Saturday, October 04, 2008

Recent Reading Roundup 18

  1. Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve - As the reprinted Martin Lewis review that first got me interested in this book points out, Mortal Engines kicks off with one hell of a first sentence: "It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea." The first in a quartet of YA novels, Mortal Engines takes place in a post-environmental collapse future in which mobile cities roam the blasted landscape, hunting and consuming one another for their resources. It's a great setting (and one that seems to crop up rather regularly in science fiction) which is matched with an equally intriguing premise--London apprentice Tom chases an intruder into the city's bowels after she attacks a prominent citizen, but instead of being hailed as a hero he finds himself banished from the city, forced to partner up with his former prey and to learn the ugly truths underlying the false history he's been told.

    Unfortunately, all this promise is undone by Reeve's tone and characterization choices, and while it's obviously unfair to criticize a children's novel for being just that, I've encountered too many counter-examples to believe that the simplicity and naivete that characterize the novel are prerequisites of the field. All of the characters, juvenile and adult, are painfully stupid, taking far too long to lose their innocence (I lost count of the number of times a character encounters an injustice, is shocked by it, and announces that "once I tell [shady and obviously not all-powerful authority figure who almost certainly knows all about said injustice and doesn't give a damn] they'll put a stop to this!" about halfway into the book), and their emotional reactions are too simple to be believable, a problem which is exacerbated by Reeve's tendency to tell us that characters are feeling things rather than show that they are. It's been suggested that some of these problems are addressed in subsequent books in the quartet, but I can't say that I feel motivated to seek them out.

  2. Kaaterskill Falls by Allegra Goodman - Goodman blew me away with Intuition, a novel about a scandal at a cancer research lab, so I was a little surprised, when I went to see what else she'd written, to learn that most of her previous work had had a more traditional focus on dysfunctional families and close-knit communities. Still, she's too good a writer for me to leave any of her work unread, and so, with some hesitation, I picked up Kaaterskill Falls, which takes place on three consecutive summers at the upstate New York retreat of a Hassidic Jewish sect in the late 70s. Goodman's writing is as beautiful as ever, as is the sharp, incisive way she describes and builds her characters--a young wife and mother eager to give her life some meaning beyond these roles; the ancient rebbe's two sons, one dutiful but lacking in insight, the other brilliant but lacking in faith; a bitter holocaust survivor and his increasingly observant young wife. Most interestingly, Kaaterskill Falls perfectly captures the complexity of what seems, from the outside, to be a uniformly conformist society--the way that different members tolerate different levels of observance, have wildly differing attitudes towards religion, faith, and custom even within the strict confines of the community, and place different emphases on observance and study. For all that, Goodman's portrait is obviously aimed at complete outsiders, and as a reader with some familiarity with the Hassidic way of life I found it less exciting and revelatory than I was probably intended to, and therefore found it easier to notice that the novel is also shapeless, made up of several brilliant character portraits and plotlines that don't amount to much of a whole. It's a beautiful novel and I'm glad I read it, but for my next foray into Goodman's bibliography I'll probably go for her most recent entry--a post-apocalyptic YA novel--rather than giving her back-catalogue another try.

  3. The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff - There's so much promise in Groff's premise--a disgraced anthropology student slinks back to her home town (closely modeled on Groff's real home of Cooperstown, founded by the father of Last of the Mohicans author James Fenimore Cooper and home to the Baseball Hall of Fame) on the same day that the corpse of a monster surfaces in the town's lake, is told by her single mother that her father was not, as she'd previously been told, a random encounter at a San Francisco commune but a Templeton native and, as a way of discovering his identity, travels back up her own family tree, all the way to the town's founder, the rakish Marmaduke Temple. It seems that, with just a bare minimum of talent, Groff would almost have to craft something meaty and satisfying from these ingredients, but The Monsters of Templeton falls flat.

    The present day segments are told in the first person by the heroine, Willie Upton, but Groff makes the all-too-common mistake of assuming that her choice of a first person narrator makes it acceptable for her to use infodumps in lieu of character development, telling us about Willie, her family and her neighbors instead of letting us learn about them at our own pace. It certainly doesn't help that Willie is an annoying character, selfish and not particularly interesting, and that the rest of the contemporary characters feel like types out of a TV movie--the quirky yet ultimately down-to-earth mother; her seemingly dull yet devoted boyfriend; the heroine's exciting, bohemian best friend; her townie love interest, bitter about being left in her dust but concealing greater depths. The historical segments are more successful overall--particularly the ones which incorporate the plot of The Last of the Mohicans into the fictional Templeton's history--but still a mixed bag. The Monsters of Templeton is a novel about history and its weight and influence on the present, but both the past and the present that Groff has crafted are too insubstantial, too riddled with stereotypes and lazy clichés to be persuasive.

  4. Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn - I was sent a copy of Mendlesohn's critical work after referencing it in my Best American Fantasy post in a way that, she claimed, misrepresented her thesis. Having read the book, I can see that this is entirely true, but I'm not sure what the moral of the story is--if the consequence of saying stupid, inaccurate things online is that I get sent intelligent, thought-provoking works of nonfiction to read, what's my motivation to stop? Seriously, though, I think the greatest error I made in considering Rhetorics of Fantasy before I'd read it was not that I misrepresented the four subcategories Mendlesohn posits within fantasy--portal-quest fantasy, immersive fantasy, intrusive fantasy, and liminal fantasy--but that, with a genre reader's love of taxonomy and categorization, I assumed that this subdivision was the point of the book. As Mendlesohn's introduction makes clear, her focus is less on justifying her categories or classifying works into them, and more on identifying their attributes and, in so doing, raising questions about the genre in general. One might almost say that Rhetorics of Fantasy takes the existence of Mendlesohn's categories as a given, and, having stipulated that fantasy can and should be so subdivided, goes on to ponder just what unique qualities each of the categories possesses.

    Rhetorics of Fantasy is divided into five essays, one each for each of the four categories and another for works that combine qualities of more than one of Mendlesohn's types. Each essay alternates between theoretical discussion and discussions of representative texts, and each one is laid out in a way that best suits that category's characteristics. The chapter on portal-quest fantasy--the type most closely associated with the term 'fantasy' and the marketing category of that name--is laid out chronologically, which allows Mendlesohn to address the influence of Tolkien and Lewis on this subgenre in the context of their antecedents and followers. On the other hand, when discussing immersive fantasy Mendlesohn divides the chapter by the different attributes of the subgenre, and the discussion of intrusive fantasy opens with several pages in which Mendlesohn gives a blow-by-blow account of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's The Wolves in the Walls as an illustration of how a work in this subgenre achieves its effects. The result is a series of fascinating essays, which lucidly analyze and diagnose the ways in which fantasy works on its readers, and the reasons for its failure or success.

    The further I got into Rhetorics of Fantasy, however, the more problematic Mendlesohn's choice to subdivide fantasy without first articulating--to her readers, if not to herself--a definition of fantasy as a whole became, especially when one considers that the implicit definition of fantasy Mendlesohn seems to be using encompasses all of the non-mimetic genres. The chapter on immersive fantasy repeatedly compares the subgenre to science fiction and even uses several science fiction novels as examples of the attributes Mendlesohn identifies, and the chapter on intrusive fantasy is actually about horror, and hardly discusses any examples of fantasy until it gets to the early 80s. In itself, this assumption--that SF and horror are subsets of fantasy--is not inherently objectionable, though I can see as many arguments against as for it, but its being left unstated means that there's a missing bedrock to Rhetorics of Fantasy that leaves it somewhat untethered. Despite this reservation, I found Rhetorics of Fantasy fascinating and insightful, and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in pondering how fantasy works.

  5. The Ant King and Other Stories by Benjamin Rosenbaum - Like John Kessel's The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories, this collection has been made available under a Creative Commons License by its publisher, Small Beer Press (and it has now been followed by Kelly Link's second collection, Magic for Beginners, though sadly without the title story). Like Kessel, Rosenbaum seems to enjoy switching styles and genres. About half of the stories in The Ant King are surrealist pieces told with Linkian matter-of-factness, such as the title story, in which the protagonist's girlfriend dissolves into a million yellow gumballs but has actually been kidnapped underground by the titular king, doomed to watch Charlie's Angels reruns with him for all eternity. With the exception of "Other Cities," a series of vignettes about imaginary cities, some familiar and some strange, I found these stories somewhat trying, but the other half of the collection highlights Rosenbaum's love of referencing, riffing, and pastiche. There's the romantic adventure "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Air-Planes' by Benjamin Rosenbaum," or the Jungle Book riff "On the Cliff by the River," or the Biblical pastiche "The Book of Jashar," or the utterly insane and indescribable "Sense and Sensibility," and even a couple of relatively straightforward SF shorts. Each is so different from the others that it's sometimes hard to believe they're all by the same author, but the one quality they all have in common is Rosenbaum's admirable control of voice and style, which makes The Ant King a supremely enjoyable collection.


Anonymous said...

I would strongly recommend seeking out the other three volumes of Reeve's Mortal Engines quartet: the strengths of the series are very much in the whole (and that is perhaps admittedly a lack in the first book).

The Overgrown Hobbit said...

col is probably right: at any event, one can read the final volume (which was fabulous, in every sense of the word) without having ever read any of the preceding three.

Which is what I did: I got the final volume as a review copy, read it, loved it, went back to read book one and couldn't be troubled to keep reading.

Anonymous said...

We disagree on our emphases when it comes to the Rosenbaum - I agree with your criticisms, but they scupper my enjoyment of the book whereas you seem to have been able to get over them.

The whole affair just felt overly controlled to me.

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