Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Book of All Hours by Hal Duncan

I finished Hal Duncan's Ink--the second and final volume, after last year's Vellum, in his The Book of All Hours--last week, and promptly set about looking for the reactions of other readers. I was surprised to discover only a scant few--nearly six months after its publication I was only able to track down two reviews, one by Gwyneth Jones in The Guardian and another by Paul Kincaid at SF Site, and very few blog reactions, none of them substantial. Surprised, not merely because so much attention was heaped on Vellum last year, but because in my opinion Ink is by far the stronger work--so strong that it retroactively improves my opinion of Vellum. In fact, the two books should properly be a single volume[1], and I find it difficult to imagine how one could sensibly speak about one without having read the other.

The Book of All Hours is the kind of sprawling, digressive work best described not through its plot but through its structure. It is divided into four books--"The Lost Deus of Sumer" and "Evenfall Leaves" in Vellum; "Hinter's Knights" and "Eastern Mourning" in Ink--and further divided into alternating and intersecting plotlines. To say that Duncan's storytelling is non-linear is to vastly oversimplify it. Not only do we move back and forth within the various characters' timelines, and not only are the different plotlines taking place in different points in time relative to one another, but within those plotlines, characters encounter one another at different points in their personal chronologies, so that when a girl sets out to avenge the death of her brother, she arrives at the beginning of his story and ends up causing it. And then there are the characters, most of whom show up multiple times as different versions of themselves--sometimes because the story shifts between parallel realities, and other times because each character is an expression of an archetype that recurs several times throughout a single reality's history. Given this level of complexity, it's probably not surprising that I had an easier and more enjoyable time with Vellum when I reread it this week, knowing how the story would end.

Or perhaps a better way to describe the story would be to list its terms. There is the Vellum, the substance upon which reality--all realities, here called 'folds'--is written. There is the Cant, a language so precise that to speak it is to alter the world. There are the unkin, people who, through a traumatic or transcendent experience, become dislodged from reality, discovering their true name--their 'graving'--and becoming gods, angels and demons. And, in the near future, there is the battle between two groups of unkin--the Sovereigns, each carving out their own little fiefdom and vying for the top spot, and the Covenant, who seek to put an end to the despotic rule of any single god and impose the rule of law. The Covenant are led by Metatron--formerly known as Enki, the Sumerian inventor of writing--who has calcified reality by trapping it within the pages of The Book of All Hours, a description of everything that has and will happen in every fold of the Vellum, and who is now--at the beginning of Vellum, in the near future--rounding up the last of the unaffiliated unkin in preparation for the final battle between good and evil.

In "The Lost Deus of Sumer" we meet three such rogue unkin. Seamus Finnan is a self-described conscientious objector to the war in heaven. A veteran of the Great War, the socialist demonstrations in Glasgow in the late teens, and the Spanish Civil War, he comes by his aversion to violence honestly. In 2017, he instills his belief that the Covenant and the Sovereigns are prolonging their struggle indefinitely to his two young protégés, the siblings Thomas and Phreedom Messenger, to whom he also reveals their gravings. When Thomas is forced to flee Metatron's enforcers, Phreedom hatches a plan to secure both of them immunity by delivering one of the chief Sovereigns to Metatron. Through the execution of this plan, however, Phreedom binds herself to the story of a Sumerian goddess, Inanna, who becomes trapped in the underworld and can only escape by betraying her lover, Tammuz. Thomas becomes the lost deus of Sumer, constantly escaping his pursuers, constantly being caught and killed, and constantly returning to escape them again.

This is the point where things become hopelessly tangled. It is, in fact, all but impossible to describe the plot of The Book of All Hours because so much of it is made up of reiterations of the same story, with the plot emerging not through its events but through the slight variations on these events that each iteration offers. It's actually a lot easier to describe the story by listing the characters. Finnan is the war-weary soldier in the early twentieth century, and the reclusive wizard in the twenty-first, but at the dawn of time he's Prometheus, who tried to bring fire--enlightenment--to humanity, and to Metatron he'll always be the ultimate betrayer, the angel who said no to the very concept of a struggle between good and evil--Lucifer. Phreedom is Inanna, but she's also Anna, Seamus's sweetheart, for whose sake he goes off to war, to protect her idealistic little brother Thomas, who is sometimes Puck. And then there's Jack Carter, Seamus's commanding officer who orders Thomas shot for cowardice, but who is also Jack Flash, Phreedom's son, Thomas's lover, and the hero with a thousand faces. Joey Pechorin is the ice to Jack's fire, the villain to his hero in every reenactment of Jack's struggle against authority. Reynard, or Guy Fox, is the brains of the operation, the schemer and plotter, but also the writer through whose eyes much of the story is told, and Don MacChuill is the faithful soldier, Phreedom's sometimes-lover and sometimes-bodyguard. These seven characters recur throughout the two novels, loving and fighting each other, finding and losing one another, but always coming together, like a Buddhist jati, into a single soul.

Vellum finds these characters struggling fruitlessly against their assigned roles and against the destiny laid out for them in The Book of All Hours. When an iteration of Reynard finds the original book, he is jettisoned out of reality. He can travel between the folds of the Vellum, but the worlds he travels to empty on his arrival--presumably, because the closer one comes to the epicenter of the ultimate reality, the less freedom one has to interfere with it. At the beginning of Ink, the book in Reynard's possession has gone blank--for reasons that we don't learn until the end of the novel. Variants on it appear in different folds of the Vellum, and are promptly seized by sub-groups of the jati, each trying to write their own, better version of history, and specifically to sidestep the horrors of the twentieth century.

At this point, the timeline becomes almost impossible to follow. On top of the alternate and alternating realities in different folds of the Vellum, we now have several realities layered one on top of the other, each the result of a previous attempt to rewrite the book. In "Eastern Mourning", the jati makes a last-ditch attempt to gain control of reality when they discover the final draft of the book in 1929 Palestine, and write themselves into contemporary inhabitants in order to prevent the remnants of the Covenant from seizing it and reestablishing the old order. This is not even to mention the shifts in authorial voice, which in "Eastern Mourning" alone alternates between Neuromancer-by-way-of-V for Vendetta and Indiana Jones-with-a-heavy-dollop-of-Edward-Whittemore, and which towards the end of the book starts narrating the story as though it were being retold in pulp novels--a medieval romance, a radio serial, a hard-boiled detective story, a science fiction adventure, a Western, and finally a novel called Ink by Hal Duncan.

The bottom line is that, even after reading Vellum and reading Ink and rereading Vellum and going back to reread a few selected portions of Ink, I still have only a partial understanding of what was actually going on. In another work, I might find this obtuseness frustrating, but The Book of All Hours is oddly satisfying. First, because many of its component parts--the story of Finnan's lifelong struggle for justice and equality, Phreedom's escape from Metatron and her desperate, futile attempts to save Thomas, the 1929 segments of "Eastern Mourning"[2]--are appealing as stories in their own right, but mainly because I get the feeling that Duncan knows what the story is and that he's told it to the best of his abilities. For all that The Book of All Hours is probably best appreciated for its gestalt effect rather than its plot, I believe that the plot itself exists and that I've been given sufficient tools to work it out, which makes me feel a lot better about the time spent trying to do so.

Paul Kincaid's review of Ink opens thus:
So, you open the book, turn past the dedication to Koré, and begin. And your heart sinks. A first person narrator visits an uncle and his dog Koré, and the uncle tells him: you want to be a writer, here's a great story. And you think: Vellum doesn't deserve this. Vellum was a mess, a sprawling, swaggering, aggressive mess, but through the too-many stories there was still a thin, frail thread of Story leading you through. And it was a big enough book that it deserves to be about something more than the little metaphor of being a writer. Oh it has to be there -- Ink, Vellum, how could you hope to escape the metaphor of writing? -- but please, as part of a bigger, grander mix, not as the guiding principle of the book.

Fortunately Hal Duncan is too brash and arrogant a writer to tie himself down so lightly.
I found this observation interesting because it reminded me of another sprawling, digressive, multi-volume series I'd recently read--John Crowley's Ægypt. My review of the first volume in the sequence, The Solitudes, which appeared in Strange Horizons last month as part of Ægypt Week (to which Kincaid was also a contributor, writing about the third novel, Dæmonomania), ended up being more of a rumination about the entire sequence, and the ways in which having read the ending had colored my reaction to its beginning. Something that got left out of the review--because to keep it in would really be exceeding my purview--was my disappointment at Crowley's choice, in the final volume, Endless Things, to turn the series's central concept--that the history of the world periodically remakes itself, swinging like a pendulum between wonder and reason--into a metaphor for writing. Having expended so much time and energy trying to puzzle out the logic of Crowley's invented universe, I felt betrayed by his decision to deny me the chance to finish the job, and in fact to declare that there was no such logic for me to puzzle out[3]. Kincaid is right when he says that Duncan avoids this pitfall. Although The Book of All Hours occasionally uses the act of remaking reality as a metaphor for writing, it just as frequently turns the metaphor around, with writing acting as a metaphor, and sometimes just a plain means, to alter reality.

Like Ægypt, The Book of All Things is a story about the departure of wonder, but unlike Crowley, Duncan attaches a political significance to this process. At the end of the story, his characters have done away with both the Sovereigns and the Covenant. No more despots and tyrants, but also no more iron grip of destiny. The departure of angels and demons, and the destruction of the book, are a prerequisite for freedom. Which, in turn, reminds me of another sprawling, digressive, etc.--Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle. Structurally, there are some significant similarities between the two works. Like The Book of All Hours, The Baroque Cycle is broken up into sub-stories, many of them adventure yarns, and features a large cast of characters who move in and out of these stories in various configurations[4]. More importantly, the two works are ideologically similar. For Stephenson, the departure of wonder--in his case, the feudalistic mindset, which informs so much of fantasy fiction, and the restrictions of religious dogma, against which Duncan also rails--is necessary for the scientific era to begin, and it is through science the human race can finally escape violence and the yoke of tyranny. As I said when I wrote about The Baroque Cycle, Stephenson errs too far on the side of politics, producing a tract rather than a work of fiction. What puzzles and surprises me is that Duncan, miraculously, has not. This is a blatantly political work, one that I don't even agree with entirely--I happen to think that law and order are more often a necessity than a shackle--and one that is frequently given over to what can only be described as speechifying. Why, then, isn't it preachy?

I think the answer is that Duncan isn't trying to convert anyone. If The Baroque Cycle is a tract, The Book of All Hours is a manifesto. It's saying, this is how the world is. If you agree with me, great; if you don't, I don't care--put the book down if you feel like it but I'm going to keep going. Duncan isn't trying to convince the dubious and therefore doesn't feel the need to be reasonable or moderate, and by creating characters who are unreasonable and immoderate, he gives us--even the dubious among us--something to see. I may not agree with everything Finnan/Prometheus stands for, but his rage and determination are magnetic, as are Metatron's cold calculations and increasingly desperate attempts to hold a fracturing coalition together, or the injured superiority of Moloch.

Socialism and anti-establishment rhetoric are, at any rate, not truly where The Book of All Hours's political heart lies. This is a novel with, and I truly have no better way of saying this, a gay agenda[5]. The death of Thomas, the lost deus of Sumer, is quickly associated with the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepherd, the gay college student beaten to death in Wyoming, and throughout the novel there are parallels to this murder, in whom Thomas is always the victim. Both Kincaid and Jones take Duncan to task for these repeated murders, and there is indeed a sense that they are glorified, that Thomas is not simply the victim of a horrible, senseless crime but a martyr to the cause, whose death somehow bestows a significance on him he might never have achieved in life.

When the time comes to end the tyranny of the book, however, and to fix reality into the best possible version of itself, the most important criteria recognized by all members of the jati is Thomas's survival--"A million folds in the Vellum, Jack had said, and in every one of them Puck dies; but while neither of us will say it, we both suffer under the hope that perhaps there's one fold where he lives." In "Eastern Mourning", we once again encounter Jack Carter, Thomas's commanding officer and murderer. This time around, we learn that Carter's decision was motivated at least in part by a desire to deny his feelings for Thomas, and that it has haunted him ever since. He's given the chance to redeem himself in the form of Tammuz, a tribesman who becomes his lover, and with whom--along with the other members of the jati--he is pinned down in a city near the Dead Sea (it is surely not insignificant that the final battle for the soul of humanity takes place over the ruins of Sodom) as the remainder of the heavenly host close in, determined to regain the Book.

In the final chapters of "Eastern Mourning", Carter cycles through all the possible outcomes of their predicament and constantly encounters Tammuz's death. The only way of preventing that death is to sacrifice himself instead, and more importantly, to acknowledge the reason for that sacrifice. "They don't really need the words, but he mouths them anyway", we are told right before Carter and Tammuz's final separation, and in a novel in which written and spoken language has the power to remake the world, surely there is no other conclusion to be drawn than that Carter manages to free humanity from predestination because he's worked up the courage to say 'I love you' to another man?

I do, however, agree with Jones's confusion with the novel's epilogue, in which Jack and Puck are characters in Reynard's translation of Virgil's eclogues. While Reynard and his lover Anna enjoy a quiet getaway, Jack and Puck cavort in Reynard's imagination. It's almost as though Duncan is saying that the mundane realities of romance--marriage, children, washing the dishes and tolerating each other's hobbies--are to be left to heterosexuals, while homosexuals live on another plane, forever young and carefree. I leave it to those for whom it is a more immediate concern to decide whether this is, indeed, a desirable division.

I said at the beginning of this piece that I was surprised to find so little discussion of Ink, and of The Book of All Hours as a complete work. I hope this doesn't bode ill for Duncan's career, as he is too inventive, exuberant and enjoyable an author to lose so early. On a more selfish level, I just want people to talk to about this work. There's so much I haven't touched on or haven't explored fully, so many connections that I have surely missed. And that is, ultimately, the best compliment that I can pay The Book of All Hours--that it not only inspired me to go back and reread, but that I desperately want to talk about it with other people. So get cracking.



[1] I've complained about the book-splitting practice in the past, though I can't entirely fault a publisher for hesitating to unleash a thousand pages of experimental fantasy by an unknown author on the unsuspecting public. Also, there is a thematic distinction between Vellum and Ink that somewhat justifies the split between them, even if neither stands on its own as a novel.

[2] One should never underestimate the importance of a strong ending. I'd probably feel very differently about The Book of All Hours if Ink reversed the order of its two books and ended with "Hinter's Knights", which despite some strong ideas is too long, and probably the weakest of all four books.

[3] There's also the question of whether Ægypt as it was completed in 2007 is the Ægypt that Crowley envisioned in 1987. Let's not forget that, over that same period, Crowley's standalone novels made the transition from fantasy to naturalistic fiction, and that taken on its own Endless Things is, for the most part, a naturalistic novel.

[4] The two series are also similar in that each features only one female character of any importance. Stephenson, however, takes the 80s television approach to female characterization. Whereas the male characters get distinguishing traits--the rogue, the intellectual, the schemer, the villain--the female character is so unusual, simply by virtue of her gender, that she doesn't require much in the way of a personality. Duncan avoids this pitfall--on top of being the sole woman, Phreedom is also the embodiment of rage and vengefulness within the jati.

[5] And, now that I come to think of it, why does 'gay agenda' have such negative connotations? If I call a work feminist, well, there are negative associations to the word, but none of them quite as ugly as the ones attached to 'gay agenda'. I find this particularly odd given that feminist fiction does try to make feminists out of its readers, whereas I doubt many works that touch on gay issues do so in the attempt to turn straight people into homosexuals.

2 comments:

Mark C said...

why does 'gay agenda' have such negative connotations?

The gay agenda isn't trying to convert people into homosexuals. It's trying to counter the propaganda that gays are demonic "others" who are only interested in having deviant sex with your children. If people see gays as ordinary people they are much more likely to disapprove of discrimination against them.

Onto the book, I have read part of Vellum and am struggling to finish it. I am finding the "archetypes" shading towards "stereotypes" - the woman who is constantly running after the men in her life, the fairy like gay who is brutally murdered.

In reading the book I am reminded of a series of writing exercises (let's write a Pat Barker WW1 pastiche, lets write a Lovecradt story, let's write a matrixy cyberpunk thing) cobbled together by the device of having the same characters in every part.

Duncan is obviously a talented writer but his sources are so obvious and his ideas of what is cool/transgressive etc strike me as a bit adolescent.

Tj said...

I bought the novel on release (when I say novel I mean both books), got about 150 pages in, and threw it down in disgust at the lack of cohesion, and central narrative. About two weeks ago I was in dire need of something to read on a long bus ride, and on lark threw the pair into my book bag.

Best decision ever, these two novels for reasons I could never fully explain will hold a special place on my bookshelf, along such contenders as "The Road" and the Manifold books.

I could have written my own review, but I think I'd rather just say "I agree 100% with 99% of what you said" and move on.

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