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August 2004
 
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Books
by Elizabeth Hand

Troll Fell, by Katherine Langrish, HarperCollins, 2004, $15.99.

Novelties and Souvenirs: Collected Short Fiction, by John Crowley, Perennial/HarperCollins, 2004, $13.95.

Olympic Games, by Leslie What, Tachyon Publications,2004 $14.95.

THE children's fantasy landrush of the last few years has resulted in a very few great books (Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials), quite a few good ones (such as Jonathan Stroud's The Amulet of Samarkand), some cynical ones (Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl novels, which uncannily replicates the experience of being trapped in a movie theater watching Die Another Day with a bunch of ten-year-old boys, while simultaneously being forced to reread the most tedious bits of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire); and even a stinker for the ages—Flavia Bujor's The Prophecy of the Stones, which deserves a place in the Pantheon of Legendary Badness alongside the musical adaptation of Carrie and that classic film clip of Leonard Nimoy singing a song about Bilbo Baggins while surrounded by dancing teenyboppers in hippie garb.

Many of these books are distinguished by the now-familiar tropes of contemporary fantasy: British setting, donnish sorcerers, protagonists (usually male) hovering somewhere on the cusp of puberty, safe within that retrograde Neverland where their female counterparts flit across the landscape like benign versions of the Vivian Girls: plucky, cute, two-dimensional figures. Nothing's necessarily wrong with any of this; it just gets tiresome after a while, especially as the authors' jostling for originality and cleverness—sorcerer Disraelis! leprechauns with AK-47s!—itself becomes much of a muchness.

So it was with mild surprise and growing delight that I picked up Troll Fell, an utterly charming, captivating debut novel by English writer Katherine Langrish. A disarming amalgam of Scandinavian folklore, adventure, and legend, Troll Fell opens with young Peer Ulfsson watching his father's funeral pyre. Beside him is Loki, "a rough haired, flea-bitten brown mongrel—all the family Peer had left." In just a few paragraphs, Langrish limns a sharp portrait of Peer's grief and horror as his father is consigned to the flames, and by page three, a huge, shadowy figure has stomped into the circle of firelight in Peer's village, and Langrish's story takes off at breakneck speed.

The gigantic figure turns out to be Peer's Uncle Baldur (uncle only by marriage: there's troll blood in the family, never a good thing). Uncle Baldur proceeds to sell off all of Peer's belongings, claiming the boy's meager fortune, then drags Peer off with him to where he lives near Troll Fell. There Peer finds things even worse than he anticipated—Baldur has an identical twin named Grim, just as appalling as his brother. The two live in a broken-down old mill with their monstrous dog, Grendel, whom they use as a cudgel to break Peer's spirit: Any sign of rebellion on the boy's part and they'll feed his beloved Loki to their immense pet. Fortunately, Peer finds companions—Hilde, a girl from a neighboring farm whose father has gone a-viking; and a Nis, a disconsolate household spirit who lives in the barn, and whom Peer rehabilitates by feeding him a bit of butter in his porridge. The Nis, called Nithing, retains its charm despite, or perhaps because of, a powerful resemblance to its recent fictional forebears—Lloyd Alexander's Gurgi, William Mayne's Hob, J. K. Rowling's Dobby—and Hilde is reminiscent of Alexander's Princess Eilonwy. Indeed, Troll Fell reminds me throughout, in tone and warmth of characterization, of Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, though it lacks the epic scope of those books. Which is not (for me anyway) at all a bad thing. Langrish's novel has the humor and scale of a tale told before a blazing fire on a night when the sleet slashes against the window and one can too easily imagine something scurrying around the rafters: something benign, one hopes, that can be pacified with a pat of butter. The scary parts—involving an ambiguously malevolent water-spirit named Granny Greenteeth, those malign twin uncles, and their plan to usurp Hilde's family farm—are genuinely scary, and there's a marvelous set piece at the end, when Peer and Hilde make their way into the heart of the Troll King's realm.

I read Troll Fell aloud to my eleven-year-old son, a discriminating audience who often functions as the canary in the coal mine when I'm trying out new fantasy authors. His response almost every night when we finished a chapter (or two, or three) was, "This is really better than the last Harry Potter, isn't it?" "Yes," I said; and our one regret upon finishing Troll Fell was that we now have to wait for the next book by Ms. Langrish to appear.

SPEAK, MEMORY

I first heard of John Crowley when Little, Big was reviewed in the Washington Post in 1981; a most intriguing book it sounded, but I immediately forgot its title and author, recalling only that the book was written by a man whose last name began with a C. I spent the next five years diligently searching bookstores and reading any number of writers—Richard Cowper, Jack Cady, Jonathan Carroll—with a growing sense that I had really missed something: like failing to get the phone number of the handsome stranger met on a train, or not buying stock in IBM when offered it by a sharp older cousin. This sad state of affairs was remedied in the spring of 1986, when for the first time I took a writer's workshop. On the first day the instructor, Richard Grant, handed out photocopies of a story and told us our assignment was to read it before the next session. I began to do so immediately, ignoring the class's discussion of the work-in-progress by a retired GS-12 engineer; and felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise. The story was "Snow." The author's last name began with a C. I still didn't know the title of the novel I'd read of years before, but I had that uncanny, almost supernatural sense of immanence I've had only a few times in my life, of a door opening and being ushered through it, into a place that I've always dreamed (and suspected; hoped against hope) was there, and finding it so. I read "Snow," and went through the door, and never looked back.

Novelties and Souvenirs gathers most of John Crowley's short fiction (the brilliant 2002 novella "The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines" is not included, presumably so that it can serve as the cornerstone for a future collection); fifteen stories, including "Snow," "Novelty," (an incipit for Crowley's Ægypt sequence of novels), "The Reason for the Visit," and the award-winning novella "Great Work of Time." Some of these were originally collected in the volumes Antiquities and Novelty; all have been previously published; all are marvelous, though some are more marvelous than others.

The term "Great Work of Time" could be applied to Crowley's work as a whole. Certainly the stories in this new collection, when read all of a piece, share a concern with the permeability of time, and the role memory takes in reshaping past experience, in effect creating a new world with each instance of recall. To some degree, the past is a trope in almost every story. "Antiquities" is an account of the peculiar "plague of inconstancy" which overtakes a rural English town when ancient mummified Egyptian cats are used as fertilizer. In "The Reason for the Visit," Virginia Woolf (by means never made explicit) is summoned to the apartment of a young man in New York some decades after her death, where "she began to invent a life for me, as everyone says she often did…." The Aickmanesque "Her Bounty to the Dead" can be read as a tale of revenants as much as of an irruption in time; "Missolonghi 1824" recounts an encounter Byron has with the imprisoned Pan. "The Green Child" and "An Earthly Mother Sits and Sings" are comparatively straightforward adaptations of well-known folktales. "Great Work of Time" is one of the best time travel stories ever written, deserving a place alongside H. G. Wells's The Time Machine. And "Snow" is, for my money, simply one of the best stories ever written: a heartbreaking, elegiac discourse on the nature of memory and loss, couched within a deceptively simple narrative involving a technology that records then plays back the random, trivial minutiae of an individual's daily life.

"Deng Fa-shen had always said it, and anyone who traveled in them knew it to be so," Crowley writes in "Great Work of Time"; "the imaginary futures and imaginary pasts of orthogony are imaginary only in the sense that imaginary numbers (which they very much resemble) are imaginary. To a man walking within one, it alone is real, no matter how strange; it is all the others, standing at angles to it, which exist only in imagination."

This is as good a description as any of what it is like to inhabit a novel, as writer or reader; another of Crowley's themes, beautifully manifested in Engine Summer, Little Big, and the Ægypt books. Earlier in "Great Work of Time," another character observes

"History.… Yes. Of course the possible worlds we make don't compare to the real one we inhabit—not nearly so well furnished, or tricked out with details. And yet still somehow better. More satisfying. Perhaps the novelist is only a special case of a universal desire to reshape, to 'take this sorry scheme of things entire,' smash it into bits, and 'remold it nearer to the heart's desire.…'"
The "land of heart's desire" is invoked in "Her Bounty to the Dead" as well; it's the shadow-text in Crowley's work, as it is the shadow-world to our own. It is the Past, as perilous as those "faerie lands forlorn/beyond the dim, endragoned, dreaming sea," where one can drown in nostalgia or grief.

"The phrase Novelties & Souvenirs entranced her with their trochaic lilt," Nabokov writes in Lolita; trochaic referring to the Greek dimeter, but also containing the echo of troche, a circular pill or tablet taken as an anodyne, its shape derived from trokhos, the wheel. "We live in Time, and it wounds us," someone wrote. The tales collected in Novelties and Souvenirs are far too intelligent, subtle, and heartbreaking to act as anodynes for what ails us, and at any rate, there is no cure for age and loss and the siren call of the Past; none that I know of, anyway. Again and again Crowley's work puts us on Time's wheel and spins it; but we are not broken there.

HERA AND ZEUS DIVORCE

Finally, there is Olympic Games, Leslie What's delightful first novel. What's publisher cites Thorne Smith's novels as an inspiration for Olympic Games, but I found this new novel to be far funnier, clever, and more touching than Smith's The Night Life of the Gods (though I would be perfectly amenable to whatever occult act might bring back Topper's Cary Grant to play a role in the film version of Olympic Games). Leslie What deftly and with great humor and grace weaves a story involving Hera, Zeus, an Oracle, a short-order cook, a naiad-turned-dryad-turned-door, a sweet-natured savant, and a beautifully evoked outsider artist (among many others). Olympic Games spans ancient Greece and the Parthenon Diner, a magical rural village in the Catskills and present-day New York City. The gods have day jobs and complicated love lives, just like us: this is Sex and the City with the city resembling New York in Little, Big. There is a lot of sex in Olympic Games, far more graphically and hilariously described than in Thorne Smith: if Hollywood folks were ever blessed with a single brain cell to share among their sweet l'il punkinheads, actresses would be lining up to play What's Hera—

    "What's your name?" she whispered.
    "Francois," he said, nearly as breathless as she.
    "Ever been love slave to a goddess, Francois?" she said.
    "No, Madame. The pleasure has not yet been mine."
    "There's gotta be a first time for everything, don't you agree?"
    Francois nodded. "Tell me what you would like for me to do," he said.
    "Oh, don't worry," Hera said with a laugh. "I'm not at all shy. You'll never need to ask if it's as good for me as it is for you! Because if it isn't, I'll kill you."
    From his wry smile she knew he thought she was kidding.
There's a great punch line to all this, but I can't really get into it here; as Andy Warhol used to say, it's too dirty. And if that doesn't sell you on this book, how about this: yesterday I had an absolutely miserable day—I had no running water, my power went out, my computer crashed and could only be repaired at great expense; on top of all that, it was my birthday, and everyone forgot.

But then I stayed up till midnight to finish reading Olympic Games. And when I finally put the book down, I felt as though Leslie What had sent me a present. This is a wonderful novel; it may well become a cult classic, right up there with The Night Life of the Gods.

I have just one question: What will Ms. What send me next year?

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