Beast by Paul Kingsnorth

Come to a place like this, far from the estates and the ring roads and the car parks and the black fields of beet and the screen-dumb people pacing out the slow suicide of the West around the pedestrianized precincts. Come to a place like this, shut your mouth and your mind and walk on the moor, walk in the wind and the sun, and you will understand that this world is a great animal, alive and breathing, that we walk through it, we breathe with it, we are its breath, that when we stand on a mountain overcome by the sunset and all that it brings, or fall to our knees in front of an altar in the presence of something greater than ourselves, then we are sensing the animal shift and turn beneath our feet. Then it is calling us home.

The place like this our nameless protagonist has come to, thirteen months past abandoning his wife and newborn daughter, is a ramshackle house amid the English moor. Here, he spends time contemplating the universe, comparing primeval nature to industrial humanity, and plunging his body into freezing water to surpass pain and selfhood alike. It’s good. Well-written, interesting, and posing uncomfortable but thoughtful questions such as: is it better to live as a miserable, suicidal person or abandon your entire family for over a year to potentially return as a better one?

There’s something primordially compelling about ‘man alone in nature’ type stories. Whether it be reading of this guy patching up a house, heating some sprouting potatoes on an old stove and living in thought and silence or something like William Vollmann living several days in obscenely low temperatures simply to experience it and learn something about himself, I follow along, rapt. I then brush it all off, knowing that I never would go live alone in the woods for years nor spend two weeks in the Arctic, but maybe, even being sure in that knowledge, I am closer to the allure that has captured these men than I give credit to. In any case, I certainly like reading about it and wondering how I would fare in their place. Indeed, the ‘reading’ part is key here. I generally don’t care for movies or reality shows of a similar stripe. I don’t need to see the tree fall, I want to delve into the realm of thought accompanying it. 

Alas, this premise only persists for the first 15-20 pages of Beast. Early on, a storm threatens the patchwork roof of the roughshod house. The protagonist climbs up to fix it. Next, we find him waking up, seriously injured, and more importantly, knocked senseless. The novel shifts, embracing a mixture of vague sentiments and surreality. He no longer thinks in specifics: his family, his former life, or even the saints and martyrs contemplated earlier. We abandon context and specificity, not to mention commas. It’s an encompassing vagueness — foggy landscapes, unclear physical sensations, and yes, a beast.

i had always thought that if i were to jump off a cliff i would be able to fly to control myself with my arms somehow to crash elegantly onto the rocks but no nothing works i flail and flap like i am boneless down and down and i will be eaten and if you have never been eaten then what are you.

While the newly christened refrain “if you have never been eaten then what are you” is kind of funny, it doesn’t hold up like anything the first dozen pages promised. I have never been eaten and honestly I just don’t find it a crucial component to self-actualization. On the other hand, I have observed/been one of those “screen-dumb people pacing out the slow suicide of the West”. Even though the writing remains strong, it’s impossible not to be disappointed by the content.

I picked this up because I loved The Wake. Beast forms part two of a loosely related trilogy, despite there being a thousand years between them, and even for all of its faults, I’m still greatly anticipating the next one. Kingsnorth’s grasp on a distinct kind of English wildness and the prose he uses to elucidate it transports me. 

The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer (Terra Ignota #3)

I love this series.

Regardless of what I’ll write next about the good or the bad and what worked or what didn’t, I’ll start by stating how pleasing it is to open these books and be surprised. This is part of why I read in the first place. Not for comfort or for safety, but to experience new ideas, to be taken to new places, to encounter characters whose journey I find dear while also illuminating human experience out in the real world. I’ll read a few books a year that deliver this pleasure. They’re rarely sci-fi or fantasy, which is too bad, because if I’m honest with myself, then I know that’s where my heart lies.

Following the events of the first two books, the global conspiracy enacted by the Humanists to prevent world war by systemically assassinatinating persons that will increase global unrest has become public knowledge. Most of the planet is in an uproar over what to do with the perpetrators and their trial is a significant plot point, finally revealing the meaning of ‘Terra Ignota’, the series title. Ironically, this serves as yet another trigger point for that very same theoretical, now actual, War. War that puts all of humanity at risk since technology has so rapidly increased in the two hundred years since the last big one, wherein we barely scraped by.

While the previous books were already heavy on conversation (& The Conversation), The Will to Battle is nearly entirely dialogue or summary of dialogue, at times going so far as to abandon narrative conventions (“he said”) entirely and become transcript:

I: “Lied to you? How?”
Kosala: “They said they’d help me work for peace, while all that time the two of you were training your private army.”
I: “That was no lie, Chair Kosala. Achilles wants peace, more than anything.”
Kosala: “You both believe the peace movement is doomed.”
I: “All mortal things are doomed: you, me, this peace, the Empire, this planet. Achilles doesn’t choose sides based on how likely things are to succeed, only whether they’re worth dying for.”

The straightforwardness of this is warped by our narrator’s madness, wherein characters who couldn’t be present in the scene are included. This includes recently dead fictional characters, metafictional characters (The Reader), and long-dead real world characters (Hello again, Thomas Hobbes). There’s a brilliant sequence early on where Mycroft takes the newly resurrected Achilles to meet all the world leaders and the setting shifts from one capital to the next and one Emperor or President to the next mid-conversation and without warning. This allows us to be many places at once without transition and cement clear contrasts between the great leader’s opinions and motivations in this almost-war period.

The structure of these novels requires our slate of main characters be an incestuous bunch of world leaders, who at times leave me praying for the series to end with a Hamlet-esque purge of the entire cast (especially Cornel fuckin’ MASON). This means it’s difficult to see regular people, with their riots, looting, or food hoarding as real actors. Given that a major plot point involves running census numbers to determine how likely unrest and outright war are, this is far from a world of individuals. It is a world of data and Great Thinkers instead. This is necessary to focus on the big questions Palmer wants to ask, or at least necessary for the means she wishes to ask them: People arguing about grand questions of philosophy, what lengths are worth going to for peace, and what means are justified, and being able to act on the conclusions they reach. Would you destroy this word to save a better one? How much is one life worth versus the future of humanity? And who gets to choose?

Quoth Fyodor Dostoevsky:

Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me:  imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, [one child], and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?. . . And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and having accepted it, to remain forever happy?

This passage is also imagined as an SF story written by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, which is also quite good. It’s a topic always sure to cause great debate at the bar.  The Will to Battle isn’t quite the same, since the decision is calculated killing of innocents vs. bowing under the yoke of an alien god, but it raises many similar questions.

The series is not without flaws. Since the cast is so large and the scope so wide, Palmer must resort to quick characterization schemes. I think we have several people now whose shorthand characterization is a metaphorical familial relationship (i.e. the Mother of the World, the Grandpa/ma of the Senate, etc). Perhaps because of the immense labor of introducing all these characters, Palmer is loathe to let them go and introduce too many new ones, but there is no good reason for Merion Kraye to potentially be around nor for Head Sensayer Julia to not be imprisoned (or for another jail-bound character to escape). Conversely, I wondered what the point of spending so much time with Carlyle Foster in the earlier books was if they were barely going to be featured here at all.

A blurb on the back of the book from Jo Walton gushes:

This is the kind of science fiction that makes me excited all over again about what science fiction can do. Lots of books can knock you over and leave you reeling and dazzled when you’re fifteen, but it takes something special to do the same thing to you at fifty.

I’m not fifty but the same still applies. I wish it happened more but I treasure it when it occurs at all.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

More of a collection of poetry fragments, parables, and clever wordplay than a regular novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers immerses us in the home of a father and his two boys, recently bereft of their wife and mother, and attended by a grief-eating, grief-healing crow. It’s funny and sad. At one hundred pages and less than an hour to read, it seems excessive to spend many words on a review, so instead I will paste this delightful chapter elucidating the psychology of a crow:

Head down, tot-along, looking
Head down, hop-down, totter.
Look up. ‘LOUD, HARD AND INDIGNANT KRAHH NOTES’ (Collins Guide to Birds, p-45).
Head down, bottle-top, potter.
Head down, mop-a-lot, hopper.
He could a learn a lot from me.
That’s why I’m here.

Short books are strange. I’ve read many good ones and forgotten most of them. It seems like like there is some minimum time investment, something reached only by the repeated labor of turning pages, that is personally required for a book to feel like a book, to be shelved mentally between the memories of thousands of others. 

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

There’s two different kinds of prequels.

The first is most interested in the world of the story it is prequalizing. It will feel familiar in setting and tone, but the plot and events will only be distantly related. The story is self-contained, regardless of what occurs in the chronological future and literary past. I prefer this type.

The second is concerned with the characters and the events that led them to the place they start the original story. It elaborates on missing details of their personality or backstory and in general fills in the gaps. Unlike the first kind, this prequel relies on the reader having first read the original work. 

The Book of Dust, whose plot revolves around the fate of baby Lyra, the child protagonist of the His Dark Materials series, is the second type. While Lyra is not the main character here (she’s an infant), the story is all about answering questions of her past and putting her in the place she’ll eventually start the main series. The reason I like this structure less than the first is that the big important stuff has already happened. Actually, it has yet to happen but I’ve already read it. It makes everything feel like small potatoes as the the plot, regardless of how well written or interesting it might be, is all set-up for the big stuff.

I read the big stuff 20 years ago. His Dark Materials stuck with me as a young teen, as very few young adult books did then or since, which is why I picked this book up as soon as I saw it front-and-center at the book store. Pullman does not insult his reader’s intelligence and his splendid prose was (and is) far better than most authors writing for young people. The language is largely indistinguishable from an adult book and occasionally when he uses an unfamiliar word, Pullman will turn it into a learning experience. For instance, on page 3, you read:

More than once Malcolm had ferried Sister Benedicta to the Royal Mail zeppelin station with a precious parcel of stoles or copes or chasubles for the bishop of London, who seemed to wear his vestments very hard, for he got through them unusually quickly.

Then a page or two later, Malcolm asks Sister Benedicta what a chasuble is. It’s a clever device. It bonds the reader to Malcolm by acknowledging you were both thinking the same thing and it establishes the narrator as a warm presence who is thoughtful in regards to how the reader is absorbing each individual word.

The Book of Dust, despite being lettered all big on the cover is actually the series’ name. Book 1 is technically called La Belle Sauvage, which is the name of the sturdy canoe of our eleven year old hero, Malcolm Polstead. Far up the Thames from London lies a cozy inn named the Trout, across from an old stone bridge where a Priory full of nuns sells baked goods and provides sanctuary to weary travelers and political dissidents alike. This is Malcolm’s world, as the son of the innkeepers, frequent student of the nuns, and river adventurer atop La Belle Sauvage. The first half of the novel lies entirely within this setting. The nuns take in a particularly unusual guest. Shady figures roam the inn and priory at night. The ever-oppressive Church invades Malcolm’s school. While slow-paced and somewhat uneventful, it’s easy to become absorbed in the day to day drama of the locale. It’s the book’s better half.

The second half of the book is the inevitable adventure awaiting all boys with trusty boats. The Thames floods and Malcolm is whisked away towards London, bearing a precious cargo. The setting shifts here, uneasily from science-based-magic to pure fairy tale. Underwater giants and faerie queens. Magic mirrors and fruit. It’s not a good shift. Pullman dabbles in archetypal stories and is simply not as good at it as he is with other themes, and worse, not as good as good as other writers who have done the same. Everything from impossible waterfalls to phantom villages peopled by ghosts are crucially lacking the enchantment they require. On top of this, the final confrontation with the main antagonist is stupid in like six separate ways. Too bad; he was a good villain. 

The climatic scene wherein we arrive in London is rushed (strange for a book twenty years in the making) and as I closed the back cover, I was left with a general feeling of “huh.” I still enjoyed it. It’s hard to say how much of this was on La Belle Sauvage’s own merits versus the hoary roots of nostalgia sunk deeply in my childhood, but I’ll almost certainly continue on to book two.

The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

“He is a scoundrel, else he’d not have taken such advantage of my innocence.”

“That only proves him human, as you shall learn.”

Ebenezer Cooke, virgin poet and nincompoop, is booted from his aimless life in London, for more or less wasting his time and his father’s money, and journeys to his famalial estate in Maryland to manage the Sot-Weed (old timey name for tobacco) trade. It’s 16XX. The colonies are at eachothers throats, living out the same petty-but-deadly religious conflicts as the old world, and the french and native tribes creep at the door. Plot’s afoot, intrigue abounds.

Part of the pleasure of The Sot-Weed Factor is immersing thyself in its sordid universe. Not just the period dialogue — your thou’s and marry’s and i’faith’s and anon’s. Much like Don Quixote, a novel The Sot-Weed Factor owes no small debt to, characters tell each other stories. A choice encounter in a stable leads to a freshly introduced character spinning a yarn a dozen pages long. These tales, entertaining in their own right, inevitably become entangled with the greater plot. Coincidences abound. If a character is mentioned at any point, they’re sure to show up later, often dramatically. Perhaps they’ll turn out to be a character already introduced. Indeed, the people of this universe can simply don another’s dress and adopt a manner of speaking to become someone else entirely.

This extends to the bizarre sexual character of the universe. A significant plot point is the protagonists hunting the secret journal of John Smith, wherein he details his perverse sexual exploits, beginning with Pocahontas. Pretty much everyone is under constant threat of being raped. From pirates, sailors, “salvages”, colonists, anyone. There’s actually a rape boat, the less spoken of the better. At times, it’s unclear whether you’re supposed to laugh or shiver.  Ebenezer’s virginity and how he may lose it, through force, love, or mad lust is a constant focus.  It is no exaggeration to say it that the various pornographic interludes are as core to The Sot-Weed factor as American history or period dialogue.

As a young writer, Barth’s interest lied in nihilism. Writing this novel led him to realize he was concerned more with innocence. Despite being around thirty at the onset of his voyage, Eben Cooke is innocent of the world. In part, this is due to his nature as bumbling protagonist, a device the novel embraces wholeheartedly to guide him from one folly to the next. But only in part. Other aspects of his innocence are more realistic and timeless. It is the privilege of his station as a wealthy Englishman that allows him to be innocent of, or shall we say ignorant of, the plight of virtually everyone else in the world.

Naturally, Eben must grow. He cannot remain an innocent nonce, clueless of the world, battered down repeatedly, captured by pirates, abused by gentlemen and common workers alike, forever. He is not Don Quixote.  While it takes many pages, the reader groaning at his latest dubious decision, he learns. Take this paragraph for instance, wherein Ebenezer is captured by an Indian-African alliance and about to be executed:

This conclusion, which the poet reached more by insight than speculation, was followed by another, whose logic ran thus: The point in space and time whereto the history of the world had brought him would be nothing perilous were it not for the hostility of the Indians and the Negroes. But it was their exploitation by the English colonists that had rendered them hostile; that is to say, by a people to whom the accidents of history had given the advantage–Ebenezer did not doubt that his captors, if circumstances were reversed, would do just what the English were doing. To that extent, then, that historical movements are expressions of the will of the people engaged in them, Ebenezer was a just object for his captors’ wrath, for he belonged […] to the class of the exploiters; as an educated gentleman of the western world he had shared in the fruits of his culture’s power and must therefore share what guilt that power incurred. Nor was this the end of his responsibility: for if it was the accidents of power and position that made the difference between exploiters and exploited, and not some mysterious specialization of each group’s spirit, then it was as “human” for the white man to enslave and dispossess as it was “human” for the black and red to slaughter on the basis of color alone; the savage who would put him to the torch anon was no less his brother than was the trader who had once enslaved the savage.

(Wise words from 1960. Don’t praise Barth too much though. Those very same natives are played as stereotypes and often the target of sexual gags.)

The writing is very good. Very, very good. I hope the samples I’ve pasted above illustrates this. It’s hard to read a small-print 800 page novel that isn’t pleasant to read or has a gripping plot and The Sot-Weed Factor nails the former and surprisingly flirts with the latter. Due to the holiday break, I’m only writing this now, nearly a month after I completed it, but the feel of the language, of being immersed within it is still clear and brings a grin to my face to briefly re-live it.