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.

No comments: