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The Enchanted, by Rene Denfeld, William Morrow, 2014, $25.99.
Marshlands, by Matthew Olshan, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, $23.
Finnish Weird, Editor-in-Chief Toni Jerman, Helsinki Science Fiction Society, 2014, Free PDF, EPUB downloads: www.finnishweird.net
all diagonal, that is to say, non-realistic approaches to any story we can label a science fiction or fantasy without being unjust to both the author and the readers. There might be, and usually are, quite a lot of realistic ingredients in the story, but something happens all of a sudden that sheds a diagonal light on that reality.…
This diagonal light illuminates two stunning new novels that evade easy definition: Rene Denfeld's extraordinary The Enchanted, set on death row in an unnamed prison, and Matthew Olshan's wrenching Marshlands, set against the environmental and cultural devastations of a war that is never named (but is clearly the Iraq War). Both books are obviously set in our world, their chronology flashing back several decades then forward, perhaps into our own very near-future: say, tomorrow or next week. Both describe atrocities that make for very difficult reading. Both feature protagonists who are nameless (though some are eventually identified by name).
This conceit gives each short novel the feel of a modern fable, a tale told out of time—something along the lines of Ursula K. Le Guin's 1974 masterpiece, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," which I reread after finishing these two books. I have no idea if the authors are familiar with Le Guin's story, but I wouldn't be surprised if they were. Denfeld lives in Oregon, Le Guin's home state, and has mentioned her as an influence. Olshan's previous novels include Finn, a modern YA retelling of Huckleberry Finn with young girls standing in for Jim and Huck, and a children's fantasy The Flown Sky, which Olshan has described as inspired by the Chronicles of Narnia, "without the heavy religious overtones."
And while both The Enchanted and Marshlands could easily be marketed as dystopias, that unlikely commercial darling of the moment, doing so would highlight how creatively bankrupt much so-called "dystopic" fiction really is—adolescent escapism in Mad Max drag. These are genuinely dark novels, their bleak subject matter redeemed by exquisite and restrained writing and, in the case of The Enchanted, one of the most breathtakingly beautiful final scenes I've read in years, a vision of transcendence that illuminates everything that's come before it.
"This is an enchanted place," states the narrator of Denfeld's novel as it opens. "Others don't see it but I do." The speaker isn't named until the final pages, but we know from the outset that he's on death row, awaiting execution for a crime too terrible to be described. He is mute, a condition brought on by the circumstances of his own childhood, which form a dreadful moebius loop with his later horrific acts. When, as a boy, he meets with a psychiatrist at the mental institution where he is a patient, both soundlessly acknowledge that the twelve-year-old should never be freed. Of course, when he turns eighteen, he is. Almost immediately he commits the crime for which he will spend the rest of his life in prison.
This first-person narrative alternates with an omniscient point of view, mostly that of the death penalty investigator known only as the lady. For many years, Rene Denfeld has in life been that lady and held that job. The Enchanted is her first work of fiction (and was recommended to me as a horror novel), but she's written extensively on violence in both articles and books. Kill the Body, the Head Will Fall (1997), a study of women and aggression, is framed by an account of her experience as one of the first women to train and compete as an amateur boxer. The New Victorians (1996) is a third-wave feminist rebuke to the often simplistic, goddess-centric feminism of the time. Denfeld's experience as gimlet-eyed journalist, essayist, and death row investigator, conjoined with The Enchanted's luminous and often ecstatic prose, gives her novel the unlikely, even otherworldly, feel of a magic realist documentary. It's an exceptional achievement, and quite unlike any other novel I've ever read.
Dark as The Enchanted is, it's not depressing, but exhilarating and deeply moving and, in its final pages, unrestrainedly exultant. "In here, people grow into their shadows," the prisoner muses. Yet despite—or perhaps because of—the horrors he's inflicted and endured, those shadows never occlude his vision.
I see the chamber where the cloudy medical vines snake across the floor, empty and waiting for the warden's finger to press the red buttons…I see the soft-tufted night birds as they drop from the heavens. I see the golden horses as they run deep under the earth, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs. I see where the small men hide with their tiny hammers, and how the flibber-gibbets dance while the oven slowly ticks.
The most wonderful enchanted things happen here—the most enchanted things you can imagine. I want to tell you while I still have time.…
Denfeld's novel is a remarkable evocation of the sublime: that moment where, in critic Jack Sullivan's words, "beauty and terror ring out at the same moment." As the lady researches the past of another condemned prisoner, the vicious and unrepentant York, she uncovers terrible things. The facts of her own childhood mirror those of York and the narrator, but in surprising ways. Unspeakable brutality is everywhere inside the prison. The eerie, unsettling magic that irradiates cellblocks and death chamber coexists with the familiar horrors of rape, corruption, drug abuse, murder.
And while she writes unsparingly of all these, Denfeld doesn't hesitate to overturn stereotypes. The prison warden is compassionate. The fallen priest who tends to the prisoners has himself done terrible things. The narrator finds solace in rereading The White Dawn, James Houston's 1969 novel about life among the Inuit. Some of the prisoners and guards continue to commit unspeakable acts behind bars. As Denfeld notes in an interview,
prison is a place where men who have done the most horrific crimes can become leaders. It all depends on their attitude and willingness to be brutal. The common myth is that sex offenders and child killers are mistreated in prison. This is not always the case.… The weak are victimized, no matter what their offence. The vicious take charge.
With the inevitability and beauty of a medieval passion play, Denfeld's characters make their way toward her novel's conclusion. The lady, the fallen priest, the warden, the whitehaired boy who becomes victim of the prison's most rapacious inmate, and many others—all achieve a kind of apotheosis in the narrator's rapturous final vision.
About two-thirds of the way through The Enchanted, the fallen priest tells the lady that he's read The White Dawn, in an effort to understand the condemned man. "But it just seems like a story," the priest admits. The lady responds.
"If you understand what makes him tick—what is magic for him—then you can understand anyone," she says.
"Yes. But I wasn't thinking of the word 'magic.' "
"It's magic," she says.
So is Rene Denfeld's breathtaking novel, which I suspect will turn up on major awards lists in the months to come. Read it now.
Matthew Olshan's Marshlands also begins in a prison, where a nameless man is being released after decades of incarceration for a crime that is not described.
He was led up a ramp and into the hold of a cargo plane, where they chained him to a metal chair by the waist and ankles. The tight blindfold underneath his hood provided for total darkness; the deafening roar of the engines made his isolation complete.
During the flight, the changes in pressure reminded him of one of his first guards, an amateur boxer whose favorite punishment was a cupped blow to the ears. Still, he was glad of the earache, despite the pain. The way it came and went was proof that time wasn't standing still.
The flight takes several days. Each time the man starts to fall asleep, the guards strike him with the butt of a rifle. When they reach their final destination, he's put into a cab with an envelope of cash and sent into a city, where his money is almost immediately stolen. His identity has already been effaced, the whorls on his fingertips burned away by a blowtorch.
Homeless, he wanders the city, which, while never named, is clearly Washington, D.C. He gazes at an immense bronze sculpture honoring an American general and falls asleep at its foot. Chased off by security guards, he finds shelter in a museum on the Mall, where a curator takes pity on him: she feeds him, takes him back to her apartment, gives him new clothes, brings him to the dentist, puts him to work as a volunteer at a medical clinic that caters to an immigrant community known only as the marshmen. The nameless man recognizes the cause of the scars that some patients bear, barbed wire stretched tight across their skulls. He knows how to clean a wound and stitch sutures into their gangrenous flesh. It's revealed that the curator knows him, and that she has a name, Thali. The prisoner, we learn, is Gus.
Marshlands is divided into three sections. It begins in a time roughly contemporaneous with our own, when Gus is released. Part Two is set twenty-one years earlier, when Gus is a medical doctor stationed in the marshlands of the title, a region cognate with the Mesopotamian Marshes of Southern Iraq. Part Three is set eleven years before that, when Gus first arrives in the marshes as a callow, kindhearted young medical officer who quickly finds himself drawn to the marshmen. He becomes their doctor, treating them at a clinic against the orders of the senior American military official whose fate becomes inextricably bound up with Gus's own.
Inhabited for at least 5,000 years, these wetlands were a beautiful, environmentally fragile area covering about 6,000 square miles, a breeding ground for myriad species of wild birds, fish, and mammals. And for millennia the marshes were home to the Marsh Arabs, who lived on tiny islets, in homes and ritual buildings elaborately constructed of dried reeds, and plied the shallow water in long canoes. In the early 1990s, Saddam Hussein dammed the Euphrates River and began draining the freshwater lakes that supplied the marshes, as well as executing military attacks on their human inhabitants. The result was a mass exodus and the desertification of roughly 7,000 square miles, the destruction and probable extinction of numerous wildlife and plant species, and the irrevocable loss of an ancient and unique culture.
None of this is spelled out in Olshan's novel, which, like The Enchanted, takes a fable-like approach to its grim subject matter. As in The Enchanted, terrible things happen, though the reverse chronology provides a welcome sojourn in a strange, beautiful world now lost. Olshan's details of the marshmen's society are precise and unsentimental: ruthless punishment for seemingly minor crimes; cultural misapprehensions that exert a savage cost.
But Olshan's writing is elegantly controlled, as is the tension generated by his reverse narrative. And his characterization of Gus, with its slow revelation of the idealistic young man's fatal missteps, is masterful, as is his descriptive writing.
When the fog burned off, Gus was finally able to photograph the ancient alluvial plain he'd spent so many hours daydreaming about as a child: an Eden of reeds and silver waterways, where ruined Bronze Age palaces seemed to doze like exhausted parents, oblivious to the joyful birds that ran riot along their spines.
Marshlands is a slender book, scarcely longer than a novella, and its Ouroboros structure allows for a far more hopeful ending than is immediately apparent. I finished it and immediately read it through again, with wonder and admiration at Matthew Olshan's depiction of a real-life shadow world coexistent with our own, undeniably bleak yet not beyond redemption. "It becomes clear, as evening lowers its shroud over the swaying grasses, that we will not reach home before dark," Gus muses midway through Marshlands. Despite the encroaching shadows, Gus does find his way. Readers will find comfort in his journey.
Nordic writing extends far beyond the current vogue for Scandinavian noir, as longtime fans of Tove Jansson or newer writers like Karin Tidbeck are aware. For those who'd like a sampling, Finnish Weird is a delectable chapbook assembled by Toni Jerrman under the aegis of the Helsinki Science Fiction Society. Finland has extremely vibrant fan and literary communities, which have given birth to wonderful writers, some who have previously been published in English, like Johanna Sinisalo, others who were new to me but whose work I'll now seek out.
Sinisalo's thoughtful and useful introduction shows how Finnish fantastika developed from its readership, resulting in a fruitful cross-pollination by sf, fantasy, horror, magic realism, and just about every other literary subgenre you can imagine. "Many writers—including myself—consider the whole subject of drawing lines between genres restricting and completely unnecessary. This might be one of the reasons why Finnish non-realistic fiction is so diverse, and because it cannot really be classified, it can be seen only as literary fiction.…"
Such cross-genre writing is more commonplace now, even in literary backwaters like the U.S., and it's inspiring to see how it developed in Sinisalo's "distant, small Northern country with a difficult, broken past." There are several additional essays on contemporary Finnish writers, and stories by two of them: Tiina Raevaara's "Gordon's Story," a lovely, melancholic tale reminiscent of John Crowley's work, and Jenny Kangasvuo's "Flow My Tears, Fall from Your Springs!" a beautifully sinister retelling of an episode from Kalevala. Both of the stories are terrific, as are the essays. Best of all, it's all free and available as a PDF or EPUB download at www.finnishweird.net. Perfect reading as the days grow shorter and the evergreen shadows lengthen.
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