Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Sam Sykes, Tome of the Undergates (2010)

Though its title chimed in my inner ear as Tome of the Undergarments (or sometimes, like chimpanzees in workmen's overalls moving a piano downstairs, as From-you-to-me of the Undergates), this is by no means a terrible novel. Very readable, certainly. A band of adventurers on varied adventures. But it made me think of video games. I don't mean that in the sense you think I mean.

About a year ago John Lanchester published 'Is It Art?', an essay in the London Review of Books on video games which deserves to be better known than it is in the SFF community. Lanchester considers gaming intelligently as a sort of invisible seismic shift in culture, and one of the things he's good on is the difficulty of most video games. Here he is on Ken Levine's 2K Boston/2K Australia game Bioshock, which he likes a great deal:
As a video game, BioShock fully subscribes to the conventions of the medium, and if you as a non-gamer were to pick it up and give it a try, it is these you would probably notice most. Not just the conventions of which buttons and levers you press to move about the world of the game (annoying and hard to recollect as these often are) and not just the in-game mechanics, such as the ‘plasmids’ which you have to inject to give your character the powers he needs, or the tapes which are conveniently left around for you to discover and play back to hear the story of Rapture; but also the whole package of conventions and codes and how-tos which become second nature to video-game players, but which strike non-gamers as arbitrary and confining and a little bit stupid. Northrop Frye once observed that all conventions, as conventions, are more or less insane; Stanley Cavell once pointed out that the conventions of cinema are just as arbitrary as those of opera. Both those observations are brought to mind by video games, which are full, overfull, of exactly that kind of arbitrary convention. Many of these conventions make the game more difficult. Gaming is a much more resistant, frustrating medium than its cultural competitors. Older media have largely abandoned the idea that difficulty is a virtue; if I had to name one high-cultural notion that had died in my adult lifetime, it would be the idea that difficulty is artistically desirable. It’s a bit of an irony that difficulty thrives in the newest medium of all – and it’s not by accident, either. One of the most common complaints regular gamers make in reviewing new offerings is that they are too easy. (It would be nice if a little bit of that leaked over into the book world.)
In the spirit of that admirable sentiment, I say: Tome of the Undergates is too easy.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Hazard Adams, The Offense of Poetry (2007)

I'm working my way round to writing an Aesthetics of SF monograph, though I'm some way away from being ready to do so. Some of the conceptual pieces are in place. Here's one: I have already written stuff about the metaphor being central to SF (often formalised: the spaceship; the robot; the time-machine; sometimes not), and about the way this does more (pace Delany) than determine a mode that seeks to represent the world without reproducing it, it also (pace, er, me) makes SF essentially a poetry, built around the eloquence of the image, often oblique, fascinated with transcendence (the sense of wonder; the motion up from reality into higher reality, as at the conclusion of Childhood's End; the apocalyptic sublime, as in the 'Nine Billion Names'), and at its best actively corrosive of reality (Dick). It is, to use Jakobson's terminology, a literature that uses metonymic extrapolation from the everyday in order to enable radically disconnected (transcendent) metaphoric effects. So, here's another conceptual component of my thinking on this topic: SF as a small-world subculture, as in the Golden Age, dominated by a rational 'literature of ideas' aesthetic has been superseded by SF as the single most important cultural mode of today, dominated by cinematic and televisual visual excesses. Fans raised on the former often deplore the onset of the latter (roughly: Star Wars and all that followed its success), but I don't. This is not because I especially love Star Wars, but because the written SF I most value has shared that imagistic, often visual spot-of-time intensity that, I'd say, has achieved a kind of glorious florescence in the last forty years. For me the Platonic Form of SF is the bone thrown in the sky that transforms instantly, amazingly, eloquently into a spaceship. (There's yet another conceptual component, about SF Music, and about SF generally being much more a literature of a particular affect, and much less a literature of cognition, estranged or otherwise. But I'll keep that for another time). This is one reason why taxonomies of the genre, or any of that Structuralist nonsense, seems to me peculiarly ill-fitting to the topic of study. But I would say that, wouldn't I.*

Now, one consquence of this theoretical approach to the genre is that I'm always interested in interventions into general poetics, less on their own terms, and more (against the grain, as it were, for SF is almost always the last thing on the minds of critics who write such studies) for what contemporary poetics can usefully say about Science Fiction. Hazard Adams' new book is more than just a really neat title; although it is also a really neat title, a splendid rejoinder to the many Defences of Poetry that have been constructed.

Here's what the University of Washington Press page for the book says about it:
There is something offensive and scandalous about poetry, judging by the number of attacks on it and defenses of it written over the centuries. Poetry, Hazard Adams argues, exists to offend - not through its subject matter but through the challenges it presents to the prevailing view of what language is for. Poetry's main cultural value is its offensiveness; it should be defended as offensive.

Adams specifies four poetic offenses - gesture, drama, fiction, and trope - and devotes a chapter to each, ranging across the landscape of traditional literary criticism and exploring the various attitudes toward poetry, including both attacks and defenses, offered by writers from Plato and Aristotle to Sidney, Vico, Blake, Yeats, and Seamus Heaney, among others. "Criticism," Adams writes, "needs renewal in every age to free poetry from the prejudices of that age and the unintended prejudices of even the best critics of the past, to free poetry to perform its provocative, antithetical cultural role."

Poetry achieves its cultural value by opposing the binary oppositions - form and content, fact and fiction, reason and emotion - that structure and polarize most understandings of literature and of life. Adams takes a position antithetical to the extremes of both abstract formalism and the politicization of literary content. He concludes with an appreciation of what he calls the double offense of "great bad poetry," poetry so exceptionally bad that it transcends its shortcomings and leads to gaiety. He reminds us that Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, identified angels with the settled and coercive and assigned the qualities of energy and creativity to his devils. According to Adams, poetry, in its broad and traditional sense of all imaginative writing, may be identified with Blake's devils.
That's right, broadly, I think: Adams emphasis is not on 'offense' as 'outrage' or 'harm', or even as 'attack' (though all those have their place); but in what he identifies as the word's 'root sense': 'stumbling block' or obstacle. According to Wallace Stevens, 'poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully'. Science Fiction even more so, I'd say.

Adams breaks poetry's 'offense' into four categories: gesture, fiction, drama and trope. This latter is basically metaphor and apostrophe: A is B on the one hand (as it might be: 'reality is a gigantic consensual hallucination engineered by malign machne intelligences') and 'be thou X!' on the other (something I'd say SF addresses to Reality, particularly in its Utopian or Dystopian mode); and I find Adams' reading of 'offensive' poetic troping very congenial to what I want to argue. Adams take on 'gesture' in complex, and a little involved; but I've a mind to appropriate it as a way of approaching SF Fandom, and the positive, creative urge it manifests not only to consume its favoured genre, but to perform it: which is to say, to engage in everything from fanfic to cosplay. Drama, as Adams parses it, is another way of talking about this performative function.

I particularly liked the chapter on fiction, which rehearses the many argument against fiction as 'lying', and the counter-arguments in favour of it. The neat thing about this line of critical approach is that if a regular novel (about, say, a social worker living in Hackney) is 'a lie', then an SF novel (about a religious messiah on a desert planet) is doubly a lie: not only because Hackney 'actually' exists where Arrakis doesn't, but because Sf predicatively prioritizes the fictive: the mainstream novel is fiction; SF is a fortiori fiction. This also has an inside-the-tent-pissing-out aspect to it: Hard SF purists, instead of embracing this fictionality, attempt to reintegrate the genre back in the mainstream by insisting it adhere to 'actual' Science. To them, as to those who knock SF from the outside, I would repeat Wilde's "The Decay of Lying" dialogue, which Adams quotes several times, in which 'Vivian argues that nature fails to accomplish what art does and ... goes on to condemn "careless habits of acciracy". His conclusion is that "Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art".' [129] We need more of that in the genre.


*Structuralist approaches to SF overwhelmingly dominate the secondary literature about the genre, I suppose because people have this wrong-headed but fixed idea that SF is all about 'science', or 'the scientific mindset', or 'taxonomy' or something. Although patently it is not so. Or perhaps the ubiquity of Structuralism reflects the fact that it is easy to do, and so appeals to the many amateur critics who have been drawn to this field: I mean that it makes a virtue of wide reading, and tickles the pattern-recognition node in the brain, to line up your collection of thousands of space operas and separate them into neat little piles dependent upon the gender of the main protagonist, or the colour of the books' spines, or whether the author was over six feet tall, between 5'5" and 6', or under 5'5" and so on.

There are some other aspects to my maggotting, or nascent, Aesthetics of SF about which I am a little less sure, but which will probably find their way in. One of these is a sense that the preeminence of SF's 'epiphanies' (those moments of sense-of-wonder Sublime, those transcendings of reality, and rational signification) also entails a preeminence of laughter, as a physical response that similarly breaks through rational cognition into a place of glorious jouissance; such that Douglas Adams seems to me as significant, or possibly more significant, a writer of SF in the 80s than William Gibson. But this could equally be me projecting my own personal crotchets onto the genre.

It's also worth noting that I may never get around to this project; since, despite the fact that I'd quite like to write it, it's possible that publishers, and readers, would have no interest in it.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Frank Schätzing, The Swarm (2004)

I'd heard that Frank Schätzing is one of the biggest names in contemporary German SF, and decided to investigate a little further. His latest, Limit (2009), has outsold even Dan Brown, apparently; but it doesn't seem to have been translated into English. So instead I read his previous, The Swarm, in Sally-Ann Spencer's Hodder translation.

This very long disaster yarn (881 small-type, close-printed pages in the English) is essentially The Birds with marine life instead of birds. At one point Schätzing even has a character say 'it's like a deep-sea version of The Birds!', presumably in an attempt to innoculate the book against the reader going 'but this is just a deep-sea version of The Birds!' Didn't stop me, though. About halfway through -- and according to internet translation sites the German for spoiler is Räuber [hmm: or is that cars? note: turns out (see comment) it means 'robber', and the German for spoiler is, um, spoiler] --- it turns into The Kraken Wakes, with the twist that the malign deep sea intelligences waging war on mankind are native rather than alien. Worms chew oceanbed substrate and release enormous quantities of noxious gas; mussels clog ships rudders; lobsters explode in restaurants (no! really!), crabs advance onto the beaches in huge numbers. It takes an awfully long time to get where it's going; and where it's going is neither earth-shattering, nor mind-blowing.

The most striking thing about The Swarm is just how prodigiously infodumpy it is. Enormous quantities of regurgitated marine research are artlessly deposited onto the narrative either in gear-grinding descriptive passages ('Eddie switched on the six external floodlights. The four 150-watt quartz halogen bulbs and the two 400watt HMI lights combined to bathe an area twenty-five metres in radius in a pool of glistening light' 323), or else in yawn-flirting dialogue of the 'what do you know about X?' 'I know Y.' 'Very good, but you also need to know Z, A and B' variety.

'The worm is methanotrophic. It lives symbiotically with the bacteria that break down methane. ... You see, depending on the isotope -- you do know what an isotope is?'

'Any two or more atoms of a chemical element with the same atomic number but with differing atomic mass.'

'Ten out of ten! So, take carbon. It doesn't always have the same atomic mass. You can have carbon-12 or carbon-13.' [77]

It's a novel of great length but almost no density, a combination that gives it something of the texture of extruded polystyrene. More, the great length works against the main function of a thriller (which is to say: thrills) by slowing everything down to a plod. There's one place, though one only, where form and function come together, and where the novel lifts itself out of its nerdily relentless groove ... or more precisely: one place where the nerdily relentless groove enhances rather than detracts from the effect: midstory a tsunami is described from inception to devestating passage over densely populated coasts. The unavoidable, irresistible force of this agent of natural destruction is well rendered. Otherwise the book is very weakly written. It feels like the sort of novel a highly intelligent but shy and geeky thirteen-year-old might perpetrate.

It's possible that the huge length of this novel is, as it were, gratuitous; but I tend to think that there is reason behind Schätzing's laboriousness. This bulk is a kind of chaff, designed to distract the reader from what would, in a shorter story, be revealed as risible: for the central conceit here (and, again, Räuber!) is beyond stupid, viz. that mankind evolved on this planet alongside a second, superintelligent, tool-using, native form of life, amœboid in form, which, despite global reach, a group memory millions of years old, and intimate interaction with the human sphere nobody has ever noticed before, and which, after centuries of human pollution of the oceans, chooses this moment to make itself known in an attempt at speciecide. The Swarm is probably a better title than When Superintelligent Oceanic Amœbae Attack! But the latter would have been more honest.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Tolkien, Lord of the Rings (1954-5)

I read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings again, and blogged my thoughts on each of its six constitutive books in turn. Here you go:

Fellowship of the Ring I.

Fellowship of the Ring II.

The Two Towers I.

The Two Towers II.

Return of the King I.

Return of the King II.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Mumford & Son, Sigh No More (2009)

Pretty plucking good.

Note: ‘Man is a giddy thing’. I take this assertion, which is repeated several times in the first song, to be a deliberate gloss ironizing the many frankly wrongheaded assertions that follow—‘love will set you free’; ‘I’ll find strength in pain’—not to mention all the grandiose posturing (‘stars hide your fires/these are my desires’, ‘awake my soul!’). Too much of that can easily turn an album into sentimental mush, you know, no matter how cleverly pluck-played the guitars, how effortlessly the rhythm-section drives, how creaky-tuneful the vocalist’s pipes. Sigh No More stays on the windy side of the divide, I’d say; but it’s a close call.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

M D Lachlan, Wolfsangel (2010)

I sniff this book with my doggy snout. It smells of classic. Now of course classics are made by posterity, and the consent of many readers, not by reviewerly fiat. Yet nevertheless I feel, having just read it, as if I’ve drunk a strange-smelling mushroom-and-reindeer-piss soup that has given me just enough of a view of the future to say that that’s how posterity, and its many readers, will take it.

Wolfsangel is two novels, one cunningly superposed upon the other. The first is a crowd-pleaser; a more-or-less conventional SFF adventure providing the big meat and potatoes satisfactions (no, wait: this is pre-Walter-Raleigh era stuff; so, let’s say—meat and turnips) Fantasy fans crave: narrative drive, likeable characters, lots of violent fighty-fight, hair-breadth scapes, reversals, brothers separated at birth, magic, slavegirls, quests to the mystic North and a love story between a prince and a farmgirl. It also adds-in the sorts of grace-notes hard-core readers of Fantasy appreciate; little riffs on the standards of the genre. These Berserkers? An Orc-eyed view of Middle Earth! And now look—our heroes are escaping their dangerous captivity by hiding Bilbo-like inside barrels, I kid thee not. Most of all, it works a sort of Wolfman Begins reboot on the tired-old werewolf concept (in the immortal words of Mel Brooks: 'werewolf!' 'werewolf?' 'there wolf!'). And Lachlan does that very well indeed: it’s as far from Lon Chaney in side-whiskers as it is conceivable, a feral, brutal, bloody and thoroughly convincing account of the Being-in-the-world of the lupine. It’s certainly a cut above the usual Fantasy fare; and a big Viking axe cut too, whilst also being recognizably that sort of tale for all that. Which is precisely what many fans want.

If this were all the book did, then it would be a good book; and I’d hold up my number-card like Len Goodman and shout ‘seven’ (or, maybe, say ‘six!’ brightly). What lifts it to a nine is the second novel, the one that haunts the first. This is not a run of the mill Fantasy text; nor, really, is it even a riff upon those worn-smooth tropes. It is something genuinely estranging, eerie, evocative. This is the portion of the novel (woven, closely, in with the other) that deals with magic—something Lachlan handles very cannily, purchased by its characters with bitter suffering and endurance and as cold, parching, or starveling as it is powerful. It's the part that brings in the norse gods. His witch queen is a splendid creation, and I believed wholeheartedly in the divinities. Very striking and atmospheric stuff, I thought.

Why a 9, and not a 10? Because deep down I’m Craig, darling, and not Len at all. And because there are various places where the tone, generally expertly maintained, wobbled. Lachlan has done his homework; but that only makes occasional lapses of tone and fact the more jarring. Talk of ‘evolution’ [59] for instance, doesn’t fit; and there are moments of awkward exposition (‘if he defies me,’ says Vali to Adisla at one point, ‘the gods’ final day they call Ragnarok starts here!’—which is rather as if I were to say to my daughter, ‘if you’re naughty then the mythical, red-coated deliverer-of-presents Santa won’t bring you anything on the noted Christian festival they call Christmas’). Generally, as regards tone, L. pitches the dialogue into that safely neutral place, halfway between prithee my lord thou’rt in excellent fooling on the one hand and we is in your base killin your doods on the other—picking a path between that Scylla and Charybdis of contemporary Fantasy. Mostly this works nicely, but the romantic banter between Vali and Adsila is a bit wincing, and some of this dialogue just didn’t strike me as, well, very Viking (‘ “What appears to be the problem?”’ 70) Much of the descriptive prose is very nicely handled, though; and it really does feel like nitpicking in me to say that this aspect, good though it often is, didn’t feel terribly Viking either: ‘Adisla lifted the side of the sail [and] looked out around her. The light was jellyfish grey, the sea a gentle but stomach-churning swell’— jellyfish grey is excellent, but no Viking would so much as think it. But that is to nitpick. My main reservation was a sense that the novel is built around one Big Anachronism, Vali’s amour fou et passionel for Adisla was simply too medieval-Provençal, or 21st-century Lurve Story, to fit the otherwise carefully constructed Norse setting. (‘Adisla I will find you’ gasps Vali, like Daniel Day Lewis in Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans). And I’d say this probably is a problem; although from time to time Lachan tries, usually nicely enough, to defuse it:
‘You seem possessed by [love for Adisla]. It does not do to love women too much … an Umayyad merchant told me one story of a caliph, a king of many lands, who fell in love with a slave girl. He could demand from her anything he wanted but that wasn’t enough for the idiot. She had to give it freely. He saw the wrong sort of look in her eye one night when they were in bed together and threw himself off a tower.’
‘What is a tower?’ asked Vali.
‘A high building, too high to jump off, big as a cliff. They have them in the east, like a fort but not for war.’
‘What’s a fort not for war?’ [248]
It's the first of a trilogy. OK. My slight trepidation as far as that goes is that one of the next two books must needs lumber into the territory, marked 'Beware! Danger of Offensive and/or Laughable Ridiculousness!' on the map, of Nazi Werewolves. As in: 'fucking hell [covers face with hand and speaks with infinite weariness] a novel about Nazi Werewolves.' But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Maybe Lachlan's Nazi Werewolves will be cool. [Update: I leapt to conclusions; apparently there's no call for Nazi Werewolves after all].

Monday, 14 December 2009

Friday, 11 December 2009

J K Rowling, The Harry Potter Novels

Magical Molesworth (orthographically corrected).

The school cellar is out of bounds.

Nicholas Nickleby's Dementheboys Hall.

Hot cup.

The Order of the Four-Times-As-Long-As-It-Needs-To-Be.

Tom Brown's Crueldays by Thomas Horcruxhes; Maloryfoy Towers; The Chal-die School Stories; Goodbye Mr Snapes; Billy Buntledore of Grayliars School. Look, I've got loads of these. Honestly, I could go on all day.

Hallows. You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

So, so, you read through all this stuff (and there's a lot of this stuff) assuming that the salient syllable in 'Voldemorte's name is the deathly morte one. But to finish the final vol. is to realise that that's not it. The crucial portion of his name is the old part. That's the unforgiveable sin in the Potterverse: aging. This book, despite its barely-there epilogue, equates aging with either evil or expiration, which is, deep-down, a pretty mendacious thing.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Jasper Fforde, Shades of Grey 1: The Road to High Saffron

I read this last week (so as to review it for the Guardian; the piece should appear in a Saturday paper some time early next year). Not to gazump that review, but in sum my verdict was: thoroughly enjoyable, although my rapture was slightly muted by this-and-that. See later for more details. But Fforde has many, many fans, and they will love this novel; and some who are not fans may well be won over it; and it will sell as many copies as Celebrity Autobiography (Class II), and about half as many copies as Cookery, which (I hardly need add) is Many Many Copies. Which is excellent for everybody.

Still, I have reservations. The novel is, narratively speaking, a little underpowered; about 150 pages too long overall; worse, a tad cosy. Still: Fforde has mastered a beautifully accomplished comic tone, and is capable of modulating it from Wodehouse, through Adams, to Python. I know how technically complex and challenging that is to do, deceptively so in fact, and I salute him. It's not laugh-aloud, but it's very agreeable and winning and charming, and often smile-visible (or whatever the smile equivalent of laugh-aloud may be).

Now, what's great about Fforde is his voice, as it parses his comfortably madcap world, and his likeable characters. Like his other novels, Shades of Grey is not urgently plotted; it's more a pleasant meander around his imagined world:
In a society where the ability to see the higher end of the color spectrum denotes a better social standing, Eddie Russet belongs to the low-level House of Red and can see his own color—but no other. The sky, the grass, and everything in between are all just shades of grey, and must be colorized by artificial means.

Eddie's world wasn't always like this. There's evidence of a never-discussed disaster and now, many years later, technology is poor, news sporadic, the notion of change abhorrent, and nighttime is terrifying: no one can see in the dark. Everyone abides by a bizarre regime of rules and regulations, a system of merits and demerits, where punishment can result in permanent expulsion.

Eddie, who works for the Color Control Agency, might well have lived out his rose-tinted life without a hitch. But that changes when he becomes smitten with Jane, a Grey Nightseer from the dark, unlit side of the village. She shows Eddie that all is not well with the world he thinks is just and good. Together, they engage in dangerous revolutionary talk.
That summary, I could add, really doesn't capture the tone of the book at all. Anyway. My point is this: Fforde isn't content letting his readers meander pleasantly around his novel. He wants to primp up some Oh! My! God! narrative tension, and so he starts he book thuswise:
It began with father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit, and ended up with me being eaten by a carnivorous plant.
Trying too hard, I'd say. Elaboration makes things worse ('it wasn't all bad, and for the following reasons: Firstly, I was lucky to have landed upside-down. I would drown in under a minute, which is far, far preferable to being dissolved alive over the space of a few weeks'). But, look, see: since Eddie narrating this 500-page novel, this presents the reader with two options. [1] Eddie dies, and somehow manages to communicate these detailed 500 pages in the space of 'under a minute', or, conceivably, from some sort of afterlife. [2] Eddie is rescued in the nick of time. Spoilers-in-Reviews are to be discouraged,* so I shan't say which option the novel plumps for. But readers aren't idiots, and will have their suspicions. Since it does not ratchet the tension, and since it's kind-of alien to Ffrode's proven novelistic technique, I must say I don't like it.

*Although, as it happens, my Native American name is 'Spoilers-in-Reviews'.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Greer Gilman, Cloud & Ashes: Three Winter’s Tales (Small Beer Press, 2009)

It cries to be read slow and savoured, so I read it fast and hard. And its wordage came a spate that smithed sparkles and round diamonds from the rocks in falling, but ever, as moon chased sun and sun chased moon over the dark ploughed field of the sky, I thought to myself: ‘now-now, see, is that titular apostrophe in the right place, though? But—is it, though? Shouldn’t it rather—’ But the spate hushed and rushed me away. Ah! Like fire, quoth the wisewife, like fire, alliteration is a savvy servant but a mouldy master. And, oh! How lovely the binding! The weight of the paper touched by fine type, says the red-man, the rib-man. How lovely the making of books when a fashioner of books has wrought, as this Small Beer has wrought. It was a chase, following the chaste prey on the hareroad. I followed that hare and by moonlight, when my eyes shivered with tiredness, by the starfire of electricity penned in its glass shell, the sickle coil of spright’s gleam. I followed that hare, when the warren’s round mouth turned gold and shining in the daysky, and I read upon trains, and in my chair, and at odd moments. I read it fast, and hard.

A Riddle.

What’s Lear without the King? O write me a book, my Ma might chant, O write me a book and bind it in art, that readers might look and break-up their heart. Lear without the king is an O—an O such as a writer might deploy who doesn’t know the difference between the vocative O and the exclamatory Oh—might repeatedly deploy, perhaps, to bait the pedant, O pedant, O red man. Lear without the king: an egg, a world, a noon. A quasi-Jacobean fantasy of pagan nearly-England, of earth and blood, starlight and goddesses, death having no dominion but rebirth being bloody and hard and cold as frost. One winter’s tale; three winters’—and the first tale calling, and called

One: Jack Daw’s Pack

A daw that steals Tom Bombadil’s gold (‘He holds her ring up, glancing through it with his quick blue eye; and laughs’ 11) and speaks Hughes’ Tedtongue like a blooded puppetmaster (‘the crows make carrion of halfborn lambs, their stripped skulls staring from their mothers’ forks’ 6). And the descriptive prose sounds like this:
Between the scythe and the frost he’s earthfast, and his visions light as leaves. He keeps the hallows of the earth. And winterlong he hangs in heaven, naked, in a chain of stars. He rises to her rimes. When Ashes hangs the blackthorn with her hail of flowers, white as sleet, as white as souls, then in that moon the barley’s seeded and the new green pricks the earth. He’s scattered and reborn. [11]
And for a moment—a moment, mind—the charm wakes to its work, and the spirit of Dylan Thomas rises. But then the charm crumbles, for the dialogue sounds like this:
‘Called thee.’
‘Canst play us a dance on thy crowdy catgut? Light our heels then.’
‘What, is thy candle out?’
And magic flees harefast from prithees and nonny-nons, deep into the thickets of thous and thees. But it matters nought; for as soon as begun it is ended, as a child’s life snuffed, and

Two: A Crowd of Bone.

‘Margaret do you see the leaves? They flutter, falling’ [23] And at this goldengrove’s unleaving the salady words pile, they pile. The thread is woven longer, and we come to the world of Cloud, where mortals live; though your Mag’s grandnan was a goddess. There is more of story here, and the characters glimpsed as scatterlings in part 1 return, or their children return, and they tell one another tales, and meet and part. What else does the story say but that pretty girls make Robert-graves, and the maiden, mother and crone dance upon the tight roadline of Law? The fox darts quick in the chalkwhite winter garden, like a flame. The play falls within the play. It speaks, with Thea, of a ‘world warped with water’ [41]. It is magic, O magic!—but tangled and witchily so. The shearer shaves wool from sheep as the carpenter planes curls and tangles from the wood; and the prose is still:
He saw a scutter and lop of coneys, and at his feet the fumblings of a dawstruck mole. A-sway on the nodding corn, the gressops leapt and chirred. He saw the plash of poppies falling, and the blue-eyed blink of corn-flowers, clean petticoats of bindweed. He saw the scurry of the denizens laid bare to light: whitespinners, jinny-long-legs, harvestman. [85]
—to make the heart leap up (that bindweed!) But the alacking dialogue is still: ‘’twill do that errant part wherein thy mother did betray me’ [100]—and is still: ‘no art i’ that, thy fortune’s i’ thy fork’: wha tellt thee it were thine? Caggy awd thing wha’d want it? [88]. We run and stumble and we’re into

Three: Unleaving

The longest of the longing threads,
That runs through good and ill
Is magic made of Margaret’s words:
For th'scriptive prose is still:
Margaret bent her neck to the crow-clawed waiting women, Grieve and Rue. They tugged her laces, twisted up her hair from off her shivering nape and shoulders, pinched her slight pale buds in mockery of ripeness. The gown they’d put her in was rich and strange, of cloud-changing shifting silk: steelblue, stormblue, dizzying with musk and wormwood, old and yet unworn. Her jacket and her petticoat, her stout nailed shoes, were locked away. They turned her round in this garb, as they would buy her on a stall. [216]
And the red-reader thinks: but this dress is Gilman’s prose! Old and yet unworn, silk smooth, cloud cold! Such finery! But there’s woefilling and infalling, for the dialogue is still:
‘Lasses gang. I’s not got a tallywag atween my legs.’
‘Thou’s not yet wanted one.’
‘Thou’s not yet bled.’
‘Thou’d nobbut ask for a babbyhouse.
‘I’d want nowt. Just to be lating i’t the dark, and see t’stones walking, and t’stars awhirl’
Though mayhap it fashes us not, even unto the thous of it. The book, entire, shines its newness in its studied antiquity; for there is nothing like it, quite, on bookstalls: and that is a very good thing. It is a fatasy finnegans wake, and there, quoth the crow, now there was a book and a writer-of-books who knew what to do with a titular apostrophe. A woman’s book, a goddess’ tale, a molly book that pours forth a studied, creaturely écriture féminine, and its half-glimpsed (though you’re looking at them the whole time) characters and world are striking: its lovelinesses womanifold and womenny.

Yet; yet. It is menny too, in length and crush, that the woe fall. For as the back cover and the last page embrace, and the reviewer thinks, as the sisters mingle close as moon and dark of moon, and the garland becomes a hey of light [439], that the lyric mode is a powerful and beautiful thing when shaped by a gifted writer, as Gilman assuredly is, but that the lyric mode cannot be sustained at such density over such length without compacting into something overdense, overdone, something choking and stifling, something thrown around the windpipe to block the tune anon and ever, and the red-reviewer dangling from the suffocating cord.

But why did you read the pages so hard and fast, red-man, rib-man?

It was done because they are too menny.

Note: ‘Frodo, to his own astonishment, drew out the chain from his pocket, and unfastening the Ring handed it at once to Tom. …. Suddenly he put it to his eye and laughed. For a second the hobbits had a vision, both comical and alarming, of his bright blue eye gleaming through a circle of gold.’ [Lord of the Rings, bk 1, ch. 7]