- Affinity and Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters - in retrospect, I think it was a mistake to move backwards through Sarah Waters' bibliography--first her superb third novel, Fingersmith; then her mediocre second, Affinity, and finally her embarrassingly bad first, Tipping the Velvet. Not only has Waters made great strides in terms of her facility with plot, character, dialogue and voice, but in her earlier novels, Tipping the Velvet in particular, she has yet to strike a balance between the demands of plot and the sensationalism of her premise. To put it simply, Waters doesn't really have anything to say about lesbianism in general, and beyond the fact that she was made her readers aware of their existence, she doesn't seem to have much to say about Victorian lesbians either. This wasn't a problem in Fingersmith, in which the main characters' lesbianism was incidental to the novel's twisty plot and to the intricate web of deceit and betrayal that entangled the two girls. The fact that they were lesbians--and that they fell in love with each other--was an unexpected miracle which saved them from what would otherwise have been their doom.
To a certain extent, this is also true of Affinity. The novel's narrator, Margaret, is a well-to-do young woman recovering from a nervous breakdown who is invited to visit inmates at a women's prison. There she meets Selina, a former medium who seduces Margaret with promises of a life together, a heretofore undreamed-of happiness. The fact that Margaret is gay drives the plot--it is her despair and loneliness that allow Selina to prey on her--but it is also external to the novel. Margaret is what she is, and Waters has no interest in exploring the kind of person that makes her. She focuses instead on the effect that society's prohibitive attitude towards Margaret's sexual orientation has on her--which is, essentially, to drive her to her undoing. It is to Waters' credit that she never milks the tragedy of Maragaret's situation or even points an accusing finger at Victorian mores (the novel takes place so completely in Margaret's head that we never even stop to consider how those mores oppress her because she never considers herself to be oppressed), which would have buried the novel under a crushing burden of righteous indignation. However, the fact that Affinity isn't written as a tragedy actually makes its tragic ending all the more unbearable. The novel essentially amounts to a long, unrelenting description of an, admittedly foolish but also lonely and damaged, young woman's oblivious journey towards utter destruction--a destination that is perfectly obvious almost from the moment Margaret and Selina meet. Margaret isn't a particularly appealing character--people who are self-pitying and pathetic rarely are--but it is nevertheless a profoundly unpleasant experience to watch her get conned by an even less likable person.
Still, at least Affinity has a plot. In Tipping the Velvet, it seems that Waters is still so entranced with the sauciness of her premise that she forgets the need for one. The novel follows Nancy as she bounces from lover to lover--a gallery of lesbian stereotypes in period dress--and takes us on a guided tour of the seamy underside of Victorian London. Nancy isn't a particularly likable character--she's not very smart, is capable of a breathtaking selfishness, and is often whiny, needy, and vain--but neither is she a particularly interesting unlikable character. She's just a boring, unpleasant human being who bounces back and forth between tragedy and triumph without doing much to earn either, and who doesn't actually deserve the happiness that Waters has in store for her. The book's ending, in which Nancy is saved by embracing socialism, is predictable, contrived, and insipid--it reads like a bad Harlequin romance ripoff, or the ending of a particularly dull romantic comedy. It seems impossible to believe, but the same woman who wrote one of my favorite reads from last year is also responsible for a very serious contender for this year's worst book.
- 1610: A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle - Valentin Rochefort--duellist, spy, assassin, and disgraced nobleman--is forced to flee the court of Henri IV after, well, inadvertently bringing about the assassination of said monarch. Arriving in England, he finds himself at the beck and call of Robert Fludd, who claims to have the knowledge of a form of mathematics that allows him to predict the probability of specific futures. Fludd wants Rochefort to assassinate another monarch--James I--thus placing his son Henry on the throne, preventing the civil war and the execution of Charles I and, according to Fludd, putting humanity on a path that will allow it to destroy a comet that's going to be dropping by in about 500 years. Gentle's novel takes a while to get started--hardly a surprise given the weight of backstory necessary to get the plot in motion--but once it does it is a surprisingly elegant and swift-moving adventure, by turns funny and thrilling. Gentle is by no means a great writer--her prose is merely adequate, and she has an unfortunate tendency to write copious amounts of 'As you know, your father, the king' dialogue and draw such conversations out interminably--but for the most part she infuses 1610 with so much energy that these flaws are easily overlooked.
Still, if it were nothing more than a swashbuckling adventure, 1610 might easily have been a forgettable read (and indeed, the adventure plot never truly builds to a climax). It is made truly excellent by the tangled, sophisticated and sexually frank romance that soon comes to drive the novel--the meeting of two peculiar, ornery, damaged individuals who take a very long to figure out that they are each other's match in every respect. Gentle walks a delicate tightrope--on the one hand, making sure her readers swoon at the right moments, and on the other, trying to avoid the more egregious clichés of romance writing--and quite often it seems that she is about to fall off (especially towards the beginning of the novel, when Rochefort's thoughts are essentially an endless stream of variations on 'why am I suddenly so concerned for this person? Could it be that my feelings run deeper than I thought?'). Always, however, she pulls back, and by the novel's end we are rooting whole-heartedly for these two crazy kid to make it work. Through the device of this romance, Gentle offers some interesting observations on the importance of strength and weakness, the fluidity of gender roles, and the importance of learning to be vulnerable. In spite of its flaws and, let's be honest, its general cheesiness, 1610: A Sundial in a Grave made for one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I've had in a long time.
- The Portrait by Iain Pears - Pears is the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, An Instance of the Fingerpost, a taut, elegant historical mystery against which most other historical mysteries are judged and found wanting. He followed it, however, with an overwrought, self-important mess of a novel, The Dream of Scipio, and I had more or less written him off as a one-hit-wonder. A cousin passing through the country left me her copy of Pears' most recent novel, and it being a rather slim volume (barely 200 pages long) I thought I'd give it a try. The novel is written as a monologue spoken by an artist as he paints the portrait of an old friend, a famous and influential art critic. The artist has been in seclusion for several years, and in his monologue he reminisces about his career, his relationship with the critic, and his reasons for leaving the art scene. You can pretty much guess where the story is headed just from looking at the back-cover blurb, and even spoilerphobes who turn straight to the text will be able to work out the ending within half a dozen pages. Suspense, in other words, is not in the cards. What's left is a meditation on the roles of the artist and the critic--the way they build each other up and tear each other down, and the way in which each views the other as a means to achieving their own goals (it's probably no accident that the novel is set in 1914--at about the time when the role of the critic as an intercessor between the increasingly insular art world and the increasingly befuddled public was becoming vitally important). Pears makes some interesting observations, but even at 200 pages he ends up repeating himself and overstating the obvious. I can't help but wonder if instead of an unexceptional novel, The Portrait shouldn't have been a interesting short story.
- Promethea: Book 1 by Alan Moore - I've had limited success with Moore in the past--I thought Watchmen was brilliant but rather dated, and found The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen pleasant but unremarkable. Promethea is more enjoyable than either of these works, but it by no means convinces me that Moore and I are right for one another. Promethea starts off from a hoary old premise--normal kid discovers that they are a superhero. This time it's teenager Sophie Bangs, who becomes the latest incarnation of Promethea, a physical manifestation of imagination and the power of story. The artwork is absolutely stunning, moving back and forth from the psychedelic realm where Promethea rules and the futuristic, neon-and-chrome New York that is Sophie's home. There are also some adorably quirky details in the margins of Moore's imaginary universe--New York is patrolled by a band of science superheroes called Five Swell Guys (although one of them has been replaced by a woman) who flit back and forth on their hovercraft, fighting evil in pinstripe suits; the city is blanketed in billboards depicting the Weeping Gorilla, who expresses ennui with melancholy phrases ('Go on, ask me about my marriage') and a morose expression; in fantasy-land, Sophie-Promethea encounters a foul-mouthed Little Red Riding-Hood who greets the Big Bad Wolf with the AK-47 she has hidden in her basket of goodies. The neat details, however, invariably give way to the meat of the story, which is for the most part didactic and heavy-handed speechifying on the part of Sophie's predecessors about the importance of imagination and the immortality of stories.
Promethea treads a lot of the same ground as Sandman, but whereas in that seminal work, Neil Gaiman was careful to acknowledge the dark and dangerous aspects of unbridled imagination, Moore doesn't seem to have even considered their existence. If imagination held sway, an early 20th century Promethea tells Sophie in one issue, there would be an end to war--a laughable notion, especially given that the issue focuses on WWI. If ever a flight of fancy was given leave to take over the minds of otherwise reasonable men, it was that debacle. At no point does Moore acknowledge that humanity's darkest and most horrific impulses also have their expression, and sometimes their origin, in the imagination. Gaiman's dreamland is dangerous--step off the path and there's no telling where you'll end up, what you'll create, and whether you'll ever make it back home. Moore's is a candy-colored educational experience, where any hint of trouble will be quickly swept away by friendly, maternal superheroine in a bronze bra. From plot summaries of the following volumes, I get the impression that the series delves deeper into didacticism, eventually becoming Moore's manifesto. I think I'll pass.
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Recent Reading Roundup 6
Look, it's the sixth recent reading roundup, posted on 6/6/06. That's kind of neat, right? No? Well, I thought it was.