Monday, 23 February 2009

Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008)


Part of the effect of reading a really good young adult novel—and The Knife of Never Letting Go is an exceptionally good young adult novel—is that it interpellates you into a young adult frame of mind. That was a time when books mattered more to us, and those 40-somethings you see on the tube reading Harry Potter or Twilight are trying to recapture the vividness with which books clattered into their minds when they were that age. That clatter, or its noisy echo, accompanies the reading of Patrick Ness's tale.

It's a rattling, violent, dystopian coming-of-age story. Todd Hewlitt has grown to the threshold of manhood in Prentisstown, an all-male community of religious fundamentalists on an unnamed planet. The backstory is that, colonising this world, the human settlers fought a war with the aboriginal alien ‘spackles’, in the course of which (the result, say some, of alien germ warfare) various unpleasant things happened. One is that all the human women were killed off. A second is that animals can suddenly talk; although we discover in the course of the novel that animals don’t actually have a lot to say for themselves (repeating ‘here’ over and over, for instance; or saying 'flesh and feast and tooth'; Todd’s dog is fond of ‘need a poo’). But most of all is ‘Noise’, the novel’s central conceit and a brilliant one—a kind of inadvertent telepathic access to the thoughts and feelings of everybody around you. This is rendered very vividly, not least by the typographic convention of handwritten-style scribblings that overwhelm the printed words. You don’t doubt that it would be horribly intrusive and claustrophobic to live in such a world. Ness renders that very well.

This, in fact, is the book’s core trope: hell is other people. Now, hum, hoom, I ponder whether this means that there is a kind of adolescent distortion, even an ontological mendacity, at the heart of the book. Because, you know, hell isn’t other people. Actually Ness puts his thumb into the balance by surrounding Todd with unusually hellish, twisted folk. He doesn’t shy away from the fact that being brought up in such an environment has marked his otherwise pleasant hero-narrator function with streaks of stubbornness, paranoia and—most of all—violence. For this is a very violent book. That's really where a but enters the judgment.

I thought the book too violent. This is not a charge I make lightly: Ness’s violence is not gratuitous. He works hard to show not only violence but the consequences of violence, and leaves you in no doubt that (for instance) when Todd knifes a spackle to death it is a bad and wrong thing. Nevertheless, violence is the way the book’s through-line is orchestrated; it is violence that arranges the various on-the-way narrative climaxes, and that makes the book queasily complicit with what it condemns. Worse, the novel tends to underplay some of the consequences of violence with a couple of props—SFnal magic sticking plasters, say, that seem to cure everything up to and including a knife in the back—or else in places by softpeddling the actual somatics of being wounded. So, one of the book’s villains, Aaron, gets bashed, eaten and mangled more than once, suffering wounds that ought to kill him, or at least put him out of action for months. Yet he keeps popping back up, like a baddie in a slasher film.

What separates a YA novel from an adult book? One answer to that question is: nothing, really, except that adult novels novels have explicit sex and swearing in them and YA novels don't. But then again Melvyn Burgess has written YA novels in which there is explicit sex, and Ness rather knowingly includes the word ‘fucking’ in this book. I say ‘knowingly’ because it’s deliberately there (religiously brought-up Todd self-consciously says ‘effing’ otherwise) to mark that Todd has gone too far in killing a spackle. Except that he hasn’t gone too far. He won’t have gone too far, we discover, until he kills a human being; which bothered me. We care more for the death of a dog than this alien. Hum, I thought. Hoom.

This is a critical matter, I think; and it gives me pause. Ness’s book is evidently in some sense ‘about’ youth knife-crime, one of those push-button Daily Mail topics liable to jerk public knees in quasi-hysterical lurch-kicks. As such it is neither exploitative, nor facile. I did wonder if there was the whiff of get-out-clause in the implication that it is a crazily religious fundamentalist—rather than, say, a socially alienated urban—upbringing that is behind the alpha-teen-male posturings of knife crime. Of course we can take that, as the other-planetary setting, as framing, the symbolic sidestep that brings the central theme more clearly into focus. The emotional tug, and costs, of the impulse towards violence are unflinchingly drawn. The more I think about it, the more I think that my problem is not ethical so much as aesthetic. The book is part of a more general cultural arm’s race, in which ultraviolence becomes more and more ultra in order to register as violence. Less, though, is more. Less Todd punching himself in the face, or Aaron lurching out with half his face falling off, and the book would have been more effective. It’s a question of tone.

There are other problems. The narrative is too loosely drawn-out and the novel too long. It is a compelling read, but Ness’s deliberately repetitive style has the effect of padding it rather, and the fabula—Todd leaves Prentisstown, meets a girl, and together they flee the evil Prentiss and his fundie posse towards the symbolically monikered ‘Haven’—is not ideally served by a sjuzhet that tries to work in too many local climaxes and too many detours. The ending (quoth the out-leaping baddie: ‘even a simpleton knows there’s two roads to Haven!’ 477) seemed to me forced, diverting an organically developing denoument into a cliffhanger for the purpose of spooling the whole into a second and eventually a third installment.

I also wasn’t sure about the core concept. The spoiler-redacted reveals toward the end depend upon certain things having been kept secret from Todd. But the effect of the Noise is, in good Zamiatin We tradition, that people cannot keep secrets from one another. Ness modifies this by saying more than once that it kind-of is possible to hide stuff in your noise, and I could buy that. But Todd has spent his whole life in Prentisstown; could a whole population of men (who, we are told, often think about the women they have lost) really have hidden this big secret from him for a decade and a half? The two men who raised him kept the secret to protect him—but the rest of the town would have no such motivation.

Ah, but I look back and see that I’ve written a thousand words and two-thirds of those come after the ‘but’ in the ‘this is an excellent novel, but …’ metasentence. That’s distorting. The positives assuredly outweigh the negatives; and there is a great deal in the book that is expertly and compellingly handled. It is, not to mince words, one of the best YAs I have come across in a very long time. You should read it.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Neal Stephenson, Anathem (2008)

Considerably better formed and more enjoyable than Stephenson’s prodigiously clotted Baroque books, Anathem is a pudding baked of equal parts Harry Potter, A Canticle of Leibowitz, Tolkien, Heinlein’s juveniles (or some of them) and Bertrand Russell’s History of Philosophy. A thousand pages of Fatasy, give or take. The first third is set inside the scientific convent (a 'concent' in the vocabulary of the tale) in which Erasmus, the narractor, lives. The second third moves our core characters around the larger world at great length and in great detail, and the last third reveals the working of the Big MacG. which has been slowly digesting inside the stomach of the tekst throughout. This Big-Macg (a Newfo, and the implications of same) is tastier than many, although as empty of vitamins and minerals as any I've tasted; but the main point of Stephenson’s tekst is the worldbling, which is very expensive and showy. For people who like worldbling this is presumably almost a perfect book; but those who prefer something a little less flashy, a little more substantial in aesthetic and novelistic terms, may find it tiresome.

Continuing with the downside the narractor is unusually bland, the other characters almost nonexistent and often interchangeable, and the author’s application of his styless has resulted in a great wasteland expanse of grey prose through which the ridder must trudge if s/he is to untie the spoilbinding. I found ridding an effortful process. The dialogue is prolic, clumsy and built on the principle of redundancy (‘Do you remember the total eclipse of when we made a camera oscura so that we could see it without burning our eyes?’ ‘A box,’ I recalled, ‘with a pinhole at one end and a sheet of white paper at the other.’ [281]. Try, I beg you, to imagine anybody talking like that in the real world. ‘Do you remember reading a book in which the prose is flavoured, evocative, sharp and effective? Do you remember such a book?’ ‘A binding,’ I recalled, ‘of many sheets of printed paper into a single artifact, upon which are printed the consecutive sequences words that, when taken together, tell a story.’) But it is surely beside the point to object to the tell-don't-show styless, or to the myriad annoylogisms, which are amongst the showiest elements in S.’s worldbling. My problem with the tekst can be boiled down to one focus: its monstrous and inflated infodumping. Of course I appreciate that for some ridders, and perhaps for many ridders, this 'problem' will be the whole point of the book. The entirety of the tekst is one gigantic Infodump, and that’s that.

I didn’t believe the ‘concent’ notion—either in larger sense, that such bastions of a particular sort of privilege could survive millennia against the context of international secular politics, or in terms of their internal logic (confining populations of young people of both sexes together, with the added spice of there being no risk of pregnancy, would surely result in enormous amounts of shagging. Now there’s some shagging hinted at in the novel, but it’s kept within YA bounds of propriety). My own progress through this treaclestorm of a narrative was slow, and my main emotion upon completion was relief. But for all that I can understand, and had some faint inkling of why, some readers have fallen wholly in love with this book.


REVIEW GLOSSARY

ANNOYLOGISMS. Words invented or new-coined specifically for the purpose of delaying a ridder’s passage through a spoilbinder, thereby making the process much more burdensome than it need be. In some communities this term has lost its negative connotations and is used to refer to any defamiliarising or worldbuilding use of invented terminology.

BIG-MACG. A triple layered MacGuffin product, containing a higher proportion of cholesterol than a regular MacGuffin. The consumption of too many Big-Macgs may lead to fanbesity

BLOCKBLOCKER A word coined in opposition to ‘blockbuster’; a tekst that assembles massy boulder-like obstacles in the way of a ridder’s passage.

CRITIASS. Named for the Platonic dialogue in which Plato gives his eponymous speaker the opportunity to discourse upon Atlantis. Modern day Critiasses devote themselves to deprecating the inferiority of modern imaginary worlds (particularly those in contemporary Fatasy) when compared to the achievements of the classics.

DULLKEEN. An apparent oxymoron. Originally this term was used to criticize writers who imitated certain features of the ancient author ‘Tolkien’—specifically his great length, his fondness for coining new words and his simple quest-narrative structures—without imitating his sublimity, profound moral and imaginative engagement or mastery of tone and mood. In later use, when dullness itself became increasingly prized as an aesthetic virtue (cf yawngasm), Dullkeen was taken not as oxymoronic at all, but as something closer to tautology. Eventually all new imitations of Tolkienian fantasy were dullkeen.

FANBESITY. A variant of Fatasy, which may be descriptive of (a) a Fatasy novel itself, (b) to the individual whose diet consists wholly of such teksts, irrespective of their individual body-type, or (c) the state of the genre as a whole.

FATASY. Originally a contraction of the Amglish phrase ‘Fat-ass Fantasy novel’, the term in present use carries no negative associations and is merely descriptive of a genre in which the very notion of a ‘thin fantasy’ has become something of a contradiction in terms.

HARI-PARTER. Committing a form of tekstual suicide by increasingly expanding the parts of an ongoing tale until they reach such size that the guts of the story split open and spill all over the ground (see Rowmbling). Painful and grisly.

MacGUFFIN’S. Extremely successful company that provides standardized plot-devices, especially those whose exact composition is a mystery but which are appealing enough to encourage ridders to consume product.

NARRACTOR. A character who narrates. More specifically, a character whose sole focus of characterization is that s/e narrates the story in which they appear. There is usually nothing more to such a figure than a blandly generic niceness and a lot of day-to-day details that contribute to the worldbling of the story.

NEW-FO A new form of UFO. The particulars of the new-fo vary from place to place, but may include twists such that the pilots of the unidentified spacecraft turn out to be us, or that such craft travel not so much from star to star as from Platonic reality to Platonic reality.

RIDDER. An individual who reads a book in order to rid themselves of an onerous spoilbinding. In most recent usage, a person in thrall to a narrative, and usually somebody doomed to the disappointments of anticlimax.

ROWMBLING. Going interminably on and on after the manner of J K Rowling. Particularly applied to tekst that get longer and longer the more famous an author becomes. See also Hari-parter.

SPOILBINDING. A tekst that binds its ridder to its unfolding narrative by withholding ‘spoilers’.

STYLESS. Originally this word, a variant spelling of ‘stylus’, referred to the instrument of writing. In later usage, and in keeping with a general valorization of the ‘neutral’ or ‘ordinary Joe’ stylistic preferences of most readers, this became a term of praise for the writer who downplayed ‘literary’ or ‘purple’ prose.

TE DIUM. Quasi-religious song in praise of the dullness of enormously elongated narrative faldapiffle.

TEKST. A text (such as a novel) with a high 'technological' quotient that tests--as it might be, the patience, the endurance or the imagination--of a ridder.

WORLDBLING A variety of worldbuilding in which a great many details of an imaginary world are put on rather showy and vulgar display in order to impress upon the ridder the prodigious imaginative wealth of the author. The imaginative wealth of the author, it can be added, is not usually in doubt, although some critiasses, especially those that value restraint, subtlety and inflection, question the judgment of authors who indulge too blatantly in worldbling.

YAWNGASM. A strange circumstance whereby prolonged boredom leads to a state of near ecstasy. Not as unusual as you might think, actually.