Tuesday, June 30, 2009

July 5, 2009: Three novellas by Michel Faber

The reviewer who recommended Michel Faber to me (based on liking "The Observations" by Jane Harris) deserves a medal. This is what reviews are for. Not for coming up with the most exquisite, wittysnarkycool turns of phrase - this may be my rationalizing my poor writing as of late - but for discovering joy and sharing it with others. I am filled with joy. So: Medal. An imaginary one, alas; I'm no medalsmith, but I'm sure you can picture something sufficiently shiny.

The recommendation, technically, was for "The Crimson Petal and the White," which is next on my list of books after a short detour into Neil Gaiman's "Interworld." (Verdict: Not entirely my style, but readable. Might work better filmed, like the author's note suggested was the original plan.) I cheated; I read the first page, or part of it, and those were some of the most compelling paragraphs I remember. There's a definite voice there. A voice I look forward to revisiting after how damn good the stories in "The Courage Consort" were.

This requires some clarification. Faber's novellas are arranged in a number of different permutations in several different volumes. I'm a bit limited by our local library's selection. Yes, there's inter-library loan, but still. The volume I have contains The Courage Consort, The 199 Steps, and The Fahrenheit Twins. The first two are novellas; the third is more of a short story, which puts a few thorns into my reading-X-amount-of-books-per-year plan (do I count it as one book? Two? Three? A fraction, someho?)

While I'm handing out imaginary medals, a nice opalescent one goes to the person who designed the cover of my copy. Yes, I know, don't judge books by their cover, but I'm sure the anonymous author of that proverb did. As do I. Half the reason I was drawn to (and remain drawn to) What Bird's album "Good Night, Good Riddance" was the gorgeous nighttime cover, not neonized or anything, just soft lights. This cover's much the same. A dark sky, caught at the moment between sunset and full night, and a couple treetops. It's a picture to read everything into.


The Courage Consort is both the title story and the one that originally drew me in. It's about a chorus, after all, and an elite one. These sorts of things fascinate me. I've harbored dreams about auditioning for such groups, but of course they're dreams.

In part, it's a character study; the group has gone away to a chateau to practice the avant-garde "Partitum Mutante" (which may or may not be a pun name) The members of the Consort, if you scrape away all the characterization, do fall under the classic choral types: you have the lusty contralto, hotheaded tenor, nonchalant bass, and protagonist soprano. But that isn't really fair to them. They have layers and they have backstories.

The problem is, they don't really know this. When they first travel to the chateau, they sit as far apart from each other as they can, not speaking, aware of themselves as biographies but less so as people. Even Roger and Catherine Courage, who are married, are a bit distant. This doesn't last. Place five characters alone in a semi-isolated place, and tension happens. The nice thing is that it doesn't play out how you expect. It's not sordid, exactly (although Julian sure does his best). It's more muted, suited more to sitting on porches hours after nightfall, listening to folk songs centuries after they were written, with a person you know and will know next to nothing about.

But it's more than that; it poses questions of life and purpose. Catherine begins the story on her window ledge, too listless to jump. The author's described the events of the book as her rebirth, her emerging once more into live. You can't really credit it all to Partitum Mutante. The consort's piece purports to be about grandeur and Eden and rebirth, but the more we learn about this, the more ridiculous it gets. (The scene with the video backdrop is fairly hilarious.) And Catherine hears a cry from the woods that could be a sign of life, if only she knew what it was. The cry is never quite resolved -- there are hints, though -- but by the end, she's reached some sort of life. I want to hear the final scene sung; it'd be heart-stopping, I suspect.


Then there's The 199 Steps, probably my favorite of the three. I mentioned atmosphere, and the story is absolutely steeped in it. It's set in Whitby, after all,
the town that inspired Dracula and, at least in spirit, a host of other novels. Even Sian, the outwardly no-nonsense main character, is beholden to this sort of atmosphere; she sees herself in these novels, at least briefly, and she constructs a world out of the blocks of history, of nuns and self-denial, of nightmares and strangulation. There's a mysterious, vaguely dangerous man who shows up, and a murder mystery, and the 199 steps that tower above everything, by day and by night.

This sort of atmosphere really isn't healthy to steep oneself in, even though it's undoubtedly the draw of the story. Nightmares about murder are nightmares about murder no matter how much of a romantic patina they have. Fortunately, the story's subversion of such atmosphere is just as compelling and life-affirming. And I'm deliberately not saying much about it. Just read it.


The book jacket claims "The Fahrenheit Twins" is a Hansel and Gretel story, but it's really got more in common with Genesis. It's a tale of independence, at heart, and what exactly that entails. Twins Tainto'lilith and Marko'cain (there's the Bible already) are isolated from the entire world, raised by their parents Boris and Una Fahrenheit on the Arctic island of Ostrov Providenya. Their parents don't spend much time with them; they much prefer "unlocking" the "secrets" of a nearby settlement as if they're Xbox achievements. So they've created their own world, complete with disturbing rituals. Think Lord of the Flies without the cruelty (yes, I assure you, that's possible to think.)

Oh, and they recently learned about puberty and are horrified at the prospect of their bodies changing. If you're anything like me, you are already cringing at the subtext. The story doesn't skimp on it, either. The turning point, after all, happens when they fall asleep together in a bed, above a portrait of their mother with a man, and if it seems like I'm deliberately distorting things, I promise I'm not. It's all there in the text.

But that's not all that's there in the text. In the centuries-old tradition of fairy tales (traditional, Disney and otherwise), their mother dies. In the less-old tradition of "As I Lay Dying," they go to bury her. Things do not go quite as planned. Again, just read it.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

June 18, 2009: Timothy Findley - Pilgrim

To Kessler it seemed that two wind-blown angels had tumbled down from heaven and were moving towards the steps. The figures of these angels now stood in momentary disorientation, reaching out with helpless arms towards one another through windy clouds of snow, veils, shawls and scarves that altogether gave the appearance of large unfolded wings.

In case you somehow didn't know, there are a lot of novels out there. For someone who likes to read but cannot make decisions, this isn't good. When I was in elementary school picking out books wasn't a problem at all. I thought I'd be like Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, going down the library shelves one by one until I read everything in there. This is a lot less intimidating at a small private school. I didn't read them all, but I'm sure I got through more than, say, a third by the time I transferred out. It'd be nice if I could bring myself to do this again.

The other problem is that there's something about book jacket blurbs that just seems to repel me. It's not always like this. There are a few subjects that can pretty reliably hook me (sopranos, fairies and dystopias, for instance. That would be amazing: a fairy dystopia with lots of singing. Or maybe it'd be an opera if I could compose opera. Which I can't. If you're reading this and you're a composer, get on it and I'll be your biggest fan.)

But most of the blurbs out there trot out stories about family reconciliation or father-son bonding or whatnot. There have been timeless stories written about these things, but laid out on a blurb of a book I've never heard of, it all seems like the shell of a writing exercise.

So in order for me to read something, I need a hook. It doesn't matter what. A good deal of my reading choices are leeched off other people's blogs. Some come from reviews, Amazon recommendations, and the like. The Guardian posts an excellent Top 10 Books series which has provided quite a few. If I find an author I like I'll be loyal to him or her, but that requires a starting point.

To my knowledge, only one book "recommendation" came from song lyrics: Timothy Findley's "Not Wanted on the Voyage," from a Christine Fellows song. If her taste in books was anything like her taste in music, I figured, I must like it. And I did, to say the least. But the novel completely, completely changes the song from quirky and irreverent to downright haunting.

There weren't that many books by him at our library, which isn't surprising considering he's best known in Canada. Of what they had, Pilgrim seemed most interesting. And I'm impressed, again.

This is a big book, not in the sense of pages (although it'd make a pretty good doorstopper) but in the sense of scope. You have lots and lots of characters in the main story and so many more in Pilgrim's journals. The premise: The protagonist, Pilgrim, is admitted to the Burgholzi Psychiatric Clinic after he attempts suicide but fails. Eventually, he becomes the patient of Carl Jung. Pilgrim, as he calls himself, claims to be immortal, not by choice but by circumstance. He's kept journals of all the people he's met during his lifetime: Henry James, Leonardo da Vinci and Oscar Wilde, to name a few. Some are as they are in real life. Many are monsters. But despite all the atrocities he's seen, he can't escape; something won't let him. In one of the more chilling scenes, he wakes up from a dream about World War I, which hasn't happened yet. He dreams up trenches and airplanes and all the horrors the world has yet to see, and he knows he must witness those, too.

There's a hook there that I wasn't really anticipating. One of my friends is convinced that within his lifetime, scientists will have achieved immortality with nanotechnology. (I'm really skeptical of this, but that's beside the point.) He couldn't wait; in fact, he was afraid governments would outlaw it and he'd have to find it on the black market. There'd be no dying then, no rushing to accomplish things to soon, no being behind.

That's the positive side of it. But I'd never want to be immortal, I told him. It's something with no escape clause. If there's an apocalypse, would you want to be around for the aftermath? It's a weak argument, sure, and quoting a fictional book as argument isn't much better, but I imagine Pilgrim would have some things to say on the matter.

Of course, the book's equally about Carl Jung. He's certainly characterized - masterfully so, I'd say - but he isn't the most compelling character to me. This has everything to do with my own memories and probably nothing to do with Findley's book, but I found Tatiana Blavinskeya, the ballerina who thinks she's an expatriate from the Moon, to be infinitely more compelling, along with her nurse Dora Henkel. Her sections have some of the prettiest prose, and it's fitting; her existence might as well be carved out of crystal. She dresses in her old ballet costumes, all taffeta and wisps. And then there's Dora, wispier still, in love with the Moon and with her. It's all romanticized, yes, but if you've ever felt like a body is a useless lump and you'd much rather be a breeze or a painted picture, there's something quite beautiful to it all. The Countess does have a backstory - a rather sad one - and her story arc is both inevitable and absolutely heartbreaking.

A nitpick: Towards the end, the book turns into what's almost a crime caper, rather suddenly. It has a definite point, but it's still a bit jarring. This is minor, though.

Also, there's apparently an opera based on the book. My first reaction is that the characters are all wrong. This is about as knee-jerk as knee-jerk can get, though, and the creators clearly have a better sense of the book than I do. So there you go.