Friday, June 05, 2009

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Pamela Dean's Tam Lin is a novel that gives the lie to the belief that readers should approach a novel in a state of purity, giving as little thought as possible to publicity, advertising, and the expectations they arouse. A reader who comes to this novel innocent of the impression formed by its cover, plot description, and even its title would probably find it utterly confusing, because Tam Lin creates its effect by frustrating the expectations that these create, by deferring not merely the reader's gratification, but the acknowledgment of its own genre, until only a few dozen pages before its end.

Part of a series of retold fairy tales edited by Terry Windling, Tam Lin is based on the Scottish folk ballad about a maiden who saves her enchanted lover from the queen of fairies (the ballad also formed the basis of an important subplot in Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men). Dean moves the story's action to a fictional Minnesota liberal arts college in the early 70s. Janet, the maiden, is Janet Carter, an English major. Tam Lin is an older student named Thomas Lane. The queen of fairies is the brilliant and remote Professor Medeous, head of the Classics department. As Janet makes her way through her first three years of college, occupied with her studies, with negotiating new and sometimes prickly friendships with her roommates, and with an affair with a Classics major name Nick Tooley, she slowly becomes aware of an undertone of weirdness centering around the Classics department and Medeous herself--rumors of debauchery, Nick's secretive behavior and occasional disappearances, the 1897 suicide of a student, whose ghost is said to haunt the college. Finally, the cumulative weight of all this oddness opens Janet's eyes to the reality of her world, just it time for her to act to save her now-lover Thomas.

In Farah Mendlesohn's taxonomy of fantasy, Tam Lin would probably fall in the category of the liminal fantasy--works in which the very existence of the fantastic is in doubt, and in which the boundaries between the mundane and fantasy worlds are fuzzy and difficult to distinguish. Blackstock College is just such a dubious magical realm, whose inhabitants don't even realize that they have crossed into wonder. It has been intruded upon by Medeous and her court, but that intrusion has been so subtle, and its effects so easily folded into the general weirdness of campus life, that they are easily ignored until very near the novel's end. Dean's descriptions of college life, particular in the first half of the novel, which describes Janet's freshman year almost down to the individual lecture, emphasize its foreignness. It has its seasonal rites--registering for classes in the gymnasium at the beginning of the year, queuing for good dormitory assignments at its end--and its rituals, which sometimes rub right up against the occult, such as students stealing and hiding a bust of Schiller, or playing the bagpipes at midnight on Halloween. The effect is to make Blackstock seem like a world--a fantasy world--onto itself, however porous its boundaries, and thus to mingle the magic of fairyland, of the weirdness and rituals Medeous brings to the campus, with the magic of college life. (Of course, Dean's descriptions may have seemed especially odd to me, separated as I am from Blackstock not only by time, geography, and the difference between a liberal arts and polytechnical institution, but by the fact that most Israelis start university in their early twenties, not their late teens.)

The immersion in the mundane details of Janet's life on campus, even as the reader notices, and becomes increasingly frustrated by, hints of the wondrous, is Tam Lin's most impressive accomplishment, but it is paralleled by just as deep an immersion into Janet's academic career. The idiom of Janet's life is literary. She speaks and thinks in literary allusions, as do most of her contemporaries, and the plot is advanced as much by her academic progress as by her personal development. Which makes a certain amount of sense given the decision to cast the fairy queen as a professor. A running theme throughout the novel are the repeated attempts by Medeous's acolytes, chiefly Janet's advisor Melinda Wolfe, to get her to switch to the Classics department, and Janet's own experiences in Medeous's classes can be read as a sort of enchantment--the enchantment of literature, and of a brand new branch of scholarship opening up before her--to which her reaction is ambivalent, both tempted and repulsed.

It is also through literature that Janet's personal life is changed--the plot is underpinned by three theatrical performances, each of which heralds and sometimes sparks a major transition in her life. The first, a double production of Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead near the beginning of her freshman year, cements the relationships from which Janet spends the rest of the story trying to disentangle herself--Nick's girlfriend, Thomas's friend--and launches Janet into Medeous's outer orbit, from which vantage point she can observe her and her adherents' weirdness without truly understanding it. The second, a student production of The Revenger's Tragedy masterminded by Thomas in which he casts a Medeous lookalike as the villain, brings him and his conflict with Medeous more sharply into focus, and ratchets up the novel's tension. the last, a production of Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning (an earlier reading of which persuaded Janet she wasn't truly in love with Nick) at the beginning of her senior year, sparks Janet's romance with Thomas, and sets the stage for the novel's climax and Janet's confrontation with Medeous.

This, however, is the kind of observation that only occurs in hindsight. The plays themselves, and Janet's reaction to them, are so little signposted, so clearly of a piece with the rest of her life that they seem like just another entry in the litany of activities that makes up the bulk of the novel--Thursday: had lunch with roommates, Friday: went to a play, Saturday: wrote term paper. This is quite clearly a deliberate choice on Dean's part, one which suits the opaqueness which characterizes the whole novel. Tam Lin seems to beg a rereading, littered as it is by overheard snatches of conversation, cryptic comments, and private jokes, which only resolve upon the revelation of the precise nature of its fantastic aspect. That revelation, however, is repeatedly deferred. Several times--when she encounters another manifestation of the fantastic, or comes in closer contact with Medeous herself--we anticipate the opening up of Janet's world and the transformation of the plot, only to be disappointed. Through frequently mentioned, Medeous doesn't show up until 300 pages in, and even then it's in her guise as an educator. Frustrating as it can be, this deliberate confounding of expectations can have positive effects--the requisite scene in which the protagonist and her friends try to argue away the fantastic is missing, since by the time they recognize the kind of story they're in the situation is too real to be denied.

As hard as Tam Lin works to frustrate our expectations in its structure, it seems to work even harder to meet them in its substance, which is anticipated in a scene in which Janet is assigned to read the first chapter of Emma and guess its ending--"Janet had no idea; neither did Molly; but Tina consented to read the chapter and said, immediately, "Emma marries Mr. Knightley, of course"". The ease with which Janet couples up with Nick at the beginning of the novel, and her frequent confrontations with Thomas, leave no doubt as to which one of them she's to end up with, and the constant harping on the issue of birth control is like the gun on the wall in the first act. Despite Janet's own preference for poetry over prose, Tam Lin itself is quite clearly following in Jane Austen's footsteps. It is a comedy of manners, a romance driven by humor and wit rather than melodrama, and a very entertaining one at that, but it is lacking that depth of insight that made Austen's novels more than effervescent baubles. Clever and witty as it is, Tam Lin is a shallow novel, with little beneath its surface.

Janet is an unbelievable eighteen year old, not only too erudite but too worldly--too certain of her tastes and interests, too thoughtful in her interactions with others, too diligent and established in her scholarly habits, and much, much too confident. She seems more like a grad student than a college freshman, as do most of her friends. In scenes such as a party in which Janet recites "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" to an enraptured audience they create the impression not of a group of young people just beginning to separate their own likes and interests from the cultural morass in which they grew up, but of people who have already found their own subcultural bubble and have no interest in looking beyond it. Almost impossibly, it takes 200 pages for someone to mention popular music, and with the exception of a character who watches a Star Trek rerun once, contemporary movies and TV are never brought up, not because Janet and her friends are learning to like more rarefied things but because they seem never to have had any interest in popular culture to begin with. There are explanations for some of the characters' knowingness--Janet's father is a Blackstock professor, from whom she's learned her love of literature, and at least some of her friends are a great deal older than they seem--but not for all of it, and certainly not for their nearly uniform, penetrating understanding of human nature.
[The Lady's Not for Burning] contained two sets of lovers. If you were eighteen and had never been in love before, you could be excused for not saying or thinking or feeling the sort of things that Thomas Mendip and Jennet Jourdemayne said and thought and felt: Thomas and Jennet were entirely grown-up and had, so far as Janet could see, been through two separate versions of hell; no comfortable eighteen-year-old could expect to be as they were when they fell in love.

But the young lovers, Richard and Alizon, so silly and inexperienced that even Janet could smile at them and feel mildly superior--they, too, seemed to inhabit a country she had never visited. "Whenever my thoughts are cold and I lay them against Richard's name, They seem to rest On the warm ground where summer sits, As golden as a humblebee." When Janet's thoughts were cold, they stayed so. Nick was bright, but he wasn't warm.
Though it's in keeping with the novel's themes that Janet comes to this realization through literature, it beggars belief that she has enough insight into herself and into romance in general to express that epiphany so clearly (this also undercuts the pleasure of reading a novel whose characters so frequently express themselves, and are changed by, literature). The most realistic depiction of a college student in the novel is Janet's roommate Tina, who is intelligent and driven, but also self-centered and, which seems like a far greater crime to the other characters, conventional in her tastes and attitudes ("She's so damned romantic ... in the most prosaic way imaginable." Thomas says of her when they date). Tina is, as she should be at that stage in her life, an unformed person, and far too wrapped up in her problems to to understand herself, and express that understanding, as perfectly as the other characters do. The result of this tendency to constantly spell out the characters' state of mind is not a bad novel--in fact it might be the reason that Tam Lin is so effortlessly readable, as so little work has been left to the reader--but perversely enough it dehumanizes Dean's characters, who seem to be playing roles rather than simply existing.

Unsurprisingly for a novel so top-heavy with the effort of establishing and toying with its readers' expectations, Tam Lin overbalances when the time comes for its climax. The actual rescue of Thomas happens too quickly and too easily. In the ballad, Tam Lin tells Janet in great detail what she has to do to save him, and the next verse is essentially 'and that's what Janet did'--an approach that works well in ballads and fairy tales, but falls a little flat when Dean uses it. There's also too little made of Janet's uncertainty over whether to save Thomas, who may be manipulating her in order to save himself, and may have impregnated her for just that purpose (a pregnant woman is needed to break the spell). Having established that for Janet, this is an all or nothing choice--she's not willing to use her pregnancy to save Thomas and then terminate it--Dean spends too little time over Janet's deliberations, perhaps because by this point she's shed her coy pretense and committed to the story directing her characters' lives, which leaves her in a bind--she doesn't want Janet's choice to seem automatic, though clearly she could have made no other one. In the rush to the get to the ending, other characters' stories are left by the wayside. We never find out how things end up for Molly, who had been dating another member of Medeous's court, and Tina simply disappears with with no final statement on her fraught relationship with Janet--neither her selfishness nor her decency are given the chance to win through. The rushed, anticlimactic ending is not a fatal flaw--in a way it heightens our appreciation for the build-up that preceded it--but it does mean that Tam Lin ends not as the intriguing twist on the retold fairy tale trope but as the more conventional romance.

It's hard to know how to sum up Tam Lin--with its unconventional structure, or its conventional plot? The latter is by no means cause for complaint--it would be a curmudgeon indeed who would fault a novel for being a funny, charming, enjoyable romance (in that respect it put me very much in mind of Howl's Moving Castle, and I suspect that had I read Tam Lin ten or even five years ago I would have loved it unreservedly), and Dean has very clearly succeeded at writing the novel she was trying to write. But her intelligent use of genre tropes and her masterful playing on the readers' expectations build up the expectation of a novel that is something more, which never materializes. Tam Lin is a fun and engaging read, but it also feels a little like a missed opportunity.

11 comments:

cofax said...

I like this review, although I'm in the position of resisting your criticism, since I fell in love with the novel when it was first published and have read it multiple times since. I can't disagree with your characterization of Janet and her friends as being unrealistically mature and thoughtful, though--they are, in a sense, the most fantastic element of the story. Nobody at that age speaks like that, thinks like that. And yet in a sense that was one of the appeals of the novel: wouldn't it be wonderful to be that smart and well-read?

More than anything else, I think of Tam Lin as a college novel rather than a fantasy: the joys of the novel are the joys of that environment, finding new people with whom you explore a whole new universe of knowledge, and the density of experience that comes with those first few years out of the home. That the freshman year takes up half the book, and each following year is progressively faster, mirrors my college experience perfectly.

I do wonder, though: is there a particular reason you're reviewing this now?

charlene said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
charlene said...

Ohhh... Tam Lin. I read this before I went to college, and loved it. It did me a disservice, however, for just the reason you point out: it described college as bursting with people who were very sure of who they were, full of the wisdom of the ages, thoughtful and mature enough to be able to dissect themselves and others, and prone to quote Shakespeare and Homer at the drop of a hat. What I got, however, was a bunch of people, including me, who were very confused as to who we were and where we were going, had no idea what we were thinking or feeling, and who tended, instead of trading deep Greek thoughts, to make bad math jokes and quote the parts of Shakespeare we found funny ("O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!" was one we found particularly melodramatic and silly). I wouldn't trade my college experience for Janet's, but it certainly wasn't what this book led me to expect.

I reread it recently, and was interested to find, exactly as you say, that Janet became much less believable (I mean, really, she is considerably more mature about romance than many grad students I knew), and Tina struck me as much more of an ordinary college kid (as opposed to Evil Roommate) afflicted with a somewhat condescending roommate. It did still, however, after all these years and even though I know better, make me wonder if maybe I should've gotten a degree in English instead of physics after all.

Anyway, a long-winded way of saying: loved your review; it articulated a lot of things I thought about the book but never had put into words.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Cofax:

As I said, part of the reason I concentrated on the fantastic aspect of the novel rather than the college aspect was that Janet's college experience was so completely different from mine that it might as well have taken place in a fantasy world. And it also highlighted how unrealistic Janet's maturity was - among my classmates were 25 year olds who had firm plans to get married and have children, and none of them were as self-possessed as Janet is.

I'm reviewing this now because I've just now read it. I noticed when I was making up my best of year lists this winter that I'd read hardly any fantasy in 2008, so this year I'm having a fantasy extravaganza, and Tam Lin has for some time been on my list as a book I might be interested in.

Charlene:

I really am puzzled by Tina. I wonder whether I was meant to dislike her - the emphasis on her ordinariness seems, in particular, to be very damning. But I just felt very sorry for her, and a lot less sympathetic towards Janet, Thomas, and the others for how clearly they looked down on her for not being bookish and imaginative (and I say this as someone who is bookish and imaginative).

Sherwood said...

Interesting review. I think one of the reasons why this book worked so beautifully for me was because the college experience was utterly unlike mine (boarding instead of a long commute through traffic clogged L.A., real weather instead of constant smog and heat, real friends instead of being totally isolated, a beautiful setting instead of mundane Los Angeles), and because Janet and her friends were utterly unlike me (witty, articulate, sure of themselves). I think I love this book so much because it is a fantasia on the college experience: it could have left out the faerie world and been just as magical for me, though that really was the icing on the cake.

I always imagined Janet and the rest going off to live in Dorothy Sayers' Oxford, becoming dons, and slipping in and out of existence with ghosts and fae.

Foxessa said...

People got more than a bit angry with me when the book was published and my response is that these were not like any college people I knew when I was in college.

It was such a rarified and hot house, nay, even incestuous, situation, as to not be college as college was, at least here in the U.S., at least in those days.

Sara said...

The review matched my feelings about Tam Lin very closely, but I am still very fond of the book, in spite of the obvious unreality of the college life it portrays. Hey, it's a fantasy, right? And the unrealistic maturity of the characters can be partly understood because some of them are actually several hundred years old (or at least much older than they appear, as they have been serving the Faerie Queen all this time).

A family connection with the book is that the college is quite obviously Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, where my older brother was a student at roughly the same time as the book is set. He says is a delightful roman a clef for Carleton graduates, if a little hard on the Classics Department.

scandibaby said...

My best friend (who is now a professor of English) introduced me to the rarified world of Tam Lin, as reimagined by Pamela Dean, the year after it appeared in paperback, and I have reread it every year since, usually right around Halloween! Never have I been tempted to throw it out a window.

My friend and I were English majors in a small co-ed (an important distinction in 1970) Oregon college and we could empathize with Janet's concern to avoid pregnancy. Although we were never as erudite or verbose as Janet and her friends appeared to have been, we did inhabit a kind of fairyland of the mind. And because we were in a small college in the West, the Vietnam war and all the protests seemed to be a faint, distant problem (much as it seems to have been for Janet and her friends, none of whom worry about the war, protests, or the draft). I adored it unconditionally for many years and even wrote to Ms. Dean to obtain signed copies for my friend and me.

Last year, however, I felt something shift, and for the first time I was unable to reread Tam Lin either in October or indeed any time thereafater. So many rereadings had revealed the novels' many structural and narrative flaws; the rose-colored glasses fell, and I felt as though I had lost a beloved friend.

Yes, the ending was too rushed (as indeed were all the years of college after the freshman year), yes I wanted to know more about Molly and Robin, Tina and Nick, Medeous and Melinda Wolfe. It felt as though Ms. Dean tired of the novel or had come up against a deadline and had been told to wrap it up.

But if there are flaws, there are exquisite beauties as well, and I'm glad to have frolicked in the Blackstock/Carleton fairyland for as many years as I have.

When my friend gave me a copy of Tam Lin, she included a note that said she was glad she hadn't read it before college or her college experience would have disappointed her. Charlene expressed the same sentiment: "I wouldn't trade my college experience for Janet's, but it certainly wasn't what this book led me to expect."

I thank Sherwood for this delightful postscript: "I always imagined Janet and the rest going off to live in Dorothy Sayers' Oxford, becoming dons, and slipping in and out of existence with ghosts and fae."

This autumn I hope to rekindle the embers of my affection for Tam Lin when October winds blow the leaves around and I imagine myself running with a bust of Schiller towards a tangle of coeds and trees in a place called Blackstock.

Toxophilist said...

I wonder if you would permit a mere male (English at that) to comment; I first read Tam Lin in the early 1990s, and recently re-read it (and still enjoyed it). I can’t really comment on life in an American college, but I agree that Janet does seem a bit too mature for an eighteen year old.
I also agree with previous posters (and Abigail), that one of the flaws is the rushed ending, and also we get no real insight into who, or what, Medeous actually is. Is she the Queen of Faery, or an alien, or what?
But partway through on my recent re-reading it occurred to me that a possible interpretation could be that she is the mythical Medea, Jason’s jilted wife. A bit literal, perhaps, and does away with the fairyland business, but could explain some of the plot. For instance, her fascination with performing Ancient Greek plays in the original language. If I remember, she (Medea) originated from Colchis, but would no doubt have been immersed in Greek culture after her elopement.
This could give a couple of possible explanations for her longevity; she was traditionally a sorceress, so may have made some sort of bargain with the gods/Hades or whatever. Alternatively, we might speculate that she is under a punishment for her heinous crimes (murdering her cildren for one), and is doomed to walk the earth for some time. In either case we could speculate as to the purpose of her seven-year “tithes to Hell” (does she have to sacrifice people she loves?).
Of course it may be hat PD never intended any sequel, and always preferred the ending to be as it was, allowing each reader to his/her own interpretation, but I’d be interested in any thoughts.

theprophetsaid said...

I really enjoyed this review, especially since Tam Lin is one of my ultimate favorites books (it traveled across the pond with me for grad school). I would like to say, however, in defense of Janet and her cohorts that I was very similar in my college experience. My English department was very close nit, and there were many times we would sit and quote poems at each other rather than speak in normal words; I think this is a major reason why I love this book. It almost feels like home to me. I've always been a major fan of Keats and Eliot, so to read about people who loved them as much as I do was a great pleasure.

I can see why others might not enjoy it the same way, and I can see now in hindsight why Janet and her friends may seem more mature than they should; However, it may be prudent to point out that the only characters in the book who are actually college age are Janet, Molly, Tina and Thomas. Nick, Robin, and many of the other classics majors are hundreds of years old and probably wouldn't be acting in the way of a normal college student.

I also agreed that the ending seemed a bit rushed, but having re-read the book about five times I can now pick out the small, small foreshadowing that starts from the first time the phantom books fly out the window. I think this book is great for people who love literature and poetry and who want to get their feet wet with light urban fantasy.

I also have a slightly larger than school girl crush on Thomas, but I think that may go without saying.

Sarah @ The Bookshelf Pirate said...

I just read this review today. How I wish I had come across it before I read and reviewed Tam Lin myself, as I was rather disappointed by the book and could have used some warning. My own expectations definitely stemmed from the title, description, and cover suggesting that it would be a fantastic re-telling of my favorite ballad. Had the book been titled differently, with fewer obvious connotations, maybe then I wouldn't have been so impatient for something legendary to occur. I would love to go back in time and start reading it again without such specific expectations, because Pamela Dean did hide some great hints to the ballad and fairy folklore in the mundane details, but they weren't enough to satisfy me. The pacing really turned me off, too – I was constantly frustrated that it took so bloody long for the plot to really catch up with itself. When the magical storyline finally did come crashing down around the characters it felt so rushed and almost formulaic, despite the rest of the novel actively resisting any formula. Again, maybe if I hadn't been expecting a certain plot to develop...

I think that such unrealistic characters could have been an excellent part of the novel's set up: I really like your point that Blackstock functions as its own fantasy realm, and the students there could be separated from reality to various degrees. But since they behaved so oddly, and yet seemed wholly wrapped up in such mundane pre-occupations such as academics and campus life and dining hall food, I could see them as neither relatable students nor characters in a convincing magical subculture. (The exception to this, in my opinion, might be Thomas. I think his character had one foot solidly in the world of fantasy, and at the same time his reactions to the drama around him were more believable than anyone else's.) I've never read Farah Mendlesohn's taxonomy of Fantasy, but would very much like to find it now.

After reading your thoughts and the other comments here, I think that I should try to re-read Tam Lin in a few years. This time, I will choose a time when I crave immersion in a college setting and lots of academic conversations, rather than a fresh twist on a favorite old story. (Though I still can't get over how smug some of their conversations were! I'm not sure I would be able to sustain a conversation with Janet for more than five minutes, despite our shared interests.) Maybe when I'm not hunting down moments of fairy influence and parallels to the original story, I'll be able to notice some of the enjoyable aspects several commenters above me seem to appreciate.

Thanks for writing such a thoughtful review. I really enjoyed reading this – you've articulated some of my own gripes about the book much more clearly than I could in my own review, which I wrote in a state of baffled disappointment. I'll be sending a link to this along to my friend before she borrows and reads my copy of the book, to give her fair warning.

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