Posts Tagged ‘John Crowley’
Writers love to talk about how certain ideas seize their attention and won’t let go, but in my case, almost invariably, the desire to write a story comes long before the initial idea, not the other way around. In other words, I start by deciding to write something, then look for something to write about. This peculiar urge, which seems to exist independently of any particular subject, can arise when I happen to have a few weeks free to work on a writing project; when I have the itch to see something of mine in print, and hopefully to get paid for it; or, most of all, when I miss the experience of starting with a blank page and empty mind and turning it into something with suspense, structure, and emotion. In particular, in July of last year, I found myself motivated by a number of such factors. I’d just finished the first draft of the novel that would eventually become City of Exiles, an exhausting experience that had left me feeling a little burnt out and anxious to try something fun. I wanted to take two weeks off before plunging into the rewrite. And I hadn’t written any short fiction in a long time.
With this in mind, I began looking around for an appropriate subject for a short story, which would eventually become my novelette “The Voices,” which finally appeared last month in the September issue of Analog. As I’ve said before, whenever I find myself stuck for ideas, I go to the library and start browsing, usually among the science magazines. I’m not looking for anything in particular, just something that will start a chain of associations or trigger the jolt of curiosity that I’ve long since come to associate with a promising project. More specifically, I’m looking for two or more articles that collide in interesting ways, since I’ve found that much of what we call creativity arises from unexpected combinations. I’ve explained in earlier posts how a similar process led to my stories “Kawataro,” “The Boneless One,” and “Ernesto,” and in this case, after a few hours of browsing at the Sulzer Regional branch of the Chicago Public Library, I found a couple of articles in back issues of Discover that seemed very promising: one by Adam Piore about the attempt to create a kind of synthetic telepathy that could read soldiers’ thoughts, and one by Karen Wright about the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation to treat symptoms of schizophrenia, including auditory hallucinations.
These two articles fell together very neatly, and almost at once, I began to envision a character who suffered from auditory hallucinations, like disembodied voices, and sought treatment from a therapy that could “read” the voices in her head. It was a good beginning, but like all stories, it needed something more, which in this case came from an unexpected source. At the time, I was reading the sprawling fantasy novel Little, Big by John Crowley, and although I had some reservations about its structure and pacing, I was, and remain, haunted by its atmosphere, which creates a genuine air of mystery and romance around a big rambling house in New England and the spirits of nature nearby. On a more sinister note, this is also Lovecraft country, a place where the woods have many secrets, which made it the perfect location for the story I had in mind. When we’re presented with a woman who hears voices, we might reasonably conclude that she’s suffering from schizophrenia, but if she’s from a certain part of the New England countryside, with its rumors of elves and fairies—well, we might slowly start to wonder, if we aren’t sure what kind of story we’re reading, whether the voices might in fact be real.
What that, I had my story. If Joan of Arc were alive today, I reasoned, she might well end up in psychiatric treatment, even as she continued to wonder if the messages she was receiving were coming from somewhere outside her own mind. My main character would be a sort of Joan figure—I ended up calling her January, for reasons I’ll explain later—who was smart, skeptical of the voices she was hearing in the woods, and willing to do whatever it took to discover if they were real or not. I’d stay in her head for the entire story, presenting everything from her point of view, including the voices, which would speak to her as reasonably as any other character, with no sense that they might be imaginary. The resulting story would skirt the edges of fantasy, while remaining firmly grounded in science fiction, although the reader wouldn’t necessarily know this. Indeed, if I did my job correctly, I could keep readers in a state of suspense over how much of the narrative to believe, to the point where they might even forget that the main character, by definition, was far from a reliable narrator. And as I’ll explain tomorrow, in the finished story, it may have worked a little too well.
It’s safe to say that out of all the acknowledged masterpieces of twentieth-century literature, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain is the least inviting. Part of this is due to the fact that Mann’s reputation, or his snob chic, has suffered in comparison to Joyce and Proust, at least for the purposes of cocktail party conversation. The smooth surface of Mann’s prose offers fewer enticements to the casual browser: while a glance at the pages of Ulysses suggests a wealth of unexplored treasures, Mann presents only an unbroken succession of dense paragraphs. And there’s no denying that the plot of The Magic Mountain—a young engineer, Hans Castorp, visits a sanitarium in the Alps for a short visit and ends up staying for seven years—doesn’t quite promise nonstop delights, especially when spread across more than seven hundred pages. It may be true, as Mann says in the introduction, that only the exhaustive is truly interesting, but most of us are probably inclined to take him at his word.
And yet The Magic Mountain has always been on my short list of books to read, especially after I picked up the acclaimed John E. Woods translation at the Printer’s Row Lit Fest earlier this year. Finally, last month, I took my copy along with me to China, reasoning that I’d be more likely to finish it if it were the only book I had in my native language in a foreign country. (This wasn’t the first time I’d employed this trick: I’d read Gravity’s Rainbow in Rome and most of Proust in Finland using the same method, and it had always worked pretty well.) Still, I slid The Magic Mountain into my bag less with anticipation than out of a sense of obligation, and with a distinct sense that I was taking my medicine. Part of me suspected that I would regret the choice, which may have been why I also packed James Clavell’s Noble House—one of the great trashy popular novels—as a backup choice. And it was only when I was deep in China, in a bus headed to the mountains of Guilin, that I opened my copy of Mann and resignedly began to read.
Inevitably, I was blown away. It’s hard to convincingly describe the pleasures of this book, which seems so dry and forbidding at first glance, but here’s my attempt: this is a really great novel, fascinating, ingenious, and surprisingly dramatic and moving. Mann is clearly a writer who can do almost anything, and while the book is best known for its extended discussions of art, politics, science, religion, and every other topic of interest to turn-of-the-century modernism, Mann takes obvious delight in showing us that he also knows how to generate suspense. The Magic Mountain is a novel of ideas, but it’s also full of extraordinary set pieces—Walpurgis Night, Hans Castorp’s nearly fatal excursion in the snow, the séance, the duel between Naptha and Settembrini—that shamelessly offer all the satisfactions of classic fiction. There’s a reason why Mann, unlike Joyce and Proust, was a bestseller in his own land during his lifetime, and in The Magic Mountain, he does what David Foster Wallace struggled to accomplish in The Pale King: write a novel about boredom that is alive on every page.
It’s always difficult to predict the role that a given novel will play in one’s life. Some make a huge impression, then quickly fade; others grow in one’s imagination over time (as John Crowley’s Little, Big has begun to do with me). It’s safe to say that The Magic Mountain is the best novel I’ve read in at least five years, and it may be even more: a book that will ultimately play a central role in my understanding of the world. I’m in awe of its intelligence, its savage parody of the Bildungsroman, its astonishingly accurate depiction of romantic obsession, and, most surprisingly, its warmth and humor. And as often happens with great books, I seem to have discovered it at just the right moment. It’s hard for me, and I suspect for many readers, not to identify with Hans Castorp, who is twenty-three when the novel begins and thirty when he descends from the magic mountain to his own ironic destiny. Looking back at my twenties, I see more of Hans in myself than I’d like to admit. Where my own Bildungsroman will take me, or any of us, remains to be seen. But I can’t imagine a better guide for the journey than Mann.
Nine months after I started work on the sequel to The Icon Thief, City of Exiles is finally done. It isn’t quite official yet: I still have another proofreading and polishing session early next week, and I’m scheduled to get comments from a valued reader later today. But at this point, the novel is essentially locked, and not a moment too soon: after delivering it on Wednesday, we’re moving to our new house on Thursday, which will probably knock me out of the game for a while. At the moment, though, I’m very happy with this novel, and hope you’ll enjoy it, too, after it appears sometime in December 2012. (For what it’s worth, this publication date is close to final, at least as far as I can tell.)
In other fun news, Analog has picked up my novelette “The Voices”—sort of an homage to John Crowley’s Little, Big by way of H.P. Lovecraft—which means that this will be the second year in a row when they’ve published at least two of my stories. (The other one, “Ernesto,” is still stuck somewhere in the pipeline.) In the meantime, my story “The Boneless One” is still available on newsstands, with a free audio version scheduled to be released next month by StarShipSofa. If you haven’t picked up a copy, you might want to grab it soon, because I’m hoping to spend a couple of days next week talking about how the novelette was written, as I did for “Kawataro.” Meanwhile, it’s back to packing. Only thirty boxes of books to go…
Over the past few years, there have been few contemporary novels I approached with such anticipation, aside perhaps from Cloud Atlas, as John Crowley’s Little, Big. Harold Bloom, who praises dead authors effusively but is much more restrained about recent fiction, has famously called it one of the four or five best novels by any living writer, and the consensus seems to be that this is one of the greatest fantasy novels of all time, and certainly one of the best by an American author. Earlier this week, then, after a long, leisurely reading process periodically interrupted and resumed by other commitments, I finally finished it. And while I admire it greatly, my reaction is more complex and ambivalent than I expected, which is perhaps fitting for such a strange, pointedly elusive novel.
First, a word about structure. I love structure, perhaps because I love the movies, which depend utterly on structure for their power. Structure, at its most basic, is an author’s arrangement of narrative elements into an overall whole, which often coincides with plot, but can also reflect a different sort of logic. At its best, a novel’s structure describes a shape—a pyramid, a circle, a series of spirals—that the reader can stand back and admire, something like the Borgesian conception of the divine mind. As a result, I respond strongly both to perfectly structured conventional novels, like Coetzee’s Disgrace, and to novels that make an unusual structure seem inevitable, like Gravity’s Rainbow, in which the author’s engagement with form becomes a character in itself. And, perhaps inevitably, I have trouble enjoying novels that seem deliberately unstructured.
At first glance, Little, Big has the appearance of intricate, almost obsessive structure: six books, twenty-six chapters (half the number of weeks in a year or cards in a deck), each with its own smaller divisions. On a deeper level, however, it seems designed to provoke, then frustrate, our expectations about a conventionally shapely novel. It begins with a leisurely account of the lives of several families in an imaginary New England, hints at the existence of fairies, then abruptly skips forward twenty-five years, alternating languorous descriptions of rooms and scenery with breathless events barely glimpsed or left entirely offstage. The novel’s technique, like that of House of Leaves, is one of implication, postponement, reticence, full of clues, but no answers, with small vivid scenes that promise to break out into a larger narrative, but either remain isolated in the gorgeous swamp of language or fade decorously away.
Reading Little, Big, I was reminded that an unstructured novel is something quite different from a structureless one. Structurelessness in itself is a narrative choice, and if such a work states its intentions early on—as in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life—it can be as satisfying as any conventional story. The reason why Little, Big often feels so frustrating is that it constantly knocks on the door of structure, only to shy away. It’s an uneasy hybrid of the shapeless family novel and conventional fantasy, with its supernatural events, prophecies, and air of intrigue, and the two elements push endlessly against each other, which can be exhilarating, but more often exhausting. To attribute this to artistic confusion or laziness, as certain commenters have done at the A.V. Club, is to give Crowley insufficient credit: every paragraph of this novel testifies to his intelligence and skill. But it’s fair to wonder if he intended to inspire such bewilderment in many, if not most, readers, while also inspiring rapturous joy in a few.
Little, Big, then, is precisely what its reputation suggests: a cult novel. And while I can’t quite count myself as a member of that cult, I’m at least one of its sympathizers. There are wonderful things here: the dense but lyrical language, the reappropriation of Rosicrucianism and Theosophy, and many of the self-contained set pieces, like George Mouse’s encounter with the changeling, which is a perfect little horror story in itself. Above all, there’s the evocation of a fantastical New England and the family home, Edgewood, which I can’t help but associate with my strong feelings about looking for a house of my own. I may not read Little, Big again—its five hundred pages remain as daunting as before—but I’ll certainly be reading in it for the rest of my life, because there’s magic here. And it’s more magical, perhaps, in that you’re forced to dig for it, without the reassuring map of structure, and always with the promise of finding something more.