Monday, April 10, 2006

I really feel odd. I haven't written this little in, I don't know, ever? Over the past months or so just reading lots of old cheesy sf/s&s/fantasy novels. I can't abide much serious literature--I've been picking up novels--'Oliver Twist', say, or 'The Life of Michael K.' by Coetzee--and setting them down at the point I feel the manipulation the author is offering is just overwhelming, bordering on abusive (for the Dickens, for example, just when Oliver runs out to pay the bookman his 30-odd pounds.) And poetry, after a few lines, I lose interest, though not always for the same reasons as the fiction. History seems to offer me solace.

The only poet I've enjoyed reading for any length of time in this frame of mind has been Ashbery, (he feels so clean and straightforward in a way no one else bothers to be, is how it seems to me now, go figure), and the only prose writer whose books I've finished has been Naipaul, the only one who hasn't given me that awful manipulation feeling. An artist's medium should be his words, in collaboration with the (attentive) reader, and not the reader's assumed and fatuous submission to the writer's construction. Naipaul, clear-eyed, seems not to forget that.

As far as genre-fiction goes, I'm just sucking 'em down. There's one I wanted to discuss a little: I was recommended the "His Dark Materials" trilogy by Philip Pullman. Umm, Jonah just woke up (home sick with a stomach bug), I'll finish the Pullman pan later.


Much seems to be made by Pullman of reversing the usual order of things: in the first book, the protagonist runs from the gentility of her mother, who heads a governmental group which kidnaps and psychically mutilates children in the name of religion, into the safety of righteous gypsies, with whom she sets out to rescue said children. For example. Eventually the whole multiverse becomes embroiled in a followup to the original rebellion of the Angels (see Milton), everything falling out on nice gnostic lines (i.e. the entity called "god" or, in case you missed Pullman's point, "The Authority" is not the creator but instead the first created to gain self-consciousness, and Lucifer et al. are the good guys, fighting to free all souls from the deadening dungeon of . . . ). But for all that Pullman says, following Blake's famous pronouncement on Milton, he is "of Satan's party and knows it," he ain't. This guy (or, at least, to be fair, this series) wouldn't know (perceptual) free will if it bit his toes off. There's more of Milton's majesty and poetry in one (nearly ^any^ one) of say C.S. Lewis's Narnia pages than in the best of the "His Dark Materials" series. A deadening approach to self-revelation is all it adds up to. Vague spirituality; consider the way Lewis represents the approach of a certain spiritual clarity towards the end of "Dawn Treader," when the sea becomes clear all the way to the bottom, fathoms deep, and the water tastes sweet, and the sun becomes intensely bright, as do the travelers' faces. As a child I read that and was wholly, completely taken by the physical description, in a physical way and not ideational. Now I read it and know what sort of metaphysic he's at, and they address, add to each other. One is the other. There's absolutely none of that in Pullman that isn't obnoxiously ham-handed; and almost always at odds with its surface 'message' is the undertone of a consciousness which believes power defines its own morality. Freedom seems to come down to the right to happily gather some metaphysical particles suspiciously like the 'mitichloridans' (sic) from (ye gods, am I really referencing?) "The Phantom Menace."

If you're still reading let me say I found this series, by the end, psychically revolting. I at least half-read such genre-fiction books now to tell the stories to Jonah, he loves hearing me relay them even more than having them read to him at this point. These three I won't bother with. Too bad.

Was just about to empathize, fully, & say that the only novel I was able to read lately without stopping after pp. 50 is His Dark Materials - & then you brought it up. Yes, it's quite worthwhile.
Oh but you're panning it -- oops... Bring out the guns. :)
(blush) That's funny. Enjoy it if you are, by all means--I did enjoy the first book, and a good part of the second. It's more that once his overarching structure became obvious, it kind of ruined it for me, forward and back. Just one person. Obviously, there are LOADS of fans; your in good company. There's even a movie coming out next year, I think.

By all means, let me hear your take on it, if you felt like doing so.
I just wrote "by all means" twice. I may have never used that phrase before.
Reading your criticisms - I agree with most of them. When I reflect on it, I think I liked these books for their faults -- the luridness & the hellenic predetermination/fate lurking under free will's facade. De gustibus non est disputandum, I guess -- & by all means.
I know what you mean. A matter of mood, I suppose. I'm glad you enjoyed them.

Ever read Le Guin's "Wizard of Earthsea" books? That's where I'm at now.
I read the first of those Pulman books and didn't feel any compulsion to continue. And I don't think many of the issues you raise are all that present in that first book. For me, I just found the prose kind of cold and distanced to an uncomfortable degree. I had trouble caring.

Which is an all-too-human problem, I suppose.

And, just to be especially crass, I wish someone would just write one of these YA fantasy books and knock me out with it. The preponderance of trilogies and series books makes me feel manipulated from the get-go. Am I reading a book or contributing to a franchise?
Yep I love LeGuin. But she's in a whole other category... Would you believe it, I wrote her a fan letter when I was (much much) younger... And got a reply.
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