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Books
by James Sallis

Nest of Worlds, by Marek S. Huberath, translated from the Polish by Michael Kandel, Restless Books, 2014, $14.99.

All Those Vanished Engines, by Paul Park, Tor Books, 2014, $25.99.

 
RECENTLY, prompted by the new biography of Robert A. Heinlein, I've been rereading a lot of his work and, in balance, much of Theodore Sturgeon's. Heinlein writes (it occurs to me now, as it did not when I read these books forty and fifty years ago) like an engineer. What he builds is sturdy. It's functional, it works, it's solid and will stand. You can see the struts and cables and how they hold the thing up. You can all but hear footsteps crossing. With Sturgeon the bridge hangs there, suspended. You can't always make out just how it stands, how it stays up. It's a different bridge as you approach it, different as you step onto it and look down, different still as you step off.

As readers and as writers, many of us are attracted to science fiction and fantasy for the sense of freedom it affords. We can write (or read) about big issues such as death and the possibility of afterlives, the nature of being, the sprawl of the universe and of time and mankind's place therein. We can stare sideways at politics, at social organization, at all the assumptions and received wisdom of our daily lives. Call it what you will—science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, surrealist, or that stuff—arealist fiction squeezes the juice from what we see, glides beneath surfaces like a chisel, appearance coming away in tight curls and falling to the floor.

So: Two trains running this time out, one by a writer who, from his earliest publications, has been among science fiction's most ambitious and distinctive, the other the first English-language appearance, in a translation by Michael Kandel, of the celebrated Polish writer Marek S. Huberath. Two novels chockfull of bridges, suspensions, walkways, over- and underpasses, both bearing witness to my belief that arealist fiction's roots reach down into the mythic, feeding from Jungian archetypes deeply imprinted in all of us, and that below deck in the best genre work there is forever a stowaway poet.

 

They brought her in the middle of the night, in a prison van without windows. A few minutes before it arrived, a laconic telephone call notified him. Gavein went outside.
Two women guards led her from the van. A sack, with the black numbers 077-12-747, had been put over her head. The reek of urine came from inside the dark van, where there were other shapes, lying down or bent over. Gavein, shocked, began to run to her, but one of the guards, a thickset woman with a broad, freckled face, stopped him with a baton.
"Don't make things difficult," she said. "We have to follow procedure."
"What is it, Ross? The guy's pining for her?" Another guard leaned out from the driver's seat. He had an enormous round head, a brutal face, and ham hands covered with red hair. "You need help?"
"No," answered Ross. "He's quieted down."
Gavein was speechless: this was beyond imagining.
"The quarters where she'll be kept?" Ross asked.
Gavein pointed at the entrance.
"That's the main entrance," she said. "Whites have to take the back door."
"We have no other entrance here."
At the sound of his voice, the form in the sack began to tremble.

 

Shut away in the sack and the wracked body is Ra Mahleiné, Gavein's wife. On this world, theirs is a mixed marriage, as he has black hair and she has "white" or blond, that being the caste system. Also on their world, every thirty-five years each individual must move to another country with different customs and social structure, leaving behind position, family, and name—except for the Significant Name that carries within itself the manner in which that individual will die.

There is, in the sundering of families, however, albeit horribly complicated, a loophole.

Gavein arrived from Lavath to Davabel by plane, a journey of thirty-six hours, while Ra "traveled by compensation" aboard ship. Time here is inconstant; the further a body is from the surface, the slower time flows. So while the couple's journeys begin and end at the same time, they are experienced quite differently. Ra is aboard ship for four years. But now they can remain together: "She chose this herself, to be able to stay with him, to fool time, to get around the marriage law."

Scarcely has the couple settled in at the boarding house in Davabel when deaths begin to occur in the neighborhood, all of them of clear cause but in ever-increasing numbers. Ra first rallies physically, then, as the deaths proliferate, goes into decline, becoming ever more ill. And an employee at the shop where Gavein works has taken to reading an interactive novel titled Nest of Worlds, quickly losing interest or appetite for anything else, sinking steadily into the book until he, too, dies.

It seems that everyone with whom Gavein has crossed paths is dying. From the boarding house the deaths spread into the surrounding neighborhood, soon totalling sixty-four in a single twenty-four-hour period. Even those who traveled with Ra aboard ship—though only those whom Gavein saw—are dying.

The novel's second major tipping point, after which such points begin to occur every few pages, comes on page thirty.

 

Finally Haifan showed. He set a hammer and a pillow on the table in front of him. Not waiting any longer, Edda brought in the pasta.
"We can eat," Haifan said. "The others won't be coming."
He spoke calmly, but everyone looked at him.
"I'm done with the hammer now. It's still wet, because I had it under the faucet. But the pillowcase needs to be laundered. Saliva got all over it, though the saliva dried. I hope the feathers inside didn't get wet."
[…]
"I better check on the Hannings, to see what the problem is," said Gavein.
"Why go there now?" Haifan shook his head. "You won't eat afterward. I finally solved the problem. They were suffering from bad incarnations, and now they'll come back in new, better ones. No point in worrying over what they were before."
"Are they dead, Haifan?" Gavein asked. A delicate question, but he sensed that Haifan would not be violent.
[…]
"Fine, but eat. Then I must call the police, because the law, though it makes no sense, should be respected. A person needs to believe in something. That's why we have the law."

 

One after another, trapdoors fall away beneath us. Per Rimbaud, Everything we are taught is false. There is something walking beside the day besides the day. Until, as the novel draws to a close, it folds in on itself; we end with Gavein reading Nest of Worlds to a dying Ra, then turning to face the reader.

Among the most labile novels I've ever encountered, Nest of Worlds presents a singular challenge to the reviewer. First, there's much about it that's unworldly, much that goes unexplained. And it's a work that, because it shapeshifts page by page from genre to genre and in its general thrust, defies mapping. Is it science fiction, a mystery novel, a novel of character, psychological fantasy, ontology? Yes to all. And furthermore, the surprises, the sudden turnabouts and realignments, are so much a part of the delight of reading the book—its very engine, in fact—that to elicit them vitiates the reader's experience.

Finally, squeezing the ever-evolving shape of the novel down to a few sentences or a paragraph is like trying to fit an eight-course dinner onto a single bruschetta. Doing so causes the whole rich canvas to sound more idea than experience, more a schematic or literary conjuror's trick, when in fact the novel is all about its characters: their entry into new orders, the small community of which Gavein and Ra become a part at the boarding house, how their world keeps flipflopping about them yet they manage somehow to go on, ever grasping for the next foot- or handhold.

Nest of Worlds is a bountiful, troubling novel, at one and the same time complex and straightforward, honeycombed with details of daily life and with chambers opening onto the mysteries—the sorrow, pain, cruelty, joy and love—at the heart of our lives.

 

*   *   *

 

The critic and commentator lives with the simple truth that anything said is reductive: that he or she is peddling crushed flowers. And the more complex the work is, the more loose and associative it is—i.e., the more of the visible and unseen world it engages—the greater will be that reduction.

In Paul Park's All Those Vanished Engines, we have another quietly protean novel, one that would put up the whole of all our worlds in a single jar of bright preserves. Park has always been—with The Starbridge Chronicles trilogy, his visitations to early Christianity in The Gospel of Corax and Three Marys, the quartet of fantasies grouped as A Princess of Roumania—a man minding his own strong vision, seamlessly blending fine-tuned, pitch-perfect writing with the energies and deep hunger of the best genre writing.

Reviewing Celestis many years ago, I wrote that in some sense it wasn't a novel at all but a series of them, a work whose language precisely mirrored its structure, elegantly formed sentences commingling those borders where perception of the external world and the working of individual minds overlap; that each time we read the novel we sink through its transparencies and recesses into new depths.

So it is with All Those Vanished Engines: three parts, three chambers, multiple levels. Multiple worlds. Stories within stories, stories around, over and above, beneath, one step to the left, two to the right, circling, centrifugal.

 

Perhaps as she'd slept the train had debouched into the dark fields of the Yankee empire. As if liberated by that possibility, she pressed her imagination outward through the opaque double-paned windows, framed with velvet curtains and gilt ropes like a series of miniature proscenia. Soon the stagehands would hoist the artificial sun into the vault, and the dim red light would chase across the woodlands and the hills, and press against the stone walls and pale, clapboard facades. […] Or else it would be still dark when they reached the station, and she would step out onto the platform under the dripping kerosene lanterns high up on their poles, a forest of discolored light, and under those flickering trees the Yankee empress waited with her court, surrounded by her silent army of black dogs.

 

Again and again in commentary on Engines, words such as metafiction, recursive, and postmodern rise to the surface, but as with all labels (and as with Nest of Worlds) these tell us nothing of consequence, nothing of the strength of Park's characters, of the depths of feeling in this novel, of the true wonder and grace of the worlds set before us.

Commentators also quote a passage that serves not only to limn the novel's structure but also to underscore the freedom Park finds in arealist fiction, a freedom toward which he has been working all along.

 

I thought you could build a story that would function as a machine or else a complex of machines, each one moving separately, yet part of a process that ultimately would produce an emotion or a sequence of emotions. You could swap out parts, replace them if they got too old. And this time you would build in some deliberate redundancy, if only just to handle the stress. One question was: Would the engine still work if you were aware of it, or if you were told how it actually functioned? Maybe this was one of the crucial differences between a story and a machine.

 

At first glance, from the novel's range and inclusiveness—for its reach—one is tempted to use the word encyclopedic in the sense of Pynchon, Joseph McElroy, or William Gaddis, but a better descriptor, for its interweaving of different, seemingly contradictory realities and its merger of discrete traditions and inflectional forms, would be syncretic. For here we have the working of a mind ranging free across the fragments of the world about it, turning those fragments this way and that, bending the light that shows through them.

Intuitive, associative, non-linear, rhythmic, disjunctive, and improvisational, the novel takes as much from the toolbox of poetry as from that of fiction.

As noted above, its structure is nominally tripartite, the sections subtitled "Then," "Right Now," and "Soon."

The first section, "Bracelets," is set in 1881, in a post-Civil War world in which the U.S. is divided into two nations and Pauline Claiborne, living in Virginia near the site of the Battle of the Crater, spins in her journal a science fiction tale set in the far future when another battle wages, this time against aliens. Kidnapped or rescued, she incorporates in her tale bits and threads of the world around her, including an imaginary young man from Massachusetts named Matthew. Narratives of her life take turns with passages from her story. And soon the two begin to bleed together, establishing the elaborate system of warrens and honeycombs that increasingly bolster the novel.

Part Two, "Three Visits to a Nursing Home," brings us Paul Park, writer and teacher, as he rambles about his home in Massachusetts and rummages about his mind while attending daily needs, a father in severe decline, an autistic sister. Park's deceased mother, Clara Claiborne Park, wrote nonfiction books about her family in which she gave her son the name Matthew. This section has Paul as both narrator and as subject of others' stories; it opens with yet another alternate text, one written by Paul for an art installation, and mortars in, alongside passages from his work, that of his students.

The final section, "Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance," follows Paul into a future U.S. depopulated by pandemics, the world about him in decay, its citizens withdrawn to sequestered communities and virtual realities. Paul tells us more of his mother, who grew up in Virginia, and of his extended family. Meanwhile he bides his time in a ruined library cobbling together books by extracting random passages from those written by family members. Is this the book we are reading? And in the concluding war scenes, are these aliens that we see moving across the landscape? Ghosts taken form? Or, as we began, figures of the imagination—and of whose?

 

*   *   *

 

As with all world-embracing art, both Nest of Worlds and All Those Vanished Engines are irreducible. Attempts at summary highlight single aspects of the novels—their cleverness, cerebrality, and ludic natures—while doing little to elicit the intense pleasures of sinking into them, the profound humanity at their hearts.

Just as we cobble together our lives from stories and bits of stories, from fading templates and scribbled maps often contradictory, with little coherence yet with strange crossovers, connections, and resonances, so it is with these novels. Both are meditations on the manner in which we do just that: on the choices we make as to what stories we adopt, and on how we employ them to guide our way from lamp post to lamp post, finally to educe in the half-light whatever meaning we may.

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