It is quite amazing that a novel which is so depressing and so negative has not only been read widely but is still consumed by many people today. Why? Nothing positive happens and even more, it paints a very bleak picture of a possible future. The same thing that happened to me must have happened to many people: I couldn't put it down and I can't tell you why. Perhaps George Orwell's mastery of storytelling is even more amazing than his talents for prognostication.
The year is 1984, ironically now in our past, and the entire world is split up into a very few totalitarian states. Never do we learn if in fact these states are ruled by a single dictator and to me that was part of the intrigue because you never quite know how everything works. An rather anonymous office worker by the name of Winston, in charge of forging the past, decides to keep a diary to note down all those facts and thoughts he wants to keep. We get the distinct feeling that Winston isn't sure himself if his memories are truly real and truly his own. Every external piece of evidence to a threatening past is constantly erased or changed. We follow him as he searches for true history and true facts and we learn how someone survives in a state where nothing you do is ever private and where paranoia is simply common sense.
The novel 1984 gives us a protagonist who has no hope, and more sadly: no apparent interest in a better future. He is not even sure if he can remember if there was such a thing as a better past. His main talent, and that thing which appears to drive us mostly in going along with his telling, is his desire to write down everything he experiences in the hopes of coming up with some explanation as to how the world ended up in such a mess. He is curious about what is happening to him and his world but he doesn't seem to have any inclination in changing it. We are told he does indeed want revolution but the true inspiration or insight isn't there. Instead he appears to be eternally searching for answers which he hopes will tell him: was I making the past up or was it really different?
I keep coming back to the central question: why do people read this novel with such great interest? It is not escapist literature in any sense and the book lacks every feel-good trope we've come to expect from works of fiction. Yet, with all the gloom and darkness we're fascinated as to what will happen next and we can't stop wondering how the somber world of Big Brother keeps on ticking.
It took me more than a month to read this novel, which is extremely long for me. Honestly I don't think the novel is all that bad, but it is certainly confusing and frustrating. Ironically the plot is clear and predictable after the first few pages of the second part, how it all plays out after that is a bit of a mess though.
A rebellious Venetian girl is shipped off to a local convent where she at least can't make any more trouble for her noble family. Inside the convent things go from bad to worse and pretty soon the innocent girl is sleeping with invited male 'customers' of the nuns. Quite predictably she gets pregnant by her dashingly interesting stranger. After some final altercations she manages to escape the convent and ends up in London as an actress and spy for hire. We then switch to the perspective (although not in first person) of 18th century master of the London dispensaries by the name of Valentine Greatrakes. A more unbelievable and silly name if I've ever seen. Intrigue ensues. Valentine falls for the actress who turns out to be related to this and the other, they hate each other, miss each other, try to find each other again and again and so on. If you like coincidences then this is one you'll like.
Characters are beyond flat and modeled after what the author thinks current gender stereotypes are, and then projected on 18th century templates. None of the characters is particularly likable, which is not a requirement for a good novel, but they should at least be interesting. Granted the period is rendered in vividly accurate detail, but then again that is what we expect these days from authors. Flat novels are unfortunately also something we've become to expect. The male characters are all single minded and only interested in carnal pleasures. Women are either stunningly graceful or beyond ugly and/or boring, all of them being eternal victims who might also be seen as strong if it weren't for the overwhelming victim mentality portrayed in this book by all female characters.
So then why did I read it? I'm a bit of a sucker for immersive novels, especially those taking place in exotic locations from exciting periods of history. In this particular novel the opening recipes for quack medicines added an additional touch to the text although you quickly find out that the subject of the recipes doesn't have much to do with the contents of the chapter. You know the author got things right, you don't know why specifically but you know. Both London and Venice feel real and appear to be quite genuinely depicted in the appropriate period settings.
All of the world descriptions and depictions work together well on the other hand many of infuriatingly little narrative details stand out and detract from the story. All the female character's chapters are in first person but not the male protagonist. One of the female characters, the daughter of Valentine's best friend Tom, is given a very small amount of chapters to add something useful to the narrative but those fragments make things more confusing than they already are. Supposedly this girl/woman/child is dense and quite selfish. Certainly the selfish part is consistent but if we have to believe the author she is far from stupid. If this is a deliberate touch then nowhere in the rest of the novel does it make sense or fit in.
You may have picked up a novel at random and after reading a few passages thought: how curious that I can recognize this author by his or her voice. It's true that we each of us have a unique and individual voice, not just in speaking but also in writing. We all use the same letters and words but somehow while organizing the pieces into something bigger we end up with our own personal representation, a unique part of ourselves. Through the pages of a book authors speak to us and no matter how convoluted the narrative or how impersonal a story, we can always hear the writer's voice. Sometimes we can even figure out an author's intentions or frustrations, sometimes the personal voice is so loud that it drowns out the story we're supposed to be reading. Perhaps The Tetherballs of Bougainville or any work by Ayn Rand or Chuck Palanhiuk work well as examples.
Now I could go on and on about writing styles and how we can identify an author by their writing and I could even show fragments of text and show why that particular piece is exemplary for that particular author. But what interests me more is how a certain style can help communication. Certain voices lend themselves very well for certain types of fiction. Mark Helprin's voice is extremely suitable for magical realism whereas Michael Crichton can do fast paced science-action as if it was his conversational voice. Immediately we think that it would have been quite difficult for Truman Capote to write something like Atlas Shrugged, or for Ayn Rand to write Other Voices, Other Rooms. But there might lie a twist because most authors have practices their craft for so long that they know intimately how other voices work. Ayn Rand started working as a script writer and editor in Hollywood where she had to imitate all the different narratives styles in vogue at the time. Both H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe made their basic income by writing pieces they would never have dreamed of creating in their own voices.
How does it work? Can it be done? Writing in different voices that is. How would it read? How would it change the way a story is communicated and does each voice make a piece of text better in a particular way? Let's take a somewhat neutral paragraph, a story fragment, and see what happens when we cast it in the mold of authors with very recognizable voices. Please, for your pleasure, examine the following paragraph first.
Roger opened the flap of his tent and grinned out into the blistering sunlight. He couldn't be more excited knowing that after so many months of searching and digging they would open King Ahknaten's tomb that morning. He would have been up early for a change if he hadn't found a couple of bottles of Glenlivet that evening, which the old fox had unsuccessfully stashed away in the base of a record player. Hastily he dressed himself performed an act somewhat resembling shaving and hurried out to the dig site stomping his feet into his boots. "Hullo!" he yelled, "everything ready?" "You're late again", Roger heard from the square black hole carved out of the rock thousands of years ago. "Am I? Did you open it yet?" Roger said. "And a good morning to you as well", replied Mary jostling with a bunch of rolled up documents past him. Roger had heard her but only barely. Still, he managed to perform a mock tip of the hat as he grinned and bustled past her into the dark passageway. "Anything?" he asked to nobody in particular since his eyes had not adjusted to the darkness yet. "Anything what?" he heard from somewhere in front of him, an annoyed voice he recognized to belong to Dr. Ballard. "Anything happen yet? Did you open the tomb? What was in it?" "You'd know if you had arrived about half an hour earlier" Disappointed Roger skulked against the wall. "Nothing then?" "Well it wasn't a complete waste, we did find a bunch of scrolls. Mary just took them outside for examination." "Really? Any idea what's on them?" "Yes, in fact the text is quite well preserved. Apparently it was a resignation letter by one of the workers who built this tomb, a rare thing to have happened back then. Ironically when we translated the name of the author it turned out that even back then the name Roger was quite common."
Let's assume for a second that the paragraph above was in a fairly neutral voice. It most likely is since I don't have one for myself yet. Alas. If you were scratching your head and thought: that's pretty much how Agatha Christie would have written it, then yes I think you are right in saying it's fairly Agathaesque, but it's not entirely her voice I would argue as we shall see. Now that we have a baseline text we can start to play around and reform the sentences with the help of some favorable muses from the past. Perhaps the opposite of any author living or dead was the writing by solipsistic misanthrope H.P. Lovecraft. So how would he have written this piece?
Through closed eyelids, the pallid young man could see the morning's bright sun's announcement beaming and penetrating directly into his weary skull. He forced himself to rise through the dense fog surrounding his head, his arms, legs and entire torso, slumbering still from the forces of inebriation spurned on by ever filling glasses of Scottish distillations the evening prior. A quick rake of the razor only dragged him inches further back into civilization and he felt himself forced to wade towards the tomb's opening with boots only partially put on. A vague felted and flapping shape waved past him clutching several ancient rolled scrolls of papyri "Please gather your step and report to the Doctor", the woman said as she hurried on out of the gaping prehistoric man-made wound, carved directly into the ancient granite. Head bowed down, avoiding the low rocks and granite beams recently uncovered, he stumbled further into the ever stretching darkness hoping for a glimpse of that which lies behind the long covered doors. "You might begin to see your way back out of this realm young Mr. Marston, if you would be so kind." A dark voice beamed out of the pit and blew past the man's face as if an elder God smote his wrath out over his body. He heard more: "You are late and missed the uncovering of the critically important central key stone a few hours past. But never you mind, it seems those who came before us, those many thousands of years ago understood your predicament better than I can comprehend in these dark hours. Mary there is taking what we found in for examination. Count yourself lucky, your predecessor, judging from those documents was embalmed and mummified on the spot when he failed to show up for his duties."
It's the same story but feels completely different. The content is the same for the most part and the plot is identical, but which works better? Perhaps a miserly Victorian hermit wasn't the right voice for this story. Perhaps a more contemporary voice can shed some light into the tomb's darkness. How about someone like J.K. Rowling, how would see have handled this piece?
"Roger!" Shouted Mary, "Roger!".
Bounding out of the narrow square entrance of the tomb Mary tried to hold a bundle of old looking scrolls in her arms.
"Roger, you'll never believe what we found!" she yelled panting and hurrying through the jumble of tents. Roger could barely open his eyes, he still felt sleepy from having consumed perhaps a little too much alcohol the previous evening. Mary had so warned him about that, but here he was anyway, completely exhausted still and perhaps a little under the influence of last night's feast. "Roger Roger, you must see this!" Mary shouted practically rolling into Roger's tent spilling the old papery bits all over his bed. Mary had been very excited the last couple of days as they knew they had started to get closer and closer to the Pharaoh's tomb.
"Look Roger, it has your name on it", she said holding up one of the pieces of parchment.
"My name? How silly that would be, of course it doesn't have my name on it."
"No seriously, it says it right here. Look, the Ibis with the two staffs on either side." Mary sighed and wondered how much attention Roger had been paying during the last series of lectures back at the institute. The flap to Roger's tent was folded open again this time to reveal and old gentleman with a white beard, round glasses and a mischievous smile on his face. "Mary's right", he said, "it does have your name on it and apparently the Roger back then was also fired."
So there, we now have three completely different pieces of story each with a different voice. Do they work for the mini stories? What's in there, what makes them unique and recognizable? Ironically Agatha Christie novels tend to have extremely neutral language. Each sentence is in a way a play on facts. Christie wasn't an unemotional person at all, even though thinking of her writing might make it appear such. Her character's emotional life did not spring however from the minute ebbs and eddies of feelings that occur minute by minute. Christie's characters were impacted by big events such as a loved one being murdered or gross injustice wreaking havoc on a family for years and years. This opposed to J.K. Rowling's writing, which is a subtle yet continues flow of hyperboles. Lovecraft in that sense has more in common with Agatha Christie although you would get a Lovecraft story if you took out all human elements.
Rowling uses smaller more basic words and sentences. You may get the feeling that a narrator is telling the story to you and that would explain why the Harry Potter audiobooks are so incredibly popular. Lovecraft is the complete opposite and only those with a math or science background seem to enjoy his writing. Christie falls somewhere in the middle again. She never really wrote action pieces and you will not see any people hastily running from here to there. Rowling does that everywhere. Lovecraft tended to use run-on sentences and some of those could even span entire paragraphs. By the end of it you've read so many long nocturnal words that you're convinced the contents must be scary as hell.
You probably noticed that some of the content has been adjusted to suit the authors. For example Lovecraft only incorporated women only extremely rarely in his books. Chances are you would have rejected the narrative altogether if the stories were strict translations, perhaps they would not even have been recognizable as coming from those authors. For example J.R. Rowling would never have ended the story on a bad note without having given lots and lots of proof that the bad guys really are the bad guys. There is no ambiguity in Harry Potter. Quite the opposite is true for Agathe Christie. After the current ending the story could go in various different directions. But was that due to the voice or the contents?
If we stick to the definition that an author's voice is a preference for certain sentence structures, certain word orderings let's say then it becomes difficult to assume that the voice drives the story. Perhaps it is better to say that the voice enhances the topics chosen by authors and their voices fit their favorite themes. We're back at corroborative detail, those wonderful little pieces of information sprinkled all throughout a story that establish the reality of a story. Maybe an author's voice is another means by which writers can convey the validity of the internal rules of their fictional world? Perhaps I used the word 'rules' too lightly. Rules can restrict a creative work tremendously, so instead let's use the word 'consistency'. Being consistent is also perhaps a better way to describe an author's voice. It is not the specific choice of sentence arrangements but also being consistent throughout a novel.
When I first read The Crying of Lot 49 I thought: well at least an author has found a way to dazzle us with language enough that we don't immediately figure out we're dealing with a cry for attention (a lot). Of course then you read Portnoys Complaint and The Tetherballs of Bougainville and you realize this is common practice. Most of the time there is something to be had in such novels that makes the reading worth while. In Lot 49 there is an interesting plot and in Portnoy we learn much more about mother-son and other family relationships. In Tetherballs we get absolutely nothing but the raw cry for attention by an author. Before we've figured this out we've gone through countless litanies of objects, people, places, situations, and anything else you can list or recite.
It's supposed to be funny, and it is for the first fifteen pages or so, but then the constant use of 'clever' metaphors, interlinked symbols, inappropriately yet sophisticated sexual remarks and blatantly in-your-face physicality eventually wears you out. There is a somewhat detectable plot line somewhere and it does seem to involve some of the main characters but it doesn't really matter much. It's not about them, it's about the author. Of course the author himself is clever enough to understand we eventually figure that out. He therefore included a review about his own book/plot in which he explains how self-gratifying his own writing is. Clever, but it doesn't fix much. By then the damage is done.
How does it all work? What I mean by that is, what's the literary device employed here that makes us read this text without wanting to yell at the author? There seems to be a basic rule in public speaking and entertainment that if you want to say something important that people remember, then you have to say it in all seriousness. If on the other hand if you want to say something important and have people pay attention, then you need to say it with humor. In fact if you say anything funny you can make people overlook any offensive content or direct insults you wish to hide. Most stand-up comedians are living proof of this principle. Even though a lot of the content in Tetherballs isn't actually funny, it sounds funny, or we know it should be funny. That keeps our emotional brain busy enough to not see the forest through the trees.
Essentially Mark Leyner is writing about himself. He's writing about all his frustrations, desires, needs and urges. For Leyner it is not enough to weave his own needs into an intricate story with many vivid characters that each evolve and come to grips with the maddening world around them. No, Leyer quite literally screams at us through his words. I find it difficult to label any book or novel offensive because you can always decline to read it. I also find it difficult to call a novel manipulative, because we all know they are and we all willingly participate. So I wouldn't call Tetherballs offensive or manipulative because I willingly read it and I never fell for the surface text. I will call the novel sad though.
For ages now I've been trying to figure out why novels like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell and The Historian work so well. Although the events and characters in those books are interesting, it can't really be said that 'and then ...' events play out. Most readers would even describe The Historian as having a disappointing ending. Why then are so many people excited about these books? My only conclusion is that the specific language used is incredibly enticing. Granted, the amount of environmental detail and the renderings of places and events are superbly rendered, but those are not what keeps everyone reading. There must be something else that keeps readers glued to their books.
Narratively rich books aren't a new thing, we've seen them come by for ages. Novels like Winter's Tale or anything by Neal Stephenson revolve mainly around detailed depictions of wonderful surroundings and colorful people. I could list many more stories where essentially nothing happens but where we're driving to keep on going. So why single out Jonathan Strange and The Historian? It seems that those books were specifically designed to engage and immerse readers rather than to drive then forward towards a conclusion. How does it work? What alchemical methods of writing are at work here? Here's a short excerpt from Jonathan Strange:
An elderly gentleman with faint blue eyes and faintly-coloured clothes (called either Hart or Hunt - Mr Segundus could never quite catch the name) faintly said that it did not matter in the least whether any body expected it or not. A gentleman could not do magic.. Magic was what street sorcerers pretended to do in order to rob children of their pennies. Magic (in the practical sense) was much fallen off. It had low connexions. It was the bosom companion of unshaven faces, gypsies, house-breakers; the frequenter of dingy rooms with dirty yellow curtains. Oh no! A gentleman could not do magic. A gentleman might study the history of magic (nothing could be nobler) but he could not do any. The elderly gentleman looked with faint, fatherly eyes at Mr Segundus and said that he hoped Mr Segundus had not been trying to cast spells.
I find it difficult to really put my finger on precisely why this works so well but I do see a couple of patterns. First of all the text is written to be narrated, meaning to be read out loud. Normally when we read a novel the voice telling the story is neutral. Instead, you, the reader, voices the narration and you add your own inflections and colour. In Jonathan Strange the author has almost explicitly added certain inflections and tone and done so in very clever way to entice us to read the text as if someone other than ourselves narrates or voices the story. Some might be uncomfortable by this and read the text as if they are being treated like a small child, and I can empathize with that, there is a certain 'being spoken to' sensation as you work through the text.
But there is more going on. This fictional novel takes place around the beginning of the 19th century. We can tell that by the use of words such as 'connexions'. Other smaller bits of text here and there gives us hints that we're not quite talking the here and now but notice how we're not reading pure Victorian prose either. Historical references and customs such as language use has been glossed over and polished while at the same time not losing that sense of reading dated fiction. We could combine the the text is historically treated with the first observation that the language has been chosen to sound narrated. In both cases the choice of words and the sentence construction is deliberately smooth and mellifluous.
As a final observation I would like to point out that the narrative contains a rather rapid wavering back and forth between various emotions. Not that other stories are that balanced, we wouldn't read them if they didn't take us on an emotional voyage. But in this small piece of text we're thrown back and forward quite a lot in short succession. We see something similar in the Historian, which at least in the beginning replaces the deliberate narrator's voice with an unfortunate chicklit tone. Luckily that sensation disappears after a few chapters. Take a look at the excerpt below:
At this point, my sense of guilt—and something else, too—made me put the letter hastily back in its envelope, but I thought about it all that day and all the next. When my father returned from his latest trip, I looked for an opportunity to ask him about the letters and the strange book. I waited for him to be free, for us to be alone, but he was very busy in those days, and something about what I had found made me hesitate to approach him. Finally I asked him to take me on his next trip. It was the first time I had kept a secret from him and the first time I had ever insisted on anything.
If we look at the very first sentence we could split it into: Guilt-Uncertainty-Fear-Pensiveness, and in that order. The effect this has is that we look to the author to give us guidance as to how we should actually think and feel about the text. The Historian is a historical novel and that was a clever choice because it allows the author to fall back on hard facts when this constant wavering gets too much and we can slip back into emotional overtones when the amount of historical detail becomes too much. I've noticed that in The Historian those two states are kept fairly separate, something Dan Brown doesn't do as sophisticated in his novels. In The Historian we also see the same language mechanisms outlined for Jonathan Strange and both novels feel eerily similar and only differ in the context and subject of the story.
There must be much more going on in the two chosen stories than the points I mentioned here but they are not as easy to nail down and describe. In fact they raise more questions than provide answers. For example in Jonathan Strange entire episodes from known history are rewritten to suit the narrative without anyone complaining that it didn't happen that way. How was that lack of expectation setup? It can't be the fact that you know it's a novel about magic, since many films and novels have reams of people who go into detailed rants about what's wrong with it.
To finish off I would like to add a small final observation and, which might be completely insignificant. It is that both novels were written by women. It could be that I haven't done a better examination and that I should add Neal Stephenson and Mark Helprin to balance things out but it does make me curious because there are a lot more distinctions between the male version of these types of narratives and the female versions of the same.
Stephen Fry made the right decisions. There's no denying it, with this novel, Fry made the right decisions about how his characters should behave and why. In any other fictional narrative, authors would have chosen the widely worn path and turned this story into shite. Not Fry, and let me explain how he has accomplished this. We meet a lot of typical Brits and one obvious American right at the beginning. A pretty school girl working at the Hard Rock cafe, a closeted fake upper class tosser by the name of Ashley who's diary in public school causes a tremendous amount of trouble later on, and Ned the stereo typical all-round good guy who you instantly hate because there's nothing to loathe. Guess who will be the victim, the helpless supporter and the antagonist? Through a curious and extremely coincidental set of circumstances Ned is framed for a crime has no knowledge of. He lands in an island based insane asylum and is slowly being convinced he made up his entire former life. Until he meets Babe. This old Socrates/Darwin/Richard Harris type personage helps Ned to reconstruct his life, his ego and his belief in himself. Ned is also taught several languages, problem solving skills, literature, etc, etc. When Babe passes away Ned uses the opportunity to flee from the prison asylum and setup a new life with the massive fortune Babe had 'appropriated' from various government schemes in his former life as a spy. From this point there is only one thing on Ned's mind: Revenge.
Granted this novel is a direct re-telling of the famous The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Unlike that famous romanticized adventure novel Fry's version is a bit darker and nastier. The characters are still very much over the top and the events are appropriately Baroque. But even with the inwardly shallow characters, the predictable romance and the obvious supporting cast there is something grand to be gleaned here. Dumas and every other author or film writer who has ever re-worked the story always chose to end the novel with some sort of reconciliation something good to take home. In Cristo the main character changes slowly after his escape from prison, he realizes there is still hope for a happy life and he makes peace with his past. That's the same idiocy as for example the psychopath Dexter turning into a lovable likable character the longer the tv show continues to run.
Of course that's not how these stories should end and Fry knows it. Characters learn and adapt but they don't change from saints to madman and back again. Ned acts and lives out his life as he would have and should have. It is both the best part of the novel as well as its weakness. To say it in a different way: the retribution and satisfaction achieved by the main character in Dumas' original is what sold the book and what made it famous, it is also what prevents Fry's version from becoming a classic of the same stature. I will leave it at that and have the reader find out how the story ends.
Stephen Fry is well known for his love of language. He lives in it, bathes in it and dresses in it. The fact that he creates in it is an unfortunate side effect. There is so much emphasis on Wilderesque language and anagrammatic stunts that some plot elements can become quite ridiculous. Coincidence is what drives the twists in this story. Unlike Dumas' version where events appear unusual but not unlikely, Fry's version leaps over the edge of the fantastic. It is the use of language that tips us off to perhaps Fry's personal reasons for creating this story. Knowing the fascination Fry has with Oscar Wilde, one has to wonder if perhaps this retelling is a way for the author to take his own personal revenge on those who incarcerated Wilde. Certain facts and characters that were changed from Cristo to Revenge can be seen as Wildish modifications. The character of Ashley for example stands out as such. In the end the balance of strange plot twists, shallow characters but persistent and believable human behavior is in Fry's favor. He has delivered an intriguing and pleasant read that is highly entertaining.
As a bit of a diversion from the regular vampire lore, in The Servant of the Bones by Anne Rice we are taken to the hay days of a crowed chaotic Babylon. At times rambling on in non-essential dialogue this story is rich in detail and character development not to mention vivid descriptions of places and people long past. A very long time ago a young boy sacrifices himself for the Jewish community in Babylon under the impending rule of King Cyrus. His reward is to live forever on as a powerful spirit neither completely alive and certainly not dead. Passed on from master to master Azriel eventually ends up in modern day New York where he becomes a pivotal component in the plan of a mad mastermind set on bringing about his version of the End of Days.
Before all that however we travel with Azriel and we see through his eyes the world as it once was. All this we are told by Azriel himself as he re-told it to Jonathan a writer who trapped himself for the winter in a remote lodge surrounded by miles of snow. The setup of an old tired spirit telling his life's story to a listener who has the power to write it all down appropriately is perhaps not a novel one, but it certainly works in this case. Although the story starts out very slowly with lots of re-starts, as Azriel puts in more and more detail, right around the middle of the novel things start to pick up and accelerate towards the ending.
After thousands of years of being immortal and mostly omnipotent, Azriel is confronted with a situation he can't change. He can't prevent the death of a young girl, something we later read has many more personal repercussions for our 'hero' dead or alive. The more he tries the less he seems to have a grip on his physical world around him and he can't prevent those around him he cares about to not perish at the hands of baser minds. Or can he? We are treated here to a well thought out and well told story on humanity as experienced by a being far from human. At times dragging on and at times too fantastical for its context, this novel his highly entertaining and engrossing.
Once a great promise is handed to the reader in the first utterances of a text it must be fulfilled, even if it does turn out to be a threat. If the author promises suspense then we must find ourselves suspended. If a mystery is insinuated then a reveal is in order. Failing to do so can render an otherwise brilliant book disappointing. In Mister B. Gone by Clive Barker we have such a problem. From the very first page, and from then on every other page, we are informed we are going to regret reading the story and that we must burn the book immediately. We will not even reach the end of the text because we will find out how the demon addressing us has come to be captured in our particular copy and how that might have consequences for us. A bold statement you think. Everyone knows the text can't harm us but we might at least expect a remarkable tale that explains how this all came to be. The point the first person author tries to make is completely wasted since It would be equally silly to claim King Kong will snatch us from our theater seats because he can see us trembling from beyond the white screen. Yet every page of this novel plays upon this very concept, the repetition of which becomes annoying. Then again all this is told by a demon and perhaps that's what they do down there.
It must be said that Barker is a good storyteller with a rich and rather disturbing imagination. Especially the first chapters where our protagonist demon is dragged from the ninth level of damnation up to our own not so innocent plateau is rendered quite believably. But do we feel sorry for the young abused demon? Or should we not care since this innocent victimized character behaves just as abominable as you might expect? Barker creates constant confusion as to how we should regard about the characters and their fates. The result is that by the time we arrive at the much anticipated ending we don't care either way and we find we've focused mainly on narrative. As in: the interesting events and tidbits from a brief alternative history. Clive Barker is rather good at this weaving of facts and fictions and it is the immersive properties of the story that makes the book worth the read.
There is one aspect of the book that is rather excruciating and unnecessary, besides the broken promise that is. If you happen to buy the book new, then at first you might think the pages are made from recycled paper and that the publisher had made the wonderful decision to cast the book in the same disheveled fabric as the story. There are some subtle markings on the paper that suggest a slight burning or careless disuse. To my utter astonishment I realized that these blemishes and paper discolorations were the effect of the printing process and effectively every page contains a background image roughly repeated every 4 pages.
Recently I watched a few old movies that represent my fascination with Hollywood. You could say they were the inspiration on why I wanted to work there. Not so much anymore but that's a different story. Recently I figured out that there's a new strange flip side to the way we are able to portray fictionalized reality in film. It doesn't work anymore. In the late 80s when special effects started to mature, but when it was all still real-life monsters in rubber suits, we were scared by rubber puppets that looked incredibly monstrous but we could always tell they were fake. Somehow there was some comfort in that. We tried to make it as real as possible but there was always an edge we could not get beyond. Fake always looked fake but perhaps it looked fake in its own special way.
Let's take what is perhaps the quintessential example: the movie The Thing. Ironically they're making a prequel so we'll see how my analysis holds up when the film comes out. One major leap forward in special make-up effects in this horror film from 1982 was the notion of abstract creatures. Nowhere in the film can the makers be accused of using a man in a rubber suit. Even the rubber puppet approach isn't really apparent here. But still, even though the effects are monstrous and horrific, we're never fooled by them. This is not because they do not look ultra-realistic but because there's a style to them enforced by the materials and techniques used.
This all changed with the advent of computer graphics. Nowadays anything is possible, but more importantly we're now in a situation where there is no more discernible signature in the picture. There isn't a cue anymore that tells our brain what we're seeing isn't real. Our mind knows this and we don't believe for a moment were watching an actual creature, but what we see is many times more disturbing because the images we see now either lack all markers that we're watching something fake, or they contain all the triggers that tell us it's real. Which is which and is that important?
Recently I watched the movie Splice, which is both a movie about what it means to be human and about how we treat other people we see as different. Contemporary horror movies impact us in a completely different way. With the new techniques in visual effects we can strip away another layer of comfort and can show anything in explicit detail. If we can show anything does that mean we should show everything? Nothing we can imagine we can't show and perhaps we can now imagine more because we know we can show it. Maybe the film The Human Centipede is an example of this. If we can visualize anything we think of, does that still mean everything has the same impact value as before? For example, since we knew everything was clearly fake in the film The Thing, we used our imagination to fill in the blanks. If imagination isn't necessary anymore because everything is rendered in explicit, and where possible accurate detail, then our brain doesn't have to add anything and will take what is given 'an sich' or at face value.
This is not generally a problem until you realize that the biggest added value to entertainment is what you bring to the table yourself. If we can't interpret or add by our imagination then it doesn't matter how explicit or realistic the visual detail is, we can't do anything with it. When I watched Splice I felt exactly that. I could not do anything with the visual information presented. I only felt repulsed by what I saw, even when the visuals represented what was supposed to be an alluring female physique. Even the fact that the film makers combined aspects of animal and human features didn't make much difference to the impact, it was what it was and there was nothing to add or interpret.
Fairy tales are usually for kids, but not this one. The Witch's Boy a dark story about what happens when humans explore all of their horrible human ways is part bildungsroman, part fable and part a commentary on human behavior. Or perhaps a better description is that the novel is a rich set of observations on the contradictory nature of human behavior. None of the characters are completely good as we normally see in fairy tales, but there's something human in all of them. Not all of the evil characters are truly bad, which is also a well known trope of this genre. That doesn't mean the novel is a bad mix of everything, it is a well crafted and satisfying story. We learn about an ugly boy who is found in the forest by a witch. We learn nothing about the boy's background and all we know is that even as a baby the boy is ugly as sin. No matter how ugly and revolting the boy is and no matter how much the old witch hates the outside world, she can not resist but take the boy in and nurture him. In this task she is assisted by a large bear, a smartass cat and a demon.
In rapid succession the boy, is adopted mother and everyone around them are flung through a rapid series of experiences that each teaches them about their roles in life and the harsh reality we all have to learn to cope with. Only at the very beginning do we think nothing is different from any other fairy tale. Lump however starts off as an innocent little boy, who through circumstances transforms into the ogre he thinks he looks like and after which everything ends unsuspectingly appropriately (although not happily ever after). The exact same can be said of all the other characters, they exist in what feels like a real world where everything makes perfect sense without the fairy tale perfection. Even though the world is fantastical and anything can happen, Michael Gruber instills his characters with such humanity that we can understand the bad choices they make when under the irresistible influence of magic or the impossible to cope with struggles of human existence.
Interwoven will all the magical bravura are numerous references to well known fairy tale stories. Famous characters from stories like Hansl and Gretl or Pinocchio make their appearance but in slightly different ways then we expect them to, which adds another layer of depth to the story another unexpected aspect for us to take in as readers. All this is in aide of an author who shows us that things don't always turn out the way we expect them to, but that those endings are perhaps more satisfying then if everything turned out perfectly. The story deals with loss, love, beauty and its repercussions, jealousy, power and the many disappointments we all deal with throughout our lifetimes. Quite a lofty goal to pack into a novel but Gruber pulls it off splendidly. If you're not afraid of a book that plays with established stereotypes and if you're willing to suspend your belief that good is always perfect and bad is always evil, then you will be highly satisfied with this read.