Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

Coldheart Canyon (Clive Barker)

Barker has generally used a two-part structure in his books – you sort of defeat the bad guy halfway through, but then you realize that either it was much bigger and badder than you had imagined or there’s another much worse bad guy waiting behind the one you were after. In this one, though, he moves away from that into a much more unified plot. There’s still the magical world that exists parallel to ours, and the wide cast of characters so you don’t know who’s going to make it through and who won’t.

A famous actor gets plastic surgery, but has a bad reaction to it and goes into hiding in a secluded neighborhood off Sunset Boulevard. There he meets some sex-crazed ghosts (and people who should really be ghosts by now) and enters the basement room that becomes The Devil’s Country. The obsessive president of his fan club tracks him down and has her own, very different experience.

There’s a section of about twenty-five pages where the author retells the story of how his own much-beloved dog died, and it’s not really essential to the plot, but it was essential to his grieving process and really, with almost seven hundred pages, it’s not long enough to feel like we’re completely sidetracked.

I love every Clive Barker book I read.

 

Gut Symmetries (Jeanette Winterson)

Sometimes I think that if people had a vocabulary for what they’re doing, they’d be more comfortable with it. These days we’d call this a polyamorous relationship and leave them in peace.

A young scientist has an affair with an older, married colleague. She feels guilty, so she talks to the wife about it. The wife is angry, of course, but also unexpectedly young and beautiful and artistic, so the women have an affair as well. Then there’s some trading around among the three.

What’s really interesting, though, is the intersection of different types of knowledge. Theories of gravity and attraction among subatomic particles and celestial bodies collide with poetry and attraction between lovers of various sexes. There’s only one world, and a Grand Unified Theory would have to encompass every mode of being, not just at a particle level but in all the ways we know ourselves. The book is full of synchronicities and parallels and connections, so many that I’d like to read it again so that I can see more of them and understand them when I see them.

I love every Jeanette Winterson book I read, and I’ve needed to read books I’m going to love.

 

Veronika Decides to Die (Paulo Coelho)

The first few times I read this book I loved it, but this time I was a lot less enthusiastic. It’s still an interesting story about a woman who learns to live well from the inmates of an insane asylum, but the discourse about mental illness is much more troubling to me now than it was before.

Coelho’s idea seems to be that mental illness is cultural and all you really have to do is learn to reject society and embrace who you really are in order to be healthy. There’s some value to that for some problems, but I don’t think schizophrenia can be cured with self-love, or that astral travel solves depression. He makes the chemical explanations sound equally as faith-based as the metaphysical ones, so serotonin and dopamine seem to exist on the same plane as the third eye and the soul. There may be value in both the mechanistic view of the body and the four-humors spiritual view, but it’s important to interact with those ideas on their own terms. Cortisol isn’t the same thing as black bile.

 

The Beauty of Men (Andrew Holleran)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book this depressing. It’s about a gay man who survives the AIDS crisis but can’t handle middle age. It was like listening to that guy I dated briefly in Texas all over again – no life in the present, just a constant remembering of those who’ve died while taking care of an aging parent who is also going to die soon. There’s some cruising, but he pines for a man who doesn’t love him, which keeps him from being happy. Twenty years later, life for gay men in rural areas isn’t this bleak. I understand the importance of having recorded this moment in time, but I don’t live in that moment, and things are better now.

Protagonist lives in the same area of Florida that my dad does, so I did spend some time wondering where that boat ramp is. Not that he makes casual sex seem anything other than futile and depressing. Holleran writes well, but the world he creates is dark and empty and desperate, as if AIDS kills some men’s bodies but robs others of their souls.

 

The Magicians (Lev Grossman)

This is a Harry Potter-Narnia mashup for grown-ups, with a little Dungeons and Dragons mixed in.

Quentin Coldwater gets pulled from his elite private school for teenage geniuses to attend a magical college. He gets through all four years in a little more than half the book, wanders around adulthood miserable and high until the two-thirds point, then he and his friends go off to Fillory, a magical land from a series of children’s fantasy books Quentin is obsessed with.

This is a book about what it’s like to grow up. Quentin is really bad at it. He can’t handle real-life adult problems, even after four years of school and comparative independence, so he turns to addictions for a while, then retreats into his childhood fantasy world only to discover that it’s full of adult problems too. Education, sex, and drugs haven’t prepared him to face the fact that he has to deal with the mess of who he is instead of hiding from it. In the end, he gets one of those mindless office jobs as another way of hiding from himself. There are two more books, so I hope he gets some self-awareness eventually.

There’s a television series based on these books that I rather enjoy, but it’s dramatically darker and more violent than the book. The book focuses exclusively on Quentin instead of tracking Julia’s parallel but more traumatic experience. Another important difference is time. The book encompasses five or six years (probably, maybe more), from when Quentin is seventeen until he’s in his early twenties. The series changes Brakebills to a post-graduate program and compresses everything from this book into a year or so. The compression of time makes sense with the actors not aging quickly and the fast-paced world we expect from entertainment, and the delay makes the sex more palatable I guess, because no one wants to watch twenty-two-year-olds having a threesome? (Poor Alice.)

 

The Eyes of the Dragon (Stephen King)

The intended audience of this book is dramatically younger than it is for any other Stephen King book I’ve read. It’s about a sword-and-sorcery fantasy land, with a prince locked in a tower and an evil magician who secretly runs the kingdom. Instead of going chronologically, there’s this circularity of the narrative, edging the plot forward a bit then running back to explain the backstory or to catch us up with a different character in a different location. It’s exciting and all, Stephen King deserves absolutely all the praise he gets, but the ending was rather dissonant with the rest of the book. Despite the fact that there’s a severely alcoholic teenager, most of the tone is light and kid-friendly, so when the magician grabs an axe and comes charging up the steps of the tower, it’s scary in a way that doesn’t fit with the rest of the book. Besides, he can do magic and he poisons the king. Why is he charging around waving an axe over his head at all? Did he suddenly forget all his magical abilities in the overwhelming hatred for the prince? Yes, he’s one of those villains who wants to see the world burn, but he does everything else so quietly and intuitively that the eruption of physical fury at the end is really out of character.

 

Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie)

There was a recent movie, but I haven’t seen it.

The thing that strikes me about this one most strongly is how important it is to stay current with the news if you’re going to solve crimes, and how much easier it was to stay current with the news a hundred years ago. Hercule Poirot is less tired than he is in books written thirty years after this one, both literally and as a character. It’s a very well-ordered story: events unfold until the murder, then the detective examines the crime scene and interviews the witnesses and suspects, then he brings them all together and explains how the murder was done and by whom. There are no surprises, no desperate turn of events, and very little violence. The lack of action makes me wonder why this one is so popular and why it is so often considered the representative, exemplary Agatha Christie novel. Maybe people like the combination of simplicity and intellection. I enjoyed it, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

Advertisements

The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)

I love this book so much. It’s about a competition between two magic teachers – they each train a student, then bind them together in a magical fight to the death. Of course the two fall in love. The first time I saw that much, but this time I saw just how important everyone else is, the clockmaker, the contortionist who survived the last challenge, the fortuneteller who uses Temperance to keep them balanced, the teenager who teaches the magician about stories, the woman who sees behind the scenes and runs mad, the boy who falls in love with the circus and saves it. Of course I love the circus as well, all the magical tents that don’t seem to match what I remember of circuses – The Wishing Tree, The Pool of Tears, The Ice Garden… It’s beautiful and emotional, and not at all outsized or self-conscious the way I picture circuses. I want Morgenstern to write more books.

 

The Poisoned Island (Lloyd Shepherd)

This book starts with a rape, and rubs the symbolism in as it continues to tell the story of English botanists raiding Tahiti. It’s marketed as literary fiction, but don’t be fooled: this is a dark Regency-era murder mystery with a strong social-justice message. It’s also the second in a series, which didn’t become clear until I got curious about all the references to the characters’ shared history and checked Amazon, and sure enough, the major characters are mentioned by name in the description of Shepherd’s previous novel, The English Monster. So read them in order. I’m not saying it’s poorly written, because I think it’s a good book – I use ‘literary fiction’ as a genre rather than as a description of quality. But seriously, the body count gets up to nine or ten, and the protagonist takes a really paternalistic attitude toward his wife, who seems like a brilliant scientist if men would stop hampering her activities.

 

The Earthsea Trilogy (Ursula K. Le Guin)

I thought this would be a good way to slow down the way I’m burning through my book collection, reading a three-in-one, but it didn’t work. It went so fast. Three titles: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. In some form, all three books are about the human conflict with death. Le Guin points out that death is to be respected, but not sought after, not worshipped, not feared. The protagonist of the first one turns into a guide in the other two, but while it makes sense, it’s a little sad – the first book makes it clear that he has dark skin, as do most of the people in Earthsea, but the next two books have white protagonists, and Ged becomes another magical Negro spirit guide. There are important things here about who we are and what it means to be human, but the racial stuff did make me sad. There are more books now, so maybe the people of color come back to the center in Tehanu, but I don’t know yet.

 

The Lightning-Struck Heart (T. J. Klune)

I loved this book so much. Again, it’s sort of thick so it should have taken me a while, but I went through it so fast and loved it all. Highly recommended for anyone who thinks that bitchy twinks who make sex jokes in a fantasy landscape can be hilarious. Fantasy/gay rom-com, completely genre-appropriate. Sam is a wizard’s apprentice whose best friends are an angry glittery unicorn and a half-giant. He’s in love with Knight Delicious Face, engaged to Prince Justin – the prince gets kidnapped by a sexually aggressive dragon who has been deified by a local town with mind-control corn, so the baby wizard and the knight go on a quest. I am super excited about the fact that there are three more that I can put on my list.

 

Oh, and by the way, today is my seven-year anniversary on WordPress. You’ve come a long way, Angry Ricky, but you’re still yourself, even though you thought you might lose yourself along the way.

It’s not always labeled as such, but this is a Dungeons and Dragons story. Well-written fantasy, but in a world that already feels familiar to some of us. I have never studied economics; even in high school, my civics class was all government and no economics. This book puts the basis for some of our economic problems into terms that I can understand.

It’s like this. Hero work ostensibly exists for the improvement of society and making the world a better place, but it really all boils down to money, sort of like the American education system. Heroes go out and kill ‘bad’ guys and take their stuff. Society measures their accomplishments by looking at the tangible results, the loot. Corporations or guilds see the loot coming in and want a piece of it, so they choose a hero and invest in getting him better armor and weapons so that he has a better chance of getting the loot. In exchange, he promises them a percentage of the take. It was all well and good for a while, but then a couple of things happened. First, heroes started running out of ‘bad’ guys to kill. Too many heroes, not enough loot. The competition gets more intense for a lesser reward, so the investors are less interested in putting their money into something that will not pay. Second, the bankers figured out that you can invest in a hero, get him outfitted and all that, but then while he’s gone slaying the dragon or suppressing the orc menace, you sell your share of his loot to someone else. You get your profits faster and without risk, because you’re passing the risk along to someone else. The hero has now become a hot potato, with everyone selling the shares around until he comes back with a wagonload of gold or something. When dealing with actual companies and small business owners, I imagine that the hot potato can be passed around indefinitely, as long as the company stays in business.

The idea of who is bad and who is good opens up a whole can of post-colonial immigration worms. It’s typical to see the player races – humans, dwarves, elves, halflings, etc – as the good guys most of the time, and some other races as being bad all the time – goblins, orcs, trolls, ogres, the less sexy fantasy creatures. Protagonist Gorm Ingerson is a dwarf berserker, and the story begins with him befriending a goblin. They don’t speak the same language, but Gorm recognizes that the only chance the goblin has of not being killed is for him to give him a job and get him properly registered with the government. He’s not necessarily less prejudiced than the people around him, but he does have some compassion for the innocent. Eventually someone starts teaching the goblin the common language, but for most of the book Gorm calls him Gleebek, the goblin word for Hello.

Speaking of post-colonial worms, let’s talk about the Elgin marbles. Once upon a time, Greeks built huge temples to their deities and covered and filled them with statuary and other stone carvings. Among these was the Parthenon, which is still considered a national treasure today, nearly 2500 years later. Around five hundred years ago, Greece and its Parthenon were captured by the Ottoman Empire, who turned it into a Muslim prayer site. Around two hundred years ago, the Earl of Elgin got permission from the Ottomans to haul the statues back to England, pagan statuary not being essential to Muslim worship. Some pieces were fairly simple to haul away, but some had to be cut off the building. Byron (poet, member of the House of Lords, and enthusiast for all things Greek) was especially voluble in condemning Elgin for defacing and looting the pride of an ancient people, but Elgin sold the marble pieces to the British government for placement in the British Museum, so nothing bad ever happened to him. Shortly thereafter, Greece won its independence and now they want their marbles back. The English are refusing to give them back, because they bought them from Elgin fair and square, and Elgin had the proper permits from the Ottomans, and it’s Greece’s own fault for being conquered in the first place. Now, imagine that the English are elves and the Greeks are orcs, and that the Elven Marbles have been stolen in transit. Gorm and his pals are hired by the elves to get the Marbles back, even though they really belong to the orcs. But, you know, orcs are evil and smelly and dangerous (foreign), so can anything really belong to them? I mean, they don’t speak English.

Well, Gorm’s pals are not really his pals. The team is assembled Avengers-style, and this party is really questionable. The most important danger in Dungeons and Dragons is not the supposed villains, it’s your own party members. People will get each other killed in a heartbeat, either by wandering off or being spiteful in battle. In time, there are pairs of people who start to work well together, but the group never really coheres. They’re all different levels (as DM, I would not have gone along with this), all fairly independent and belligerent, and none are that friendly. Working out your party dynamic is essential because these are the people who will get you killed. The game is more fun when the players aren’t wasting their energy arguing with each other.

Another social issue is the drug addiction. In a world of magic combat, of course there are healing potions, which means that of course there are people addicted to healing potions. The elf in Gorm’s party tends to sneak off by herself, cut, and then heal. It’s sad and frustrating – the addiction cost her a lot of prestige and skill, but most people don’t know about it. She keeps it secret and somehow manages to function most of the time, and this is how addictions work in the real world as well. We accept the fact that our friends are quirky and if we’re not really that close we don’t look under the surface. I know that I have an addictive personality and a body that creates dependence quickly, so I try to be careful about drinking coffee and alcohol or doing anything else. Those habits are expensive, and easy to form. I’ll have a drink occasionally on the weekends, meaning maybe a couple of drinks once in four to six weeks, but when I feel stress my brain jumps to alcohol as a solution. Even if it’s 6:30 a.m. and I just woke up. A long habit of denying myself anything has kept me from ruining my life with addiction, but not everyone was trained in self-hatred the way that I was.

Of course, the Elven Marble thing is a setup and Gorm realizes too late that there is no right solution and that the banks, guilds, and corporations are all ready to destroy the world to increase their own profits. I’m used to distrusting institutions, so this part of it feels familiar and right to me, even though it’s a big double cross and the friends I play D&D with would not appreciate this kind of plot twist.

So, this is a novel set in a familiar fantasy landscape, but demonstrating the evils of capitalism run amok, sort of like what we have here in the United States today. I enjoyed it, and if you’re into this sort of thing, you probably will too.

Clive Barker writes such beautiful horror.

Weaveworld

Even this, one of his earliest novel-length stories, moves me to tears.

Nothing ever begins.

There is no first moment; no single word or place from which this or any other story springs.

The threads can always be traced back to some earlier tale, and to the tales that preceded that; though as the narrator’s voice recedes the connections will seem to grow more tenuous, for each age will want the tale told as if it were of its own making.

Thus the pagan will be sanctified, the tragic become laughable; great lovers will stoop to sentiment, and demons dwindle to clockwork toys.

Nothing is fixed. In and out the shuttle goes, fact and fiction, mind and matter woven into patterns that may have only this in common: that hidden among them is a filigree that will with time become a world.

This book was written a little before The Great and Secret Show, and has a lot of similarities to it. There’s a magical world bordering on ours, which people can access at rare times, but which is normally hidden and forgotten. Instead of existing outside, though, the secret magic is woven into a carpet, hidden in plain sight. And instead of having the two-journey structure, this book is in three volumes, and those volumes are subdivided into thirteen books. It brings to mind the twelve-part epics (plus one, to evoke the number of horror) as well as the Victorian three-deckers. Also like TGSS, there’s this amazingly powerful heroine.

“You’re a strange woman,” he said as they parted, apropos of nothing in particular.

She took the remark as flattery.

Suzanna is a regular person, in this book called Cuckoos, but when she faces a magical antagonist she gets access to the power of the menstruum, and while that word isn’t always associated with power, in this book it is. The menstruum is the source of magic, and when used appropriately, can give a woman so much power she becomes revered as a goddess. She has the task of protecting the Fugue, the magical place hidden in the weave, and the people who live there. She is assisted in this task by a lovable not-quite-hero, a cute boy who seems sort of worthless until he’s inspired by love to do incredible things.

And what lesson could he learn from the mad poet, now that they were fellow spirits? What would Mad Mooney do, were he in Cal’s shoes?

He’d play whatever game was necessary, came the answer, and then, when the world turned its back he’d search, search until he found the place he’d seen, and not care that in doing so he was inviting delirium. He’d find his dream and hold on to it and never let it go.

Cal is sort of like Christopher Moore’s Beta Males, more secondary protagonist than hero, but he loves the Fugue and will do anything to preserve it.

True joy is a profound remembering; and true grief the same.

Thus it was, when the dust storm that had snatched Cal up finally died, and he opened his eyes to see the Fugue spread before him, he felt as though the few fragile moments of epiphany he’d tasted in his twenty-six years – tasted but always lost – were here redeemed and wed. He’d grasped fragments of this delight before. Heard rumor of it in the womb-dream and the dream of love; seen its consequence in sudden good and sudden laughter; known it in lullabies. But never, until now, the whole, the thing entire.

It would be, he idly thought, a fine time to die.

And a finer time still to live, with so much laid out before him.

As with many other novels I love, this one follows the natural cycles: events usually slow down in the winter, as the British retreat to their fireplaces and let the snows rage around them, and then things pick back up in the spring and get really intense in the summer. The Fugue is a place of creation, so it is often allied with the spring.

Of course, there are antagonists. Immacolata wants to unleash the Scourge and destroy the Fugue, and Shadwell her minion wants to take over. I once read that the protagonist is often considered the character who changes the most, and Shadwell changes a lot over the course of the book, so maybe it’s his story and not so much Suzanna’s and Cal’s. In the first part he’s a salesman, in the second he’s a prophet, and in the third he’s a destroyer, but it is sort of implied that the three roles are all the same, really. He has a magic jacket that shows people the thing they want most and gives them the illusion of attaining it – as I reflected on this and the fact that the thing I want most is love and a man to share it with, I wondered what Shadwell’s jacket would show me. After all, the first time we see it, Shadwell just opens his coat and asks Cal, “See something you like?” as if he were displaying his body and inviting Cal to touch him, but with that slightly menacing tone that says that if he takes the bait he’s going to get beat up for it. The Scourge itself is amazingly powerful, like the dragons of ancient stories, and has lost sight of who he is because of those ancient stories. At one point it’s said that he’s been corrupted by loneliness, and I wonder how much loneliness it takes to turn someone’s mind like that. And I wonder how much time I have left, before I decide that romance is unattainable in this life and that I need to get on without it. Like in Moana, the danger has to be healed instead of destroyed, so this is ultimately a hopeful book, despite all the death and destruction and loss that comes before the end. Which you would sort of expect in a book that I feel with enough intensity to cry at the end.

The thing I wasn’t expecting from this book was racism. The term Negress is outdated, but can be read as descriptive and not pejorative, but there are other words for persons of African descent that are unequivocally used to denigrate (a word which means, to make blacker). I know that word was only used by a bad guy, but even when racism is only used to mark unsympathetic characters it still bothers me. There is also a random offensive comment on the Cherokee, in the narrator’s voice and serving no purpose but to dehumanize a nation whose roots extend beyond our human understanding of history. And another thing: what is this thing that British authors have with writing about gay Arabs? (Neil Gaiman, I’m looking at you and your American Gods.) Does this go back to Rumi and Shams of Tabriz, or did T. E. Lawrence depict the Middle East as some sort of nonstop gay sex party? If so, then there’s no reason for Lawrence of Arabia to be such a dull film (I’ve heard; I’ve never actually seen it). In this book, the homosexual desire is acknowledged, but not celebrated – that will come later in Barker’s career, after he comes out publicly.

The other day I drove back through the old neighborhood in Asheville where The Ex and I used to live, and it was strange and different. On a Saturday in December, there should have been endless traffic, but it was just like a Saturday in any other month – I guess the new outlet shops at Biltmore Square have finally succeeded in diverting holiday drivers away from downtown and the mall area. Less traffic is welcome, but the other changes were less so. I lived in the Charlotte Street area for a year, and I heard more angry honking in half an hour in 2017 than in all of 2009. I commented on this to The Ex, and she agreed that Asheville’s energy has gotten really angry in the last few years, so much so that she doesn’t enjoy coming into town as she used to. In my memory, Asheville is preserved as a magical place where people are kind and mindful of the life around them; the city may still recycle, but they’ve lost their attention to each other. It’s become crowded and distressing, the city’s music transformed into noise. Perhaps there are still oases of comfort, but the city itself is not the oasis it once was. I remember people worrying about gentrification and what would happen when artists and the poor could no longer afford to live downtown, and now we’re seeing it. The problem isn’t with public art or community events (Bel Chere is privatized, but not dead) – the problem is with the people. I wonder if it’s all newcomers; I’ve been getting intensely angry with the world lately, and a lot of it has to do with the way the American government is turning the country to shit and how powerless I feel to do anything about it. I would guess that’s a big part of Asheville’s problem right now too.

But, much like the Fugue, my communities can be saved. Suzanna’s grandmother leaves her a book of German fairy tales, with the inscription:

Das, was man sich vorstellt, braucht man nie zu verlieren.

Which Barker translates as:

That which is imagined need never be lost.

But looking back at the German, I appreciate the fact that it uses indefinite pronouns and active verbs, so that a more literal translation could be: That which one imagines, she never needs to lose, or One never need shed what she imagines. Despite all my anger at how very disappointing life in the United States has been the last few years, I still hope for something better. I’m still imagining the life I want, and trusting the stories that tell me that if I can dream it, I need not lose it. Nothing that we imagine can be lost forever.

 “It’s all the same story.”

“What story?” Cal said.

We live it and they live it,” she said, looking at de Bono. “It’s about being born, and being afraid of dying, and how love saves us.” This she said with great certainty, as though it had taken her a good time to reach this conclusion and she was unshakeable on it.

It silenced the opposition awhile. All three walked on without further word for two minutes or more, until de Bono said, “I agree.”

She looked up at him.

“You do?” she said, plainly surprised.

He nodded. “One story?” he said. “Yes, that makes sense to me. Finally, it’s the same for you as it is for us, raptures or no raptures. Like you say. Being born, dying: and love between.”

 

lighthouse

This weekend I went Down East to see my family, and on Friday afternoon it struck me that it was precisely the sort of experience that Virginia Woolf would write about.

In spring the garden urns, casually filled with wind-blown plants, were gay as ever. Violets came and daffodils. But the stillness and the brightness of the day were as strange as the chaos and tumult of night, with the trees standing there, and the flowers standing there, looking before them, looking up, yet beholding nothing, eyeless, and so terrible.

After having spent so much time away, I was a little apprehensive about seeing them all again: my oldest brother, who is getting ready to go back to school for a degree in divinity; the older brother I was very close to fifteen or twenty years ago, but whom I now seldom think about from one year to the next; the younger sister who has been reaching out to me more in the last year or so; and my mother, whose affection is linked to how much we fit her ideals for us. I got a flat tire Friday morning, so the public interactions of going to three different tire places (one closed for renovation, one made me wait an hour before discovering they didn’t carry the right size of tire, the third was great) and delaying my trip for a few hours would be a better fit for Mrs Dalloway than To the Lighthouse, but put me in the proper Woolf frame of mind nonetheless. The way I get self-conscious about how others perceive me, whether strangers or family members, and analyze past interactions to prepare me for the evening, is all very similar to one of her characters. To the Lighthouse is about a gathering of academics and artists, staying with the Ramsays in Scotland for the summer. I forget which island group, Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides, one of those.

At last they had shoved her off, they had launched the lifeboat, and they had got her out past the point – Macalister told the story; and though they only caught a word here and there, they were conscious all the time of their father – how he leant forward, how he brought his voice into tune with Macalister’s voice; how, puffing at his pipe, and looking there and there where Macalister pointed, he relished the thought of the storm and the dark night and the fishermen striving there. He liked that men should labour and sweat on the windy beach at night; pitting muscle and brain against the waves and the wind; he liked men to work like that, and women to keep house, and sit beside sleeping children indoors, while men were drowned, out there in a storm. So James could tell, so Cam could tell (they looked at him, they looked at each other), from his toss and his vigilance and the ring in his voice, and the little tinge of Scottish accent which came into his voice, making him seem like a peasant himself, as he questioned Macalister about the eleven ships that had been driven into the bay in a storm. Three had sunk.

I do get irritated with the archetype of the Angry Academic. Mr Ramsay is insecure about his professional success, so he’s overly critical of his children. Byatt picks up this archetype as well, which got me thinking that there must be something wrong with British academics, but then I remembered Albee as well, and then I thought that since his play is called Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he’s probably influenced by her, as I’m sure Byatt is as well. The thing that bothers me about it is that I have spent most of my life around academics without finding these Angry White Men. In thinking about this anger, it seems like these men question their masculinity because they work with the mind instead of the hand. The men I’ve met feel no such contradiction. They don’t seem bothered with the question of whether teaching is a gendered activity or whether reading in a library is less inherently masculine than shooting rabbits or repairing cars. I’m not saying we don’t have sexism in academia, but the friends I’ve made are comfortable being who they are and not haunted by their perceived inadequacies. Which frees them up to be genuinely kind to their partners and children, unlike Mr Ramsay.

The first part of this book focuses a lot on the relationship between the Ramsays, and what they mean when they think that they love each other. It makes me think about that idea of chivalry that so many people claim to feel the lack of in our modern society, and the way that chivalry is a two-way street. These days people discuss it as a condescending attitude that men used to have for women, but this separateness goes both ways. Chivalry demands that each person have an ideal for the opposite sex, and that when persons of opposite sexes interact they each treat the other as if they see the ideal inside of them. It was a matter of kindness and respecting femininity and masculinity as concepts, doing honour to the Goddess in every woman and the God in every man. Of course there were abuses, on both sides, and even in Woolf’s novel we can see that traditional pattern of etiquette breaking down. Seven-year-old Cam dashes about and never sits still in a “properly feminine” way; Lily Briscoe doesn’t marry and feels no shame or lack in this; Charles Tansley openly expresses his belief in women’s inferiority because as a poor man he needs to put down someone to make himself seem higher and there is no racial diversity to give the opportunity for racism. Chivalry breaks down because people don’t live up to each other’s ideals, and we lose the sense that other people’s ideals matter. In the twentieth century we learned to embrace our own ideals – I live according to my own sense of what it means to be a man, not my mother’s or my ex-wife’s or my sisters’ or any of my female friends’. Chivalry seems to have been about this shared construction of gender identity, and it passed away because we stopped sharing in identity construction. After all, this is in many ways a book about the inability to communicate.

But nevertheless, the fact remained, it was almost impossible to dislike any one if one looked at them.

My two oldest brothers have never much liked each other, so it was genuinely odd to see them talking and laughing apart from everyone else. I joined them (all the men in one group together, women in the other room), and they were bonding over videos of standup comedians they both enjoy. I did my best to participate, but not enjoying videos of standup comedians, I didn’t have much to say. It was strange to see how little my brother and I have in common now, when we once shared so much that we even took the same classes at uni. He studied English alongside me, but now he speaks disparagingly of working in a library, as if what I find exciting would bore him to death. I was always the most serious of us, but in isolation I have become more so, and he (who was once enraptured with reading Thucydides and Beowulf) has joined the mass culture in devaluing academic pursuits. There was some overlap in his behavior throughout the weekend – a discomfort with silence, a compulsion to keep everyone laughing and happy, as if he were carefully avoiding talking about something and equally carefully avoiding letting anyone know there was a topic to be avoided. While he was there in front of me, I was glad to see him, but on reflection I’m concerned. He and I have never even mentioned the fact of my being gay, so I wonder if that’s what he can’t talk about, but it could also be something in his home life that isn’t what it could be. Both of my brothers were performing The Hen-Pecked Husband, which is a posture that always makes me uneasy but enabled them to bond with each other (while excluding me, the no-longer-hen-pecked). I didn’t get to talk with the oldest, but the other one and I got to spend some time watching The Crimson Pirate and laughing at the poor costume choices and other ludicrosities. I sent him home with a flash drive of older movies that he and his wife could enjoy, because at least we have that one interest still in common.

Somewhere in the annals of my family history, I have an Uncle Wirt. This is about a hundred years ago, the time that Woolf set the earlier part of the novel. Wirt took himself very seriously, while all his brothers were fond of joking and playing and taking life easily. As a result, Wirt was the butt of all the jokes, and he never really got on with his brothers. When it came to courting, Wirt found it easier to make love in writing than in speaking, so he corresponded with an English girl and eventually invited her out to the Finger Lakes to marry him. When he introduced her to his brothers, they could not stop laughing they thought she was so ugly. He quietly and seriously cut them out of his life. In this iteration of those genetics, I’m Uncle Wirt, but I don’t get picked on like I used to. When our parents split up, my older siblings lost interest in casual cruelty, and as adults most of us try to be kind to each other.

Always, Mrs Ramsay felt, one helped oneself out of solitude reluctantly by laying hold of some little odd or end, some sound, some sight. She listened, but it was all very still; cricket was over; the children were in their baths; there was only the sound of the sea. She stopped knitting; she held the long reddish-brown stocking dangling in her hands a moment. She saw the light again. With some irony in her interrogation, for when one woke at all, one’s relations changed, she looked at the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless, which was so much to her, yet so little her, which had her at its beck and call (she woke in the night and saw it bent across their bed, stroking the floor), but for all that she thought, watching it with fascination, hypnotised, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!

Sunday morning I woke up early and came downstairs, and read my book until I was sleepy again. I nodded off for half an hour or so, and in that time I saw/felt someone come over and kiss me on the cheek. I reached up and pulled him in closer, for a real kiss, the type that tells the other just how much I care about him, but it was just a dream. It’s like when I’m dancing to the music in the kitchen and I wrap my arm around No One’s waist and pull him close and rest my head on the air where his shoulder would be. It seems sometimes like life is preparing me for this great romance that hasn’t happened yet, and other times it seems like life is teaching me to be content with fantasy because I’m never going to have a love that satisfies me.

She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself – struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: “But this is what I see; this is what I see,” and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.

Typically when I read this book I see it as being primarily about Mrs Ramsay, what she means to the people around her, how they react when they lose her. This time I think that the protagonist is actually Lily Briscoe, the marriage-resisting painter. The difficulty she has with her art feels a bit like Woolf peeking out through the character and talking about writing. It does seem indicative of what happens to me when I sit down to write.

The urgency of the moment always missed its mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low. Then one gave it up; then the idea sunk back again; then one became like most middle-aged people, cautious, furtive, with wrinkles between the eyes and a look of perpetual apprehension. For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express that emptiness there? (She was looking at the drawing-room steps; they looked extraordinarily empty.) It was one’s body feeling, not one’s mind. The physical sensations that went with the bare look of the steps had become suddenly extremely unpleasant. To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have – to want and want – how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs Ramsay! she called out silently, to that essence which sat by the boat, that abstract one made of her, that woman in grey, as if to abuse her for having gone, and then having gone, come back again. It had seemed so safe, thinking of her. Ghost, air, nothingness, a thing you could play with easily and safely at any time of day or night, she had been that, and then suddenly she put her hand out and wrung the heart thus. Suddenly, the empty drawing-room steps, the frill of the chair inside, the puppy tumbling on the terrace, the whole wave and whisper of the garden became like curves and arabesques flouring round a centre of complete emptiness.

In thinking about this loss, I don’t really have this continuity of memory and essence of the dead. The people I miss are still alive, but far away, and no longer the people I knew. Seeing my brother makes me wonder if I had been lying to myself before, if he had always been this frantic entertainer hiding ‘a centre of complete emptiness,’ but that thought goes against one of my most important beliefs, in the mutability of mankind. People grow and change; he and I grew in opposite directions. I saw some other friends this weekend too – in Brazil, I would call her my concunhada, but in English we don’t have a good word for the friend whose sister is married to my brother – but without this sense of loss. The things I have always loved about them are still true, even after three kids and thyroid cancer. Yes, they grow and change, but I guess we’re moving in a similar direction. Whatever the cause of it, I can return to them after years away and feel as natural as if I had seen them last week. I always feel loved and welcomed, even though they still embrace that church that denies my right to a romantic relationship. [I was looking through the hymnal and realized that with their emphasis on right behavior and embracing truth, a great many of their hymns are still meaningful to me.] I may get back to them in a few weeks, or it may be a few years, but no matter how we grow, I am certain that they will always love me.

I love this book. I will be the first to admit that nothing happens, that this book takes place inside the mind and not in the outward world, but it is no less beautiful for all that. I love my family too, not for their beauty or poetry, but because they are mine, including the fact that I don’t get close because I know the ways their love falls short. I also love my friends, the family I choose, because their love never does.

 

People have been telling me to read Pratchett for quite some time now, but I have not yet succumbed to the attractions of Discworld. I’m a bit nervous that once I get started, it’s going to take over my life, and I don’t really want that. I’ve read a bit of Neil Gaiman, though, and this is sort of what I expect from a combination of the two. You remember the old practical joke, where you balance a bucket of water on top of a half-open door, and then someone walks through the door and gets soaked? Funny, right? Now imagine that the someone walking through the door is one of the Lords of Hell, bent on dragging you down to the Underworld to be punished by Mr Big-and-Scaly himself. And imagine that the bucket is full of holy water, which will dissolve the corporeal manifestations of demons on contact. Imagine further that the you running from this demon is also a demon, albeit of a lesser order, and that sloshing any of the holy water on you will dissolve you just as effectively. What was a funny situation is now a game of life or death with eternal stakes. For me, the life-and-death struggle undercuts the jokes.

What happened to England? At one time they were the mightiest empire on the planet. Then they were the only nation to stand up to Hitler and the Nazis, and through the strength of their endurance they won. But sometime during the second half of the twentieth century the national identity shifted to focus on antisocial, xenophobic, inefficient, and unintelligent behaviour. Somehow they went from Winston Churchill to John Cleese. This is one of the things that I admire about Doctor Who: its insistence that no life is unimportant, and that the British people will continue until the end of the universe. The show is making an attempt to restore English nationalism.

The Antichrist is born on earth. Since this book is a little dated, the Antichrist was born the same year I was, and at the time the story takes place he’s eleven years old. He was accidentally put in a normal British family, so he grows up a fairly normal boy, though with a stronger love of home than I had. When he reaches the age of eleven, the hellhound comes to join him, but the boy’s sense of normal infects the dog, and he becomes a normal dog.

It’s time for the great war between heaven and hell, and all the heavenly and infernal hosts are massing together, ready to strike. Earth is the battlefield, and will likely be annihilated. Well, there’s a demon who doesn’t want this to happen. There’s an angel who feels the same way. Aziraphale tries to avoid heaven, and Crowley hell, in order to reach the Antichrist and save the world. Their jobs have been pretty easy until now, human beings being both worse than demons and better than angels. So they use their earthly tricks to dodge the supernatural and get to the boy. This is the type of antihero, praise-of-mediocrity stuff I was mentioning earlier.

This is all laid out in prophecy, of course. Three hundred years ago Agnes Nutter saw it all and wrote it down, quite literally. But like Cassandra of old, no one understands or believes her. Her book is now in the possession of her descendant Anathema Device. Newt Pulsifer, witch hunter, comes to find her and he falls in love (quite a change from Newt’s ancestor, who led the team that burned Agnes to death). His commander in the Witchfinder Army also gets ensnared by a fortune-teller/aging courtesan. (cf antihero, praise of mediocrity)

And there are the Four Horsepeople of the Apocalypse: Scarlett, Dr Sable, Mr White, and The Other One. Scarlett bounces around the world bringing armed conflict wherever she goes, which seems to be not-quite-industrial societies; Dr Sable is leading a revolution in nutrition in America, feeding us all on fillers without any actual nutritional value; and Mr White brings trash and oil spills everywhere. War, Famine, and Pollution (Pestilence retired after we scientized medicine in the early twentieth century). Death is always present, following the other three but stronger than them all. And they’re coming to start the war that will end everything.

But that normal boy doesn’t want to end everything. He loves his home. He’s spent eleven years making Tadfield the perfect place for a boy to grow up, and he doesn’t want a bunch of angels and demons ruining it. The two factions are equally indifferent to humanity, each intent on bringing glory to their commander by defeating their opponent. But what would happen after? An eternity of nothing. Heaven and hell are both short-sighted in their ambitions. The real goal is play, an activity that has no other goal but its own perpetuation.

I love moments of convergence, when the disparate strands of a story come together at the climax. All these groups find each other at the Air Base that controls England’s nuclear missiles. The missiles are somewhere else, of course, but all the controls are in Tadfield, and the Four Horsepeople are ready to get things moving.

The ancients were always so convinced that the world was going to end. I’m not. The world continues, and life endures. Sometimes it’s funny; sometimes it’s intense; sometimes it’s awful and pointless (full of antiheroes who praise mediocrity), but life goes on. Endings scare us; Death endures when all other spirits have passed. Apocalyptic maunderings are all about the fear of death. When one of us dies, however, the rest go on. The world doesn’t stop for a death. The end of life is natural, mundane. Even if all of humanity died, the world would continue; some forms of life would continue even after a nuclear holocaust. I guess having survived the Cold War gives me a different perspective than people had in 1990.

And I guess that’s what this is really about: heaven and hell and their mutually assured destruction are uncomfortably similar to the United States and the Soviet Union, where ultimately the two sides are working for the same goal, the destruction of everything, and are indifferent to other nations, even their allies. I’ve seldom considered what that would look like to the rest of the world; as an American, I haven’t had to. Sometimes the modern world feels like an old Western movie, and every so-called terrorist organization is waiting to see who’s finally going to kill the aging gunslinger. It may happen soon.

We are a group of former British colonies that were largely settled by Germans, so we have the Nazi viciousness and ravenousness combined with the English endurance and self-control.  No wonder people hate and fear us. For all that Good Omens is billed as a comedy, it’s a Lenny Bruce routine, laughing at what has you scared shitless. Perhaps on subsequent readings I’ll laugh more, but this time I saw this as a book of fear.

The trouble with trying to find a brown-covered book among brown leaves and brown water at the bottom of a ditch of brown earth in the brown, well, grayish light of dawn, was that you couldn’t.

It wasn’t there.

Anathema tried every method of search she could think of. There was the methodical quartering of the ground. There was the slapdash poking at the bracken by the roadside. There was the nonchalant sidling up to it and looking out of the side of her eye. She even tried the one which every romantic nerve in her body insisted should work, which consisted of theatrically giving up, sitting down, and letting her glance fall naturally on a patch of earth which, if she had been in any decent narrative, should have contained the book.

It didn’t.

Which meant, as she had feared all along, that it was probably in the back of a car belonging to two consenting cycle repairmen.

 

Finally, a book that doesn’t remind me of unfortunate periods of my life. In fact, this book reminds me primarily of The Wizard of Oz. Shocking, yes, but hang on, I’ll explain.

Our protagonist comes to a new world, full of things he doesn’t quite understand. Falk doesn’t understand anything, actually. His mind has been erased. The novel begins with him in a pre-linguistic state, just like being born. He grows up in a small, peaceful community, somewhere on the east coast of the United States. Not grows up physically, but mentally. After the time most of us spend between birth and school, he leaves home on a journey to discover who he is. He travels across a post-apocalyptic North America – this is later even than most of Le Guin’s novels because the League of All Worlds has collapsed – in order to find the city that will tell him who he is, that will restore him to himself and give him his home. Es Toch is the city of illusions, just as The Emerald City is in Oz. It’s even built of vaguely transparent green not-quite-glass (over the Grand Canyon!). In Baum’s Emerald City, visitors have to be given green-tinted spectacles so that they see the city as emerald. In Es Toch, there’s mind control.

The premise is, that millennia from now people develop their latent telepathic abilities. But it’s a slow learning process and we can’t control our minds (and hence our communication) well. We can only tell the truth. Then, a race comes from far beyond the familiar stars, beyond the League. The Shing know how to mindlie, so they can easily defeat humanity and the allied alien races. When everyone trusts, the dishonorable prevail. But there’s a small colony of former Earthlings who want to return home, and they’ve developed their mental abilities beyond even the Shing. The Shing can lie telepathically, but the people of Werel can catch them at it. The trick becomes, healing Falk’s mind so that he can foil the Shing and save the world.

Hope is a slighter, tougher thing even than trust, he thought, pacing his room as the soundless, vague lightning flashed overhead. In a good season one trusts life; in a bad season one only hopes. But they are of the same essence: they are the mind’s indispensable relationship with other minds, with the world, and with time. Without trust, a man lives, but not a human life; without hope, he dies. When there is no relationship, where hands do not touch, emotion atrophies in void and intelligence goes sterile and obsessed. Between men the only link left is that of owner to slave, or murderer to victim.

This idea, that relationship is bound to physical touch, is one of the problems that haunt my life. I think it’s also one of the reasons I like going to a mostly gay church, even though I kind of expect everyone to be in a long-term monogamous relationship. Gay men, taken as a group, seem to be unusually affectionate. I get tons of hugs, and even some beijinhos, the European-style kisses of greeting that denote simple friendship. And this after only attending three times, and having a friend of a friend to situate me in their network of relationships. I need physical affection (not just sex); without it, I mentally wither and die, like a flower without water or sunlight. Which is why, even though I’m in a tough spot with finances, I’ll drive an hour and use four gallons of petrol to attend a church I don’t know I believe in.

So he played for time, trying to devise a way out of his dilemma, flying with Orry and one or another of the Shing here and there over the Earth, which stretched out under their flight like a great lovely garden gone all to seeds and wilderness. He sought with all his trained intelligence some way in which he could turn his situation about and become the controller instead of the one controlled: for so his Kelshak mentality presented his case to him. Seen rightly, any situation, even a chaos or a trap would come clear and lead of itself to its one proper outcome: for there is in the long run no disharmony, only misunderstanding, no chance or mis-chance but only the ignorant eye. So Ramarren thought, and the second soul within him, Falk, took no issue with this view, but spent no time trying to think it out, either. For Falk had seen the dull and bright stones slip across the wires of the patterning-frame, and had lived with men in their fallen estate, kings in exile on their own domain the Earth, and to him it seemed that no man could make his fate or control the game, but only wait for the bright jewel luck to slip by on the wire of time. Harmony exists, but there is no understanding it; the Way cannot be gone. So while Ramarren racked his mind, Falk lay low and waited. And when the chance came he caught it.

Whenever I try to examine my beliefs, I run into this same duality. I was raised as a Christian, but when I got divorced I revolted against it and moved to the Muslim world. Islam was strong enough to untether me from Christianity, but not strong enough to bind me to itself. I see the logic, I do the critical thinking, I trust that in time I’ll see the harmony of the world. But I’ve also seen the beads on the patterning-frame; I have had enough mystical experiences that I can’t completely ascribe to mental illness. Is there a mysticism that isn’t tied to theism? There must be. Maybe, instead of running from or denying spiritual experience, I should be seeking it out more urgently. Even if I don’t trust or fully believe in God, these experiences have helped make my life more bearable. They help me feel less alone. They teach me about myself. There is value in this type of experience, no matter what cosmology others ascribe to it.

This is the second novel of Le Guin’s obscurity that I’ve read, and it shares more with Rocannon’s World than it does with The Dispossessed or Always Coming Home. It’s more traditional 1960s sci-fi/fantasy; it’s all mythic journeys and manliness. The very few female characters are like Bond girls, either useless or evil. The female scientist is so marginal that her name seems to change several times over the course of the book: at first Rayna, then Ranya, finally Ranna. Maybe these are different women, but they play the same minor role and Falk seems to be referring to a single person. The gender exploration and insistence on female worth will come later. But still, this was a good book for me at this time. Thanks, Catherine, for reminding me of an author who is good for me.