June 22, 2003

From Mieville to Melville

John Holbo politely dissents from my earlier piece on Mieville, primitive accumulation, heroic fantasy and the like, and makes some rather good points. Two in particular that are worth highlighting. First, a summation of Tolkien that is worth quoting in full.

of course, Tolkien is sort of at fault for all of this, providing the blueprint for the factory farm. But, then again, he isn’t at fault. He did nothing of the sort. He’s practically an outsider artist (there, I said it) with his obsessive, borderline Asperger linguistic and historical constructions and conceits. His wilful refusal of the 20th century; hell, of the 19th century. I think part of him feels that everything after Beowulf, in English literature, is sort of a misstep. It is hard to make fun of such a man by poking him in the ribs with his inadequacy, compared to Proust and Joyce and so forth. He is too far away from you for you to reach his ribs.

This is a large part of the explanation of Tolkien’s substantial immunity to criticisms of the sort brought against him since Edmund Wilson’s day. He is just too intense and authentic. Tolkien is so true to himself that he simply can’t be untrue to anyone or anything else. So when he seems to lack technique, for example ending chapter after chapter by bonking hobbits on the head - ‘A great blow fell, and Frodo saw no more’; or sort of stipulating that unfunny jokes are funny - ‘And they all laughed heartily’; or pointlessly grammatically inverting - ‘Ever have I wondered,’ ‘Never have I witnessed’ - I forgive him all. Funny as it sounds, when I never ever get to hear about sex, I feel that I am being shown the man’s bared soul. That it is a very odd, in some ways crabbed and cramped and limited soul … well, that’s just how he was. It wouldn’t be better if he airbrushed these features out, merely less honest. And the genre of fantasy is, in a weird way, just a dull formalization of many of Tolkien’s intense limitations as a man and a writer.

This strikes me as being exactly right. And, in the best possible sense of the word, it’s a useful way of talking about Tolkien. It allows you to think about his work without being overwhelmed by the oppressive presence of his epigones and self-appointed heirs - the Jordans, Goodkinds, Brooks and (gawd help us) Eddings of this world. A sort of Henry Darger figure (although far less weird and far more genuinely gifted), puttering away, crafting his idiosyncratic world of Middle Earth without really caring all that much about what anyone else might think of it. Holbo’s analogy makes you realize how personal Tolkien’s work is. Tolkien can still serve as a scratching post for radicals to sharpen their claws upon, and as an inspiration for conservatives of a certain brand (as witness this essay by Gene Wolfe). But he’s something else besides - and the something else is the more important bit.

Still, I’m going to take issue with John’s second point (although again I think it says some rather useful things). John thinks that Mieville isn’t genuinely subversive, because his two books are monster hunts. In other words the structure of the books (humans confronting big scary monsters and eventually winning) makes nuanced description of character virtually impossible - and means that the books descend into genre cliche. For John, the backgrounds of the books are richer and more convincing than the plot. Nor does he think that the books are politically subversive.

I don’t think Miéville holds a mirror up to our own society, culture, politics. The specific lessons he teaches are about how to stop slakemoths, raise giant avancs from the bottom of the ocean, etc.; which is ‘how-to’ of dubious export value. The general and genuinely exportable morals – e.g. people with power are usually calculating, self-centered bastards – are interesting and important; but, I think, too well known and documented to credit Miéville with their significant advertisement.

A lot of this is right. When John says “the story-telling – good as it is; and it is good – positively gets in the way of the backgrounds,” he’s getting at something. The little hints that Mieville drops about his world are what fascinate; snippets here and there about the Malarial Queendom, the thanatocracy of High Cromlech; which give you the sense of a richly imagined world stretching beyond the page. (apparently he cut big chunks of background from The Scar to make it less baggy). I’m in full agreement when John says that Mieville has yet to write his Great Book - there’s the potential for something quite extraordinary, but Mieville hasn’t quite gotten there yet.*

Still, I reckon that John misses the ways in which Mieville’s books, and especially The Scar are genuinely subversive. He’s right to say that The Scar is a monster hunt - but wrong to think that monster-hunt books are stunted by necessity. First Witness for the Defence is that barnacle-encrusted Leviathan of the genre, Moby-Dick. Melville’s masterpiece is not strong on the subtleties of characterization or politics - the white whale is Too Big to be reduced easily to a simple metaphor for either. But it excels at capturing certain aspects of the human condition.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that Mieville is another Melville - but he is, I think, doing rich and important things with his monster hunt. He’s trying to use the fantasy novel to interrogate itself. There’s a tension running through The Scar, the tension between the fantastic and the material. This can be seen at the level of the main characters’ motivations - all the main characters are inclined to romanticize, to mistake the motivations of others and themselves for being something other than what they are, to think that they are living in an adventure story. And they find themselves manipulated by others, bruised, scarred, and sometimes broken as a result. But they only have any capacity for action because they’re romantic in this sense - the “realists” in the book (Fennec, Uther Doul) are pathetic characters without any real autonomy; they’re trapped within their own manipulations.

This tension also structures the book at a more fundamental level. Mieville isn’t trying to undercut fantasy, by showing how sordid and unpleasant people and politics really are; instead, he’s trying to interrogate it, shoving it up against the churning wheels of politics to see what sparks are generated. Both sets of elements in The Scar- the exotic backdrop, the exuberant fun of pirate stories, whale hunts and vampire vs. swordsman face-offs on the one hand, and the machinations, grubby transactions and de-mystification of romance on the other - are essential to the workings of the novel. Imo, the hunt (which is never satisfactorily concluded - the avanc is snared, but the Scar itself is never reached) allows Mieville to do this rather well, playing grubby avarice for power against romantic aspirations for the infinite. Hunts, whether they be for whales, avancs, snarks or submarines, allow one to tease out the tangled motivations of the hunters.

I’m probably teetering on the precipice of over-analysis - The Scar is much more entertaining than it likely sounds from this extended exercise in criticism. The bits that John likes are the bits that I enjoyed the most too. But there is something more there to Mieville’s book, even if he doesn’t always achieve precisely what I think he’s setting out to do. The Scar isn’t subversive in its overt political analysis, nor in introducing rich characterization to fantasy. But it interrogates fantasy, pokes and prods it, says interesting things about it, and still manages to be fun. What more could you ask for?

And while you’re checking out John’s site, take a look at the first chapter of Belle’s (his wife’s) unpublished novel. A rather wonderful opening image among other good things.

* I’d suggest that there are three genuinely great novels in the fantasy genre. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast sequence (including the last one, which most people don’t like), Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series, and John Crowley’s Little, Big. Any of those three deserves to stand with the great novels of the last century. It’s interesting (now that I think of it) that they’re all written by idiosyncratic conservatives. Posted by Henry at June 22, 2003 08:17 PM | TrackBack

I’ll vote for David Gemmell as a writer who tries to go beyond the standard fantasy cliches. Although I suspect he just replaces them with wild west cliches instead.

Posted by: Factory at June 23, 2003 03:00 AM

Hmmm, while the ones of these that I have read are fine works, I’ve always nurtured a pet theory that the truly great novels in the fantasy genre are children’s fantasy

Ursula LeGuin’s “Earthsea” trilogy (just the initial books)
Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy
C.S. Lewis’ “Narnia” series
.. and my wife adds Madeline L’Engle’s “The Time Quartet”

Posted by: dhn at June 23, 2003 10:46 AM

I’m one of the very few people I know who actually liked Tehanu. Although after that, it’s all downhill. I’d add Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster trilogy, as well as her Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Dianna Wynne-Jones Chrestomanci sequence. And Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising and … and …

Posted by: Henry at June 23, 2003 11:21 AM

My wife and I re-read the Riddlemaster trilogy not long after we were married. I was shocked at the quality of the writing, which is rather poor. For instance, McKillip drops us in rich settings, but not describe them very well. Dianna Wynne-Jones, on the other hand, does write well. You should, of course, have included Dog Star.

I’ve been trying to decide how I would justify my gut feeling that the best fantasy (with a few exceptions) has been written for a younger audience. Obviously, some of the worst fantasy has as well. But it strikes me that it is in children’s fantasy that find simple, yet important themes dealt with in effective ways — mortality (in LeGuin and Pullman), sacrafice and loss (in Cooper’s The Grey King and Silver on the Tree), humanist criticisms of religion (Pullman), Christian emancipation (Lewis), and so on and so forth.

I suspect that the requirements of writing for a younger audience forces a kind of elegance often lacking in adult fantasy. I haven’t read Gaiman’s Coraline, so I can’t compare it to the works I love by him (_Neverwhere_ and American Gods — now there’s someone who has done his homework on pagan practices!), but LeGuin’s Earthsea has a much defter touch than, for example, The Lathe of Heavan or The Dispossessed) and even Clive Barker’s children’s novel The Thief of Always is a cut above his adult horror/fantasy.

Posted by: dhn at June 23, 2003 01:03 PM

Speaking of ‘bad writing,’ I need to do a better job of proofing posts. Yet another reason blogging just isn’t for me :-).

Posted by: dhn at June 23, 2003 01:04 PM

That Gene Wolfe essay was awe-inspiringly dumb. I read it all the way to the end to see if he was making some subtler point than he was, but no…

Posted by: Walt Pohl at June 24, 2003 03:07 PM

I have to agree with Walt; perhaps his explorations into medieval history, society, and customs aren’t as good as his writing sometimes suggests. :-).

Posted by: dhn at June 25, 2003 05:11 AM

In fairness to Wolfe though, his novels are much more subtle than his baldly stated political opinions. And he does some interesting stuff with the ideas of the essay in his upcoming book, Knight.

Posted by: Henry at June 25, 2003 12:49 PM

Diana Wynne Jones has written an essay on why her children’s fantasy books are better than The Wild Magic, written for adults. She says the editors insisted that adults need everything explained without ambiguity or indirection.

Posted by: clew at June 30, 2003 04:50 PM
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