Friday, November 7, 2014

Works & Days

In the midst of various mundane tasks, such as working toward tenure and preparing for a coming baby, I've had little opportunity to post lately, but, naturally, I've continued to write and to paint. If I didn't do these things I would swiftly find myself in the Slough of Despond. In the past I've tended to be a single-focus kind of person, and this lifestyle of getting up early, painting and/or writing, going to work (until nine p.m. a couple days out of the week), then coming home, spending time with the fam if possible, and staying up late to paint and/or write again, does not come natural to me. Somehow, though, I feel that if I were under less pressure and had more free time, I would get less done, not more.

In the midst of all of this I have found some time to read. I recently finished Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun, and, surprisingly, was somewhat disappointed by it. I've read his Book of the New Sun avidly several times, and have written about it once or twice, but somehow Long Sun never really clicked with me.

For one thing, the plot moved forward at a glacial pace, reminding me of those anxiety dreams where you're about some task but nothing seems to get anywhere, and strange, irrelevant events happen for no reason at all, leading you further and further from your goal. It's written in an elliptical style – and this style is one of the things I love about Gene Wolfe – but I didn't feel like the parts really coalesced. The fourth and final volume just kind of falls apart, with long, long scenes where people ramble and ruminate and discuss and seem to forget what they were talking about, separated by scenes of action that are hinted at but not shown. The gaps get longer and longer, as though Mr. Wolfe were under contract to write four volumes but found the story stretching beyond these limits, as can easily happen.

Another thing that made it a difficult read was the constantly shifting viewpoint. Half the third volume is spent shifting to and from a party of people wandering around in dark tunnels without much happening in each scene. The book has a tremendous number of characters (there's a catalog of proper names) and I had a hard time keeping track of who was who, partly because I went a number of months between volumes two and three. The whole thing has a rather Dickensian feel, as opposed to the Melvillesque feel of New Sun. It reminded me a bit of David Copperfield or Bleak House or something like that.

The world of the Whorl is certainly an intriguing one to explore. That's what really sustained me through to the end, I think. It's a generation ship, but it's unclear how much the people inside it, who live in a Balkanized assortment of city-states, really understand or guess. The slow revelation of the Whorl's true nature is what makes the book an interesting read, but it closes without a clear resolution or elucidation, not even elliptical. New Sun closes with all lines converging upon an as-yet unrealized point; Long Sun just seems to end with a big splat. But then again, possibly I just need to read it again. It's quite possible that I'm simply missing the point.

The protagonist, Patera Silk, begins as a priest in the official pagan religion, dutifully obedient to the pantheon of AI gods that preside over the Whorl, but is enlightened and increasingly drawn to the Outsider, whose identity I'll let you guess. The details of life in his "manteion" are drawn from the life of the Catholic parish priest. Aside from the whole blood-sacrifice thing, he could be my own parish priest, who inhabits a tiny set of rooms at the back of the parish office with a temporary parochial vicar, and works with three sisters (our sibyls) who live in a house a block away and run a center that provides tutoring to at-risk students. Anyway, Silk is an interesting, charismatic character, who falls in love with and marries a shallow, unfaithful, somewhat cruel narcissist. Strange.

Mr. Wolfe's next series, The Book of the Short Sun, apparently continues the narrative to some extent, but sounds like it has a style more closely approaching that of New Sun, so I suspect I'll like it more. I've tried to find it in used bookstores, to no avail.

On the reading-books-out-loud front, I'm currently working through George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin with my kids. I always use my four-year-old daughter to gauge our books, because if she's interested then she'll soak the story up like a sponge and be able to repeat every minor detail weeks or months afterward, but if she finds it boring (which is to say, incomprehensible), then she just squirms around and makes trouble and can't recall anything afterward. Well, Princess is definitely a hit. My son is also into it. The "scary" chapters simply terrify them (naturally, I ham it up a bit), and the other night I had to spend time comforting my son as I tucked him in, because our chapter had ended with the hero, Curdie the miner boy, locked in a room with an arrow wound and a high fever. So you see, it's very real to them.

It has me thinking. I've mentioned that we read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe over the summer, and both my kids loved it. My daughter remembers all these crazy little details that we haven't talked about since. And she was the White Witch for Halloween. (Obviously she wasn't going to be someone boring like Lucy or Susan.) My son was Curdie, pick-ax and all. They chose their costumes for themselves, so clearly these books in particular have made an impression.

But Prince Caspian and Voyage of the Dawn Treader? Meh. I've made it no secret that I've never cared for Prince Caspian, but Voyage was definitely one of my favorite books when growing up. The reading level is higher than Wardrobe, one might argue, but I personally don't see a great difference in difficulty. And look at Princess, which is a Victorian novel and quite wordy. (Though I cut out the annoying meta passages that address the reader, of which there are few, thankfully.) So, why exactly are Wardrobe and Princess hits, while Caspian and Voyage are not?

I'll have to ponder that one. But this I can say. My kids love a straightforward, linear story that states the facts and events simply and plainly, without cute self-referential fripperies, and they love dialogue in which people mean what they say and say what they mean, and they love curious little details and descriptions that combine the familiar with the strange, like a fire of glowing roses. Oh, and they hate being patronized.

On a wholly unrelated point, my blog is about to reach its twenty thousandth visitor. To all you loyal readers, occasional visitors, random strangers, roving bots, Ukrainian referrer spam, and the rest, my humble thanks is owed.

No comments:

Post a Comment