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.
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.


Andrew Ducker said...

I enjoyed Promethea very much, but largely for the artistry - Moore uses comics in ways nobody else does, and when Promethea goes searching through the Immateria in later volumes it's a wonder to behold.

But yes, it's pure didacticism from beginning to end, and wish fulfillment along with it.

The best work of Moore, in my own humble opinion, is From Hell, where his interests are caught up in the story but don't overwhelm it.

If you have a friend with a large enough comic collection, see if you can get hold of Dave McKean's Cages. Now _that's_ a work of art.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

The best work of Moore, in my own humble opinion, is From Hell

I've wanted to read From Hell for quite some time, but it's prohibitively expensive and hard to find. Figures.

Nic said...

I have to disagree on _Tipping the Velvet_. Granted, it's much less accomplished than _Fingersmith_, but I found it great fun (picaresque romp etc etc), and in particular I thought it had plenty of interesting things to say about gender, identity, and revealing/concealing/recreating the self. (I agree, however, that Nan isn't a terribly sympathetic character!)

That quibble aside, a fascinating post as usual. :-)

Anonymous said...

I find it really ironic that you found Gaiman's point of view darker than Moore's; understandable, given the works you cite, but still a bit odd. I'd agree with the suggestion that you check out From Hell if at all possible (interlibrary loan, maybe?); in that book, some of the same speculations about myth and story and the imagination and so on are given to, well, Jack the Ripper. Which does put a different spin on them.

In general -- and again, I can see how Promethea, especially in the early issues, would not suggest this -- Moore's got a very bleak understanding of the human condition. Certainly more so than Gaiman; I found that some issues of Sandman, and an awful lot of what Gaiman's done since, has descended into the territory of twee. Which is not a sin that can be plausibly ascribed to Moore. It's made me wonder, probably unjustly, how much of the sensibility of Sandman was due to Gaiman's consciousness of following Moore's run on Swamp Thing (which basically set the standard for 80s horror-weirdness at DC comics, which in turn later metastasized as the Vertigo imprint).

I think, in the end, that Promethea is a book that appeals to fans of the comics medium and what can be done with it, to fans of Moore and his ideas, and perhaps to occultists in general (if some of the people I speak to are any indication). The book does become more, let's say, threatening later on -- but it also, as you note, becomes something of a manifesto, or, at best, an exploration of Moore's ideas on magic. It's very interesting, but the story comes to feel pretty superficial, I think.

Incidentally, I agree with your comment on LoEG -- amusing, but not vital -- but I'd be really interested in hearing how you found Watchmen to be dated. I reread it not along ago and found it still amazingly powerful; I mean breaking-out-in-a-cold-sweat kind of powerful. Of its time, yes, but not dated as such. What struck a false not for you?

Take care,
Matthew Surridge

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I found that some issues of Sandman, and an awful lot of what Gaiman's done since, has descended into the territory of twee

I've had similar problems with Gaiman. I think that with the exception of Sandman - which, as you point out, has its ups and downs - the only work of his that I've truly loved is his most recent novel, Anansi Boys, in which he deliberately avoids even the hint of seriousness.

I'd be really interested in hearing how you found Watchmen to be dated. I reread it not along ago and found it still amazingly powerful; I mean breaking-out-in-a-cold-sweat kind of powerful. Of its time, yes, but not dated as such. What struck a false not for you?

Perhaps 'dated' was too strong a word - 'of its time' might be more accurate - but I certainly never had the same visceral reaction to it that you did. Here's part of what I wrote about the book at the end of last year:

In the mid-80s, reading Moore's reassessment of the superhero mythos must have felt like having the top of one's head screwed off. Twenty years later, the questions that were so trailblazing when Moore first raised them--do superheroes really make the world safer? What gives a superhero the right to use violence against members of society, and even to kill? How can we be certain that superheroes are using their powers responsibly? And is there anything truly admirable about people who have special powers simply because of a quirk of genetics or fate?--have become standard in any halfway decent superhero story--several months before I read Watchmen, I watched a Disney film with roughly the same premise.

Anonymous said...

Ah. I see your point about the super-heroic aspects of Watchmen, and you're right, those questions have been done to death inside comics and out. But I felt that those questions weren't really what the book was about.

It seemed to me that Moore used his superheroes, used the idea of superheroes, to get at some more profound themes. I think the book had something to say about power in general; about political power, sexual power, intellectual power, and how power and morality conflict. At the same time, it also seemed to have a lot to say about fate and free will -- do we, ultimately, have power over our lives and how the future will turn out? Even the complexity of structure of the book seemed to play into things; not only by establishing a credible alternate reality (thus bringing up questions of the inevitability of history again), but by emphasising the importance of even seemingly trivial things to point out the complexity and value of the world.

There's a line in the book about Doctor Manhattan viewing conflicts among human societies as having about as much importance as conflicts between red and black ants. It seems to me that that's a line which points up the humanistic concerns of the book; through his relations with Laurie and the other characters in the book, Doctor Manhattan ends up moving on from that attitude. The human world may be trivial from a god's point of view, but it still has significance. I think that's what Watchmen is ultimately about, and it uses the material of its time and context -- super-hero comics and where they were at in 1986, international politics and where *they* were at in 1986 -- as a means to reach its end.

Interesting comment about Anansi Boys, too. I disliked it because it seemed like Gaiman was deliberately turning his back on emotionally powerful material -- there was that point late in the book where he sets up a conflict between "tiger stories" (cruel, harsh stories) and "spider stories" (light, funny stories) and comes down firmly on the side of the spider. That was weirdly difficult to read, but I think you're right that it's really more of a statement about where his writing is, these days, or at least a statement about how to read his books.

Take care,
Matthew Surridge

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Those are some very interesting thoughts about Watchmen, Matthew. I'll have to make time for a reexamination of the book.

About Anansi Boys, I'm not sure I'd say that Gaiman is differentiating between serious stories and funny ones. Tiger stories, if I remember correctly, are ones in which the protagonists solve their problems through brute strength, in a world in which might conquers all and the weak are at the mercy of the strong. In contrast, the protagonists of spider stories solve their problems through intelligence, guile, and trickery, in a world in which the weak can still have power so long as they are willing to use their brains. It's an interesting variant on the creation myth and on what makes humans what they are. I'm also not sure I'd say that Anansi Boys turns its back on emotionally powerful material - I thought Gaiman's treatment of Fat Charlie's shyness (and his corresponding desire to be noticed) was quite intelligent.

As a whole, however, AB is rather light stuff, but my point was that because for the most part he shies away from serious and thoughtful topics, Gaiman doesn't have the opportunity to stumble into self-importance or twee-ness. The result is a lovely, light-hearted novel, with just enough seriousness to keep it lightly tethered to the ground, and no more.

Stephen said...

I think that the first volume of Promethea is pretty clearly the weakest. I, too, found that volume somewhat reminiscent of Sandman. But I think that's distinctly lessened by volume two. I hate to suggest that you pick up 2 if you didn't care for 1, but do at least consider that vols 2-5 are better. (I'm sometimes hesitant to recommend Promethea for just that reason, even though I like it a lot.)

And while I agree both that its artistry is its strongest point and that it is largely didactic, I think that the combination achieves something remarkable even if you don't think much of Moore's intellectual system (and I don't, really).

All of which is to say that you might consider giving volume 2 a shot. If you get to the end of volume 2 -- particularly the stunning issues 10/12 at its end -- and still don't like it, then, well, it's not for you.

From Hell is indeed wonderful, and is coming back into print in August. Still very pricy though ($35).

Incidentally, I agree with most of what Matthew Surridge said above, and think he said it well -- and he gets at why Watchmen will, I believe, be an enduring work. But I think that I would amend his opening paragraph to say: those questions weren't really all of what the book was about. Which is to say, MS is right when he says that Watchmen was about a lot more than that, but it was obviously about what you saw in it too, so that the book will, inevitably, have a narrower impact. That doesn't doom it, however: to make a comparison only of kind not quality, I would say it is comparable to the way that Dante's politics (and the deliciousness of the "he put who in hell?" response) is lost on most readers, but his more fundamental religious views, to say nothing of his poetry, still have a lot of power.

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