow began to feel hot.  Her body, pale and lean and strong, biceps and things banded with black tattoos, lay basking against the glacial ice; a snow angel overcome by shadows and lights, calm and awed in whatever seconds remained.

The tower scaffolding from the rig flickered, and she could barely make out where the dark stacks cut into the white sky.  Just shapes and brightness.  And she thought of a silent shower of frozen sparks.  And the shhh and hush of sand and desert blindness; how it was here too in the snow where everything shone.  Where everything refracted and blazed and brought the world back to the simple material of itself, of its beauty.  This was all she had ever wanted. (p. 3)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is such a catch-all term.  Originally called "shell shock" and devised to describe a range of psychological and neurological disorders related to World War I, it now refers to a whole host of physiological as well as psycho-neurological changes the body and mind undergo in reaction to repetitive or traumatic stress.  Just saying someone has PTSD is not enough; people vary as much in their reactions as they do in virtually everything else in their lives.  But it does suffice to explain that someone has endured something and is trying to reconcile themselves to the effects.  Due in part to cultural expectations, men and women often manifest PTSD in different fashions.

In her latest novel, Be Safe I Love You, Cara Hoffman tackles the issue of combat-induced PTSD and how it affects a young, recently discharged female soldier, Lauren Clay.  Decades of post-war stories have perhaps conditioned readers to expect violent outbursts punctuated by withdrawal and depression, but very few stories have explored the effects of PTSD on women veterans.  Lauren's narrative is bracing, not just because of the subject matter, but in the ways that Hoffman explores certain burdens that are more unique in women vets compared to their male counterparts.  The result is a gripping story that unfolds at a steady rate, causing readers to want to pause at times to contemplate what is occurring and at others to want to speed on, to see what the results of Lauren's actions will be.

The main action unfolds over a two week period following a surprise Christmas 2000's reunion of Lauren with her family.  Hoffman chooses to open Be Safe I Love You with a prologue set at the very end of the chain of events.  The reader is thrown full force into a powerful scene whose import is not revealed until the same scene, with a few tweaks, is repeated in the penultimate chapter.  This first, poetic image sets the stage for the search to come, that of discovering beauty within a wasteland of emotion and destruction.  This is a very effective scene in that it establishes the internal battle before we are introduced to its causes.

Much of Be Safe I Love You is told in flashbacks.  We see Lauren, who was an aspiring classical singer, join the Army in order to provide the necessary money for her divorced father to afford the mortgage and for her younger brother, Danny, to continue to live there.  In these flashback sequences, we see the conflicts that Lauren feels as she desires to keep her family together while sacrificing much of what she loved in order to achieve this.  Hoffman does not linger overlong on these scenes, but instead she reveals just enough of Lauren's character to establish a strong, identifiable "before" character before contrasting it with the post-combat, discharged Lauren, who is struggling to reintegrate herself into civilian life.

The key turning point in the novel is when Lauren takes her younger brother, who used to dream of being an Arctic scientist before he began to undergo his own deleterious changes in her absence, to the Jeanne d'Arc Basin in northern Canada.  There she thinks to instill a sense of survival traits in her brother, but it quickly becomes apparent that she is fighting for her own survival.  For her, the snow becomes the desert, the solitude of glacial plains reflecting that of their Iraqi counterparts.  Lauren's spiraling state is revealed via a close third-person PoV, as those formerly close around her note the subtle changes in her demeanor shortly after her arrival, with these changes manifesting themselves in increasingly worrisome fashion over the course of these fateful two weeks.

Hoffman does an excellent job balancing the reader's desire to know more about Lauren's mental state with developing her surroundings.  Lauren's father and brother, along with former friends and relatives, are fleshed out with short, succinct scenes that never feel extraneous.  Hoffman's prose manages to convey a sense of the ethereal, where the sublimity of the natural serves as a counterpoint to Lauren's frustrated desire to reconnect with her old self and her former loves and hobbies.  Hoffman easily could have overplayed this, turned Lauren's tale into a maudlin affair, but her restraint in giving into these treacly touches makes Be Safe I Love You one of the most poignant postwar-related fictions that I have read.  As the story closes with the initial struggle over, Hoffman leaves the reader with the sense that Lauren's life is still unfolding, that there will still be peaks and valleys to navigate.  It is a fitting conclusion to one of the better novels released this year.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Richard Powers, Orfeo

The officers swung back toward the front door.  Off the dining room, a study stood open.  The room's shelves swelled with beakers, tubing, and jars with printed labels.  A half-sized refrigerator stood next to a long counter, where a compound microscope sat hooked up to a computer.  The white metal body, black eyepieces, and silver objective looked like an infant Imperial Stormtrooper.  More equipment covered a workbench on the far wall, glowing with colored LCDs.

Whoa, Officer Powell said.

My lab, Els explained.

I thought you wrote songs.

It's a hobby.  It relaxes me. 

The woman, Officer Estes, frowned.  What are all the petri dishes for? 

Peter Els wiggled his fingers.  To house bacteria.  Same as us. 

Would you mind if we...? 

Els drew back and studied his interrogator's badge.  It's getting a little late. 

The police officers traded glances.  Officer Powell opened his mouth to clarify, then stopped.

All right, Officer Estes said.  We're sorry about your dog. 

Peter Els shook his head.  That dog would sit and listen for hours.  She loved every kind of music there is.  She even sang along. (p. 7)

Richard Powers' eleventh novel, Orfeo, can be read on two levels:  a fugitive thriller and as a treatise of sorts on music and biology.  There certainly are grounds for both, as the frame story of a seventy-year-old former music teacher and amateur biologist, Peter Els, getting in trouble with the police for having what appears to be a homebrew bioterrorist kit certainly contains enough twists and turns to satisfy thriller fans.  But it is the flashback sequences, to Peter's former life and his love for music and his desire to encode music within bacterial DNA, that comprise the heart of the novel. 

Powers divides his frame and flashback stories through the use of cordoned-off epigraphs that end up comprising a related story whose impact on the main narrative is not seen until the end.  It is an effective device, as it allows for short, quick transitions without being too abrupt.  As Peter narrates his experiments with his dog Fidelio and her ability to discern tonality, the narrative tenor shifts subtly toward a slower, more rhythmic pace than the sharper, more staccato bursts of dialogue that comprise much of the frame story.  There is a discernible pattern to the prose, almost as if Powers were exploring tonality of a spoken sort within some of these passages.

There are times where the discussion of music and bacterial encoding become almost too complex, too full of jargon.  At these moments, thankfully few in number, the narrative devolves to a series of lists, barely connected to the lives enfolding around Peter's discoveries.  For the majority of the sections, however, Powers manages to achieve a layering effect by these lists of music and muses, such as this passage:

Reading wasn't possible.  All Els was good for was music.  Shelves in the front room held three dozen jewel boxes – road trip listening, left here in the vacation home alongside battered Parcheesi sets and moldy quiz books.  Ripped copies of Ella Fitzgerald's Verve Songbooks, They Might Be Giants, Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, a smattering of emo, albums by Wilco, Jay-Z, the Dirt Bombs, the Strokes, and Rage Against the Machine.  There was a time when the proliferation of so many musical genres left Els cowering in a corner, holding up the Missa Solemnis as a shield.  Now he wanted alarm and angry dream, style and distraction, as much ruthless novelty as the aging youth industry could still deliver.

He found a disc by a group called Anthrax, as if some real bioterrorist had planted it there to frame him.  He looked around the cottage for something to play it on.  In the kitchen he found a nineties-style boom box.  He slipped the disc into the slot and with a single rim shot was surrounded by an air raid announcing the end of the world.  A driving motor rhythm in the drums propelled virtuosic parallel passages in the guitars and bass.  The song came on like a felon released from multiple life sentences.  The melodic machete went straight through Els's skin.  It took no imagination to see a stadium of sixty thousand people waving lighters and basking in a frenzy of shared power.  The music said you had one chance to blow through life, and the only crime was wasting it on fear. (p. 171)

Being familiar with each of the bands listed here, Powers's description of their sounds struck a chord.  There is an eloquence about his comments about Anthrax's sound that makes their music come alive for me twenty years after I stopped listening to them regularly.  There are numerous passages in Orfeo that speak to this love of music and how music is so interconnected with language and human desire.  As the story unfolds and we learn more about Peter's life, Powers manages to weave together the fugitive and flashback sequences in a complex double helix similar to the bacterial DNA he was studying.

There are, of course, other symbolic references within Orfeo, beginning with the titular reference to the mythological musician who sought to bring his bride Eurydice back from the dead.  Powers explores this in subtle ways, with an ending that is fitting without being too contrived or obvious.  Yet ultimately the plot, although for the most part executed well, matters less than how the reader comes to appreciate the musical topic.  For those who are not enamored with music or at least experience some wordless joy when listening to it, Orfeo may be a sonic wall that keeps them from understanding the novel's full import.  But for others, Powers' dexterity in mixing musical tonality with a deep, personal story leads to a deeply satisfying tale.  It may not be the easiest or most plot-centric of the Booker Prize nominees, but it certainly contains a beauty in its prose and thematic execution that make it a joy to read.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake

the night was clere though i slept i seen it.  though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still.  when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still

when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after and for all time.  a great wind had cum in the night and all was blown then and broc.  none had thought a wind lic this colde cum for all was blithe lifan as they always had and who will hiere the gleoman when the tales he tells is blaec who locs at the heofon if it brings him regn who locs in the mere when there seems no end to its deopness

none will loc but the wind will cum.  the wind cares not for the hopes of men

the times after will be for them who seen the cuman

the times after will be for the waecend (p. 9, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Paul Kingsnorth's debut novel, The Wake, perhaps has the least-traditional history of any of the 2014 Man Booker Prize-longlisted works.  Originally a crowdfunded novel, The Wake is set in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Hastings.  This period, until recent decades, had long been dismissed as being a mostly seamless transition from English to Norman rule, from Old English to Old French being the language of court and literature.  Yet evidence, ranging from folk tales to archaeological records, has revealed that there was at least a decade's long simmering rebellion against William the Bastard/William the Conqueror's takeover.  These rebellions, many of which were based in the fens of East Anglia, inspired tales of doomed heroes like Hereward, later given the appellation of "the Wake" in the 14th century.  Certainly in the early 21st century, as we bear witnesses daily via social media and television to struggles of downtrodden peoples to retain at least a shred of dignity in the face of oppressors that seek to wipe out their very languages and cultures, there is something of an echo of these 11th century "last stands" against the rising tide of Norman occupation and dispossession of English landowners.

The Wake is a historical novel that seeks to recreate the mood and feel of these struggles following 1066.  Set mostly in the fen country where the Isle of Ely rebels fought, it is a first-person narrative presented by an ahistorical character named Buccmaster of Holland.  The setting itself has a lot of potential for social commentary about disproportionate land ownership (a regrettable legacy of the Norman Conquest) and freedom fighters, but Kingsnorth makes the bold decision to create a "shadow language," an English that is stripped of French and Latin-derived cognates and which often uses a slightly-modernized form of Old English orthography, to narrate Buccmaster's tale.  This is a tricky endeavor, as much of the narrative depends upon the reader being ready to put in the necessary syntax parsing in order to make this enterprise work.  Use too many archaisms or utilize them incorrectly and the entire affair risks collapsing under the weight of its artifice.

However, Kingsnorth adroitly uses this synthetic language to great affect.  In particular, there are instances of clever double entendres, such as the use of "waecend" in the prologue quoted above.  There is the meaning of "the awakened," but it also bears the sense of "watchful," of someone who is aware of his or her surroundings.  Buccmaster is certainly "aware" of what has transpired in England; he is caught between several social tidal waves.  He observes the "old religion," seeing the old English gods in the trees and fens of his native land.  Many of his discourses are related to this connection he perceives between nature and religion, between home and hearth.  The language he uses brings out these connections more readily than any modern idiom would.  As he and others gather in the margins to ready for a final fight against the Norman trespassers, his reflections on his passing world add a sense of gravitas to the situation.

Buccmaster is more than just a passive observer whose reminiscences about the old ways illustrate a fading society.  He is a fighter, possibly touched with madness, and it is the complexities of his character, interlaced with his tales of what the "frenc" have done and how so many are falling in their fight to preserve their lives, that make The Wake such a fascinating read.  The following passage, from near the end of the story, demonstrates well Kingsnorth's ability to imbue the coming calamity with a sense of urgency without ever abandoning the Anglo-Saxon origins of his synthetic "shadow tongue":

well there is naht else to do then but tac my sweord and use it as great weland had telt me to cwell them what has torn down all that we is in angland.  this time grimcell is not fast enough he is not locan not thincan i wolde tac him on and no other cums betweon him and welands sweord.  it gan cwic into him with a sound lic the cuttan of mete undor his sculdor and he calls out and locs at the blaed what has gan right through and cum out his baec and he wolde sae sum thing but his muth is all blud.  i locs in his eages what is not agan me now not agan me no mor and i pulls out the blaed hard and he calls then lic a cilde and falls hard on to the fyr and for a sceorte moment he writhes lic an ael on the glaif and then he mofs no mor

well then there is all callan and runnan and roaran and annis mofs lic she wolde go to him but i tacs welands great sweord what is all ofer with his blud and i sae thu (p. 383)

There is a powerful economy of description here.  Whereas a "modern" writer might try to convey this warrior having a sword run through him with a metaphor, Kingsnorth's Buccmaster recounts this with poetic redundancies.  The sword goes quick into Weland with a sound akin to the cutting of meat, yes, but it is the "not agan" and "not agan" that reinforces the deadliness of this encounter.  This is followed with "all callan and runnan and roaran," which gives the sense of a burst of immediate, helter-skelter action.  In using this, Kingsnorth hearkens back not so much to Romantic accounts of medieval battle but to descriptions older than Mallory's Le Mort d'Arthur, to a time when such repetition comprised essential parts of heroic ballads.  Kingsnorth recreates these motifs faithfully without ever making his narrative feel like a dull xerox of medieval legends.

The Wake certainly is one of the more original of the longlisted Booker Prize nominees.  Its prose is challenging, yet once the reader becomes accustomed to its quaint rhythms, it becomes a very lyrical story, one which utilizes several narrative tricks not usually explored in novel form.  Its protagonist, Buccmaster, is a surprisingly complex character, one whose thoughts and actions resonate with readers well after his final words are spoken.  The themes, especially that of resistance in the face of an inevitable defeat, are presented well and are universal enough to address issues beyond those of late 11th century English society.  Taken as a whole, The Wake is an impressive effort and certainly justifies further consideration from the Booker jury.

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