Thursday, 7 April 2011

Tim Powers, Declare (2000)

I thought this was originally released in 2001, but Powers' own site says there was a small press edition in 2000. Good to see the Clarke Award carrying the flag for the cutting edge of new writing by nominating it for the 2011 prize. ('Technically eligible', of course; that's undeniable. Not sure focussing on technical eligibility entirely groks the spirit of the award, myself; but other may disagree).

So what do we have here? An overlong, over-researched 10,000m-steeplechase of a novel: lots of twentieth-century espionage and deadly toing-and-froing in a dozen countries, all of which is slowly revealed to be actually to do with various djinns and angels, supernatural beings of awesome power and ever more awesome over-familiarity-from-a-thousand-other-books. Our hero is Andrew Hale, English spy, counter spy and counter-counter spy. He's a plastic mannequin rather than a character, but I daresay that doesn't especially matter. There's lots of pseudo-political and comic-book spy adventure stuff that bears no relation to reality, except in the paranoid schizophrenic sense of 'relation to reality' (not so much realpolitik as surrealpolitik, aha, hur-hur. Hah). Then there's some rather mannered spiritual-mystical stuff. Ho hum.

Much of this is pretty entertaining, though the novel is too diffusely written for much of its length. The first half is the best, when the supernatural goings-on behind the sub Le Carré shenanigans are hinted at suggestively rather than crudely thrown in our faces; Powers manages to pull together a quite well orchestrated combination of tension and dread. It goes downhill sharply in the second half, since the central premise is (whisper it) enormously silly, and the more we see of the actual djinns and angels the harder it gets for Powers to disguise this ludicrousness. But the whole thing is written in an efficient if workmanlike prose, and there's oodles and oodles of research on display. The research rather overrides the novel in many places, actually. But you learn a lot about WWII and the Cold War and Europe and the Near East and the Bible and Kim Philby and many other things.

At core Declare is a conspiracy-theory novel, and as such it left me feeling much more negative than positive. Actually, I've come to a belated realisation about conspiracy theories. The belatedness of this is nobody's fault but mine; and is, moreover, an artefact of my age. When I was growing up, conspiracy theorising was mostly associted with the counter-culture: hippies and wierdoes, Forteans of various stripes, anti-establishment personalities for whom 'establishment' and 'conspiratorially tyrannical behaviour' were pretty much synonyms. Such conspiracy theorists might be loonies, but at least they sought (to quote a noted twentieth-century poet) to fight the power, fight the powers that be. Accordingly even in their batshittier incarnations they managed, just about, to be on the side of the angels.

But conspiracy theories have not been like this for a generation. At some point in the late 80s or early 90s conspiracy theory switched ideological allegience (the case is more complicated and involved than this suggests, of course; but to thumbnail sketch it). It has something to do with the way right-wing US and UK political parties shed their associations with the traditions and heirarchies of power, and convinced large numbers of the working class to support them: the liberal left were now, implicitly or explicitly, aligned with the Powers-That-Be. I still don't quite know how this trick was pulled off, but it was. Clever, in a diabolical sort of way.

So nowadays the poster boy for conspiracy theories and secret histories of the world and gubbins of that sort is Glenn Beck -- in his TV studio drawing arrows on diagrams linking various things in a grotesque, simplifying and ideologically loaded way that would be risible if it weren't watched, and believed-in, by millions. Run down Wikipedia's handy 'list of conspiracy theories' (I particularly like their disclaimer at the top: 'actual conspiracies, such as the conspiracy to assassinate U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, do not fall under this heading'). Here the dominant flavour is distinctly right-wing: New World Order; Federal Reserve System; the many 9/11 conspiracy theories; the 'Clinton Body Count'; Barack Obama birth conspiracy theories; the 'Eurabia' conspiracy theory ('journalist Oriana Fallaci proposed a conspiracy hatched between a cadre of French elites within the EEC and the Arab League in the mid-1970s to form a strategic alliance against the United States and Israel'); 'La Reconquista' ('...a popular conspiracy myth that Hispanics, especially Mexicans, are massively immigrating, often through illegal immigration, in order to repopulate and take over the Southwestern United States') and more nutty Biblical Fundamentalist conspiracy theories than you could shake a stick at. I'm not, of course, suggesting that there were no right-wing loony conspiracy theories before the 1980s, or that left wing loony conspiracy theories have entirely dried up today. But I am, I suppose, suggesting that the cultural valence of 'The Conspiracy Theory' has changed. It's the shift from Robert Anton Wilson in the early 1970s writing creatively crazy SF novels and agitating for Basic Income Guarantees -- to Milton Willian Cooper in the 1990s, banging on about 'the one-world, Luciferian Totalitarian socialist government' and insisting 'we always know, we always know, which is the right way to go.' That Wilson died in his bed surrounded by friends whilst poking gentle fun at George W Bush, whereas Cooper died after paranoically fleeing an arrest warrant for tax evasion, shot by the police after he had shot one of the arresting officers in the head -- well, I suppose that strikes me as characteristic, in a mournful sort of way. Declare is a very violent book too; violent in a kind of morally-careless way. That's the genre, you'll say: yes, I know, it is. I'm less convinced than I used to be, though, that saying so is an ethical get-out-of-jail-free-card.

The thing about conspiracy theories is that they render the world into a more interesting and more significant place than, actually, it is. Significance is the gold standard of these things, of course; and the idea that the world is mostly ordinary people muddling along in entirely mundane ways is anathema to them. Now, significance is perhaps an end in itself; or perhaps it is handled instrumentally as a justification of acting badly. There was a nice line on Crooked Timber a few days ago (via Kieran Healy): 'J.K. Galbraith remarked that conservatism was engaged in a long search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.' Or maybe it is an ideological circle-squaring exercise: 'when socialists and liberals are in power, and the world is shitty, we blame the socialists and liberals; but when conservatives sweep to power, as they did across the west in the eighties and noughties, and the world is still shitty, we blame ... a secret cabal, the power behind the power, demons, conspiracies, anyone but us!' I'm not sure. Declare is an ingenious book, but ingenious in a fundamentally credulous, even a gullible way. It's not just that the fact Ankh, Ankara, Anchor and Angora sweaters are etymological related is interesting; it is that this fact means something profound and supernatural. Amongst the several things this book is saying are (for instance) that Communism is a fanatical quasi-religious cult for which its followers are actively eager to die; and that events recounted in the Bible (specifically Genesis) are literally true. To which I say: hmmm.

18 comments:

Mike said...

Despite having one of those small press first editions from 2000, I only got around to reading Declare about 6 months ago. I gave up half way through for the reason of research having overtaken plotting and pacing.

If anyone wants to buy a copy...

DC said...

I enjoyed Declare as a fun Le Carre plus the supernatural mash-up, but not much of it has stayed with me. Tim Powers seems to me a mercurial, sometimes interesting novelist.

I infer from your quoting a notable 20th c poet that you watched Campus on C4 this week. If the inference is correct - what did you make of it?

Adam Roberts said...

Mike: yes, I'd say there is less to this book than meets the eye.

DC: I recorded Campus and watched it last night (after drafting this post, actually). A bit thin, I thought; but then Green Wing took a while to get going. In particular the behaviour of the 'sexy English professor' seemed to me not funny and endearing, but obnoxious and harassing.

Wally said...

I'm all over the map here, sorry. I'm not sleeping much lately. Infant.

...

I'm not entirely sure this entire review is entirely fair. Or rather: I think you're right to point out Powers's conservative streak - interviewers and fans have seem to have made much of his Catholicism in the past - and yes his characterization is total bullshit, but I don't think your sketch of the political-conspiratorial landscape can be used as an indictment of Powers or Declare; and on its own terms I'd want such an account to cover the apolitical dimensions - the aesthetics - of conspiratorial thought along with whoever's racked up the most stupid theories since Reagan, or Clinton, or 9/11, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, or...

Sidebar: how is Biblical literalism a less believable or more ridiculous premise than, say, a given slice of the Cthulhu Mythos? Or faster-than-light travel, which is to the best of our knowledge simply impossible? It's a magical, not a historical, premise...right?

Admittedly this kind of 'magical thinking' is much on my mind this week, but it seems to me that, say, the supposed 'magical/supernatural' power of etymology (as an element of fiction or as a belief unto itself) is a lot closer to 'linguistic consciousness-alteration' than anything else, which is to say a self-soothing measure for a mind confronted with an overabundance of symbols (and, in Powers's case, a lack of some seemingly necessary symbol - the 'wobble' he mentions in his Postscript). But that's not political except insofar as politics for most people boils down to Modern Myth, complete with Manichean power struggle and Seat of Heaven (D.C., Downing St, etc.)

Powers's brand of 'secret history' seems to me to be about the intellectual exercise of concocting a satisfying-unto-itself alternate historical order, rather than trying to slot that order back into the real world.

I don't think it's the same kind of exercise that Glenn Beck gets up to, because the intent is totally different: Beck is either a conman or a lunatic, or perhaps both, and his goal isn't satisfying order as such, so much as confirmation of an already-existing worldview, i.e. his idiosyncratic right-wing politics (and that of his viewers). Powers might be using a conservative-tinted secret history for entertainment purposes, but I don't think he's peddling it the way Beck very literally is (except insofar as he's trying to sell books, ahem!).

Wally said...

(2/2 - damn character limit!)

Plus when you bring Wilson (RIP) into it you run into the weird association of psychedelic/countercultural energy with 'Left' politics; but of course in the U.S. it was Kennedy's FDA that restricted LSD to medical experiments and LBJ's Justice Department that made possession illegal; 'The Man' was a Party-agnostic figure then as (mostly) now. He's the condition of possibility of political-cultural connectedness rather than Darth Vader.

Seems to me that conspiratorial thinking has always had something to do with the supposed conspiratorial arena's distance from lived experience; 'The Man' is a total abstraction, and by Powers's millennium perhaps the Cold War was beginning to take on some of that abstraction as well. End of History and whatnot. The Templars had their Holy Land, Area 51 is roped off, the Bilderberg Group offers no tours, Oedipa is separated from the 'facts' about the Tristero by one ocean and two centuries...Powers and the other conspiracist-aesthetes seem to treat politics-as-she-is-spoke as a medium for experimentation rather than an actual subject - it's both the most detailed available idea-medium (because it exists!) and the most mysterious (because it's all a bunch of goddamn secrets!), so if you're gonna try and solve your Inner Lack by postulating some beautiful/terrible Sublimity, the strongest effect is to be had by setting your talespinning in a 'real'-ish world with a bit of prosthetic fiction to grease the novelistic/televisual wheels...

Anyhow I suppose I'm saying that my sense is that Declare uses the Cold War frame and Biblical literalism to give recognizability and shape to a pattern of secret-historical thinking about the world, but it's the pattern, not its manifestation in Declare, that's the real issue. Or more briefly, we don't have to look over our shoulders for djinns for Powers to have won; we just have to look over our shoulders.

Is that reasonable? I worry that all this talking about my ass will affect my digestion.

Wally said...

Er......talking out of my ass. WEIRD TYPO.

G P S said...

I've always enjoyed Tim Powers; his perverse take on factual history is always, in my view, entertaining. From 'The drawing of the dark' onwards there's been a slew of damaged (physically and mentally) and semi-alcoholic heroes, set in almost-real worlds. In one sense he's a one-trick pony, but if I see one of his novels on sale I'll always buy it. He writes fantasy rather than hard SF, but his ability to add factual versimilitude to entirely wacky plots makes him one of the few exponents of 'hard Fantasy'. Think of him as a latter-day Alan Garner, but rooted in SoCal/Nevada...

Adam Roberts said...

Wally: '...all this talking about my ass ...' Best typo EVER.

I've been thinking about your reply, and the implications (wrong? right?) of my review for a couple of days now. If we go beyond the trivial point that you enjoyed the book and I grew increasingly annoyed with it as it went on, I suppose for the review to have some point I would have to make the case (which I don’t, here) that the combination of magical thinking and politics is particularly noxious and dangerous.

<< Sidebar: how is Biblical literalism a less believable or more ridiculous premise than, say, a given slice of the Cthulhu Mythos? Or faster-than-light travel, which is to the best of our knowledge simply impossible? It's a magical, not a historical, premise...right?>>

Really? I mean, you’re really asking? Religious literalism (to expand the category a little) is not only more ridiculous but more pernicious because it actually informs the way we live in the world. People actually believe it, which isn’t true of even the most die-hard Lovecraftian: and so tens of millions of women in the Islamic world are denied proper rights because of a literalist reading of the Qu’ran; or … but, look, I won’t labour this point. It’s a sidebar.

<>

Here’s where we disagree. I think a lot of politics is magical thinking; either in the ‘we are God’s people’ way, or in the associationist way (‘he’s hiding something therefore I shall make the evidence-less assumption that he’s hiding weapons of mass destruction and go to war with him), or else in the wider popular set of beliefs that goes something like: ‘well on the surface , this [Vietnam Iraq, whatever] looks really stupid; so there must be some secret, hidden something going on that provides the actual explanation. Or this, from yesterday’s Guardian: Lucy Mangan on Jenny Kleeman’s documentary ‘Sex, Lies and Black Magic’:

"It examined the effective mental enslavement that prefaces the forthcoming physical servitude of women trafficked from Nigeria to Europe. They participate in a juju ritual in which the priest takes possession of part of their souls. They must swear to the invisible spirits that can protect and destroy at whim that they will be loyal to their sponsor (the pimp who is helping organise their journey into 70-punter-a-week hell) so that they and their families will not be sent sickness, madness and death.

It makes you want to weep with horror and frustration. Vivian, who is 23, hopes that she will only have to work as a prostitute when she first arrives: "I know how to plait hair and do lots of things." Kleeman tries to persuade her to stay in Nigeria, but magic, poverty and the need to provide for her younger siblings have all cast their own spells. 'I've made up my mind that I go there,' she says gently. 'And I must go.'"

What’s happening here is political in the most brute way, male power and profit at the expense of women. This is because the currency of magical thinking is human gullibility, of which there is so tragically vast a reservoir in the world that it would be surprising if politicians (for whom it is stock in trade) didn't take advantage of it.

I take your point about the difficulty of aligning psychedelic/countercultural energy with 'Left' politics, though.

Adam Roberts said...

The chunk that dropped out at '<>' from my comment, to which I say 'here's where we disagree' is:

"Admittedly this kind of 'magical thinking' is much on my mind this week, but it seems to me that, say, the supposed 'magical/supernatural' power of etymology (as an element of fiction or as a belief unto itself) is a lot closer to 'linguistic consciousness-alteration' than anything else, which is to say a self-soothing measure for a mind confronted with an overabundance of symbols (and, in Powers's case, a lack of some seemingly necessary symbol - the 'wobble' he mentions in his Postscript). But that's not political except insofar as politics for most people boils down to Modern Myth, complete with Manichean power struggle and Seat of Heaven (D.C., Downing St, etc.)"

Blogger's being really ornery this morning. Tch.

Wally said...

Adam -

Time to start with my belated confession: I haven't read Declare. It's quite literally next on my 'to read' stack - I'm doing Furst and Lovecraft now, then adding them together in my brain and reading Declare. Embarrassing!

But my defense of it isn't about the book itself - which is, near as I can tell, another Powers novel, i.e. well-plotted fantasy of a somewhat conservative tinge with a compelling premise, embarrassingly thin characters, and an ingenious but ultimately meaningless 'magic system.' Indeed it's possible that the book's political implications are more didactic than I'm assuming, in which case I'll happily apologize for wasting everyone's time!

But I feel like conspiratorial thinking/writing - whether RAWilson's epistemological/ideological curveballs or Powers's well-hidden mechanisms - has less to do with positive political claims than with accounting for personal dissatisfaction with one's felt relation to 'facts on the ground.' As someone who loves the messy improvisatory energy and ultimate all-encompassing neatness of conspiracymongering but acknowledges the ridiculousness of e.g. the Illuminati Mythos, I feel like the recreational conspiracist's model isn't the 9/11 Truthers (or the Christian fundamentalists), it's Oedipa Maas, the desperate ambivalent...

That's what I mean by mentioning Powers's 'wobble': there's some mundane explanation for the holes in the historical record, but the possibility of a fantastic explanation is itself intoxicating - even if following through on it to Factual Insistence and Revelation is ultimately a bit silly, just as seeing the Eye of Sauron go wide with fright as the tower falls in That One Fantasy Movie is more than a bit silly.

Maybe my defense is just defensiveness: I'd hope that's possible to enjoy a shapely mystery with what we now instinctively recognize as a politically dodgy premise - Biblical literalism, which after all Those Fuckers use to keep abortion dangerous, etc. - without mapping its in-story political implications to the Real World. I hope it's not gullibility, or its cognitive precursors, that draws me to these stories.

So I suppose I'm saying that while Powers's fiction might share formal features with vile political/religious cons, it does seem to me that Significance is very much the point of these exercises, though the (ahem) Significant Other needn't be anything in particular in order to be effective: angels, Cthulhu, Nixon, Big Brother, any will do, which makes RAW's conspiracist writing seem less heroic, and I'm alright with that.

I'm guessing - I hope - that conspiracist-aesthetes are catering to the longing for connection (between ideas, regions, people, eras) rather than gullibility - and I take his unspoken 'it's all in fun' at face value.

And/so from my defensive posture, your last paragraph - the parodic chin-stroking at Powers's Significant choices of fictional premises - sure looks like a criticism of political conspiracymongers, whose manipulations of people's hopes for connection are cynical (or insane), but poor Tiny Tim Powers is taking it on the chin. Well! Even if his fantasy premises are ridiculous, he's not the one elevating them beyond fantasy premises - not even by displaying lots and lots of research. The research has aesthetic, not political, purposes. That's what I (hope I) mean.

re: Your sidebar, though - you're absolutely right. But I'm still maintaining that there's a circle around Biblical literalism as fictional premise and such literalism as political premise, even when fictions are used to political purposes. Does that make sense, however weakly? I'm still sleep-deprived and Feliks is going bonkers in the Jumperoo, so I've gotta type quickly here...

Wally said...

Or to put it elsewise: the worldviews of 9/11 Truthers and Robert Anton Wilson are not right/left mirror images; RAW wanted us to believe that things are more complex than they seem, while the Truthers want us to believe that things are indeed very very simple (vs. complex) but still complicated - and are exactly as they say they are. Powers is way closer to RAW in that schema, whatever his politics. None of which means the political villains you cite aren't villains. I'm with you 100% on that. But they aren't magical thinkers at all; indeed, their world contains no magic whatsoever. That's the whole point of political conspiracy: it answers questions in complicated ways. Powers just wants to enjoy the questions themselves. Hence the bit about looking over our shoulders for whatever reasons. I imagine he's outcome-agnostic, politically, as far as his thrills are concerned.

Shit, I should just scuttle my meandering first drafts in the harbor. Is that even a thing? Scuttling in harbor? And where the U in 'harbour' go? Am I suddenly ashamed of my affectations?!

Mike said...

I for one am not quibbling about Powers' worldview or any formalisation thereof. I just think that the book didn't live up to his earlier writing or the overly obvious amount of research that went into framing this story.

Wally said...

I for one am not quibbling about Powers' worldview or any formalisation thereof. I just think that the book didn't live up to his earlier writing or the overly obvious amount of research that went into framing this story.

That's 100% fair. Out of curiosity, though - how did it fall short of, say, The Anubis Gates? That book seems like an ornate gearbox that turns only itself, not even bothering to give the correct time (as it were). Does it stand up to Last Call, equally showoffy and empty?

Wally said...

Aaaaaaah - reading the damn thing (40% done at present, quite enjoying it) is making everything make sense. But I'm now even more convinced of the benignity of Powers's conspiracymongering:

It's Raiders of the Lost Ark with the Warehouse 23 guys at the forefront - and weren't the Indiana Jones movies also about a hardened atheist gettin' his faith on amid conspiracies and Nazis and the like? Indeed the Raiders/Last Crusade parallels here are getting distracting...

The introduction of the djinn is absolutely perfect, by the way: how Powers starts mentioning them by name once Hale's plane takes off for the Middle East. Smooth as silk.

Adam Roberts said...

You read quick, compadre. The first 40% is pretty good; but my sense was that it goes downhill towards the end.

Wally said...

Adam -

I imagine the odd energy flow of the book - from bitter, godless spy-politics (dosed with Powers's cloying boy/girl romanticism and a certain thinness to the Parisian spycraft section) to eldritch storybook-Arabian otherworldliness (the djinn aren't mentioned by name for more than 150 pages) to, I'm guessing, pure Miltonic apocalalalalala - is meant to put a Christian spin on Lovecraft in particular, however much the HPL here is filtered through heroic/Manichean readings of the Mythos. Hale basically spins Henry Armitage through George Smiley, which makes sense: Armitage refuses to share the madness of his (ironic-Christian!) hilltop blowout in Dunwich with the local rubes, for their own good, and his partial unveiling of the cosmic conspiracy brings him no happiness. They're border guards, and weirdly they're supposed to keep both Good and Bad guys from being found out by the public, because the real danger to the public isn't the Bad guys so much as the Conflict itself...

('We have top men working on it.' 'Who?' 'Top. Men.')

With Lovecraft in there as a structuring/thematic element, the conspiracy aspects of the novel seem a little more benign to me, or at least seem to flow from something other than political concerns: the SIS/KGB/etc. stuff, however ostentatiously researched, functions mainly to elaborate the old idea of Things Man Was Not Meant To Know - what better milieu for such Things, after all, than the spy world? I don't think it's meant to be a conspiracy in the familiar explaining-the-world sense; if anything, isn't part of the point of the heroes' actions that the world is better off just not knowing about this god-bothering insanity?

I'd note, too, that the dying-for-Communism stuff does seem utterly silly; Powers mishandles Elena's whole rhetorical-philosophical vibe, I think, though she's a vastly more interesting character than any of the females in Last Call or The Anubis Gates. (Christ almighty.)

BUT Powers is also setting up a sly equivalence, or inversion: the Commies are the religious zealots while the 'God and country' Englishmen are (1) equally explicit about their willingness to die for the Crown by the Crown, which they affirm in a regular catechism; (2) embodied and led by a (faltering) atheist; (3) interested in ridding (ahem: purging) the world of the supernatural element on Ararat, whatever that's gonna end up being; (4) happy to employ Roma magic(!) against Stalin and Hitler; (5) there is no (5).

The (at first?) godless Englishman takes down the zealous Commies while bargaining with monsters of Arab myth - if that's what reactionary conspiracy-mythmaking looks like, sign me up.

Wally said...

What a very, very Catholic novel that turned out to be. I think some of my comments here will need to be rolled back a bit. Though the Christianity of the book is hardly what you'd call conventional...

Dreadful anticlimax as well. Two shots and done? Jesus! Maybe a dose of "At the Mountains of Madness" in the climax's setting and revelation too?

And that makes three Powers novels I've read without a single overall-believable female character. Sigh. I had such high hopes for Elena too.

On the other hand now I'm more convinced than ever that the book isn't a conspiracy story in the sense that RAW's stuff was. No ecstasy whatsoever, after roughly the midpoint. Just more and more and more spy stuff. Why, god, why??

Wally said...

Well, I read it.