Friday, 21 May 2010

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time 9: Winter’s Heart (2000)

So now we're up to Wotix, another ‘international No.1 bestseller’. So here we are. This is a book that makes explicit something about Jordan's multivolume endeavour which has been previously only implicit. This series, though it starts as a more-or-less conventional Heroic Fantasy product, has by this point metamorphosed into something much odder; a kind of anti-Fantasy, a deconstruction of the premise of Fantasy as a genre.

As Samuel Beckett’s career progressed, his writing became more and more pared down, less and less verbal, increasingly approaching the asymptote that was at the heart of Beckett’s bleak vision: silence. The great, productive paradox at the heart of Beckett was that one of his century’s greatest verbal artists mistrusted the ability of words ever to articulate truth—not just particular arrangements of words but verbal art itself. The Unnameable, in that near-sublime novel, says: ‘I’ll speak of me when I speak no more.’ For him silence is ‘the only chance of saying something at last that is not false.

To step briskly ab sublimi ad ridiculus, Jordan’s career manifests something similar. Insofar as Heroic Fantasy is a fundamentally narrative artform, to which readers go in order to experience the pleasure of following the movement of characters through time, Jordan says: no. Wotix is the closest he has yet come to a book that disperses that force of narrative momentum—that great strength of the novel as a mode—into a great swarm of indistinguishable coexistent characters and non-progressions. If the traditional novel takes the shape of a quest, a linearly horizontal progression through narrative time, Wotix explodes that linearity in a bewildering near-dimensionless knot or tangle of non-progression.

Wotviii ended at the point when Egwene and her rebels laid siege to Tar Valon. The reader expects Wotix to carry the story on from that point; but instead Jordan rewinds the narratives a week or so and plays through more-or-less the same events over again. The narrative works on this minus scale, as it were, for almost the whole book; only passing through zero and into the plus for its big-gosh-wow conclusion.

Or, another example of what I'm talking about: the first six chapters here concern Perrin’s quest to recover his kidnapped wife Massive Fail Bashere. Is his quest successful? Unsuccessful? Do interesting things happen on it? The reader has no idea, because after chapter six this plotline vanishes completely from the novel.

Or to state it more plainly still, and at the risk of repeating myself: on the most fundamental level nothing happens for 620 pages of this 650 page novel. It’s a bold experiment in un-narrative. It's a text worthy of an oulipo project.

Now I did wonder, as I neared the end of this textual slab of stasis, whether Jordan slips at the last hurdle and permits narrative movement, development and interest to contaminate the pure, Pollockian tangled obstruction of the whole. Because in chapter 35, Something Happens. The source of wotworld’s magic, ‘saidin’ has long been ‘tainted’ by the Dark Lord: men can ‘get at’ this magic, but the use of it inevitably corrupts them and drives them mad. Until chap. 35 that is. There, in a kind of massive good-versus-evil magical heavy-ordnance firefight, the Dragon himself, Rand al-Newman, manages to ‘cleanse’ the saidin. The scene seems at first blush very 'something-happen-y', written with Jordan’s characteristic gnashing over-style: ‘a huge ball of coruscating fire surrounded the other hilltop, red and gold and blue … a flame blacker than black, then another, another, until the dome boiled with a stygian fire. The roar of ten thousand thunders made her clap her hands over her ears and shriek soundlessly’ [653-4]. Nor is it free of bathos—the magic creates a black dome that is, in finely judged Spinal Tap idiom, quite literally none more black: ‘black no longer seemed to describe it. There was no term for it now, but black was a pale colour by comparison.'

So this, the cleansing of saidin, is ‘the big event’ of the novel. But actually it is not an event at all. It is, on the contrary, a kind of un-event. What is ‘cleansed’ in this interminable text is narrative itself: drama, plot, narrative interest. This, of course, is why the book is called ‘Winter’s Heart’; not because the wotworld is in the grip of a profound winter—although it is—and not in allusion to Rand’s supposedly ‘wintry’ heart—although some play is made of this idea. But no, actually the evident allusion is to Barthe’s Le Degré zéro de l'écriture. This is Jordan's attempt at a Barthean masterpiece, written in a weird yet ideologically freighted ‘blank’ style that is achieved not by neoclassical restraint but on the contrary by hurling great quantities (we might say, by a blizzard) of chaff at the reader: irrelevant detail and mass-produced repetition ... she tugged her braids, she smoothed her skirts. This is in a brilliantly, perversely inverted form precisely the style Barthes talks about, style which 'has always something crude about it ... a form with no clear destination, the product of a thrust, not an intention, and, as it were, a vertical and lonely dimension of thought. Its frame of reference is biological or biographical, not historical.'

But this is only to state the obvious: that the WoT series, despite launching itself with more-or-less conventional narrative stylings, increasingly sheds its narrative momentum as it goes on: each volume covers less ground, goes slower, dissipates so-called ‘narrative interest’ in a welter of pointless detail and endlessly proliferating characters. What Debord calls 'neosemioticist narrative' replaces sequential developmental progression with a frozen constellation of semiological placeholders. Now, of course, there is a temptation to read this on the level not of text but rather of author—to say, in effect: ‘Jordan prolonged his series because he found it financially profitable to do so’. The zeno’s-paradox of Jordan’s own writing practice, turning a trilogy into (five—eight—twelve—fourteen—) many books may indeed have had a practical moneymaking aspect to it. That doesn’t interest me. I’m struck, rather, by the fetishistic nature of the undertaking on a textual level.

The aim, in other words, is precisely the necrophilic jouissance of postponement, an endless deferral, a tantric-sex approach to narrative satisfaction. So we read:
At [Shiane’s] nod, Murellin stepped aside and motioned Daved Hanlon to enter, closing the door behind him. Hanlon was swathed in a dark cloak, but he snaked out one hand to cup Falion’s bottom through her dress. She glared at him bitterly, but did not move away. Hanlon was part of her punishment. Still, Shiane had no wish to watch him fondle the woman. ‘Do that later,’ she ordered. [248-9]
That ‘do it later’ is the principle of fluid narrative deferral that, as here, is always explicitly sexualised. The text simultaneously positions us so that we watch him fondle the woman, and declares that it has no wish to watch him fondle the woman. And though this may look like a paradox, it is not: for the text’s erotic investment is precisely not in fondling, but in the deferral of fondling. This is the WoT fetish: bondage. Not sensual motion, but the 'objet petit a' of the bonds that prevent motion. Here, for spurious reasons allegedly related to ‘plot’ Tylin persuades Mat to tie her up (‘she pulled his head down for a kiss that curled his toes in his boots’):
Tylin insisted on supervising her own binding. She seemed to take pride in it. She had to be bound with strips cut from her skirts, as if she had come upon him by surprise and been overpowered. The knots had to be tight, so that she could not escape however she struggled, and she did struggle against them once they were tied, thrashing about hard enough that it seemed she really was trying to get free … her ankles and wrists had to be tied together in the small of her back, and a leash run from her neck to one leg so she could not wriggle … he gently pushed one of her silk kerchiefs into her mouth …’ [583]
A lesser writer might have been deflected from writing a scene such as this on the grounds that it ‘is embarrassing’, or perhaps on the grounds that it is ‘like, wincing, man’, or indeed on the grounds that, ‘dude, you don’t need to display your lame-ass bondage fantasies like that for everyone to see’ -- or conceivably even on the grounds that 'Christ, Bob, if you must indulge your leering bondage daydreams then at least do so properly, hombre, not mincing around the edges like this.' But this would be to miss the point. These bonds, so cheesily sexualised, are the very principle of narrative obstruction itself. In this novel they become the totems of libidinous restriction that coalesce the essence of the series as a whole. This volume of the world of time is a handkerchief stuffed in the mouth of the Muse. It is text that seeks to obstruct text.

13 comments:

Adam Whitehead said...

I can only imagine what you are going to make of Book 10 if you thought nothing at all happened in this one :-)

Beloved Snail said...

Here's the point where I'm going purely on your reviews, since I finally and simply could not make it through this one. Which was where I stopped. I am still really enjoying your reviews of the series.

The Evil Hat said...

You are going to love Crossroads of Twilight, I think. If Winter's Heart is a day so cold you really don't want to do much, then Crossroads is absolute zero, absolutely no motion whatsoever.

Adam Roberts said...

I am looking forward to Wotx.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Excellent! I un-ironically enjoyed the use of Beckett and Debord and Barthes and Lacan within a review of this seemingly horrific novel.

But there's a few specifically science-fictional names to be dropped, too. The transformation of waste is one of the oldest preoccupations of men. Wait, that was Patti Smith. The transformation of writerly trash, junk, kipple, into high-concept art is something that many of us have done as readers at one time or another, facing these kinds of books, haven't we? As SF readers of our generation we were taught to by PKD.

Not that PKD's own style was one in which nothing happened. (Although, parts of A Scanner Darkly in which they sit around and have stoned conversations...) But the phenomenon of the blizzard of trash is there, as examined most brilliantly in critical articles by Stanislaw Lem on PKD.

And the avant garde of SF did try this kind of thing deliberately. As you know, Bob, but as other readers of comment boxes may not, Brian Aldiss wrote an amazing anti-novel in Report on Probability A -- a book in which nothing happens and the reader is snowed in, buried under a layer of incessant, irrelevant description. Is Aldiss more brilliant than Jordan, or less, for doing it deliberately? Well, more, of course.

Michael Moorcock and the Cornelius series may be the closest literary model. But... I'll wait and see if anyone else is interested.

Larry said...

I never thought I'd see Beckett, Barthes, and Robert Jordan in the same writing. Now I'm left wondering if WoT may be the anti-Tao as well.

Well done. Only three (or four, if you're covering the prequel) more to go. Do you think there'll be an ache in your breast when you reach the last braid tug?

Abalieno said...

I've barely finished WoT #3, but this "review" was a masterpiece.

marco said...

I thought that the man to go for gleeful deconstruction and inside-out slaughter of archetypal epic fantasy was Viriconium era's M John Harrison.

marco said...

but readding your review almost makes it seem that Robert Jordan could give him a run for his money.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Adam Roberts has a new Wheel of Time entry up!

"Epic!"

But it's so good that it actually almost makes me want to read the series.

"Brutal!"

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CSA said...

Brilliant review.
I, like everyone else here, eagerly await your book 10 review. If you think book 9 was a non-event... brace yourself man, you're in for a romping stomping roller-coaster of a ride. That is, if riding a roller-coaster was like watching beige paint dry.

Matt said...

Hahaha, brilliant! I'm sorry I have come to these so late, via your recent Malazan review. Appreciate the new direction you take here, although I'm a little surprised it didn't occur to you sooner to beat Jordan about the head and shoulders with the specter of Derrida like this...