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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury, 2004, $27.95.
One King, One Soldier, by Alexander C. Irvine, Ballantine Books, 2004, $13.95.
The Moon Pool, by A. Merritt, edited with an introduction by Michael Levy, Wesleyan University Press, 2004, $65.00 hc/$24.95 pb.
The Best of Xero, edited by Pat and Dick Lupoff, Tachyon Publications, 2004, $29.95.
I AM suffering from hype fatigue. Thus far in 2004, I've read four fantasy novels touted as the Publishing Event of the Year, for a total of 2,442 pages—entire tracts of old-growth forest laid waste. For the record, the novels were Flavia Bujor's The Prophecy of the Stones (abysmal); Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver (intermittently absorbing); Jasper Fforde's Something Rotten (intermittently amusing); and now Susanna's Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (very fine). As a reviewer, I did not have to pay for any of these books: If I had, they would have set me back more than a hundred bucks (including tax). This makes me think of "Selecting a Reader," a poem by Ted Kooser, wherein a down-at-the-heels woman in stained raincoat peruses a book of poetry.
She will take out her glasses, andFor a hundred bucks, you could buy a new raincoat. You could buy new glasses! Would I have paid for any these books with my own money? With the exception of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, no. Does this mean the novel lives up to its hype? Not quite, but it comes pretty damn close.
Jonathan Strange, which is Susanna Clarke's first novel, arrives bearing a hyberbolic quote by Neil Gaiman, who calls it "Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years." Susanna Clarke can't be faulted for the hype or the quote—she spent ten years laboring on the book, which does not on its surface bear much resemblance to its fellows on the bestseller list, beyond its Brobdingnagian girth. It is an unusual novel, beautifully written in a pitch-perfect Jane Austen voice; its setting, an early nineteenth-century England familiar to readers of Austen, is vividly and lovingly evoked.
The novel's premise, like its setting, is not brand-spanking new: there are magicians in a seemingly mundane England (at this point, I would be very surprised to read a contemporary fantasy novel in which there are not magicians in England). Two of these magicians (who are sorcerers or wizards, not stage magicians), the gentlemen of the title, find themselves contemplating with growing unease the possible return of a third magician, the legendary Raven King. There is also an irruption, or interruption, upon the mundane world by the perilous realm of feared. The narrative is complex and peopled with dozens of memorable characters, from the dry-as-dust Mr. Norfolk to Stephen Black, a butler adopted by a fairy, to the fairy himself, identified throughout as "the gentleman with the thistle-down hair."
And this, in many ways, strikes me as the real weakness of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell—it is being touted as an adult fantasy novel, but in fact it breaks very little new ground, and indeed covers much old ground. It bears striking similarities (including those interminable footnotes) to Jonathan Stroud's recent The Amulet of Samarkand—a less ambitious book than Clarke's, perhaps, but one which I enjoyed more—as well as John Crowley's Little, Big; Sorcery & Cecelia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer, another Austenian fantasy; Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy; Joan Aiken's Dido Twite novels; and the linked tales in Sylvia Townsend Warner's Kingdoms of Elfin. Clarke also pays homage to the great tradition of English antiquarian folklorists—Thomas Keightley's The Fairy Mythology (1828), W. C. Hazlitt's Dictionary of Faiths and Folklore (1905), and Katherine Brigg's four-volume A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales (1970-71), all of which inform Clarke's footnotes.
However, the book to which Jonathan Strange owes its most obvious debt is Hope Mirrlees's sui generis (not anymore, I guess) Lud-in-the-Mist, one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written. I suspect Gaiman's canny use of "seventy years" rather than a hundred serves to ringfence Lud, a novel he much admires and which was first published in 1926. Mirrlees's novel suffuses Clarke's like a blush: the melancholic tone; the notion of antiquarian Mysteries coming to light and changing the nature of the world; the echoes of sad airs played upon antique instruments; the mournful conception of Faerie and its inhabitants. Clarke's gentleman with the thistle-down hair seems a direct descendent of Mirrlees's Duke Aubrey, just as the characterization of Lud's protagonist, Master Nathaniel Chanticleer, appears to have influenced Messers Norrell and Strange.
If I had never read Lud-in-the-Mist (or Little, Big), would Jonathan Strange have impressed me more? Perhaps; though I found its langourous pace deeply problematical: it remains very much a first novel, with a first novel's portmanteau charms and weaknesses. Much of the pleasure in reading Jonathan Strange comes from witnessing a writer discover and fall in love with her own narrative voice. That voice is probably the book's greatest achievement—Clarke writes lovely, long, immersive sentences, but there are a great many of them. William Faulkner famously observed that to write a good novel, you must kill your little darlings. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell would have been a genuinely great novel, and not just an exceptionally good one, if there had been more blood on the floor—I don't wonder if there are magicians in England, but I do wonder if there are editors.
Hype being what it is, the commercial success of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell seems assured, even if it weren't such a strong debut. Still, there are all those English fantasies of the last seventy years. Is Susanna Clarke's first novel really finer than The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the Gormenghast sequence, The Once and Future King, Elidor or The Owl Service, The Third Policeman (Irish, not English, but still), The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman or Nights at the Circus, Signs of Life or Virconium, Hawksmoor, Lempriere's Dictionary, Watership Down or The Girl in a Swing or His Dark Materials?
I don't think so. But maybe her second novel will be.
Turning from Susanna Clarke's first novel to Alexander Irvine's latest is like switching radio channels from a recording of Hayden's "The Seasons" to Charles Mingus's "Theme for Lester Young." One King, One Soldier is a rambling, energetic, sometimes shambolic road novel whose numerous side trips encompass Rimbaud, the Beats, baseball, and the Holy Grail. "Shambolic" is not necessarily a bad thing in this context—road novels (like road movies) are by their very nature eccentric, erratic, even stumbling, just like real journeys. Irvine's protagonist, Lance Porter, is a recent Korean War vet, tentatively making his way back into American society after having his leg blown away in combat. His effort at repatriation is almost immediately derailed during a visit to the California Bay Area, where he meets a scruffy, drunken, obscenity-spouting gay Beat poet named Jack Spicer. Spicer is a brilliant acquisiton on the author's part—an actual, if marginal, Beat whom I had never heard of (and I thought I knew these guys!). Spicer serves as an unreliable guide and gadfly to Lance, sending him on a delirious quest to discover his own true identity—is he Lancelot? the Fisher King? just another disenfranchised war veteran?
Irvine does a neat job of subverting the typical tropes of contemporary urban fantasy, by throwing all his cards on the table early on, as though they were a handful of road maps: "Okay, kids—this is where we are now, and we're going here, and here, and here, and here—" The pleasures of One King, One Soldier derive not from figuring out the mystery as from simply enjoying the trip. Irvine is a very fine writer, and he creates great Real Guys—it's easy to imagine Lance Porter hanging out with Dean Moriarty and his lot. He also does a creditable job with Arthur Rimbaud, one of those larger-than-life characters whom novelists approach at their peril.
Where the novel falters is in its immense and perhaps overly ambitious scope: any book that takes on not just the Beats and Rimbaud's years in Abyssinia but the Knights Templar, baseball, twentieth-century American race relations, and the Arthurian cycle is biting off a lot. Bernard Malamud attempted something like this in The Natural, but Malamud's focus was tighter, his time frames and settings conventional. With One King, One Soldier, Irvine has set himself an imposing itinerary, a cross-world, cross-time quest to see and explore a thousand years of legend, lore, and undying love. It's no surprise that the journey spirals out of hand, but it's an exhilarating trip all the same. Next time, could we please stop at Rock City?
It is impossible today to read A. Merritt without, at some point, wincing or grimacing at his racist and sexist stereotypes, or laughing out loud at his over-the-top prose. It is also, for some of us, impossible not to go on reading. I first encountered Merritt in the late 1960s, when I was enthralled by The Moon Pool. I went on to track down most of his other works—The Ship of Ishtar, The Fox Woman and Other Stories, Dwellers in the Mirage, The Face in the Abyss, The Metal Monster, and my personal favorite, Seven Footprints to Satan. Even as a kid, I knew a lot of this was hokey—the perilously seductive lamia-like women, the lost worlds hidden at the Earth's core, the spunky male sidekicks, the nefarious foreigners who attempt (vainly) to thwart Merritt's muscular heroes. It was hokey, but it was also irresistible: Seven Footprints to Satan, along with John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, remained favorite summer reading for many years.
The Moon Pool, however, always seemed to me to be the best-written of Merritt's books. Many readers might beg to differ with me on this point; many might wonder if Merritt deserves to be read at all anymore. Me, I remain a fan. I recently picked up the new Wesleyan University Press reprint, edited and scrupulously annotated by Michael Levy, and was once again hooked:
Thus it was that we first saw the city of the Dweller; blessed and accursed as no place on earth, or under or above earth ever has been—or, that force willing which some call God, ever again shall be!
They don't write 'em like that anymore. I for one am sorry they don't—not sorry to lose the casual racism and sexism, but to lose the ebullient energy and intelligence, the scientific and cultural curiosity that colored Merritt's best work.
The Moon Pool first appeared in All-Story in 1918, and in book form a year later. Levy refers to Sam Moskowitz's biography of Merritt, which "notes that many of the people who wrote letters to the editor of All-Story Weekly following the original novelette version of 'The Moon Pool' wanted to know if the story were true." Merritt was immensely popular in his time, and reprint versions of his work continued to appear decades after their original publication. As Levy puts it,
It's hard to overstate the notoriety this story attained. It was enormously popular and instantaneously catapulted Merritt into the first rank of science-fiction writers behind only Edgar Rice Burroughs, a level of popularity he maintained well into the 1940s. A comparable phenomenon of a more recent day might be seen in the public reception given William Gibson's Neuromancer in 1984.
Levy does a terrific job of placing the novel firmly within its time, showing the numerous historical and scientific trends that influenced it—Theosophy, astronomical discoveries, the geophysical theories that gave credence to the novel's Hollow Earth setting—as well as noting Merritt's debt to the writer William Sharp, who published many tales and plays based upon Irish folklore, writing under the name Fiona MacLeod. Levy also encapsulates the Merritt backlash spearheaded by James Blish in a damning 1957 essay.
The style [of The Moon Pool] is both windy and cliche-ridden, as well as being ungrammatical with great frequency. The scientific rationale…has been turned by time into nonsense. The characters are stock.… The Moon Pool appears to be purely a private work, written out of Merritt's dream life.…
It's difficult to argue with any of these statements, but for some of us, the hallucinatory, often terrifying sequences that distinguish Merritt's best work—the abduction of members of a scientific expedition by the Dweller in the Moon Pool; the visionary "Through the Dragon Glass"—continue to cast a powerful spell. We live in a culture that, for all its excesses—reality TV, the Internet, shopping malls the size of minor emirates—casts a cold eye upon stylistic excess in prose. Merritt may not be as great a writer as Jack Vance or Gene Wolfe or Angela Carter, but he's kin to them all the same—in Levy's words, "To put it simply and to use one of the touchstones of the field, Merritt's work brims to overflowing with sense of wonder." It's good to have Michael Levy and Wesleyan University Press remind us of this.
It's also good to see Virgil Finlay's elegant, eerie, black-and-white illustrations reproduced. I'm fortunate enough to own several pulp reprints of Merritt's work, including a January 1941 copy of Fantastic Novels Magazine that reprints "People of the Pit," with a gorgeous color Finlay cover and Finlay's B&W illustrations inside. The magazine also contains a fan letter from the twenty-year-old editor of the fanzine Futuria Fantasia, extolling the work of Finlay and Hannes Bok, whom he thinks "capture that outre tone that is necessary to this art form." I was delighted to see that, even in 1941, another reader appreciated the outré. I was even more pleased to note the young letter-writer's name: Ray Bradbury.
And, finally, a book that has afforded me more entertainment than anything else I've read all summer: The Best of Xero: Selections from the Hugo Award Winning Magazine, edited by Pat and Dick Lupoff and with an introduction by Roger Ebert. Xero was a fanzine published in the early 1960s. It featured essays and reviews by a stellar Who's Who of sf writers: Harlan Ellison, Ruth Berman, James Blish, Ed Gorman, Algis Budrys, Richard Kyle, Lin Carter, Jack Chalker, Dick Lupoff, Frederik Pohl and, yes, that Roger Ebert—the list goes on and on and on. Donald E. Westlake gives the field a caustic farewell in "Don't Call Us…We'll Call You," an incendiary indictment of John W. Campbell's reign. Avram Davidson contributes "He Swooped on His Victims and Bit Them on the Nose," as well as a long poem titled "Reader Beware." Paul Williams complains about Lin Carter complaining about the rising cost of paperbacks (fifty cents). The raw energy and excitement about what was still a Lost World of its own informs every page of this provocative volume.
1 Tristram Shandy notwithstandy.1a
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