Category Archives: Books


I have Fall of Light and will start very soon, I’m now back reading the final part of The Bonehunters, as well the last 300 pages of A Dance with Dragons. It makes for a nice and interesting contrast.

These last few days there has been at least a little noise about R. Scott Bakker. The new book is imminent (July) (actually only the first half of the first book, something that makes me very upset) but the first reviews are coming out as well as sample chapters that, in Bakker’s case, are always enough for plenty of discussion and speculations.

But my attention was caught by a specific aspect that I consider very interesting. What’s the “EAMD bullshit”? Here’s a quote:

Ever Are Men Deceived. It’s shorthand for the psychobabble that Bakker tends to get into in the middle of, like, random sentences. The crossed-out part above is an example. You have a woman running around desperately trying to find her young son in the middle of her enemy storming the gates and a full-blown riot. So…naturally she reflects on how prior knowledge influences actions and guides the course of events

This is the pertinent quote he gives (the italics are not Bakker’s):

Our knowledge commands us, though our conceit claims otherwise. It drives our decisions and so harnesses our deeds—as surely as any cane or lash. She knew well the grievous fate of little princes in times of revolt and overthrow. The fact that her husband’s Empire crashed down about her was but one more goad to find her son.

And here’s how he comments it:

Esmenet’s chapter would be amazing if he could just stop talking about the EAMD bullshit every other sentence. She’s panicking, she’s crying, and then she’d thinking that ya know, everyone is controlled by what came before and the history of their world and blah blah blah.

Seriously, edit that shit out. The first paragraph here is totally unneeded, at least the two sentences. It robs the story of the drama and panic that Esme has in the moment. She’s a parent. She’s not thinking about how knowledge command us. She’s thinking that in sieges and revolts princes die.

That’s it. That’s her motivation. We don’t need more than that. We don’t need to jump from point to point. Just that mantra – in sieges and revolts princes die.

Well, there’s indeed a noticeable slip into third person. That’s why it would be interesting to discuss it with the writers themselves, not even just Bakker.

These days we are used, especially in fantasy, to this “third person limited” perspective, and it happens that when some structure is universally used it becomes canon. People get used to the canon and if you suddenly don’t respect it then you’re doing something wrong, or giving a feeling of wrongness to the reader. In this case I wonder, is that simply a slip, a stylistic quirk or vice, or a *deliberate* slip?

I use to think at this third person limited point of view as a bird that alights on the shoulder of a character and speaks for him. But sometimes it’s the bird talking, you just don’t notice. Or the bird can alight from that shoulder and land somewhere else. A meta-structure. Self-awareness? Erikson in the eighth Malazan book uses Kruppe, a character in the book, as a framing device. Commentary. It’s one further loop of that voice, another lens that bends the light of the story.

As a reader, the more you play with this, the more you have my attention. Writing about writing. It’s not a slip, a mistake, it’s grasping the structure itself.

David Foster Wallace in a short story titled “Mister Squishy”, part of the “Oblivion” collection, has a sudden shift, mid-sentence, in the middle of the story, from third person to first. It’s one of the biggest chills I ever got while reading a story. Only then you realize the story was always told in first person. Of course that’s deliberate, if a bit gimmicky. It’s part of the experimentation, playing with the rules to obtain an effect. Or just put the reader off balance by failing to conform to certain expectations. It’s a sense of vertigo, and it can be very powerful.

It might be asking Bakker too much to actually play even more explicitly and deliberately with structure, and drag the point of view breaks even more as a plot point. It still might be just a slip, or simply a measured consideration, where the effect and the message were considered more important than submitting to a rigorous structure.

Martin is absolute king, in my reading experience, of dealing with this third person limited. Better than everyone else by far. There are still “slips”, for example in descriptions, but they are always “transparent” for the reader, so you can never catch the bird talking, it’s always the character. Martin never actually slips, never wanders off.

Bakker might be seen as having this voice driving a point, using characters as metaphors. Erikson? I’m not even sure and I’ll observe with more attention. Erikson deliberately breaks structure even if usually sticks to third person limited as the norm. I remember at least one case where in a single scene the bird jumps shoulders. Maybe Erikson just doesn’t give much authority to the rule of the structure and, if the story is better serviced that way, he makes exceptions without hesitation.

“Stop the EAMD bullshit” is a mantra that works perfectly well for Erikson too, after all. That’s what I often read in forums (“I wanted to see more action. If I wanted unlikely philosophical conversations I would read Dostoevsky.”). Yet that’s why I read these books. Because they just don’t repeat and conform to the rest of the genre. Wouldn’t it just be more carefully hidden and unaddressed sleight of hands? I want those voices. I treasure that self-awareness, those layers of commentary that bend the angle, that disrupt the natural flow. Sometimes you have to break this habit of just slipping into stories, of immersion. Sometime breaking the immersion you very carefully built might even be the point. Show a deceit, seize that structure. But, of course, the higher you aim, the higher the risk. You might even slip and it makes for a clumsy fall. Part of the deal? Accept it.

Just a passing mention while I keep getting distracted by everything else.

Here’s a link to some sort of blog article by New York Times Bestselling author Jessica Clare, of “The Succubus Diaries”. She explains why you should write short books:
http://jillmyles.com/2009/06/09/a-rant-on-word-count/

Bloated word count costs your publisher money. I’m sorry, but there it is. You can fit three fat books on a shelf where six slimmer ones might fit. You get paid the same for both. Would you rather sell three or six? Would you rather B&N or Borders order 3 copies of your book or six? What about Wal-Mart?

So, after having dutifully pointed you to the sane life advices, let’s indulge with the more satisfying blowing up of approved literary behaviors. I was saying, I’m constantly sidetracked, so that’s why reading progress never progresses. I did manage to finish the 550k mammoth of “Parallel Stories” (some quick comments here). That was a while ago. Two recent interesting book purchases have been these two:

The Runaway Soul by Harold Brodkey
The Complete Novels by Flann O’Brien

The first one is interesting because, as you notice, it’s not even in print since it was such a smashing success, so I got an used copy for a low price (and almost pristine hardcover, very nice). It took the writer 32 years to write that ambitious scaffolding of a book, and that’s after becoming a big name praised by the likes of Harold Bloom. The relatively lean wikipedia entry is quite enough to unearth paradox and contradiction: “the one necessary American narrative work of this century” – “If he’s ever able to solve his publishing problems, he’ll be seen as one of the great writers of his day.” The genesis of the book also shows the level of hype: “The work became something of an object of desire for editors; it was moved among publishing houses for what were rumored to be ever-increasing advances, advertised as a forthcoming title (Party of Animals) in book catalogs, expanded and ceaselessly revised, until its publication seemed an event longer awaited than anything without theological implications. In 1983 the Saturday Review referred to “A Party of Animals” as “now reportedly comprising 4,000 pages and announced as forthcoming ‘next year’ every year since 1973.”

I like boundless, unreasonable ambition. I like to observe even when it goes hand to hand with failure. There are various levels, from Ed Wood to, apparently, Harold Brodkey.

This is mythology in the making. Mythology of a writer as an abstract entity. The Paris Review interview with the author is a sarcasm-filled article that I found interesting from the beginning to the end. The interview is so candidly naive and makes you understand (?) the ennui and weariness of the pampered life as a bourgeois writer. Such an hard, heroic life. It’s so bursting with narcissism that you can easily go from contempt to pity. But beside that, there’s also plenty of actual good stuff. Actual work. Detached from the real world, but nonetheless with its own, aloft value. I was more and more curious about reading the this book, more and more curious about reading what he actually had to say.

When New York magazine came out with my picture on the cover a couple of years ago, I would be walking down the street and people would pass me, and then I would see the same people again, a minute later; they’d circled around to see the cover in life. And I would think, What do I do? Should I smile? Do I really like this? What’s the etiquette here? I think I did like it, but I’m not sure.

There’s a Yiddish word, yenta, for the sort of person who nags you all the time. Frank O’Hara was a yenta. I wasn’t someone he publicized, but twice a year he would confront me and tell me that I was a great writer, a great artist, a great thinker, whatever, and that I was just hiding. And he would say that this was despicable. He would say that the work was fantastic, that it had influenced him, but unfortunately (he would say), I was a middle-class drag, not serious about becoming famous and influencing the world. William Maxwell said many of the same things to me. I practiced evasion until I was forty.

Of being an honest, wholehearted, fame-spurred writer. A sucker. A writer—and eaten up by it. Then, when I was forty, I gave up. I stopped being evasive. I clumsily wanted to be known. An eaten man. I think—and I have some evidence from when I was a teacher—that most people who try to write can succeed but don’t want to; I would argue that psychologically they would rather daydream about creating texts and being recognized while having real lives—they would rather do that than publish, I think.

I got this idea of being a writer someday. Then life, despair, became things I could study, like arithmetic or geometry, or Time magazine. It wasn’t that everything was okay, but that they became handleable in a certain sense.

Because of the peculiar circumstances of my life I had to find a way to get along with my conscious mind, or I really couldn’t exist, and one way to do that was to start thinking about my life as a story, or something to be interpreted or examined. I didn’t think I was going to write about my childhood, but I thought I would write about something that would make things that were obscure to me clear . . . by setting up one of those tremendous structures of suspense in fiction.

It may be the realest and trickiest and most violent thing you can do—to be published. The “silly Charybdis”—a childhood joke—of the insoluble thing of the choice proposed: to live or to publish.

At first one has two lives. One is the literary life in New York, The New Yorker, people who’ve read what you’ve written; and the other is the life you have with your old friends. In those days I was more athletic than I am now; I’d go and play tennis, or go canoeing with old friends . . . but after a while they don’t trust you. At the job I had, the people there didn’t trust me. They’d say, You’re going to write about it, you’re going to write about it. I’m not going to write about it—but no one believes you. Then they think, “Is he laughing at me?” And suddenly you’re more at home with strangers, with other writers, than with the people you’ve been at home with for years.

There were maybe four or five years of the double life of being a writer and still being a person. Then by, say, 1957, before First Love came out, I was really fed up. Between the two I really thought I’d rather be a person than a writer. Starting in 1959 I began the slow retreat into reclusiveness.

Instead I did it my way, which didn’t work, and by the time it was apparent it didn’t work I was exhausted and frightened, seriously frightened by what I had found out about myself as a writer . . . the ways my writing will and won’t meet me halfway. The ways I have to behave or the writing will stay dead.

There are about nine hundred million aphorisms about writing that are true, and one of them comes from Bill Maxwell—all short stories should be written in a sitting. As I understood it, that meant that you could spend weeks, months, years writing drafts, outlines, notes, sections, but sooner or later you ought to take all that and sit down and write a draft in a sitting, in a single flight—which might take days or weeks but without interruptions—so that the broad elements and the nuances cohere, certain echoes, certain resonances fit together, and there is real motion in the narrative—not a false motion linguistically grafted onto the story. Words have a strangely changeable, contingent kind of meaning, and as T. S. Eliot said in one of his famous essays, the music of language carries more of the realer meaning than the literal meaning of words does. A shift in the mind, in the mood, and you lose control of that music. Often, in a text you can see the fracture points where the music was lost and then regained or not. If not, the piece stays flat. A final draft has always been a little bit like a dramatic performance, but a performance that can sometimes last for several days with very little sleep; what sleep there is is troubled. The longest single sitting I can remember lasted for six days. I had to have Ellen stand by the desk from time to time I was so mixed up as to where I was, what was real. She would tell me what time of day it was; her voice was how I located myself.

Or you find a sentence, and there’s something good in it, but it’s mostly a lie as it stands; if you’ve been really corrupted you go with the lie for the sake of the part that’s okay; but if you’re lucky and obstinate about protecting your virtue as a writer, then you can try to correct the sentence, refine it, rescue the truer part, replace the crap. But it’s very nervous work.

the cruelest to bear is the beginning, the confrontation with the blank sheet of paper, where you have the chance to get up and turn your back on being a writer. You think, “I’ll quit, I’ll live a real life as a citizen; I’ll belong to the PTA and love my children. And have a country house.”

I don’t know that I can deal with publication. In this country, to be published, to become a figure—a Mailer, a Styron, a Roth—is really not worth it. They give far more than they get.

I’m bad at it, and that seems to attract interest. People seem to like to watch me falling on my face. I don’t know how to deal with it.

I worry still: Is what I do useful? Is it morally worthwhile? Is it of profit to the culture that I do it? And, selfishly, I wonder if this is the way I want to spent my life. Do I want to write the way I do? Yes and no. I’ve come to terms with it. I don’t ever remember a time when I couldn’t write fairly well.

I don’t know anybody else in my generation who’s been so constrained by considerations of getting published as I’ve been.

Oh God. Publishing is a miserable procedure. Most of the reviewers are probably okay but a number of them aren’t okay. I mean they don’t write or think very well. And the politics, the politics of doing favors, and of being favored are hard to handle

I met Joyce Carol Oates at a book party. She said that she really envied me my silence, my not having been commented on as much as she had been. I mean, she brings out about two books a year, so she probably gets reviewed by, what, thirty-five, fifty, a hundred reviewers? Maybe she only glances at around three or four, but just seeing the headlines, just seeing all those voices, opinions. And then there are all those other opinions that do matter to her. She said she was jealous of my not having my head filled with others’ comments, voices, opinions.

Even before Ashbery switched to Stevens there was in his writing this evasiveness, this sense that God was dead and meaning was impossible to come by

I think there’s an inside and an outside to a sentence, and to a sequence of sentences. The inside is what you think, what you think you’re saying; the outside is what somebody else thinks you’re saying, and about you saying it. Editors and critics always feel they possess the inside—I don’t know why.

You imagine the space, and then create the voice to fill it.

But this novel becoming a legendary literary failure isn’t the whole picture, because, as the tide turns, it seems Brodkey managed to trigger only contempt to a level that makes you wonder if it isn’t a tad too much even for literary criticism… When he contracted AIDS the illness was the only thing he could write about, but even in the face of stark death he didn’t earn any compassion from the same literary establishment that praised and pampered him all his life: “a matter of manipulative hucksterism, of mendacious self-propaganda and cruel assertion of artistic privilege, whereby death is made a matter of public relations.”

Notice that I found out about Harold Brodkey because I was reading an interview with Peter Nadas, instead.

the ones usually referred to in this context are Henry Miller or Harold Brodkey, where there is no pornography and no kitsch. What Miller is most interested in is what happens physically between two people, while Brodkey is intrigued by how you can transform making love into a deeply religious and benign act, how, if at all, you can give pleasure to a tremendously beautiful girl who happens to be incapable of enjoyment. As such a story was written by an American, of course he finds out that you can.

And Peter Nadas own vagaries are equally aloft and interesting:

I could not close giving the impression that I was completely clear about the meaning of things. Maybe there is no such meaning. I am clear about the meaning of some things, and—I’m sorry, but I refuse to deny, in pure modesty—there are things I know a lot about. But in other cases I may be completely in the dark about the meaning. I don’t believe there are complete philosophical systems that have decided for me whether or not the world is accessible to our understanding—whether understanding is a process or a divine gift that we can receive ready-made, and all we have to do is go to church every Sunday morning or every Friday evening. So the novel could end only with that special state that is neither sad nor desperate, neither absurd nor realistic, the state you’re in—it’s actually lovely in its own way—when you’re not clear about the meaning of things and you’re completely lost as to the ultimate meaning of things. Which is to say, man is not a completed being.

The prose floats from scene to scene, often returning to an earlier situation but from a different perspective, gradually something else occurs. Associations are made. Narratives are linked.

The phone in an apartment begins ringing on page 35, but isn’t picked up until page 59… and it has rung only about ten times.

“Literary experimention” brought me to look up the other one, Flann O’Brien, that has the name hints, is a flamboyant writer that I’ve never heard about but that apparently is one of the very Big Names. I’ve only read 20-30 pages and I still have no idea about what I’m reading, but for now it fits in the same mental drawer of Vonnegut.

…But. September is a great month, and all you see above was not what I wanted to write about, because my purpose was instead to point at two books, coming out, guess what, next September!

And now maybe you see the link? Because these two upcoming books are ALSO literary impossibilities. Negative spaces of literature where failure (of communication) meets ambition.

The first, more mainstream book is, finally, “Jerusalem” by Alan Moore. Hyped as a 1 million word book, it turns out it’s a bit more moderate:

“I was determined not to have a publishing house editor near this book”

“Not like Lord of the Rings, it’s not a trilogy, it’s one book of enormous length.”

“The one I’m doing at the moment is based upon Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter, who spent the last 30 years of her life in St Andrews Hospital, the mental institution next door to the school I used to attend. I’ve got this story about Lucia wandering through the madhouse grounds. She’s also coming unstuck in space and time a little bit. She’s wandering in her own mind. I decided to write this in an approximation of her Dad’s language.”

“We’re suddenly following a gang of dead children as they tunnel about through time in a kind of fourth-dimensional afterlife”

“It’s been reported that it’s more than a million words, which it isn’t. I think my daughter Leah, who was touchingly proud when I told her that I’d finished the first draft, must have thought that I’d said it was a million, but no, it’s a pathetic 615,000. So it’s little more than a pamphlet, really.”

The second is just the physical manifestation of literary excess. Firstly in price: $70. And secondly in size: 1496 pages. But that pagecount might not even say the whole story, as this is an old book, released 46 years ago, and the pictures I’ve seen of the original German edition show something truly HUGE even in format, and with a page layout that can challenge Danielewski. The fact it’s been translated in English (and that it exists as a thing) is science fiction.

And here’s how it looked in manuscript form:

Zettel’s Bottom (and if you glance at the publisher, you can easily make the connection that shows how I found it, from Flann O’Brien to this).

Give it to me right now.

But if you think this is all too literary aloft I also have to confess I’ve ordered yesterday two other books. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, after having spent a few hours on youtube watching interviews (1, 2 and bewildering enthusiastic review by intended audience), and Illuminae, that for some reason came ahead in my wishlist of Danielewski own literary excess: The Familiar series. I already have the first volume, even if it’s still in TBR pile, and it’s the second one I’ll have to order at some point, but for now Illuminae won my curiosity first, and I don’t need to write more about it since that book is already all over the place and praised in its intended circles.

There was an “official” update about the status of book 6 in the Song of Ice and Fire series (one interesting aspect is that I found the news through the standard media, as GRRM now “ranks” as relevant news for the general public):
http://grrm.livejournal.com/465247.html

I have to admit that when I read it I felt very sympathetic with him. I’m definitely not one of those who pretends to “supervise” and correct someone else’s writing process, pretending to know better. So I have no reason to believe GRRM isn’t honest when he says he’s doing his best to write the book. Yet when I finished reading I still felt like there was a missing piece, and the more I thought about it, the more disappointed I was about that “honest” report, because there’s a way to look at it that isn’t honest at all, and that has nothing to do with “writing speed”, which is the only point GRRM directly addressed.

The incoherence is wholly contained in this quote:

My publishers and I have been cognizant of these concerns, of course. We discussed some of them last spring, as the fifth season of the HBO series was winding down, and came up with a plan. We all wanted book six of A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE to come out before season six of the HBO show aired. Assuming the show would return in early April, that meant THE WINDS OF WINTER had to be published before the end of March, at the latest.

[…]

Look, I never thought the series could possibly catch up with the books, but it has. The show moved faster than I anticipated and I moved more slowly. There were other factors too, but that was the main one. Given where we are, inevitably, there will be certain plot twists and reveals in season six of GAME OF THRONES that have not yet happened in the books. For years my readers have been ahead of the viewers. This year, for some things, the reverse will be true. How you want to handle that… hey, that’s up to you.

It seems that GRRM’s main concern was that for the first time the series would be ahead of the books, and it will spoil them. He said they were “cognizant” of this, and so made “a plan” to release the next book just in time, to avoid the spoilers.

But let’s say that instead Martin was successful and he had announced the very opposite: that he delivered the book and it was going to come out just BEFORE the show. Exactly as “planned”.

Don’t you see that it’s all completely pointless and misleading? This other scenario is one that cannot work. It’s an excuse. It cannot work because even if book 6 is out just in time to avoid spoilers, then the problem is just delayed to next year and the following. By then the TV series will be over, and it WILL have spoiled the actual finale, because if it was hard for him to match the end-of-the-year deadline, for sure he can’t even believe for a second he can write the actual final book in less than two years.

So how can you honestly tell me you and your publisher made a “plan” to avoid spoilers when you fail to address the REAL issue ahead? Spoilers for book 6 are a much lesser issue than spoilers for the actual ending. As if this whole plan was just something to throw in the eyes of the fans to distract them from actually giving hints of the REAL intent.

Because my concern is that all this was done deliberately to pave the way for something else entirely. So, ok, the book is delayed and fans will have to come to terms with this and the possibility of having the books spoiled (in the age of internet you can decide: you can be spoiled by watching the series, or you can be spoiled by inadvertently reading some random twat). Then book 6 comes out at some point, and the TV series concludes shortly after. What happens next? This leaves GRRM in the position of deciding what to do as the TV series already closed and while he’s about to start book 7. He will plausibly think that in order to make the books stand on their own, the more divergent the ending of the book series will be from the TV series, the better. In fact it’s this very idea that he is already encouraging in this last update. At that point it’s just the perfect occasion to announce that, nope, book 7 won’t be the final one. That “the story grew in the telling”, and that since now the series is behind him, then he can write another interim book in order to better set up a different kind of finale that branches out even more radically from the TV series and that will please everyone, solving whatever issue the fans will have with the the way the TV series ended.

And that’s the part that annoys me. Because you can absolutely say that writing speed is not something you can directly control as long you aim for a certain quality, and you cannot so simply “will it” to go faster. But it’s instead within a writer’s deliberation the choice of how many books to write a story. You cannot write faster, okay, but you can definitely decide to make the story and plot advance faster or slower. That’s a writing choice. So I feel different if not only the books are continuously delayed, that’s understandable, but when that’s matched by the series “expanding” further and sprawl across more books than intended, so that when the book comes out, after 6 years or so, it also covered much less plot than originally intended. That’s from my point of view one step too far. It weakens the trust that is put as the premise between author and reader about an ambitious plan that stretches out for many years.

But these are just my own speculations. The point stands that the “plan” he described is a false, incoherent one. Maybe there isn’t any “hidden” plan, and maybe he doesn’t even want to admit to himself what’s happening and he prefers to be delusional (“I never thought the series could possibly catch up with the books”). But this still exposes a more important point: that he has no idea how he can complete this thing. He has no plan about a plausible end within a plausible timeframe on which the fans could invest some trust. And so there are these two alternative I see: one is the terrible plan I described above, the other is instead a complete lack of awareness GRRM has. As if he just decided to simply avoid thinking about it.

When he speaks about this GRRM always decides to defend himself by saying he can’t simply write faster, but he does this while failing to address the other aspect, the one he’s actually fully responsible of: having a plan for bringing this thing to a satisfying end. Knowing how many books are left. Knowing how things have to be set up in this penultimate 6th book so he’s in the position to actually write the finale in book 7.

Well, that’s an oxymoron. Article on the New Yorker:
http://www.newyorker.com/culture/sarah-larson/an-open-letter-to-the-white-walker-army

Even Jon Snow, who, as several characters reminded us, has a pretty face and a sympathetic backstory, isn’t enough to provide all the human intrigue in a scene with seven million undead C.G.I. assholes.

“Game of Thrones,” which is part fantasy, is also mostly a drama, and those of us who are there for the drama, White Walker Army, and for the comedy, such as it is, rate you very low on the emotional-realism scale. We dread your appearance not just because you threaten Jon Snow and his cohorts but because you threaten to drag the show we love further into a realm that we find tedious. As a friend texted me recently, “It’s turning into a video game.”

The reaction I saw to this was about the attack on the genre elements of the show, that a part of the public certainly likes very much, but I’m not interested specifically on that aspect today.

I also believe, and have written a few times, that the more ASoIaF moves away from the political backstabbing and toward its more fantastic elements, the more it actually loses its shine and appeal. It’s not so much because I personally dislike fantasy in my novels (obviously), but because Martin’s skills don’t seem to be there. He’s good at writing the other stuff. So the series seems more on a downward trend not because of its sprawl, but because its direction (ice and fire) is less brilliant and inspired than its core (game of thrones).

I felt something similar when I was reading Erikson’s “Memories of Ice” the third book, also specifically about another zombie army. I could see what the author was trying to do, but I simply did not think it could be achieved. It would be a failure, for reasons that are similar to those expressed in that New Yorker article. Yet Erikson managed to pull it off by resorting to a certain “trick”. And it worked! It was brilliant and it managed to achieve that ambition I thought simply not possible.

Martin is not done, so we all have to wait to see if he pulls it off, or even WHAT he’s trying to pull off. But I think he has a more traditional interpretation of fantasy and that he’s not interested in digging deep. It’s just a layer. But because of this, there’s the risk of disappointment when the reveals will kind of fizzle out, or will look like dry CGI.

The TV show had the merit of pulling in the general public, but to a lot of them the “fantasy” in it still feels tacked on. Something they tolerate more than something they enjoy.

Despite loving Malazan and thinking it has no challengers for what it does within its genre, I also do think it’s weak on certain aspects.

I tried to explain as a mix of aesthetic joined with depth and meaningfulness. The same as you’d get when looking at densely decorated architecture, but where each single decoration isn’t meant to be merely beautiful to stare at, but also with a dense symbolism and meaning.

Games, books, movies or whatever else, if there’s support for deep mythology and where no detail is left to chance. This myth comes from Tolkien. It’s not just in service of “realism”, and so immersion, but also as a way to reward digging and discovering what’s hidden in that depth. It means engaging with the medium, being part of it, enjoying revelations and epiphanies in those rare occasions when everything locks perfectly together, or perfectly realigns to show a new perspective.

Looking for hints, have your mind making the connections, slowly getting closer to find a solution, or a compelling interpretation. This is all about complexity and detail worth having. A medium that matures and takes itself seriously.

A lot of what I tried to describe in abstraction is already possible in the Malazan we have. It part of what makes it really good. And it is also what Malazan has in common with the approach to the lore and storytelling in the “Souls” game, including and in particular with the latest: Bloodborne.

Bloodborne is that aspect of Malazan turned into game. That aspect of active entertainment. Where the medium demands and requires that you engage actively. The problem is: Bloodborne does it even better.

If you know very little or nothing about Bloodborne then here’s an article that will tell you about story and mythology:
http://www.kotaku.co.uk/2015/04/09/whats-really-going-on-in-bloodborne

I couldn’t avoid thinking that the whole of Bloodborne not only would fit perfectly in Malazan, but it would be exactly what “Night of Knives” could have been if it was pushed to its full potential. Night of Knives is that same story, only missing that particular “heft” that is instead fully realized within Bloodborne.

The basic structure of the town turned into hunting grounds and dream dimensions bleeding into reality during a special night (and the moon), is not only the common link between the book and the game, but also the manga “Berserk” by Kentaro Miura, that we know for sure has been a major source of inspiration for Hidetaka Miyazaki, the designer of Bloodborne. These three, Berserk, Bloodborne and Malazan go hand in hand (and of course heavily influencing all three is Lovecraft). The only difference is that Malazan swallows them in a much bigger picture. Yet the other two seize aesthetic and mythology, that smaller slice, and realize them even better.

Not to say Night of Knives is a bad book, but it falls shorts (very short) of that potential that was there. And I’m thinking of a potential that not even Erikson could realize.

So this is what I’m trying to point out: some of the ingredients that make Malazan great are ingredients that went into Bloodborne. Those aspects that come out even more clearly in Bloodborne. And what Malazan lacks when compared not to similar works, but when compared to its own ideal potential, is what instead a game like Bloodborne fully delivers.

I was going through some old bookmarks I didn’t have the time to read properly and found another of those things that a couple of hours later leave me with too many browser tabs open as I follow the various branches. Here’s the two links:

http://fantasybookcritic.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-mahabharata-recollection-and-q-with.html
http://aidanmoher.com/blog/2013/04/articles/broader-fantasy-foundations-part-three-mahabharata-by-max-gladstone/

I actually still have to read the first, as it lead directly to the second. So another Classic Epic, to put next to the other Chinese Epics. A few corrections, though. The article says:

we’re only talking about a single book a little less than half the length of the entire Wheel of Time series.

Well, not quite. The Jordan’s WoT is “merely” 3M 300k words. If you add up Sanderson you get 4M 279k, for an average of 10.700 pages. The Mahabharata is also quite huge: 2M 539k, for an average of 6.347 pages. So it’s a bit MORE than half of WoT, and only if you add up the million words that Sanderson added to it.

But that’s why I tried to look up on the wiki how “The Mahabharata” is connected to the rest. Because the whole Hindu mythology is huge. I got lost in the wikipedia within minutes. And I guess it can also count as one story, as the many “characters” cross over between these different “series”.

At some point I was really wondering “what’s the point”. Here’s just something at random:

To continue with the process of creation, Brahma gave birth to a man and a woman from his own body. The man was named Svayambhuva Manu and the woman was named Shatarupa. Humans are descended from Manu. That is the reason they are known as manava. Manu and Shatarupa had three sons named Vira, Priyavarata and Uttanapada.

Uttanapada’s son was the great Dhruva, Dhruva performed very difficult meditation (tapasya) for three thousand divine years.

So, let’s look up how long is a divine year?

In the explanations of the measurements of time, one cycle of the four yugas together is 12.000 years of the demigods, called divine years. Each of these years is composed of 365 days, and each of their days is equal to one human year.

So a divine year is the sum of 365 human years. And so the guy in the story above meditated for 3.000 * 365 = 1.068.000 human years!

Stuff that boggles the mind.

The Hindu cosmology and timeline is the closest to modern scientific timelines and even more which might indicate that the Big Bang is not the beginning of everything, but just the start of the present cycle preceded by an infinite number of universes and to be followed by another infinite number of universes.

And I thought religion was a way to translate things into relatable terms.

Beside the boggling nature of this mythology, the English translation of The Mahabharata is here (in 12 nice .pdf):

http://www.holybooks.com/mahabharata-all-volumes-in-12-pdf-files/

Since this is an ancient version, I’ve looked around for newer/better translations (non-abridged, of course). It seems there are only two that are now complete. One done by Chicago University, the other by Bibek Debroy, but both are rater hugely expensive for the casual reader. In particular there are a few samples of the Chicago University version, so I could compare it to the one available for free.

And I’m pleased. In the sense that the Chicago University version is full with notes and commentary, but the actual text is very, very close to the free version. It flows better overall, but the older flavor of the ancient translation is actually fancier and more pleasant. So even the free version seems rather good.

Fun fact: notice how the end of the first paragraph on this page points to “a” Wheel of Time.

all my life I had tried to turn life into fiction, to hold reality away; always I had acted as if a third person was watching and listening and giving me marks for good or bad behaviour – a god like a novelist, to whom I turned, like a character with the power to please, the sensitivity to feel slighted, the ability to adapt himself to whatever he believed the novelist-god wanted.

Slowly this blog has acquired a theme, and this book fits perfectly within it, or even frames it a ideal way. Story and structure make a perfect example of how it works, on many levels. I mentioned when I got the book that I specifically searched for the first, unrevised edition. There were readers’ reviews stating that the revised version had some of the original magic stripped out, in exchange for clarity, and of course I was more interested in the full power of that magic than clarity itself. But more importantly, for me, the existence of a revised version also meant that I would have something to fall back, in the case the book left me confused within the mystery. So if the magic was too impenetrable there was always another path to it available.

It may be I clamorously missed the point, but right now that I closed the book I’m of the opinion that it has a very clear, unambiguous conclusion. The book indeed has plenty of meaningful “magic”, but it did not leave me frustrated and wanting for answers. In fact it’s one of the most generous book among those I’ve read, everything is very clearly explained and not much is really left for the reader to figure out. The biggest mysteries are between lines of dialogue, in the gaps, but it’s a psychological, nuanced mystery, and not a matter of plot or unresolved parts left to the mists of reader’s interpretations. I guess one could see the few last pages as at least a bit ambiguous, but this is a case similar to Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49”, the answer is there, laid rather explicitly. You just have to turn back a few pages, instead of staring blankly at the last one. But more importantly the protagonist doesn’t simply narrates the events, but constantly reflects about them, helping a lot the more naive reader to focus on the subtle points, instead of completely missing them. This is a book about true magic, but it is not a book for “initiates”. There’s enough of generous hand-holding to resemble Virgil in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The smallest hope, a bare continuing to exist, is enough for the antihero’s future; leave him, says our age, leave him where mankind is in its history, at a crossroads, in a dilemma, with all to lose and only more of the same to win; let him survive, but give him no direction, no reward; because we too are waiting, in our solitary rooms where the telephone never rings, waiting for this girl, this truth, this crystal of humanity, this reality lost through imagination, to return; and to say she returns is a lie.

But the maze has no center. An ending is no more than a point in sequence, a snip of the cutting shears. Benedick kissed Beatrice at last; but ten years later? And Elsinore, that following spring?

This quote is the narrator telling the reader what to expect from a book’s ending, and this book too. True endings cannot exist, so the writer/narrator also surrenders here. But after stating the theoretical limits of every story, he also gives the book as much of an ending as it is possible, and as it is legitimate to ask. The maze has no center, in tone the ending of the book seems to wrap around to the beginning, but it’s not a true loop. The story reaches its ideal end, while the pattern instead goes on, repeats, becomes abstraction.

The only true lingering mystery is the one of the invisible hand shaping the pattern. Here intentions and motives seem more subtle and elusive, but the depth one perceives isn’t a false one or a trick. It becomes psychological complexity, and the rest is metaphor and power of narration. If you want to dig, you can.

Now I should clarify that the magic in this book is not of the kind of magical formulas, evil spirits or anything like that. We’re looking at the dark side of psychology, at the demons that hide in the soul and the mythological gods that give a metaphorical shape to every story. Magic is the hidden shaper of things, but the things are physical, and logical, and pretty much ordinary, I’d say. It’s “true” magic in the sense that it’s the magic that exists in this world, that is always there even if we don’t look at it, that we live in because we exist in consciousness. And consciousness is intrinsically magical and symbolic. It’s magical because of the gap between knowledge and experience, because we know the physical world is much weirder than everyday’s experience. But the truth is that we live in that world where the gods are real and shape our experiences, where metaphor is truer than truth, and so the metaphor itself is the only way to understand things at a deeper level (look up James Hillman, if you feel my words here are confusing). So this is a sophisticated, philosophical, psychological book, but with the merit of being accessible and engaging to read, no matter the type of reader. At the center there are excellent, vivid characters and a love story. But more to the point, it feels sincere and not hypocritical, as most love stories in books end up being.

While the love story builds the plot, the real focus is more inward-looking, introspective and quite solipsistic, in an infuriating eccentric and egoist and narcissist way. For the protagonist has its head firmly embedded up his own ass, depicted as a complacent nonconformist. This was a character I deeply hated with a passion for the first 60 pages. Since he’s also the narrating voice, it felt as a detached, cold observer, unable even of the most basic form of empathy. A pathetic human being that inflicts pain on others and only reacts with something between a casual shrug and cold, analytical observation. So, by contrast, it might be surprising that I slowly started to identify with him the more I read, and this identification was almost total, by the end of the book (though the actual end left me baffled again, when it comes to the character). This is obviously a goal of the book, showing a very complex psychological growth, but I think a theme is that perfection can’t be achieved, and realistically this character never really grows out of his faults to become someone else. We only get possibility, and that’s a call for honesty. As the book points out:

Though one can accept, and still not forgive; and one can decide, and still not enact the decision.

The book stays honest to the impossibility of perfection, of full forgiveness and atonement. What remains is just the journey and an ephemeral sense of freedom that remains the true mystery in the story. I mentioned at the beginning that there are different levels, and what I meant is that the story is only an occasion to dig into much bigger and abstract themes. This life, in the sense of the story that we look into while reading the book, is just a mean to get into those bigger themes and give them a recognizable shape. Allegory.

But here we come to what I care about, and why this book very clearly belongs to this blog. Like LOST and Donnie Darko, this is a story about manipulation. That’s also where the book escapes my interpretative grip (the theme of freedom). But there are aspects that I can see very clearly, as lighthouses, because it’s what I have my eyes set on, even before starting to read the book. This is another case of wheels within wheels, or more precisely of boxes within other boxes. Of mirror games and infinite reflections. At the end of the book, this thing is clearly defined: the godgame.

Now I saw Conchis as a sort of novelist sans novel, creating with people, not words.

The Godgame

– Imagine yourself a god, and lay down the laws of a universe. You then find yourself in the Divine Predicament: good governors must govern all equally, and all fairly. But no act of government can be fair to all, in all their different situations, except one.

– The Divine Solution is to govern by not governing in any sense that the governed can call being governed; that is to constitute a situation in which the governed must govern themselves.

– If there was a creator, his second act would have been to disappear.

– Put dice on the table and leave the room; but make it clear to the players that you were never there before you left the room.

The godgame is on one hand about hidden, or even explicit, manipulation, while on the other it is about observation. Life as performance, as if actors on a stage. You might or might not being observed. You can only speculate whether or not you’ll be judged positively or negatively, and you endlessly wonder about the meaning of it all, and the degree of freedom you have. In the book the godgame is played on various levels. There’s the story of the protagonist and his love affairs, there are also stories within stories, narrated by other characters, and there’s the “magus” playing the godgame on the protagonist, while the whole thing is still part of reality, and so the godgame that contains and shapes the whole of reality. There’s the godgame of a writer and the book he’s writing, and the reader subject to this godgame. Every godgame builds a cage around its “subject”, so that it is made possible, given definition. This is very much explicit in this book, and a delighted, playful interplay of different levels. Very well done, always stimulating and evocative and powerful. That’s the best part of the book, from my point of view.

There’s also an interesting perspective that is offered and that I found stimulating: what if at the end the subject meets his god, but the roles are reverted, and it’s now the subject that must judge the god. Will the subject forgive the god? Is forgiveness even possible? As you can see these questions mirror those I mentioned above, about the more tangible love story plot. And this because the different levels are meant to be transferred one on the other, seemingly the same but yet each offering something unique. The levels are the same, and yet far apart.

“Are you absolutely sure our actions have been nothing but evil?”

The “masque” in the book is similar to the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. Story that becomes experience. A sort of adult “let’s pretend”. A god putting his subject through some dream-like journey of discovery and revelation. Characters in the book become actors, wearing masks, and you can never be sure of their true identities. From one story to the next, you can only let them lead you, play along. Unable to escape or affirm yourself. Caged, chained by the manipulation. Humiliated. Is this a tyrannical god or it’s all necessary and unavoidable, and we should be grateful for it? Is god a sadist? But in the end this is a book, the writer is the god, the protagonist of the book is who the reader identifies with. The relation between the magus and the protagonist is a mask for the relation between writer and reader. So you are part of the godgame, reproducing the pattern in all its meaningful parts. You are asked for empathy so that you can bridge the gap between reality and fiction. The disguise, that is literal in the book, also represents the writer’s tools.

The interplay is obviously deliciously post-modern, a game of mirrors, of pretense, of blurred identities. The godgame also reminded me in some ways “the entertainment” that James Incandenza prepares for his son in Infinite Jest. A kind of fictional device (again, a Magical Mystery Tour) that is meant to force its subject (Hal Incandenza) out of his shell. This too can be interpreted as a process of initiation and revelation, and it seems it’s rarely consensual (o you might think that consent defuses its efficacy). Once again, it’s judged as necessary, and you might or might not forgive your god, when it’s over. This happens all the same in a completely different, but still post-modern product: Evangelion. Where the father figure puts the son into a giant robot to fight aliens, just so that he faces his metaphorical fears and becomes a better human being. Even in this case the journey is explicitly allegorical, and again it’s efficacy is determined by the unification of various levels. The writer/god transposing himself in the book as a main character, and the identification through empathy of the reader/spectator with that character. Being him, sharing experience. A magical transference of parts and roles, through the power of fiction, and a transcendence too, because themes start from a particular story to become universal.

So you can put these different things so very close together: LOST, Donnie Darko, Infinite Jest, Evangelion. And The Magus. The first two maybe just for the interplay of levels, more than their “purpose”, but the last three have a much better overlapping identity and I can only wonder how they started from so far apart, only to converge on very similar points.

The ending of the book might be considered controversial, not much because of lack of answers or ambiguity but because it seems to wane in its magic power. In a way this is intentional, the book is structured in three different parts and the first and the last ones are very short and very different, and so they frame the real bulk of the book, where the magic takes place and the story is “elevated”. The writing also remains absolutely astonishing and excellent till the last page, so this waning of intensity is not directly a fault of a book, or a slip of author control, as I see it exactly as something necessary in the economy of this story. Though I admit I had a similar reaction to the one I’ve just read from Jo Walton on Tor:

it twists at just the wrong moment and sends it away from metaphysics into triviality and romance.

I had this EXACT same reaction, a building feel of disappointment that started somewhere at 200 pages from the end. But then it was defused the more I went on reading. As I said the biggest factor is that the writing stays consistent, and the writing itself is so magical and gripping that it can sustain even a weak story simply through nuance. But there’s also the aspect of the true nature of magic and transcendence, of the god’s play. In the end the magical is metaphorical sublimation of the ordinary, and so the “metaphysics” also need to return to the ordinary, at some point. The journey is not in one direction, but, as reflected by the mirror structure of the book, it returns. It takes flight toward magic, in Fowles own words “projecting a very different world from the one that is”, then it comes back down and returns to the ordinary. But in between something was obtained. This is the central theme even if you don’t pinpoint it on “love”. The lesson can be any lesson, and that’s why the metaphysical power is preserved. The initiation produced some change, even if it left you in the same place from where you started, now you are different and in some way renewed. You see the same things, but you see them in a new light.

It was like walking through a door, going all around the world, and then walking through the same door but a different door.

The penultimate paragraph is actually a full return to metaphysics without alienating completely the reader. I read it in the context of free will and human agency. “They [the gods] have absconded.” And then: “Fragments of freedom, an anagram made flesh.” And this matches with what Fowles writes in the introduction to the revision of the book:

God and freedom are totally antipathetic concepts; and men believe in their imaginary gods most often because they are afraid to believe in the other thing. I am old enough now to realize they do sometimes with good reason. But I stick by the general principle, and that is what I meant to be at the heart of my story: that true freedom lies between each two, never in one alone, and therefore it can never be absolute freedom.