Books

Thursday 2, September

The Red Tree - Caitlín R. Kiernan

(the cover shown here IS NOT representative of content. Buy the book with your eyes closed, if you have to)

I don't know what to write here. I was hoping the last 120 pages of the book would offer me a better direction for my comments but I'm even more troubled now that I finished the book. I also read a few things online about some suspects I had and, finding them true, I blame myself for having doubted of their relevance. So I have this whole new point of view and interpretation that should have been there from the beginning.

Let's put down the framework first. "The Red Tree" is a kind of supernatural, horror, psychological journey that borrows heavily from the long and solid tradition and that recovers and updates what made Lovecraft "work". Not an homage or imitation, but the revelation that what built those genres is still well alive and relatively uncompromised. It's the first book I read of Caitlín R. Kiernan but I soon discovered I had also read some comics written by her so many years ago that I don't remember anymore anything specific about them (The Dreaming). The book is structured in a way somewhat similar to Danielewski's House of Leaves, probably far less convoluted and pretentious, but the aspect I think is more relevant is the game of mirrors. Trivializing a lot: a lesbian writer writes about a lesbian writer who writes a diary about herself. (and I should mention that I have a particular love for meta-narratives) Then at some point the mirror shatters and we have her discovering a short story about herself that she doesn't remember to have written at all. As well more mirrors of herself and her dead lover coming from the past, and maybe the future.

But that's misleading as the story is the one of this alter-ego fictional writer, Sarah Crowe, who flees from her former life and rents an house in the countryside. She begins to write her diary when she discovers in the basement of the big house the incomplete draft of a research written by the previous tenant (now dead), about a nearby oak on which converged a number of legends. The framework and execution, at this level, is made of the solid tradition I mentioned above. Soon the bits of legends Sarah reads seep into her reality and slowly build an estrangement from the "real" world. The researcher's obsession becomes the Sarah's own, and one doesn't even have to speculate the woman will share the previous tenant's fatal destiny as that is already spoiled right in the introduction. It's a descent into madness when the solid reality under one's feet starts to crack and give way. The "abscess" that opens and swallows, and that one's too frightened to look into. The ideal spook story would then end with a plausible rationalization that explains everything, but with the supernatural element still very possible and not completely fended off, and the reader left wondering if it was all true or not, and so the resulting haunting ambiguity.

All this stays true to this book. While I was reading I kept waiting for some reversal of canons that would bring novelty and would justify the great praises the book received, but that didn't come. It didn't come from the way I was expecting it. The story stays well within the canons, it's not a "modern" interpretation. It doesn't drop some classic conceits: it appropriates the canons. And that is where it hits, but also the part that gave me some problems and so I'm not too confident to wrap up and be done with it. The problem being that I'm not sure I have interpreted it in the right way, or in a way that can be reasonably considered complete or accurate. Too many aspects that I can't place correctly in the frame, and also the feeling I don't have any hope to eventually figure it out. A bit frustrating.

The whole context is of the kind that puts me off balance. I prefer much more to have things stated bluntly, so that I can get to the nuanced aspects once I get the perimeter well defined. While I have a really hard time to start from the nuances and relate to a perimeter in-the-making that is never quite set and solid. You know, punching holes into certainty. Rationalization as the antidote to comprehension. These habits and mindsets of mine don't really help here. Now excuse me the following utterly sexist and horrid sweeping generalization. It's like I'm gaping into the mind of a woman, feeling slightly intrigued, slightly amused, then set the thing down and walk away shaking my head, thinking: "What a fucking mess". But then I don't think I'm a sexist and so I come away just feeling I'm missing a whole lot and don't have what it takes to figure it out.

I should say that these "problems" are entirely my own and that I do not recognize in the novel itself. I just have to deal with writing an incomplete "review" and the feeling I can't leave the thing behind in a satisfying way. Yet do not worry, because even if you share my own shortcomings there's still plenty to appreciate. The book is really well written and gripping, a personal journey you will remember, and I think that even if I wasn't able to formulate a final explanation (or one that isn't so simplistic that I dismissed it right away), I was still able to grasp a core of meaning. The same core of meaning that builds the "worth" of this book.

The only beacon I had is self-fashioned and about the whole argument of "truthfulness" in literature that i discussed in the past. For most of the book I was trying to "get" it, but already from the first pages I noticed and appreciated the style of writing. I said the book stays well within the canons, but this doesn't apply to the writing style. There's no use of classical language or rhetoric or fancy flourishes. It doesn't read like a dusty old tome. The language is modern and tight, the voice surprisingly authentic. It's the writing to surface and shine instead of the story, and I was captured by the mundane long before I started developing interest in the supernatural aspects. Sarah's character won me before everything else and I was wondering how the book would proceed if I continued to be so weirdly biased toward the mundane. I thought it was my own problem since as a teenager I fed so much on the horror genre that nowadays it hardly has anything to offer, but now I think that this effect was somewhat intended. The supernatural aspect comes up with more strength toward the end of the book, obviously, but it does so in an unexpected way. It's the mundane to become horror, and it's one own feelings to open on the pit no one dares look into. The darkness is the human being. Or, to quote Bakker, the darkness comes before, and AFTER:

It's only after that we understand what has come before, then we understand nothing. Thus we shall define the soul as follows: that which precedes everything.

Superstition. Everywhere and in everything, Leweth had confused that which came after with that which came before, confused the effect for the cause. Men came after, so he placed them before and called them “gods” or “demons.” Words came after, so he placed them before and called them “scriptures” or “incantations.” Confined to the aftermath of events and blind to the causes that preceded him, he merely fastened upon the ruin itself, men and the acts of men, as the model of what came before.

I still clearly haven't reconciled with this, as I am sure that the book reinforces this idea that the darkness comes after (so a man or woman create and shape it), as well its opposite, that the darkness comes before and that what was discovered was indeed out of time and true. Inhuman, absolute. That those hallucinations were real. And I'm even more fucked if I think my whole interpretation (the darkness that comes after) is only due to me reading Bakker, and so completely uprooted from what "The Red Tree" wanted to show. What a mess, indeed. A few hours ago on twitter I sent a comment to Caitlín Kiernan since she tweeted she didn't want her works to be classified as "urban fantasy" so I suggested Mark Charan Newton fancy definition of "Rural Fantasy". She replied directly and seriously to what was intended as just a transitory joke, but after finishing the book this offered, and confirmed, the different perspective. She wants it called "dark fantasy". And that darkness is maybe entirely within, and not outside.

In any case, there are elements of the plot I can't place at all (like the seven paintings and corresponding messages, I couldn't make anything out of them) and so the proof that even if I may have gotten something framed correctly the whole picture is still far away...

I should also mention that the descent into madness is also proportional to clarity and self-awareness. That's maybe the most unconventional and unexpected aspect of the book. The "unreliable narrator" is a device presented in a self-aware way, used to give the text that ambiguity that keeps the disparate interpretations plausible at the same time. But toward the end this unreliable narrator becomes the only authoritative guide. One assumes that madness corresponds to a loss of contact with truth, but here the whole meta-narrative becomes clear in the mind of the character and she even seems to mock herself for it, and maybe it's this to provide a way to escape madness by sacrificing an envelope to it.

I consider it quite an awesome book. In spite of these themes surfacing, I still personally enjoyed the characters so much that I would have loved it even if it removed all the supernatural parts and layers. I mean, I was loving that character with or without the darker side exposed. I was loving the unforgiving way Sarah saw herself, the nihilistic aspects. Her relationship and how painfully truthfully it is written. A kind of desperation that destroys any attempt for embellishment or rhetoric. Even WITHIN fiction:

I am usually at my most brutally forthright when making shit up. That's the paradox of me. And having lied, it doesn't mean that I was necessarily dishonest.

A book whose stronger aspect is, paradoxically, the demystification. And, maybe, literature as a form of therapy. One of the most emotionally involving and authentic novels I've read.

Saturday 28, August

Prince of Nothing maps

I hunted around for good copies of the maps printed in the "Prince of Nothing" trilogy, same as I did for Malazan.

The US edition of the book is rather badly done, the map is printed on two pages and the central part is missing. So here are the two maps in the best resolution I could find. These are better even than the official ones Bakker provided on his site (which I think is now offline).

- Eärwa
- The Western Three Seas

Friday 27, August

Literature as a consolatory device

I took the occasion of a forum discussion to delve in some ideas I was brooding for some time. It's again the ideal link between all the books I've read lately, with "Infinite Jest" as the central pillar.

The discussion about characters is the excuse to examine literature and its position in the grand scheme of things.

--

the soldiers are just random mouthpieces for the author, who'll switch attitude (I cannot speak of personalities: they don't actually have personalities) with every scene. It's not really hard to be more powerful than that :)

Take Gardens of the Moon. On my first read I could hardly match a Bridgeburner name with the corresponding character, if I did the description of the personality of that character would still be rather limited.

I'm following Tor re-read of the same book now. With the struggle to memorize names and context out of the way I'm discovering a whole new layer in characterization that was almost entirely missing on my first read. Dialogue that was before just between anonymous masks is now consistent with the character and unexpectedly rich in nuances. I feel like I'm reading a wholly different book. Not just consistent but filled to the brim with cross-references that required the insight I didn't have before. Things to glide over or just producing a big question mark to then move on with the reading. The last two pages I've read about Rallick Nom gave an introspection and depth to the character that I didn't remember was there, written really well. The tension of Kalam and Quick Ben when they are found by Sorry, and the realization that what they thought was correct, and that it meant they would be dead. Or when they leave for their mission, knowingly reciting a number of delusions as to exorcise them. Then the scene with Whiskeyjack waiting for them with the rest of the squad, a scene where every line adds something to the characterization and true friendship of the whole squad, the dialogue between them, and then the arrival of Quick Ben who cringes in front of WJ, and WJ losing his patience. An undeniable feel that these characters have been together for a really long time, and not just since the beginning of the written page. Characters that come out of the page, with natural dialogue between them and drawn from they are, and not directed to the reader.

That scene is as great as any Black Company scene written by Glen Cook, and it's from a book that is far from the best Erikson delivered when it comes to characterization.

The confusion and inconsistency isn't of the characters, it is of the reader. The books pretend a reader to memorize and familiarize way more than it is possible, way more than what it is reasonable to ask, and that's why re-reads are so revelatory in this series about both characters and plot. The confusion of the reader is undeniable because the series represents the far opposite of "accessibility". It's actually a big flaw the series has. It is inimical, too dense and unwieldy. But the characterization is there in that ink and it is consistent. It requires more patience than usual because you only get quick glimpses at a great number of characters, and they only become "real" characters with an adequate amount of pages and time, time that is definitely not easily available among readers who are already having an hard time getting through a so dense book and digesting Erikson parsimonious writing style.

Erikson's characterization can be compared to an impressionist painter who only delicately dabs and sketches. It will take time to familiarize and recognize a character for what it actually is, and to appreciate the panting that at a first glance appeared as just a confusion of random colors. The forms are in the painting, but it takes time to make the eye used to them and recognize them for their value.

This opposed to a traditional type of characterization (neither better nor worse, just different) where you stay in the mind of a character for the long haul. Full-on introspection that begins giving you the context of where and how that person is living, what he feels, what he loves, his fears, his desires. A thoroughly rationalized character. That makes a reader familiarize and understand it. Identify himself and so "caring" for the personal story and feel emotional attachment and empathy.

The heritage of "modern" fantasy was not in delivering characters that are "gray". But in forcing the reader into their PoV. We often have warring factions, but we zoom into both of them, taking both sides. All of the recent fantasy with gray characters could be turned into solid black and white by just removing the corresponding PoVs. Without motivations and alternative observation points, every story becomes polarized.

The thing Erikson successfully or unsuccessfully tries to realize with his characterization is about starting to show that "stories" exist with the characters, but also in spite of them. The real world chews characters and spits them out, is disdainful of personal stories. A book can usually follow the life of a character through an ideal arc, whose premises define its conclusion. But that's the nice trick and deceit that traditional literature does to the real world. The illusion that there is "sense" and "meaning". Beginnings and ends. Justice. Retribution. Payoff. We create "meaning" out of a meaningless, unjust world. Lives are cut short and no one actually dies only once he solved his issues. Flaws, imperfection, lack of meaning and especially the lack of understanding of others are the things that are always true. Humanity is about the damnation of the deceit of seeing "meaning" where there is none. It's a tragedy, and the Malazan series is written as a tragedy. It's not "fantasy", it's a 1:1 copy of this world, a reflection on a only slightly misshapen mirror.

To grieve is a gift best shared. As a song is shared.
Deep in the caves, the drums beat. Glorious echo to the herds whose thundering hoofs celebrate what it is to be alive, to run as one, to roll in life's rhythm. This is how, in the cadence of our voice, we serve nature's greatest need.
Facing nature, we are the balance.
Ever the balance to chaos.

"in the cadence of our voice" means a written page. Language. Or what only separates humanity from the rest of life forms. (I am a man. I stand apart from these things.) Nature is the chaos from where we desperately scrape meaning.

With that lacerating truth in mind, Erikson realizes characters whose story (and characterization) is shred and tattered. Suspicion and opaqueness are traits that are true in our world. And if a foe suddenly turns into a possible ally it's not "inconsistency", it's understanding. Full-on introspection doesn't work like that even for ourselves. (Foster Wallace attempts "true" full-on introspection with the result that it generates a tremendous annihilating whirlpool that either sucks you in or hurls you away) We don't have the privilege of a personal writer who overlooks what we do every day and inscribes meaning and finality into our lives. We are opaque and uncertain even to ourselves, even less to one that merely observes. Meaning is not "found" outside, it is created within. The story of the Malazan series is unmindful of characters, it's up to the characters to find their path, only to see it end abruptly. And up to the reader to decide what to do with them.

The only journey that lay ahead of him was a short one, and he must walk it alone.
He was blind, but in this no more blind than anyone else. Death's precipice, whether first
glimpsed from afar or discovered with the next step, was ever a surprise. A promise of
the sudden cessation of questions, yet there were no answers waiting beyond. Cessation
would have to be enough. And so it must be for every mortal. Even as we hunger for
resolution. Or, even more delusional: redemption.

Now, after all this time, he was able to realize that every path eventually, inevitably
dwindled into a single line of footsteps. There, leading to the very edge. Then… gone.
And so, he faced only what every mortal faced. The solitude of death, and oblivion's final
gift that was indifference.

The Malazan series is not consolatory, it is about compassion and reconciliation.

The beauty that stilled

I couldn't wait anymore to start reading R. Scott Bakker so I've taken The Darkness That Comes Before from the shelf even if I still have to finish The Red Tree, and before Sanderson's Way of Kings flies over here. After being engaged deeply with Erikson, Bakker's themes appear as a natural extension of what I've learned to appreciate. There's some sort of dialogue between these books and I'm intrigued by what will come out.

What comes before determines what comes after. Dûnyain monks spent their lives immersed in the study of this principle, illuminating the intangible mesh of cause and effect that determined every happenstance, and minimizing all that was wild and unpredictable. Because of this, events always unfolded with granitic certainty in Ishuäl. More often than not, one knew the skittering course a leaf would take through the terrace groves. More often than not, one knew what another would say before he spoke. To grasp what came before was to know what would come after. And to know what would come after was the beauty that stilled, the hallowed communion of intellect and circumstance - the gift of the Logos.

See how this excerpt, from the prologue of Bakker's book, will tie nicely with my next post.

Wednesday 25, August

First and Only - Dan Abnett

This is a lean book that took me to read way more than expected, mostly because it fits the "other read" while I was engaged with more meaty books. A debut, as a writer writing books instead of comics, and first in a rather long series made of standalones. This is where Dan Abnett started writing Warhammer 40K, accordingly to the internet not his best effort in the field, but a decent and solid one still. Optional as a starting point since one could start right with Eisenhorn or the multi-writer crossover of the "Horus Heresy" currently being published. Instead this specific series, whose opening volume is "First and Only", is made of twelve books already released with more planned, but the number shouldn't discourage as the story moves either through standalone stories or story arcs that are over in three or four books. There are also these nice & cheap omnibus that pack together those arcs in mammoths of 800-1000 pages, so you're not chasing in frustration a conclusion that never comes. You can satisfyingly read just one and stop, or go on as far as you want, guilt-free.

Genre is military sci-fi. Common theme to the series are "Gaunt's Ghosts" a specific regiment in the Imperial Guard faction and the ongoing campaign on Sabbat Worlds, whose name correctly implies dealing with Chaos and defining Abnett's own playground. Gaunt being the name of their leader and main character/hero, Ghosts being the nickname of said squad (the story will give some insight into the choice of the name and origin). It's effectively tie-in fiction, and so branded with prejudice, but the fact is that Abnett is a competent writer who can stay perfectly within the canon, know what his public wants, and deliver a successful product. There's nothing bleeding edge, innovative, or breaking the boundaries of the 40K setting, but the execution is good and the book delivers what it is meant to. Abnett can understand and squeeze out of the setting all the specific tropes that make it interesting and fascinating, and can write it so that it doesn't feel plain and spoiled by the game it's based on. Meaning that the "canon" successfully empowers instead of trivialize and conform. That's always the gamble, knowing the canon and so knowing the "range" of the possible story, tiptoeing within the strictly defined perimeter. Abnett proves then that you can have fun with those toys instead of creating new ones, that there are qualities within to exploit.

Writing a good book here pairs with giving a specific audience "tied-in" the canon what it wants. I'm not really familiar with the setting so I can't comment if the picture Abnett gives is a faithful one, but he definitely seem to get the basics that make it work. WH40K is an apocalyptic setting about excess and exaggeration, but also about human traits and artifacts brought to the extremes. The potential for drama is high, but also the potential for something spectacular and epic and ultimately fun. In this book Abnett bundles epic infantry warfare with military/political intrigue, so while the plot goes through a number of setpieces/key battles on various worlds, there's also an overarching story that links and gives meaning to these battles, leading to a culmination where the import of all happened before is finally revealed. Both of these story threads are handled well through a structure that alternates the main battles with flashbacks from Gaunt's life that slowly build the character and plot, and why the reader should care about them. Every "block" adds a piece, chunking the story in an episodic way, in which each battle/chapter is brought to a conclusion, and then linked to the specific arc that starts and ends within this lean book (vaguely similar to the first Black Company book). This results in a tight structure and plot where nothing is superfluous and where the pacing doesn't slow down. The aim is set from the first page and the pacing is resolute and constant. The "fun" is there on plain sight, the action scenes equally distributed, and you don't have to wade through weak parts to get to it. If you enjoy the ride you'll enjoy it on every page without being let down.

Daylight rolled in with a wet stain of cloud, underlit by the continued bombardment. The lightening sky was streaked and cross-hatched by contrails, shell-wakes and arcs of fire from the massive Shriven emplacements in the distant shrouded hills. Lower, in the wide valley and the trench lines, the accumulated smoke of the onslaught, which had now been going on for just about twenty-one hours, dropping two or three shells a second, curdled like fog, thick, creamy and repellent with the stink of cordite and fycelene.

Abnett is rather good at writing what takes the stage the most: action scenes and some spectacular setpieces. There's a sort of unintended anticlimactic effect since the battles escalate in size and impact, but the first one is the most successful because it mimics some aspect of WWII, with infantry moving through trenches and trying to survive heavy bombardments. The perspective of those men caught in the mess just works and resonates with the real scenes one is already familiar with. Some acts of desperate heroism, some unlucky sudden deaths, sudden change of plans, last minute saves. You can see some canonical situations taken from a number of movies that are here reinterpreted in the new setting, all the while, but without pushing too much, trying to give a name to those soldiers, slowly learning their roles and a couple of personality traits for each. The recipe is well known, after all. At the end of the book I was still struggling recognizing who's who and there's no character that delivered substantial depth or anything more than two-dimensional, but I also don't think the book tried to go in that direction. It's relatively unpretentious and focused on the fun things. It doesn't take itself too seriously and it is not even shallow. Characterization is proportional to its use and purpose within the scene. Some characters are even made for just one or two scenes, to then step out again (often dead). Fun, fast paced, straightforward, and with characters that are good enough to fit the situation and make it work. No more, no less.

The prose is functional too. It's not bloated and at the same time it gives some impressive and effective imagery. Battles on a big scale are a complicate thing to deal with, especially battles that have so strong fantastic elements. Abnett deals with all this with ease and familiarity, not betraying the fact the book is a "debut". Action is crystal clear, never confused and keeping a pace that doesn't disrupt the flow. I guess that's the most important aspect in writing this sub genre of military sci-fi. With the plot filled with surprises and the mysterious aspects being well managed, the book is quite successful all over. The only quirk in the prose I don't personally like is that it can be way too pompous and rhetorical, including the metaphors used and the uncompromising manly men described. "Subtlety" is something banished here, everything is upfront and direct and explicit.

Fire patterns winked in the russet darkness. Yellow traceries of venomous death.

The turret guns screamed into life, blitzing out a scarlet-tinged, boiling stream of hypervelocity fire.

The plasma guns howled phosphorescent death into the void.

One has to wait the final battle develop to get the big revelation about what it was that Gaunt and his Ghosts chased for all the previous pages. While I said the structure of the book is solid and well executed, this can also be a problem because it's as if the import and meaningfulness of what happens is left hanging and undecided till the end. It's hard to trust the book because one can't say till the last 20 pages if it's going to be worth it or if it will be an hoax. The pre-finale, after the big revelation is dropped, is painfully predictable, but there are a number of pages left and even if the plot seems to have exhausted its fuel, it keeps going on and keeps surprising, tying together every small subplot even too neatly, including a nice bow. The surprises continue to come till the very last line, so even if the whole conclusion is made by a number of scenes that all feel somewhat trite and cliche, the overall result is fun and convincing thanks to the good execution of those traditional elements and scenes. Like an action movie that doesn't disappoint.

I haven't read any military sci-fi before this book, so I can't gauge how it may compare. I think it is well executed and its strength are in its deliberate focus on action and intrigue, making a reckless and fun journey. The battles excellent and varied, from huge showdowns of thousands of men to chainsword duels, described in vivid gory detail. The downsides are built-in the model, many of the elements that compose both the story and characters are cliche and drawn/taking inspiration from the multitude of books and movies that have something in common with the genre, but I wouldn't point this as a "flaw", since the use of these conventional elements is competent and well realized. Even if dipped in predictability in various points I wasn't bored by the plot and the pacing was perfect. I only faltered about the trust in the book, since as I said the stakes are only revealed at the very end and so the reader is kept in the dark about some major motivations. Also consider that this is a starting point and, accordingly to other readers' comment who read more than me, Abnett only gets better. Truly recommended for those who look forward to some pulpy military sci-fi with a fast paced plot and epic battles that rock whole worlds.

Tuesday 10, August

The Malazan Book of the Fallen closes at 3 Million 310 thousand words

While on other blogs the cover blurb for The Crippled God is being posted, I asked Hetan if she could provide the wordcount for this last novel in the series, and she did.

Being myself at the 5th book yet to start, the internet is now filled with spoilery perils, including that synopsis. Hopefully I won't stumble on something that ruins my own reading in the next months and years. I have to hone my dodging and skimming skills.

So, this wordcount that Hetan provided is still tentative since the book is currently in the editing phase, but it should give a decent approximation of what to expect, and then sum up with the rest for the final count of this staggering (on all levels) achievement.

We'll now wait for the cover and official release date. The tentative one is 20 January 2011

Here's the summary:

Malazan Book of the Fallen - Steven Erikson

Gardens of the Moon: 209k
Deadhouse Gates: 270k
Memories of Ice: 351k
House of Chains: 306k
Midnight Tides: 271k
The Bonehunters: 365k
Reaper's Gale: 386k
Toll the Hounds: 392k
Dust of Dreams: 382k
The Crippled God: 378k (tentative)

Total: 3M 310k

other wordcounts

Monday 2, August

GotM quote

I'm re-reading some parts of Gardens of the Moon to follow the Tor official re-read and I'm amazed/dismayed to realize that most of the flaws I had noticed in the book, some of which even pointed out in my review, were only due to my lack of attention and familiarity with this series. The book is really incredibly dense with details I couldn't pick up, so leading to call for apparent mistakes when it was just this reader who wasn't being smart enough to catch the nuances ;)

Anyway, I just opened the book on a random page and found a nice Kruppe quote:

That one's own skull is too worthy a chamber for deception to reign - and yet Kruppe assures you from long experience that all deceit is born in the mind and there it is nurtured while virtues starve.

Thursday 22, July

The Malazan Book of the Fallen is done

I've hunted for this news for the last four months, after about two months of delay on the original deadline The Crippled God is complete and now going in the hands of the publisher.

The current estimation for the release is the 20th January, but it may as well be anticipated (it happened before) or postponed. Now it depends entirely on the publisher, hoping they'll do a great job since Erikson deserves it.

Announce that came from Erikson's Facebook page (but it is private and not open to fans):

"GASP! That would be me, coming up for air. How long was I down there? About twenty years, from conception to completion. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is done. Sure, editing and all that crap to follow. But ... done. I don't know who I am. Who am I again? What planet is this? Three months of butterflies ... maybe this double whiskey will fix that. Hmm. No. Delayed reaction going on here."

According to my wordcount list the complete series will be around 3 millions 3 thousands words.

It's a monumental achievement in literature in general. No one can realistically embark for a 10-books series and expect to be successful, because no one can realistically plan ahead 20 years of his life, even more insane if this sort of plan is artistic in nature, and so more capricious and out of control. Erikson succeeded in the only way possible: sticking to deadlines and keep delivering without losing focus. He survived his own staggering ambition.

He made it. It is done.

Here's a pertinent quote from the recent introduction to Gardens of the Moon:

The journey ahead, of words on a screen and then paper, still awaited me in the idyllic state that was the future. Yet the publication of Gardens of the Moon was, for me, a momentous event; for it permitted me to sharpen my focus, as I slowly, almost disbelievingly, comprehended that what was now coming to pass was indeed possible. These things could be reached. The import of that statement cannot be overemphasized. They can be reached.

I am now on the cusp of the tenth and final novel in the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Almost ten thousand pages span the gulf from Gardens to The Crippled God, a detail even more numbing than the decade it took to compose them. I am often asked; how do you sustain it? A difficult question to answer. How do I not? I have a tale to tell and until it is done an inexorable momentum drives me, an impatience against which I still struggle, knowing I need to do it right, and that haste is my deadliest enemy. Especially now.

I cannot claim any prescience with that opening; perhaps, indeed, I was aware on some subconscious level that I was fighting the very thing that confounds many readers with this series. For me, it was the push to advance the story versus the pull to keep it under control, to hold tight on the reins no matter how wild the bucking beast. For the reader, the whole thing reverses: the story pulls, the details prod, claw and tug.
Prod and pull, 'this the way of the gods ...

I can only say that I'm glad I found these books, I feel like I've waited all my life just to read them :)

Monday 12, July

The Gunslinger - Stephen King

I began to read the book almost a year ago but got sidetracked after about 70 pages, so when I took it again a couple of weeks ago I had to restart from the first page since I had a very vague idea about the part I had read. Not that it got so much better the second time through, the story defies control and one has to struggle to distill from the book some form of logic progression. Reading this, day after day, feels like you never make any progress, which I guess is the point. There's a direction, a sort of abstraction of the concept of the "quest" in its most absolute form. The endless, ultimate journey toward something that is perceived as the definitive "Truth". Or better, this is the conceit, the Mac Guffin. Roland, the Gunslinger, on his journey toward a mythical, capitalized Dark Tower. Only that this is one book, part of a series. So for this single instance Roland is chasing after another Mac Guffin, the "man in black", who, when caught, would hopefully point Roland in the right direction.

The starting point is not present. We see this chase when the chase has become a consolidated reality that seemed to go on forever. The beginning is a blur, a movement whose beginning was lost. It starts with a desert that represents the absence of a definite space and time. An infinity whose confines are misty and dream-like. The quest is a journey, but here it seems trapped in a stasis: the longing for something that can't be achieved, the distance that never closes. I'd say it doesn't even work as a "tease" because we can't grasp anything meaningful of Roland himself or the object of his longing. Merely an assumption. You witness obsession without motives. One has to reach the very last few pages of the book to have at least a glimpse of what the tower represents. The story is not one built to entice the reader and follow along. The place is haunted and inhospitable, but it's maybe in these traits that someone may find some fascination.

The introduction written by King himself is the most revelatory part. It explains the origin of the idea, especially its naive ambition. The rest of the book is, at the same time, talented, immature and pretentious. All together in a mix that represents the real quality to find here. There are no restraints typical of the established writer, no control of the parts, but this has the consequence of "freeing" the creativity and let it go wild and uncaring. The writing is powerful as it is naive. A core of talent as wordsmith mixed with the pretentiousness, egocentricity and impudence of the young. It takes itself so seriously that it builds a wall of detachment, not reaching out to the reader or gaining his sympathy or empathy. The place is haunted, all characters being like phantoms of momentary conscience, fading in and out, being themselves lost too and living aimlessly. There's everywhere, on the characters and the places, a sense of nostalgia. Something missing or forgotten that can't be pinpointed. Even if nostalgia should be a thing of memory. Everyone is missing something but without being able to remember what it was. Nostalgia of the future. A suspended and undefined state of agony.

The scenes are all dream-like, evanescent. Their symbolic meaning more important than the factual one, but at the same time esoteric and impenetrable. The book is filled with symbolic myths but nothing at all is explained or even placed into context. These are shattered lives, like glass whose pieces do not connect anymore. I guess the purpose is to to establish this mythology that will only start to make sense later and in retrospective, when the story will loop on itself. There's already here the impression that the pattern has been repeated, that these characters are themselves victims that follow trails that are merely their own. Condemned to retrace themselves, only to forget again. It sounds, and is pictured, like a torture.

If anything, Roland is the only character who seems to have maintained some tangibility. Of self-awareness. Other characters are all hopelessly lost, unrecoverable. Roland seems the only one who produces a difference, sometimes catastrophically, but still a change or a disruption of that agony. When he exterminates a small town the feeling is one of gratitude for having put those ghosts out of their misery, but at the same time he certainly doesn't win a sympathy in the reader. Roland is himself haunted and hallucinated way beyond any hope of recovery. We have no insight and so one cannot sympathize or understand. This first book works merely as a framework and I'm sure the character will grow toward something more human later on, in this first he stays obscure and maybe for this reason vaguely fascinating. A twisted, black anti-hero that plays maybe too much with being against the convention. A kind of anti-stereotype that is itself a stereotype.

In the end this book taken as a single entity is not generous and rather opaque, I didn't get much out of it beside the fancy, dislocated atmosphere. Abstraction without substance. It closes, before setting up the sequel, with a trippy space journey taken straight out of '2001: A Space Odissey', but here the meaning is painfully obvious and plain, revelatory of the fraud hidden behind. Containing just a promise of something more meaningful to be revealed later on, coinciding with the promise of the Tower and the conclusion of the series itself. It dresses itself as wise and resourceful but the conceit is evident. As Roland, I have no solid motivation to carry on with the hopeless and insubstantial chase. You need to entice me with with something more than mystical mumbo-jumbo and esoteric made-up terms. What's actually there? A boy being sacrificed for ludicrous reasons, largely foreshadowed but delivered in a way so forceful that it defies every purpose that part of the story may have had. Follows a host of prophecies again grounded on nothing, neither abstract nor concrete, if not in offering bland hooks to the following book. Instead of building curiosity for the mysteries set within a context it may easily lead simply to irritation, with the man in black representing perfectly that feeling. Inhuman, inconsistent, pretentious and ridicule. His display of powers does not impress anyone and that part of the story is so inconsequential that it's like watching animated puppets play a trippy script whose pages were thrown into the air and scattered.

What is good? The sheer talent and creative pretentiousness. The lack of restraints. The outrageous metaphorical descriptions filling the pages. 'The artificial glow from the wet rock was suddenly hateful'. All this being not only something glaringly obvious in the text, but it's King himself explaining it. "On being nineteen". And the book has to be appreciated in regard of this creative, unhampered recklessness. The ambition and courage that coincide with carelessness. It becomes then, in potential, a strength if one considers the series as a whole. With the latter books representing a conciliation of all this with the wisdom and moderation that one can legitimately expect to come with the mature, more broken King. Coming to terms with his own creation and trying to tie loose ends in some sort of coherence and meaningfulness, maybe.

The rest is magic, or sleight of hand.

Saturday 10, July

Guess the quote

I'm known to follow the most disparate links. This one is weirdness incarnated.

Enjoy:

Wise men have regarded the earth as a tragedy, a farce, even an illusionist's trick; but all, if they are truly wise, and not merely intellectual rapists, recognize that it is certainly some kind of stage in which we all play roles, most of us being very poorly coached and totally unrehearsed before the curtain rises.

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