“Sometimes Life Really Was a B-Movie.”

Every now and again, you write a review you feel a little guilty about. Not only has China Miéville given me hours of pleasure with his previous novels; his latest, Kraken, was given to me as a very thoughtful birthday present by dear friends. So it feels churlish to have to admit I didn’t enjoy the novel – particularly as, I am fairly sure, I just didn’t give it the shake it deserved. But there you have it – I cannot tell a lie. I did not, alas, enjoy Kraken.

In this, as in my reaction to The City & The City, I’m in the minority. By and large, Kraken has received positive reviews which speak of a further gear change upwards for the darling of British SF&F. James Long at Speculative Horizons is typical: “Kraken is an excellent example of the potential that the fantasy genre possesses when its boundaries are pushed and pulled. It’s also the sign of a writer working at the height of his creativity; in terms of sheer imaginative power, Miéville blows most other writers away.” In a sense Long is right, since Kraken is nothing if not a non-stop parade of arresting images – striking familiars, grisly cultists, giant disappearing squid. But what felt lacking to me was the thread which joined all this invention together.

Perdido Street Station was in many ways a more intense blast of imagination; but it also featured vivid characters and a number of plots and subplots which coalesced to tell not just a complete story, but map an entire city. What is interesting about Kraken is that, despite the clear love for London Miéville again displays throughout its length, the novel’s thesis of London – its multiplicity, its near-infinite capacity – never quite comes together. In each positive review of the book, an aspect of this failure is allowed: Damien G Walter admits the novel’s cardboard characterisation; Gary Wolfe notes the curious passivity, the blandness, of its narrators and voice; and though Thea at The Book Smugglers is I think too harsh on the novel, there’s something in the criticism that Kraken is very close to a plotless melange of occurance. It’s a novel full of sound and fury, one might say.

To quote the first two of those reviews out of context is, however, unfair to Miéville. I’ve been distracted and over-stretched in the last week or so, and it may be that I simply did not give the novel its due attention – certainly, Gary Wolfe in particular is a careful reader whom one can usually trust to pay the proper attention. I may have missed a lot that he didn’t. In a way, I hope  I did. Take, for instance, this from his Locus piece:

Sometimes utterly chilling and sometimes very funny, it is one of the first fantasy novels I’ve seen to successfully combine elements of everything from the Victorian terror-tale to surrealism and Pynchonesque absurdity, and a good deal in between (several influences, such as Moorcock and Leiber, Dr. Who and Star Trek, are called out directly in the text, and for a while our hero is even armed with a Trek-like phaser).

This sounds like an awesome book. I hope that in a few months I can go back to the one on my shelves and find it to contain this great, coherent gumbo. What I found it to be, alas, was a somewhat floppy blancmange, all cute genre references without much in the way of meaningful combination. Not only that, but the conceit which asks ‘what would the world be like if all the conspiracy theories were right?’, and then applies the answer to its plot, is hardly as original as many of Miéville’s reviewers have supposed. In his recent review of Lost, Adam Roberts criticised the later years of The X-Files for assuming that everything was true; no milieu, no concept – not even Miéville’s beloved London – can in fact contain everything. This Kraken has a case of indigestion.

This difficulty is reflected even in Miéville’s prose, usually so skilful at leading the reader through what in a lesser writer’s hand would be impenetrable syntax and obfuscatory diction. Put simply, Kraken feels like Miéville squeezing, forcing, it all in. “He knew that he should listen,” we read at one point, “that he should wait and say nothing, if even he could answer the questions, which mostly he could not even if he would, which he would not, because this would not end.” [pg. 300] Got it? No, me neither. In Miéville’s defence, this garbled sentence comes from the point of view of a character being put to the question by a Cthuluish cult. But the bloated style is everywhere: “A pretty drab metaphor, such obvious correspondences; here he was about to pass on a message through the city’s traditional conduits.” [pg. 184] Or, “She glimpsed a look on his face so aghast it almost made you wince to see it, almost you could sob for it if you weren’t held in still-split time.” [pg. 426] You get what Miéville’s trying to do, but wish he’d try a little less. The lack of neologisms and thesaurus fodder this time around is deceptive – the prose here is doing more, not less, heavy lifting.

Or maybe that’s just me. In its dense, reference-heavy, high-octane and tricksy simulacra of a traditional plot, perhaps Kraken simply left my strung-out brain behind. “Kraken is full-strength, grade-A geekitude,” argues Jason Heller at the AV Club. “And as such, it’s brilliant.” Really? It’s brilliant because it has a Torchwood pastiche? Early on, Miéville’s protagonist, Billy Harrow, is told by his best friend that, “You can sneak out of the nerd ghetto and hide the badge and bring back food and clothes and word of the outside world.” [pg. 6] Kraken is a book happy to play in the nerd sandbox. Had it done so with a little more discipline, it may have been a great book – undoubtedly, Miéville’s intellect remains powerful and percipient. But in my reading Kraken failed in its core project to contain its multifarious inventions and borrowings, and as the twisted adventure story it wants to be it cannot satisfy in its pacing. What started out nealty amusing ended, for me, over-extrapolated and wearying.

And yet, every now and then, I write a review about which I feel a little guilty. Go on, read Kraken and tell me how I can do better next time.

Sometimes utterly chilling and sometimes very funny, it is one of the first fantasy novels I’ve seen to successfully combine elements of everything from the Victorian terror-tale to surrealism and Pynchonesque absurdity, and a good deal in between (several influences, such as Moorcock and Leiber, Dr. Who and Star Trek, are called out directly in the text, and for a while our hero is even armed with a Trek-like phaser).

Ursula Le Guin’s “Lavinia”

"Lavinia"

When you come to a widely-praised novel a year late, your expectations risk being unmatchable. The most exciting thing about Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia, which I finished this week, is therefore that it not only met mine, but confounded them. I hadn’t read about the novel in detail, which perhaps helped; but largely Lavinia is simply a very special book. Until you have read it, I’m not sure your expectations could be quite right.

A few years ago, Margaret Atwood helped inaugurate the Canongate Myths series with The Penelopiad. A retelling of the Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’s wife, left behind on Ithaca during his years of siege and sea-voyage. It was a bold if intermittently brittle feminist reclamation of its subject. “If you see someone you’d rather not speak to,” Penelope observes early in the book, “you can always pretend you haven’t recognised them.” [pg. 15] The implication is clear: this is what Homer did, and his readers, in following him, have also done. Penelope is merely in the way of the greater story of her fabulous husband. So we affect not to see her.

This is what you might expect from Le Guin, too: Lavinia, if anything, is even more elaborately over-looked by Virgil than Penelope by Homer. At least Odysseus’s missus (say it twelve-times fast) shows agency, putting off remarriage, and exhibiting much of her husband’s guile in setting a high bar for any suitor who wishes to win her. Lavinia, on the other hand, is practically a marginal note in Virgil, existing largely to provoke the Latin war between Aeneas and Turnus. One of the joys of Lavinia, though, is that Le Guin resists the obvious way to rectify this under-writing. “I am not the feminine voice you may have expected,” Lavinia warns us. “Resentment is not what drives me to write my story.” [pg. 65]

Le Guin’s Lavinia wants to do all she is expected to do – she wants to marry Aeneas, and wants to fulfil the role alotted to her by society and by fate. But none of this, crucially, is due to a lack of thought: Lavinia is an intensely reflective narrator, who considers and analyses all around her. Her voice is calm and even cool, flowing through the story serenely and confidently; it is the voice of a woman at home with herself, and committed to the benefit of those around her. This isn’t the feminine voice we may have expected, but it is gorgeously done – and thoroughly proper. Atwood’s Penelopiad, with its forced modernity and precocious narrator, felt at times like a game; Lavinia is never confected, and never rings false. It is, like Lavinia, fully itself, and fully realised.

In the first part of a discussion about the book, Nic Clarke, Jo Coleman, Niall Harrison, Abigail Nussbaum, and Adam Roberts spent some time going over what a familiarity with the Aeneid adds to a reading of Lavinia. In part, I’d argue, nothing: the novel is its own story, delivered with an immediacy of narrative which Virgil lacks (on which more shortly). On the other hand, knowledge of the world of the Aeneid might underline more than anything the extent to which Lavinia is part of it. A familiarity with this world, in which feminism as we understand is impossible, can help the reader become more alive to the book’s central project. The danger of the Atwoodian approach is to suppose that, if Penelope did not think and behave like Germaine Greer, then womanhood in distant periods of history was somehow incomplete. Le Guin does not accept this.

What Lavinia is, then, is a novel of co-existence. In the second part of that noble quintet’s colloquy, Adam Roberts memorably and perceptively separates Le Guin’s chosen mode, the narrative, from Virgil’s, the lyric. This distinction is a key to the novel, but I think it should not be taken too far – there are in Lavinia moments of intense lyricism, and passages deeply Virgilian in style. Lavinia is, as noted, reflective, constantly settling in the moment and finding in it a modest epiphany. Her exhortation to “go, go on” is certainly a statement of her storytelling style; but it is not, as it were, the full story. Lyric and narrative cohabit in Lavinia as womanhood and patriarchy do.

(Incidentally, there is, as Cheryl Morgan has noted, a vague discomfort in the novel with homosexuality, or perhaps more properly homoeroticism; but this, I think, as well as emphasising Lavinia’s deeply pre-modern conceptions of the world, is a condemnation not of Ascanius’s sexual preferences but his pursuit of the masculine to the exclusion of the feminine. Problems with this treatment remain, but it is in this sense thematically justified.)

The one choice of Le Guin’s I might properly dispute – and here I side with Nic Clarke in the, yes, third installment of that discussion – is her exclusion of the gods. In Lavinia, the gods are constantly evoked, indeed are a part of the fabric of the day-to-day, but do not appear as active participants as they do in the Aeneid. I find this curious – particularly as Le Guin inserts the time-travelling spirit of a dying Virgil into the narrative, and gives him the god-like abilities of foresight and the control of fate – and yet, if we accept co-existence as the novel’s key theme, then had Le Guin included the personified, active, fixed gods of Troy and Greece, she would necessarily have rejected the dispersed, passive, unlocated gods of the Latin peoples. Her novel takes place when one polytheistic tradition meets another, and holds the two in beautiful tension throughout. Had she followed Virgil this would have been impossible.

The Penelopiad begins by emphasising Penelope’s fictionality: “they [are] turning me into a story, or into several stories.” [pg. 3] Lavinia ends with Aeneas’s wife accepting her own immortality: “he [Virgil, of course] did not sing me enough life to die.” [pg. 249] The similarities between the two novels, and their awareness of the power of story, are clear, but Le Guin’s approach is immeasurably more sophisticated. Some have felt the final third of the novel sags, limping on as it does past the bounds of its great canonical forebear; I found it in its own way more compelling than the middle section, which owes most to Virgil. The poet’s story is greater than itself; once set in motion, it continues – though never ends – without him. As he recognises when perceiving Lavinia as a greater woman than the one he wrote, the poem has a life, a reality, beyond itself. Virgil is a god who cannot fully control the human drama laid before him. In other words, fate and agency possess a simultaneity with each other. The tripartite structure of the book – pre-poem, poem, post-poem – is in itself in a sort of balance.

Lavinia is a pastoral with the nostalgic, elegiac tone that term implies. Its nostalgia, however, is not for a rural, close-to-nature never never land, or even for a world in which empires and male power have flown out of control. It is nostalgic for the balance which inhabits its very structure. Aeneas’s heroism in Lavinia is in his even-handedness: his willigness to act, but his openness to reflection; his respect for women, but his necessary masculinity; his generosity to the Latins, but his championing of the Trojans. The novel’s is a nostalgia for that wisdom – for co-existence and co-habitation, for a world in which women and men are different but not opposed, in which religious differences are tolerated, and we each fulfil the duties we have to each other. That, too, may be a never never land, like all nostalgia a yearning more than a memory; but the Aeneid has only ever been a story.

The Girl With Glass Feet, by Ali Shaw

The Girl With The Glass Feet, by Ali Shaw

I usually try to write at (greater) length on a Friday, but I’m not sure my equivocal thoughts about Ali Shaw’s debut novel, The Girl With Glass Feet, quite support that. Allow me, then, the sin of appropriating the views of others as a frame. Plenty of reviewers have tackled this quirky, bleak little fantasy, not least Robin Romm in The New York Times: “The hybrid form of the book — fairy tale, myth, psychological realism and fantasy — impresses. But Shaw’s most delightful offerings are the vivid details he provides to make the magical real.” Certainly, one of the book’s great strengths is the telling detail, memorably expressed: “A black seabird dipped into the ocean like a nib dipping into an inkwell.” [pg. 181]

Shaw is very good at landscape and place in this way. The over-riding impressions of the novel derive from the grey, bleak mulchiness of St Hauda’s Land, the fictional northern islands on which his story is set.

From an aeroplane the three main islands of the St Hauda’s Land archipelago looked like the swatted corpose of a blob-eyed insect. The thorax was Gurm Island, all marshland and wooded hills. The next was a natural aqueduct with weathered arches through which the sea flushed, leading to the eye. That was the towering but drowsy hill of Lomdendol Tor on Lomdendol Island, which, local supposition had it, first squirted St Hauda’s Land into being. The legs were six spurs of rock extending from the south west coast of Gurm Island, trapping the sea in sandy coves between them. [pg. 22]

It goes on, but that gives the flavour: this sort of description is Shaw’s principal talent, and it is a significant source of pleasure, and the main source of character, throughout the novel. “I think places take hold of us and we become mere parts of the landscape, taking on its quirks and follies,” one character explains. [pg. 267]  This trick is expertly done. And yet I find it hard to echo Romm’s full-throated endorsement of the novel as a whole.  This despite the fact that, on the book’s back cover, Patrick Ness – a reviewer whom I was only a few days ago citing as a trusted source – assures me that “Ali Shaw has written a rare orchid of a book.” I find myself, in fact, closer to the position of that esteemed literary organ, the Metro: “Ali Shaw’s debut novel is a bravura conceit but it’s virtually weightless in execution, striving for a mythic depth it never achieves.” Strangely, ‘virtually weightless in execution’ is treated as a positive comment by the book’s blurb writers, and a part of that two star review appears on its cover. Perhaps there’s hope for Ness yet.

So why this equivocation, despite Shaw’s obvious talent? Liviu at Fantasy Book Critic, another reviewer more positive about book than I can be, puts it like this: the book’s “interesting cast of characters is not fully developed outside the main heroes.” I’d go further than that, and say that even Ida, the girl with the feet of glass, is under-developed; that, essentially, the book whose title she inspires is the story of the St Hauda’s Land native who falls for her, the socially awkward Midas Crook. The problem, though, is that – either deliberately or otherwise – Shaw’s prose matches in its scope a character who admits to himself that he is “plainly incapable of social interaction.” [pg. 220] All the character relationships are consequently written in the same brittle, spare way. I am happy to suppose that, in a book about the fragility and entropy of human relationships, this is a carefully selected, and ruthlessly executed, strategy. But it’s hard not only to care about, but to get to know, characters who are all quite so constipated.

“Quite, quite. I couldn’t agree with you more.”

“Yet you still don’t want him in your house. The two of you fell out, he said.”

“He hasn’t told you why?”

“No.”

“Did he … tell you anything at all?”

“Only that he’d found you. He said the two of you talked about his mother. He said you knew her once.”

“I … That is, I … ” He scratched his beard. “Did he tell you what I showed him in the bog?”

“No. What did you show him?” [pg. 166]

This exchange was taken at random – its style and content characterises most of the conversations which take place in the book. Shaw has moments of human observation as acute as those he reserves for the landscape (“He had wanted to kiss her but when the moment arose his head had been yanked away as if nerves were a bridle.” [pg. 197]), but they are too few and far between. The unfortunate consequence of this strain is that his female characters recede into the distance, whilst only the male characters who are his real protagonists come into Shaw’s overly harsh and excluding focus.

Even Ida seems almost to exist merely to precipitate the plot. Her character is largely flat and expressed in terms of clear and straight-forward desires: to be cured of her condition, or for “a warm body at her side and some recognition that she was alive.” [pg. 199] Naturally, it is Midas who is the focus of this unambiguous desire. More problematically, it is only he and his other males – his deceased father, or the conflicted Carl – who are asked the complicating questions. Kari Sperring at Strange Horizons has rolled out this issue rather well: “I don’t know if I enjoyed The Girl with Glass Feet, although I admire it and I’m glad to have read it. […] Everyone suffers in this book, but the women suffer most while the men (or at least some of them) achieve some level of understanding and enlightenment.” If the book is against this objectification, it is so only obliquely.

Over at Torque Control, Niall is positive about the book, although you detect something of a wish on his part that he didn’t have to be. He’s right that The Girl With Glass Feet is a challenging read, but he’s also right to feel a little uncomfortable about it: even if it is doing what it does deliberately, I’m not sure that is a defence of either its problematic execution or its consequently dubious gender politics. Even if both are a function of its sceptical vision of people, and that vision is certainly a compelling one worthy of exploration, Shaw’s execution speaks of a lack of balance: he allows his story no countervailing view,  no opposite movement, and this makes it less rich than it might have been. To return to Romm, however, he on the other hand seems spot on in his conclusion: “The end of the book, saturated with color and emotion, is risky and brave like the message it imparts. Only a heart of glass would be unmoved.”

The ending, despite all the awkwardness that has gone before it, is indeed a devastatingly well executed bit of writing. Shaw is, on the strength of that last-minute save alone, one to watch. But perhaps he needs to allow his at times quite beautiful prose a little more room to breathe.

Even A Pawn May Checkmate A King: ‘In Great Waters’

"In Great Waters" by Kit Whitfield

“I thought you meant to begin by umanning me,” admits Henry, the bastard half-breed protagonist of Kit Whitfield’s second novel, In Great Waters. He is speaking to Anne, a legitimate half-breed who is third in line to the throne of England. It’s a curious construction Henry uses: not only are neither he nor Anne entirely human; the genitals of which he is in fear are one of the more human things about him. Henry has just accused Anne’s murdered mother, Queen Erzebet, of wantoness: “He had not really meant that Erzebet fucked landsmen; if he thought about it, this girl must have been the child of a half-caste, her parents the children of half-castes, back and back, generations of hobbling spiders like her. She had understood what he meant, which was odd in itself; John or Allard would have frowned, made him explain.” [pg. 224]

Questions of otherness and similarity, race and ‘purity’, resonate throughout this accomplished novel. Henry and Anne are at such loggerheads on only their second meeting because their interests have been opposed, by the John and Allard Henry recalls above: the throne to which Anne has a claim has a weak royal family, populated beneath an elderly king by enfeebled men and youthful girls; Henry, washed up on the shore and discovered by Allard, represents a rival claim to that throne – a figurehead behind whom an army of renewal might rally.

Whitfield’s medieval England exists in an alternative past, in which the seas are inhabited by what appear to be adapted humans, deepsmen, who – following an invasion of Venice in the 9th century – have come, through interbreeding with the royal houses of the ‘landsmen’, to dominate European courts. (Only the landlocked ‘Switzers’ have fully human kings.) Simply put, alliances with deepsmen – possible only through half-breeds because of the vast linguistic and cultural differences between deepsmen and landsmen – are the sole means of establishing secure borders against rival states. A strong monarchy, as was of course the case in our own medieval world, is therefore crucial. Anne’s enervated family are ill-equippped to defend England; Henry, untainted by the consequences of in-breeding, represents a stronger future. The alternate history is too total to allow for exact parallels – is this the War of the Roses or the Northern Rebellion? – but the echo of all medieval unrest is here.

The novelty of the concept, then, is skilfully handled, deepened and textured throughout: this is no excuse for a generic fantasy with medieval trappings, but instead the placement of a recognisable medieval mindset upon a different world. Kari Sperring questions the novel on the basis of Whitfield’s assumption of “political stagnation”; the medieval world was neither stagnant nor uncreative, but it was fond of systems, precedent and order – Whitfield dramatises this nicely. If she doesn’t quite explain how Christianity – which, through the sympathetic character of Bishop Samuel Westlake, features heavily – remains in a recognisable form despite the total absence of the deepsmen from its sacred text and theology, she does much to show how a medieval world might have accomodated them. This refusal to reshape – but instead to adapt – is also shared by the novel’s characters, and, though at times a poorly wrought adaptation might let down a reader and appear as fudge, I think Niall Harrison is right to detect a Darwinian subtext to all this.

Indeed, the principle pleasure of the novel beyond its conceit is the way in which Whitfield shows Henry and Anne building their worldviews around their circumstances – adapting. A good chunk of the novel deals with Henry’s education by Allard, which proceeds fitfully because the deepsman’s mind is not adapted to concepts and dialogue in the way that the landsman’s is: “Understand, in Henry’s mind, was a word of imprisonment.” [pg. 41] Placing herself in a venerable literary tradition (Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea comes particularly to mind, but so too might The Seafarer or Moby Dick), Whitfield’s sea is unknowable and untameable, and her deepsmen accept this by speaking a booming, musical language of simple commands and warnings, unadorned with the proprietary aspect of defintion. But Anne, too, though from birth more part of the landsman’s world than the deepsman’s, must be educated about the world – in her case towards a broader and more flexible view of people and all, good and ill, of which they are capable.

Henry and Anne thus ultimately meet halfway – a marriage of convenience to save a monarchy. At times, alas, Whitfield is as awkward as her central couple: her exposition, in particular, is often poorly handled, and too often a character’s epiphany is experienced as an internal question-and-answer session. So on the level of technique In Great Waters is less impressive than it is on the level of concept. It is still, however, a solidly written novel with three good characters (Henry, Anne and Westlake), a colourful, if occassionally one-note, supporting cast, and a robust, memorable world. As Martin Lewis implies at The SF Site, the book is a confident and entertaining entry in the human-as-alien/learning-the-world stable of SF&F novels; Owen Jones, too, has the book’s number when he says at SFF World that, “With any number of reasons why this novel could have failed, many inherent to the type and style of story chosen, this is a highly crafted piece worthy of a far more experienced writer.”

All of this suggests (though Martin in particular stretches further in his review) a book which is competent but not explosive: Whitfield has written a thoughtful and entertaining novel which may at times lack elan but never good intentions. It’s hard, then, not to like In Great Waters. It is also a book with a good deal to admire about it – although ultimately you may be more fond of than impressed by it.

Mr H and Mr H Discuss The City & The City: Part Two

China Mieville’s The City and The City has just been published by Macmillan. It’s been getting some good press, yet I didn’t feel entirely convinced by it. Nor did Torque Control’s Niall Harrison, so we’ve been talking over the book and trying to get at why we weren’t as impressed as other reviewers. The first part of this conversation can be found over at Torque Control. The second starts here, though those intending to read it should avoid both these installments – unlike other reviews of the book, we couldn’t contrive in this format to avoid discussing the central conceit of the novel, which Mieville has been quietly encouraging critics to obscure. Anyway … onwards.

"The City and The City", UK cover
"The City and The City" in the UK

Dan:

Thanks for that Encyclopedia quote — I think it’s clear that the uncomfortable slush of elements is part of the point, then. That makes the book interesting as a lark, but winds up being integral to its failure. Mieville’s love of the neologism and pun isn’t new to this book, though, is it? He’s used termplay to do some heavy lifting in each of his novels, and in fact I’d say it’s central to his technique. It seems to me that one of the ways he inspires that ol’ sensawunda is by keeping things so vague: his characters, his cities, his political structures very often seem to be at one remove from the reader. We never quite understand them, and that deliberate inscrutability is key to his art. It’s on show here, too — those clever wordplays hint at without expositing different ways of thinking and being, whilst all of the characters, even Borlu, remain just in one way or another undrawn, unknowable.

And, again, this is where the ‘In Our World’ stuff intrudes. You can’t make a world so similar to ours as to be exactly that unknowable, you can’t hold it at one remove from us for a long enough period of time for us to begin to believe in its impossibility. As we’re agreed, it is very difficult to imagine the ways in which the Cleavage was enacted and sustain because we do know how the world works, and the author cannot succeed in dangling that knowledge just a little out of reach. I think you summarise the ambivalence of the book’s political position well — the complexity of the issues are not underplayed, and the book allows even hardline nationalists to be simulatneously both right and wrong — but, again, much of it is too familiar to us to fit this radically different way of living. I know exactly what you mean about thinking Borlu a dolt, but as I said I can believe he has been conditioned — or as you put it, believe he believes — but despite that the concept, too, remains doltish. This is fatal: it makes the complex politics fall down, because the ‘nationalism’ on show is so obviously a false iteration, and the depiction of culture so gratingly artificial. The book tries hard to depict a difficult world which must be inter-connected to survive, but in which borders are crucial and cannot be ignored; yet that conceptual failure undermines the whole edifice.

So, sure, globalised business exists apart from both unity and division, of course, which is why the businessman appears hypocritical from both perspectives — but whether the nationalists criticise the ‘false consciousness’ of the twin cities, their nationalism is in turn equally false because of the novel’s own weaknesses. I’d like to think that all this falseness is some clever piece of cultural criticism, but I fear the novel is in fact just poorly conceived. The mystery stuff is a case in point: undoubtedly, this is an homage to noir and suchlike, and in particular its first chapter is very strained in its attempt to read like Chandler (a much harder effect to achieve than is often allowed). The twists and turns of the story are quintessential mystery novel, and the nearly comedic summary by the detective at the end a study in the form. But none of that part of the novel ever felt to me remotely as inventive as Mieville’s fantasy stuff — imagine the mystery without the fantasy setting, and you get something close to the masterfully over-cooked genre parody in Cloud Atlas.

Over on his blog, MJH is saying ‘read that book whatever you do’. I don’t get it.

Niall:

Without wanting to put words in that other Mr Harrison’s mouth, my guess is that what he values about the book is that it challenges us to think about what we mean by “fantasy”: not in the taxonomic/lexicographic literary sense we’ve just been discussing, but in the real-world sense. Why do we choose to believe the narratives by which our day-to-day real-world lives are shaped — narratives, in the end, as virtual as any “fantasy novel”? What do we gain and lose by it? That sort of thing. You say that wordplay is not a new feature of Mieville’s works, and that’s true, but I’d say that in The City & The City the way in which words actively shape reality, rather than merely reflecting it, is more foregrounded than in anything else he’s written, precisely because it is a version of our world being shaped.

Of course, if you read it and remain un-shaped, it’s less impressive. Your point that we already know how the world works, and Mieville can’t hide it from us, is an excellent one, I think. I appreciated the extent to which Mieville added more and more exceptions to the rules, ultimately making it clear that everyone who believes in the separation does so because they choose to do so. I thought the Ul-Qoma ex-pat community in Beszel was really very well handled, nicely disorienting; and I appreciated that he acknowledged that unsmelling or unhearing would be rather more difficult than unseeing, to the point of it sometimes being impossible to know whether to un-sense something or not. But again, ultimately these are portrayed as temporary, resolvable confusions, whereas it seems to me they would quickly become catastrophic, peoples’ choice or no.

"The City and The City" US Cover
"The City and The City" in the US

As to the book’s other advocates … I’m waiting on a review from Clute at the moment, and I gather he liked it; I’ll let you know what his arguments are. Gary Wolfe, in the April Locus, feels that it is Mieville’s “most disciplined and sharply focused novel to date” (I suppose it is), that “what’s most impressive … is not what amazes us about these imaginary cities, but what is familiar about them” (which I take to mean he bought into the conceit more than I did), that it’s “quite unlike anything [he’s] seen before” (to an extent, although there are books like Hav); and he’s pleased by “the manner in which [Mieville] respects and maintains the integrity of the police procedural”, even while unpacking the book’s mysteries. That last one I thought was a bit of a problem, actually. Borlu’s job requires him to be highly observant; but his life requires him to be highly selectively observant. Surely a deliberate contradiction, but also one that handicaps the novel a bit, since Mieville resolves it by having Borlu’s narrative be basically un-visual (until near the end, when he really does see both cities at once). Points for impressive technical achievement, somewhat fewer points for a believable detective protagonist.

Dan:

I’m still not sure I was as impressed as you by the wordplay stuff: sure, the way the residents of the cities use language shapes their reality, but this isn’t restricted to fantasy novels, or even very good ones. That Mieville finds some useful ways to depict this common process is power to him, but I don’t find it that noteworthy, within his oeuvre or outside it. As for what we think might be MJH’s reasons for liking it … well, OK. The book certainly does that, but for all the reasons we’ve been discussing it does not manage to do it very well. Again, why give a book a pass because it merely tries to something? Likewise, Wolfe is right on all his counts in terms of what the book does but, as you say, whether it does those things well is a trickier question. I don’t at all find the detective fiction stuff particularly clever — in fact, I kept thinking that Martin Cruz Smith should have been in Mieville’s acknowledgements. At times, The City & the City reads so much like Gorky Park that I find it hard to believe Mieville is unfamiliar with it (though he may be). Gorky Park was a bestseller, but in terms of the genre of police procedural it is as by the numbers as Mieville.

This is less maintaining the integrity of a form to my mind, and more using it as a crutch as everything else falls down around you. What keeps the novel together is its tight crime focus — it could not work as a straight fantasy novel, because its elements do not cohere. Yes, the tension between the two forms (as personified in Borlu) is deliberate: but it sets up something for us to watch, to focus on, so that we pay attention to the world largely as background to the mystery. Canny. Mieville says here that he’s always seen something of the fantastic in detective novels, that they pretend to exist in our world but in truth do not. Going through all those Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s not difficult to accept what he’s saying. But if he’s right, then what detective fiction manages better than The City & the City is to convince us that the world of its fiction is very much ours, and that what happens in the story could happen in our lives. MJH may like the central questions of the novel, but Mieville’s attempt to write them large is to my mind what dooms the book to failure in this key generic regard.

I agree that Mieville is as clever as he can be with the conceit — I too enjoyed watching, as the book went on, all the imperfect ways in which unseeing and unsensing were at times negotiated — but ultimately you come back to that failure to hold our world in this world together. I’m glad others have been more convinced by the book — but I think we can agree that we weren’t, and that there are serious problems with the book that tell us why.

Homage to Arabia: Rushdie, Valente and Oral Storytelling

In last Friday’s TLS, Geert Jan van Gelder discusses the torturous history of the 1001 Nights:

It is part of Arabic and European literature, it contains stories and motifs that may be traced to Sanskrit, Persian and Greek literature. […] The great majority of the stories are set in Iraq, Egypt, or Persia rather than the Arabian peninsula. Galland [its first European translator] did more than merely translate: he shaped the text into what became a more or less canonical form.

Penguins New 1001 Nights
Penguin's New '1001 Nights'

This most famous of story cycles is, then, a mishmash of influences, a sort of discourse between a panoply of contributors. Van Gelder goes on to discuss the myths of ‘popular’ and ‘highbrow’ literature, the ambivalence amongst Arab scholars for the work, and the problems of transliteration. His point is ultimately simple: that there is no such thing as “an ‘original’ text of the Nights”. This sensuous, boisterous and hugely influential work is essentially a layer cake of interpretation.

This has never stopped other writers plundering it for inspiration – indeed, it may well have encouraged them. If nothing else, its arresting frame story of the young wife Shahrazad telling stories to save her life, each night ending on a cliffhanger to ensure one day more of continued existence, is enough to lend each story an added power. But of course story cycles are in and of themselves captivating things, as Chaucer and Boccaccio both understood long before the Nights was known to Europe. In their pages lie a tumult of perspectives, and a confusion of lives; what they offer to the reader is something close to a cross-section of life as it is lived. To writers of fiction, this lure is irresistible.

The Enchantress of Florence
'The Enchantress of Florence'

Salman Rusdie is a writer particularly alive to the potential of the multi-strand narrative. Midnight’s Children in particular is consistently praised for its awareness of the slippery qualities of the storied life. “To understand me,” its narrator advises, “you’ll have to swallow a world.” In his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, Rushdie consciously evokes the form and premise of 1001 Nights to make this point anew: the visiting European Mogor dell’Amore, our principle storyteller (though everyone in this fiction has one to tell), sits in the court of the Grand Mughal, perpetually balanced between acceptance and condemnation, and weaves his worldly tales. (And as van Gelder points out in his TLS piece, the frame story of the Nights from which Rushdie takes his cue may well have originated in India.) His stories are alternately bawdy and reverent, epic and domestic. As is his wont, Rushdie straddles East and West, with a foot in both India and the Tuscan city of Florence (birthplace, of course, of that other great story cycle, The Decameron).

In this book, stories have power. As the Mogor tells his tale, it seeps out of the palace and into the streets, and the denizens of the city begin to dream of it. “When the sword of the tongue is drawn,” the Emperor Akbar muses, “it inflicts deeper cuts than the sharpest blade.” In part, this efficacy is due to the Mogor’s undoubted charisma – people fall in love with him in an instant, listen to him for hours, think of him for the rest of their lives. He is characterized a magician, and his sorcery is verbal – his charm is his wand.

Yet the book feels somehow without charm, even without bustle, despite its wealth of incident. It is dreamily told, which is of course deliberate, emphasising as it does the hazy mysteries of the Mogor’s tales, yet this languid tone lends the narratives more torpor than tension. Rushdie has never been the most ingratiating of writers, but here he sells so much on the basis of his principle character’s dynamic personality that the lack of zest in the writing undersells its premise. There are many appropriately sensual episodes in the book, and much of the rest of the material is fitting to Rushdie’s influences: his Florentine sections fizz with incident, and his cast of Indian characters seems to cut through society and personality with a familiarly leveling determination; but still there feels something too contrived, something a little cold even, about Rushdie’s treatment.

In The Night Garden
'In The Night Garden' (no, not the Igglepiggle one)

Rushdie wrote in Shame that “realism can break a writer’s heart,” and this is a fitting admission from a writer who began with full-blown fantasy (Grimus, 1975). Certainly The Enchantress of Florence does not shoot for mimesis: it is an impressionistic, fabulating work which goes some way towards the miraculous. But it is not straight fantasy, since it applies a layer of the magical to historical settings. In her The Orphan’s Tales duology, on the other hand, Catherynne M Valente paid similar homage to the Nights (here a young woman trapped at the court of a Sultan tells tales to a mercurial prince), but created a fairytale world of fiercely contemporary concerns to do so. I reviewed the two volumes in the series for Strange Horizons (In The Night Garden and In The Cities of Coin and Spice), and found them to be fizzing, vital pieces of work by a writer fully engaged in the act of seducing the reader.

In no small part, Valente’s success over Rushdie is down to the beauty of her prose. Though Rushdie is a master stylist whose sentences never seem unwieldy or unplanned, the less disciplined Valente nevertheless conjures up such startling similes, such penetrating metaphors, that her tales become precisely what we are told they are: visual, vital, enchanting. In creating her own individualised world, Valente in a sense made this untethering from the prosaic easier on herself; but simultaneously no worldbuilding is ever easy – it is the root cause of many a science fiction novel’s failure – and her world is so perfectly balanced, so beautifully poised, that it is not fair to accuse Valente of shortcuts. The Orphan’s Tales in fact represent a mammoth undertaking, an internally consistent universe in which all stories may happen in their own worlds, and yet may interlink.

<i>In The Cities of Coin and Spice</i>
'In The Cities of Coin and Spice'

The richness of Valente’s work rests very much on a melange of folk traditions; like Rushdie (but perhaps more so), she begins at 1001 Nights but fans out towards European and then North and South American story traditions, forcing the parts to cohere through sheer strength of talent. Rushdie’s work is in comparison a very literary confection, a thing interested more in texts than the oral tradition of the stories it seeks to mine. And this, it seems to me, is what hobbles it: whilst resting itself upon the strength of the stories we tell each other, it neglects almost entirely the way in which we tell them. Most often, this is not through text, but through the bob and wheel of voice. Any replication of oral delivery on a page will lack something of the performance; but it is possible to capture it in motion rather than in amber.

In his defense, Rushdie is crafting a novel, whilst Valente is far more obviously composing a story cycle – its frame story is lost in a Russian doll formation of ever-increasing depth, stories nesting within  stories told within stories about stories. But this only adds further value to this richly rewarding excursion into the power and potential of the tale – Rushdie, in comparison, feels as inert as ink on a page. Necessarily Rushdie’s is a constructed world; but it is too obvious in its artifice.

Fantasy and science fiction readers often talk about the ‘sense of wonder’, the feeling they ascribe often exclusively to their chosen genre and which constitutes a sort of dizzied amazement at the multiplicity and breadth of a universe when considered from a level other than the quotidian. It’s not quite fair to hive off this feeling from other fictions which do the same thing differently; but in Valente they have found a master of its evocation. Rushdie, in comparison, writes a nice sentence. This mastery is the fundamental building block of his project to reconst Eastern and Western texts into a sort of hybrid mode, and his work is a clever and deeply allusive novel, effusively praised as such in all corners … but it doesn’t make him much of a successor to Shahrazad. Van Gelder calls the wily vizier’s daughter “resourceful and eloquent”; for that level of narrative suppleness, we should perhaps turn to a fantasist, a builder of whole storied worlds, over a mere fabulator of texts.