Friday, December 11, 2015

On Viriconium

M. John Harrison's Viriconium sequence rightly stands as a landmark in literary fantasy, although to the new reader it might be difficult to tell why. This is not to say the Viriconium is not a brilliant, significant work; it is, but it is also a puzzle, a challenge, which subverts the narrative unities of the genre, of fiction, even.

The puzzle begins with the collection itself: it is a sequence only in the loosest sense, being comprised of three novels and a number of short stories, published and composed over many years, and presented not entirely in chronological order. The stories are haunting, sometimes elliptical. The novels form a rough narrative arc, but the whole effect is not that of a traditional fantasy trilogy, and more one of recursion and retelling, a revisiting and revising of the history and place that is Viriconium.

To identify the setting, then: Viriconium is a city, sometimes the centre of an empire, perhaps the world's last, located on the far edge of human time, in the Evening Cultures that follow from the environmentally devastating period of the Afternoon Cultures. This suggests a science-fantasy, perhaps even of the dying earth variety, but the world is too indistinct to support that notion entirely. In fact, Virconium is more like an  urban fantasy, an impossible city, an abstract compilation of London, Rome, Paris, Berlin, York, Venice, with its European street names and imprecise architecture. And although Harrison deploys many archaic technologies and weapons (toxic power-knives, combat airships) the era and level of technology is fluid, anachronistic, indefinite.

This same fluidity characterizes the narrative as it expands. The first novel, The Pastel City, is probably closest in form to the science fantasy, and roughly follows the conventions of a quest fantasy: there is a hero (teagus-Cromis), a conflict (The War of the Two Queens), a quest against the enemy in the north. But by the second novel, which ostensibly addresses the aftermath of the first, the quest is less heroic, the threat more metaphysical, the protagonist confused and cynical. And although the final novel replays some of the tropes of the first (the metaphysical plague, the faltering rescue), it has become a matter between artists, entertainers and policemen, rather than swordsmen, and the events of the first novels are touched on only as the most distant memories of allusions.

Well, as Harrison warns us, in a phrase that might be taken as a talisman: "All queens are not Mammy Vooley.... All heroes are not Ignace Retz." His characters constantly reprise and return to archetypal roles (queen, swordsman, magus, dwarf), as though playing with the masks of the hero, and yet never entirely fulfill them, or indeed lose their own identity in the effort, as Cellur, the immortal, alien maker of mechanical birds, forgets even his own identity across the vast stretch of time the novels allude to.

Indeed, memory is the basis on which Harrison constructs and deconstructs his city, likening it to a set of letters read and reread until the original meaning becomes unclear. In his important, elusive online essay "What Might it be Like to Live in Viriconium" Harrison argues against one of the standards of modern commercial fantasy: worldbuilding.
The apparent depth of the great fantasy inscapes—their appearance of being a whole world–is exhilarating: but that very depth creates anxiety. The revisionist wants to learn to operate in the inscape: this relieves anxiety and reasserts a sense of control over “Tolkien’s World.”
Viriconium cannot be mapped; it resists literalism. Hence, Viriconium steadily unbuilds, revises, breaks open its invented world. This is less a deconstruction, a taking the world apart, than a continuous revisioning, a seeing anew.

But one might ask, to see what anew? Defamiliarisation is a process, not a statement, so what does the work as such say in the end? One could assert that to make the world anew in each work is to renew our perceptions of it: a kind of recovery such as Tolkien describes. Harrison proposes that such strategies can serve to reveal the inevitable structures of power and language that define realities, political, social, and otherwise. Certainly, Viriconium is strongly concerned with world-views, the clash of alien and familiar umwelts, but it is not until the last novel, In Viriconium, that Harrison reveals his interest in the function of art, visual, literary, or otherwise. In this novel, the sword is replaced by the palette knife, as artists take over the roles of poet-warriors and queens. Just as Harrison's essay rehearses the tension between literary and commercial fantasy, this Viriconium has become sickly, moribund, trapped between the popular, meaningless commercial art of the High City and the ineffectual avant-garde pretensions of the Low City. Consequently, the gods of this city are equally ineffectual, literal dummies and figures of fun and revulsion.

The city is only saved when these gods are challenged and wounded, when an attempt is made to reconcile "high" and "low" art, to return to art-making as a first principle. Elsewhere, Harrison has indicated the metaphor is an activity, an exchange, like meaning, which cannot be reduced to a static formula. Viriconium is not so much a city as that process in action, boundless, metamorphic, iterative.

Of course, this sort of work cannot always satisfy: that's the point. Viriconium doesn't deliver a world, but glimpses of a shifting world view that you assemble as best you can. Sometimes, we fail, and we're left with the pieces, as the characters so often fail. This is not always the best thing for readers: we're provided with suggestions rather than resolution. In its place, we have Harrison's extraordinary, evocative, powerful language. Viriconium is a thrill to read, even if we're not sure what's going on, or what a "cynical room" consists of. Sometimes, characters seem to lack a critical agency; Harrison's female characters, most of all, are either figureheads or images of stoic acceptance.

This does not stop us from journeying towards Viriconium, or constructing it again in imagination and tracing its rise and fall. This ever-expanding, never resolved journey is the subject, suitably, of the last story in the collection. "A Young Man's Journey to Viriconmium" is a journey that can never be completed, or is likely to be punctuated with disasters, but in the middle of the story, a child's vision of a cafe interior reflected in the windows that look out on a garden, superimposing the two spaces, becomes a metaphor for the work that fantasy can accomplish, a moving and poignant vision of a world transformed. If you look for a plot in this story, or even continuity between scenes, you will be disappointed. But if, as in the last scene of the story, you want to keep digging in the storm, you will be rewarded.

Friday, October 9, 2015

We need to talk about Conrad

Clive James's recent essay on re-reading Joseph Conrad reminds me of a writer I have not read consistently for over a decade, but whose work, like Dickens', has a persistent influence. I have on my shelves a rather fine hard-bound collection of Conrad's major works: the best of which, not counting the superb Heart of Darkness, are Lord Jim and Nostromo.

As James points out, Conrad's work anticipates with startling clarity the grand terrors of the modern world: revolution and totalitarianism, political violence, terrorism, and the disorder we see presently from Africa to the Middle-east and beyond. Whereas Dickens turned his fiercest satire on his contemporaries, Conrad focused his irony on colonialism and what we might class as issues of globalization, the open, shifting world of the seafarer.

It strikes me that Conrad anticipated so much: in Nostromo the "material interest" in the great silver mine that dominates the novel and drives the central conflict could stand as a precursor to our  corrupting material interest in fossil fuels, the toxic treasure trove of the Middle-east. As Mrs. Gould realizes at the end of the novel,  the colonial intervention, even when idealistic and successful, is also a form of oppression: "She saw the San Tome mountain hanging over the Campo, over the whole land, feared, hated, wealthy; more soulless than any tyrant, more pitiless and autocratic than any government; ready to crush innumerable lives in the expansion of its greatness." This is a strange prescience into Western interventions: as these material interests bring both wealth and "development", they also corrupt the best moral intentions, sowing the seeds of resistance and revolution, and pitiless conflict, in return.

Conrad's ability to wed the action and danger of a thriller to substantial moral scope and purpose, to show without judging, to examine evil as well as good without flinching or hedging, is a heavy challenge for any writer. In his characters we often see how idealism, the illusion which we create to sustain our sense of self, also leaves us blind to the fatal realities of ourselves and others. It's certainly time to revisit Conrad and remind ourselves just how precise his insights were.

Leafing through Nostromo, I realized that several characters in A Hangman for Ghosts share names with characters in that novel. This was entirely unconscious, but the background to this murder mystery is a colonial venture, and the protagonist is a fallen idealist. I hope the reader will of course see one or two Dickensian ghosts in the story, but I wonder now how the spirit of Conrad inhabits the novel as well.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you

This is an intriguing review, of a book on the role of the weather in English arts and literature. I've always had a soft spot for literary atmosphere, from Dickens's fog and mud onwards. Readers of The Raven's Seal will know that winter and summer, snow, shine, and cloud, all have a role in that novel also. It's easy to mock the pathetic fallacy in fiction, but I find myself falling back on what you might call the soft pathetic fallacy. Setting, tone, atmosphere count heavily for a reader's sense of immersion, and weather bears on us and alters mood and perception in a singularly direct, sensory way. This is a vital tool in the descriptive writer's toolkit.

Of course, not every funeral takes place in the rain, and lovers don't always meet in storms or sunshine, but in A Hangman for Ghosts, the weight of the antipodean summer stands in for the oppressive machinery of the prison colony administration, while the bright light of the sun only serves to make the shadows of murder darker.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Go Set a Watchman - not a review

This is not a review of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee's puzzling late-career publication of an early-career manuscript. Like many, I read To Kill a Mockingbird decades ago, in high school, but like the rest of a small set of mythic texts, it stays with you, and subtly colours your other readings of the type.

What saddens and puzzles me, as it surely does other readers, is the way this work has been presented as a discovery, a sequel, a new work by an admired author. Indeed, some readers have been so disappointed, they have been offered refunds.

There is nothing wrong with publishing early drafts, manuscripts, even notes, from a major author. We have a large body of Tolkien's work, published posthumously, from the fine and moving The Children of Hurin to the meandering collection of notes and drafts that form The History of Middle Earth. But these works are read and understood as drafts, ideas, part of a developmental and creative process.

The difficulty here is that, setting aside the dubious circumstances of an elderly writer abruptly discovering her enthusiasm for a manuscript she set aside decades before, the marketing and presentation of Go Set a Watchman suggest continuity where none exists. This is particularly painful in the case of the presentation of Atticus Finch, shown as a decent and honourable man in Mockingbird and a bigot in Watchman. To suggest a continuity here is to dishonour the reader's relationship with the characters of Mockingbird, whatever the merits of the individual works.

Understood as a draft or a precursor, there is surely an interest in the recent release, but how can we unfold the complex ethics of the relationship between author, reader, publisher, and character here?

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Sword in the Stone - T. H. White

Tolkien, I recall, had reservations about Lewis's blending of inconsistent sources and traditions in the Narnia stories: Roman fauns and Greek centaurs against Nordic wolves and a White Witch, for instance. But I wonder what he made of T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone, an extraordinary melange of elements: sentimental medievalism blended with precise historical detail and conscious anachronism, children's story and searching political allegory, legend and fantasy, and comedy with a looming thread of adult tragedy.

Among those concerned with writing modern fantasy, much is made of world-building, which means the coherence and integration of the world, and the application of a realist logic to unreal categories. But as M. John Harrison has observed, fantasies are extended metaphors, idealogical and not physical landscapes, and they serve to generate interpretations, not factual consistency. In this respect, The Sword in the Stone is a novel of education, but its lessons are about encountering and integrating, without necessarily reconciling, a multitude of viewpoints.

Merlin, living backwards in time, has already seen the tragic future and the even more baffling modernity which occasionally intervenes in the text, but he can only prepare Wart for what he will discover and ultimately do as the Once and Future King. He can guide but not resolve. Wart's lessons, through Merlin's magical transformations, are often about the burden of power, and his encounters, such as with the mordant pike or the mad, militaristic hawks, highlight the dangers of tyranny and the moral price of authority. If the fantasy England of the narrative is but a nostalgic rendering, this serves to highlight that it is also lost in the past as the whole golden age of Arthurian legend is lost, that these soft edges are just a comforting illusion, but one we can't give up quite yet. This is what Merlin sees and Wart cannot, and the discrepency lends the comedy unusual poignancy and insight.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The last mystery

When the mystery is resolved, what remains? Maybe the the fact that we are all mysteries to ourselves, and that character is the one clue we can never follow to its conclusion.

(A cryptic post to celebrate the conclusion of the first draft of A Hangman for Ghosts.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

First and last

I started writing the last chapter of A Hangman for Ghosts. But given that the last chapter of a murder mystery is necessarily that first one that the author devised, and that the rest of the writing process is selectively concealing and revealing the nature of this chapter, does this mean that I really started writing this chapter first, and it has simply taken the longest to finish?

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Morse Code

I've been watching the classic British mystery series Inspector Morse through Hulu. A review of the visual medium is a little out of character for this blog, but never mind. It's fascinating to mark how prevalent the genre of detection is in popular TV and speculate as to what that means for our wider culture, and Morse exemplifies a particular turn in mystery drama and fiction of the eighties which, I've found, influences my own thinking about the genre.

Like P. D. James, whose best work appeared at this time, the writers of Morse returned to the policeman as detective, as opposed to the collection of interesting eccentrics, amateurs and private detectives that flourished after the Golden Age of detection. 

Morse was irascible, morose, a clever puzzle solver, but frequently baffled by human motivation, prone to bad habits in life and relationships. He was often wrong, or relied falsely on intuition, which showed that the rational solver of clockwork mystery puzzles was more often than not a pleasing fiction rather than realistic portrait. By the same token, the conclusion to many of his cases was often ambivalent, showing that murder, morality, guilt and the law did not intersect as often as the consoling certainties of earlier detective fiction would indicate.

After Morse, the preeminent home counties detective became Inspector Barnaby, of Midsomer Murders, which reverted to the chirpier, more predictable structure of the cosy country-house murder. (Morse and Inspector Barnaby would neither have held on to their inspectors rank in real life with the number of murders per case that occurred in drama). And Morse was also followed by the forensic detective, the CSI crime-solver, substituting the myth of the infallible lab technician for the flawed investigator of human frailty.

But Inspector Morse retains its interest because of its richer, darker plots and flawed, fallible protagonist.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Mystery and stupidity

This is an odd topic for a longish post, but as the end of the first draft of A Hangman for Ghosts draws near, as an ambiguous detective hunts down the conclusion of an intricate and ambivalent case, I've had cause to consider the nature of stupidity, as a theme of the novel and in society.

By stupidity, I don't mean simple, individual foolishness, but consistent, willed idiocy in grave matters of public life, from the spectacular boorishness of a New Zealand talk-radio host attacking a respected writer for disloyalty to – of all things – the government; to the exceptional callousness of the Australian Prime Minister, who refuses to prevent the further brutalisation of children held in detention and instead moves to change the subject; to rewriting the charter of a respected university to diminish truth and enquiry, to – most dangerous of all – admitting the reality of global climate change while not recognising the human cause.

In many of these cases, from the cruelty of Mr Abbott to putting humanity and the planet at risk, there is an element of harm, as cruelty and stupidity go hand in hand, even as there is also a violent disrespect for persons and their good sense in the other instances. Of course, folly, bigotry, self-interest, and deceit are nothing new – unsurprising, in fact – but what is worrying is that this stupidity has become naked and shameless, that there is no attempt to reason or persuade, only a bald assertion that should be as embarrassing to the speaker as it is irritating to the audience. Was there not a time when political leaders, rightly or wrongly, would at least attempt to persuade us of their case, on whatever grounds?

How is this related to mystery? Because I think that in a good mystery there is a satisfaction in the discovery that truth can be found, that the detective, whether a private individual or an official, can use reason and observation and imagination to track down the real facts of the matter. In this way, the mystery narrative schools us or engages us in a certain kind of thinking. By the same token, the dark forces the detective might confront, malice and crime, are aligned with stupidity as well as the fog of circumstance. Hence, in A Hangman for Ghosts, in the harsh environment of the Australian penal colony or on the doorstep of the empire, my reluctant investigator, an outsider even in exile, must confront official stupidity as well as the complexity of the crime, because this kind of stupidity is about preserving the order of the system rather than justice.

Which brings me back, from another direction, to my first point. Just as propaganda in a totalitarian society is not about reality but bullying and demeaning the subject, official stupidity is not about the facts or even reasons, but about muddying the waters, creating confusion in the hopes that confusion seeds doubt, not to sway the majority by argument but to target the wavering few by obfuscation. As such, stupidity is the great red herring, the concealer, the distraction from who is guilty.

Eleanor Catton was subjected to a stupid personal attack because she demurred, mildly, to act as a cheerleader for a New Zealand government she thought at odds with her values. The response to her in some media shows that on the contrary, her writer's role as critic, conscience, and doubter is even more vital.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Magician's Land - Lev Grossman

The Magician's Land, the last volume of a series we can now say forms The Magicians trilogy, does several admirable things. It brings the series to a satisfying close, not always possible in a loose serial narrative, and addresses the primary question left dangling at the end of the first book: what is magic for? And it does so with a brisk, well-written narrative that avoids the bloat and long-windedness that the genre has become prone to.

The Magician's Land has some faults too. These are minor faults, to be sure, but they make the reading experience an uneven one. The first is an over-large cast of focal characters, and a structure that flips between characters at will, which forces Quentin, the protagonist of the trilogy, towards the background at odd moments, even though the story of his growing maturity and quest for restitution is the focus of the novel. Plum, a young magician snatched by misadventure from the magical college of Brakebills, holds significant portions of the narrative, but there's no real reason for her to do so, except to act as a foil for Quentin. There's also a tendency for characters to speak with the mock-ironic tone of college students even in moments of genuine tenderness or emotion, which is rather at odds with the growing maturity of the central characters, he signature development of this final volume. Nevertheless, Grossman has a magician's gift for combining action, contemporary references, and moments of true fantasy and wonder, and his invented world of Fillory has gathered true weight and strangeness (and a touch of sadness) as the series continues.

These, however, are small matters. Although Grossman is at pains to point out that the grand fantasy quest (even the quest for self-knowledge) is more often than not incomplete or ambivalent, his characters both destroy and remake a world. And in this we finally touch on the answer to the challenge of the first novel. Magic is not neat, predictable, merely technical, or even necessarily useful. But it is creative, and in creation and dislocation the magician, like the novelist, brings new possibilities into the mundane world.