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by Elizabeth Hand

The Golden Ass, by Apuleius, translated by Sarah Ruden, Yale University Press, 2012, $30.

The Other Normals, by Ned Vizzini, Balzer & Bray, 2012, $17.99.

Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel, adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012, $19.99.

 

"METHOUGHT I WAS ENAMORED OF AN ASS."

 
OH, PLEASE—get your mind out of the gutter. I'm talking about a book by a guy who's been dead for almost two thousand years.

On second thought, the gutter may be the best place for contemplating Apuleius's masterpiece, also known as Metamorphoses; preferably with a wineskin in hand, though a suitcase of Budweiser wouldn't be bad, either. Written sometime in the second century, The Golden Ass is the only Latin novel that's come down to us intact. Petronius's Satryicon, composed less than a century earlier, is fragmentary; the two works were conflated in my mind since I first read them back-to-back as research for a novel almost twenty years ago. Both featured scenes of unrelenting drunkenness, debauchery, cruelty, and the sort of authorial lapses that would get you drummed out of an MFA program these days—sudden shifts in point of view, inexplicable chronological leaps, characters' lack of believable motivation, etc. Petronius could be forgiven some of this because his is not an extant manuscript; Apuleius didn't get off so easily. I distinguished them as the one featuring Trimalchio's feast (Satyricon) and the one where the narrator gets turned into a donkey (guess).

The edition of The Golden Ass that I first read was Harry C. Schnur's modern adaptation of William Aldington's 1566 translation. I didn't much care for it (sorry, Harry). I no longer have that book, but here's Aldington himself, from Book 1:

But he that laughed before at his fellow, said againe, Verily this tale is as true, as if a man would say that by sorcery and inchantment the floods might be inforced to run against their course.…

Here's P. G. Walsh's 1994 translation of the same section:

But the man who had spoken earlier said: "Surely this lying tale of yours is only as true as the claim that when magic formulae are whispered, running rivers go backward.…"

And here's Sarah Ruden, in her recent demotic take on this dizzy tale of magic, sex, sex magic, gods, and goddesses:

But the speaker I just quoted interposed: "I kid you not," he said. "That fairy tale of his is essentially a claim that hocus-pocus mumbo jumbo makes bounding brooks reverse their course…."

Now, I'm all for sorcery and inchantment, also magic formulae; but this stuff about turning into an ass sounds more like hocus-pocus mumbo-jumbo to me, and I'd rather spend the next few hundred pages with someone who calls a spade a spade. Ruden's translation strips away the Verilys and Formulae, and restores Apuleius's artistic pedigree. Which, it turns out, has a lot more in common with South Park, Jackass, Monty Python's Life of Brian, and John Waters's entire oeuvre than you might imagine. Lest you think I'm exaggerating, here's a warning from a gatekeeper at the Ralph Nader Library, an online compendium of digital books:

Ralph Nader Librarian's Note: You're an ass if you read this book with anything but scorn for the rampant sadism, misogyny, pornography, homosexuality and superstitious ideas presented herein under the guise of "amusing gossip." This is terrorism in literature, a story of female sacrifice and hell on earth made into a "classic." You want to know what magic is? It's the "art" of making women into witches, and the world into a charnel ground.

If that doesn't make you want to read Apuleius, nothing will.

Ruden is a renowned American poet and classicist, a Guggenheim fellow whose previous translations include Lysistrata, Satyricon, the Homeric Hymns, and the Aeneid. In her introduction to The Golden Ass, she's unusually honest about the challenges of translating Apuleius, the "outlaw genius": "I was inclined to think of the project I had pursued so determinedly as a long torture session forcing me to confess my hopeless lack of skill and the relative poverty and joylessness of the literary culture in which I had been raised."

Fortunately, like the heroine of "Cupid and Psyche," the very long tale that's the centerpiece of The Golden Ass, Ruden receives help from unexpected sources: P. G. Wodehouse, Dave Barry, and Damon Runyon, among others she acknowledges. (She doesn't mention Bugs Bunny, but I was also reminded of "Roman-Legion Hare.")

This hodgepodge of narrative voices and literary influences perfectly suits a book that is itself a gallimaufry of tales within tales. The framing story is told by Lucius, our narrator, a hapless young man who, like Pinocchio (another innocent who did time as a donkey) takes up with unreliable companions in the road. One, Aristomenes, gives an account of some outrageous hocus-pocus mumbo-jumbo, involving Socrates and a witch who turns a man into a beaver.

Lucius, enthralled, berates their other companion for doubting the truth of the tale. "If you inquired in a little more detail, you'd find that these [magical] things are not only authenticated on the evidence but actually easy to do."

A short while later, Lucius happily finds himself in a city in Thessaly, the birthplace of witchcraft, where he wanders about, alert to any hint of magic—he is eager to become a witch himself. He meets and enthusiastically beds Photis, a slave girl (judging from Lucius's obsession with her hair, Apuleius may have been a trichophiliac); hears a creepy tale of necromancy involving a shape-changing weasel and the loss of a nose and ears; and is the victim of a diabolically cruel and gross practical joke. Ah, another holiday in the ancient world!

But everything goes pear-shaped when Photis invites her lover to watch furtively as her mistress, a witch, smears herself with an ointment and turns into an owl. Gobsmacked, Lucius begs Photis to steal some of the magical ointment so he too can fly, though he has the presence of mind to make sure there's an antidote. Photis assures him there is. "You mix a bit of dill with bay leaves, steep the stuff in fresh water, and apply it internally and externally." Noted.

You know what happens next: The magic goes awry; Lucius turns into an ass and is promptly stolen by bandits who kidnap a young bride. So begin his woeful misadventures, which are interspersed with other tales. These include "Cupid and Psyche," recounted in unexpectedly flowery terms by an old woman who's in cahoots with the bandits (she tells it to calm their hysterical kidnap victim). Other stories, involving adulterous, lascivious and murderous wives, became sources for Boccaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The Golden Ass ends with another famous setpiece, where Lucius's prayers to the Great Goddess are answered. He invokes her by various names—Venus, Proserpina, Ceres. When she appears, she goes through a list of her other monikers—Minerva, Diana, Juno, Hecate, and so on, before revealing her true name, Isis, and commanding Lucius to take part in her rituals. He does, first as an ass; then, after Isis transforms him, as a man who is promptly given a five-year term on the board of what sounds like a Masonic Lodge. Scholars debate whether this is a satirical description of an initiation into a mystery cult or an eyewitness account. Either way, it makes for an eye-popping finale, and the last line of Ruden's wonderful translation provides a glimpse of our hero cheerfully embracing his new administrative duties : "I did not cloak or conceal my baldness, where I went and whomever I met."

  Another adaptation of a well-known text is Hope Larson's graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time, a book which I did not think was begging for illustration, or even for new cover art. My first exposure to Madeleine L'Engle's classic was the original 1962 edition, with Ellen Raskin's Time Tunnel image, an abstract evocation of the story's characters and themes. Since then, I've never cared for the literal depictions on later editions of the book, even Leo and Diane Dillon's. Part of this is the eternal problem of seeing well-known fictional characters brought to life: No matter how talented the artist or actor, every reader or viewer has her own singular vision of a beloved character, and it's impossible to please us all,1 especially if a novel's major players include those named Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which. Part of it is the challenge of illustrating a scene like this:

Meg looked around her, realizing that she had been so breathless from the journey and the stop on the two-dimensional planet that she had not noticed her surroundings. And perhaps this was not very surprising, for the main thing about the surroundings was that they were unnoticeable. They seemed to be standing on some sort of nondescript, flat surface. The air around them was gray. It was not exactly fog, but they could see nothing through it. Visibility was limited to the nicely definite bodies of Charles Wallace and Calvin, the rather unbelievable bodies of Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who, and a faint occasional glimmer that was Mrs. Which.

But mostly, I think, it's that Meg and Charles Wallace and the rest of the Murry clan are so familiar to many of us that we feel as though they grew up next door. Meg isn't an avatar of banal wish-fulfillment, like Twilight's beautiful, insipid Bella; she's a stand-in for all those socially awkward smart girls who get bullied at school for not being pretty or docile enough. And while A Wrinkle in Time has a third-person narrative, it's filtered through Meg's Everygirl. Any attempt to portray her on the page or screen invites myriad readers to stare at the image and bluntly state, That's not me.

Hope Larson's intentions are honorable—she's one of the contributors to Geektastic: Stories of the Nerd Herd, and has written and illustrated her own graphic novels and comics. But her palette—the industrial blue of styrofoam insulation, inky black—is dreary. And the renditions of L'Engle's characters resemble, well, cartoon characters. Mrs. Who looks like Yubaba, the witch in Spirited Away. Mrs. Whatsit's transformation into a seraphic centaur is far better left to the imagination. And Meg's brother Charles Wallace, the five-year-old savant, looks creepily out of place, as if he'd wandered over from John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos. Surprisingly, the most effective scenes are those that picture Meg's inter-dimensional travel, where the spare black panels give off a nice sense of the solitude and grandeur of deep space.

Still, none of the images is as elegant or thrilling as those in the original text which illustrate the principles of time travel via tesseract. And any number of busy pictures can't do justice to the power of L'Engle's simple prose, which in the course of a not-very-long book manages to summon up "love and love…so tangible that Meg felt that if she only knew where to reach she could touch it with her bare hands."

 

Wish fulfillment and interdimensional travel of a different sort are the stuff of Ned Vizzini's funny, sweet-natured new YA novel, The Other Normals. Vizzini's earlier novels are the bestselling It's Kind of a Funny Story, about a suicidal teenage boy who checks himself into psychiatric hospital, and Be More Chill, about a geeky kid who finds a pill that makes him cool. The Other Normals features another of Vizzini's bright glum things, Brooklynite Perry (for Peregrine) Eckert, who at fifteen has still not sprouted body hair or kissed a girl, and—I know this will come as a shock to many of you—spends much of his free time playing a game called Creatures and Caverns. A trip to Phantom Galaxy Comics, "a three-story nerd mother ship," to get an expansion pack for C & C nets Perry a mysterious volume—the Creatures and Caverns Rule Book: Other Normal Edition. Sam, the boy who hands the book on to Perry, is a fellow gamer who has an admirable philosophy he also shares with Perry:

"Whatever else I do during the day, I always make sure to remember, 'Nobody knows how the pyramids were built.'…Aliens, magic…Until someone explains the pyramids to me, how'm I gonna take life serious? You want to start a new game?"

Most of the parents I know would be overjoyed if their fifteen-year-olds played C&C, rather than watching internet porn or updating their Facebook status from Single to Drunk. But, concerned about his involvement with the game, Perry's folks pack him off to Camp Washiska Lake, undeterred by a sign at its entrance that reads NO LAWYERS BEYOND THIS POINT. Before Perry can even unpack in his yurt, he gets into a fight with a gangleader named Ryu, pops him in the temple, and gets clocked for his efforts. Not long after he comes to, he finds himself face to face with Mortin Enaw, one of the denizens of the world where Caverns and Creatures is set, Enthral Moor. Mortin teaches Perry about the multiverse: how there are multiple versions of the same world, and correspondences between Perry's world and Enthral Moor: events, individuals, good guys, and bad guys. To save the good guys in Enthral Moor, Perry must kiss a fellow camper whose correspondent is a princess there. But first, he has to deal with the various weirdnesses that come with traveling between worlds, like introducing himself to a version of the bully Ryu in Enthral Moor.

"I'm from New York. Brooklyn. Well. My parents are divorced—"

Ryu ignores my hand but perks up at the word Brooklyn.

"Do you know the Beastie Boys?" he asks.

"Uh…I know some of their videos."

"You don't know them personally?"

"No."

"Then what do I need you for? You two carry on; send him back."

It's all very silly and highly amusing, though the stakes are high enough that blood is shed and some tentacles lopped off, Perry eventually grows some body hair, and somebody gets kissed. By the time I finished reading The Other Normals, I had the distinct feeling that there might be a mysterious, perhaps inexplicable correspondences between Ned Vizzini's work and that of another master of the absurd, Daniel Pinkwater, especially the sublime ridiculousness of Pinkwater's Borgel. And until someone explains that to me, or Ned Vizzini writes another captivating novel, how am I gonna take life serious?

__________________________________

1   Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn is the exception to this rule.

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