Tag Archives: fiction

The Wizard’s House

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I like the idea of flying castles. I’m a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (not technically a flying castle) and Castle in the Sky. I love the idea of something so heavy and earthbound given levity, drifting through the sky like a cloud. (There’s a flying castle at the beginning of Wolfe’s Wizard Knight series as well.)

That idea was the germ for writing “The Wizard’s House.” I wanted to play in a landscape similar to that of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (another Miyazaki film). I wrote this piece about a young man and his search for a wizard’s flying house, and then I wrote the second installment, called “The Unborn God.” It was the second installment that was picked up first and ran in an earlier issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, garnering a positive review from Locus. Now the “prequel” has appeared, and you can read it here.

I’m not sure how I’d categorize these stories. BCS publishes “literary adventure fantasy,” and that probably fits pretty well. I might also affix descriptions like “surrealist” or “magical realist” to these. I try to describe the fantastic elements in as concrete, everyday language as possible, as they would appear to the characters. And I’ve had quite a bit of fun with these characters: the timepiece, the wizard, and Sylva.

These were enjoyable stories to write, and I hope you enjoy reading them. My favorite parts are the descriptions of the clouds through which the characters pass on their travels. I love watching the skies from airplane windows; the shifting cartography of clouds and the landscape below. That’s what I’ve tried to capture here.

(Artwork above by Takeshi Oga.)

Viper’s Tangle

Viper's TangleViper’s Tangle by François Mauriac

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the things that always struck me about C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters is how effectively Lewis wrote in a demon’s voice. The character of Screwtape was believable, because Lewis understood how young Christians thought, the beliefs and desires that motivated them. He understood temptation enough to compellingly examine it from a unique and “alien” point of view that was at the same time disturbingly familiar. As strange a connection as that may be, I couldn’t help but compare the first portions of Mauriac’s Viper’s Tangle to Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.

In Viper’s Tangle we’re given a surprisingly compelling and (for me, at least) an uncomfortably familiar view into the mind of a bitter man nearing death and reflecting on his life. Mauriac’s character, Louis, lives in a state of quiet warfare with his family, whom he sees as hovering around him waiting for his death so they can claim his fortune. He knew love once– or thought he did– early in his marriage, but has for the past forty years lived in symbolic silence with a wife he believes neither understands nor appreciates him. He is embittered and hateful, and we as readers quickly become suspicious of his view of the world around him because it’s so colored by his own perceptions and beliefs. Are things really as bleak and tangled as he represents them? Is he correctly interpreting the present and past actions of his wife and children?

I certainly don’t believe I’m in a similar situation as Mauriac’s protagonist, who begins writing his account as an explanatory letter to his wife to be read upon his death. Yet the power of the account is what I felt years ago reading Lewis’s Screwtape: a certain amount of recognition. If I’m not as hateful and vindictive as Louis, I can see the seeds of such fruit in some of my own attitudes, in my own petty feelings of injury that can easily be nursed into a deep resentment, similar to those Louis uses to justify his attitudes and outlook. As embittered as Louis is, Mauriac effectively outlines how he became this way, and it’s a mirror to some of my own worst days.

This is the second novel we have read in the course I’m auditing on the Catholic imagination in twentieth-century literature. Mauriac’s Louis has nothing but contempt for the lukewarm religiosity of his family members (nominal Catholics) and takes a great deal of pleasure in antagonizing them. He sees them as hypocritical, unable to admit they care only for the same thing that drive him: their wealth. Yet whereas they are unaware of the misery obsession with money brings, he lives and breathes within the center of the web it has cast across his life. He sees clearly how little happiness it brings, and he doesn’t cloak his pursuit of it in any sort of noble or selfless terms, does not justify it with the trappings of middle class Catholicism as do the members of his family.

It’s compelling watching Louis in his own net of vindictiveness and self-destruction. Yet the book is ultimately about Louis’s transformation. This is not a simple Dickensian transformation. Louis does not wake up one morning, like Scrooge, a new man. There is instead one final plot of Louis’s to disinherit his conniving children as he realizes the tangle of vipers is not simply within his own heart but has extended to the actions of those around him. Louis’s final endeavor is concluded by an unexpected death, and then comes– near the end of the novel– the transformation in which his hatred abruptly drains away. Mauriac depicts Louis as paradoxically, finally, realizing the true object of his love in his own loathing for his fortune and his desire to become free of it.

What makes this more than a straightforward conversion tale is the skill Mauriac uses in detailing the weaving of Louis’s tangle of hate and weak, tired avarice. It’s a picture of the furious futility of a selfish life, of hatred that is simply an emptiness. It is believable. Yet there is also, all around Louis, the glimmer of a greater reality breaking in that reminds– like a brilliance glimpse around the edges of cloud– of the wonder of Chesterton’s world. Louis is aware of this, fleetingly, in the world he sees and in a few of the characters who love him unselfishly, uninterested in what they can take from him. This is a story of someone trapped in the wonder of a Chestertonian world and unable to perceive it from the prison of self-loathing until almost too late.

There is a final plot twist near the end of the novel, which enhances the narrative of Louis attempting to reconcile himself– or allow himself to be reconciled– to his children. The question of the unreliable narrator again emerges as we get a glimpse of the ways in which his children perceive his sudden transformation. Indeed, I thought the way Mauriac ended the novel, with letters by Louis’s son and his granddaughter, was especially effective. Each of them present a perception of who Louis ultimately became, and trying to work out which aspects of which were correct or at least understandable adds a final layer of intricacy to the tangle from which Louis attempted to extricate himself at his life’s end.

Drying Grass Moon

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Last week was a good one as far as publication go, as I had two stories go live in two different online magazines. The first appeared in AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, a quarterly magazine in which one of my previous stories, My Bicycle, 4500 A.D., appeared a few years ago. One of the cool things about having a story in AE is that each one is illustrated, so I get the treat of seeing how an artist interprets what I had to say. (The illustration above is by Al Sirois.)

I wrote “Drying Grass Moon” on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, which is when a lot of my writing seems to take place: sitting in bed with the kids playing upstairs and my wife napping beside me. Like many of my stories, it was based on a fragment I had sketched out in one of the voluminous free-write files that I try to keep regularly with varying degrees of success. The title itself, an old Native American (I think) designation of one of the full moons, had stuck in my mind. I wanted to play with that image, imagining settlement and abandonment on the lunar surface.

One of the challenges was trying to write about the passage of time on the Moon, about what that would actually look like. The Moon is tidally locked with the Earth, so the Earth remains motionless in the lunar sky. Your location on the Moon determines the Earth’s position in your sky, and that position does not vary over the course of the month-long lunar day. The Earth would, however, go through phases in its fixed spot in the sky. I wanted those realities to be the background of the story, as well as the developing reality of exoplanetary discovery and how that might transform the way we view human expansion into our own planetary system.

The twist in the story is about old age, youth, companionship, and– of course– sexbots. I’ll let you tell me whether or not you found it effective. Read “Drying Grass Moon” here.

The Man Who Was Thursday

The Man Who Was Thursday: A NightmareThe Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My edition of G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday includes an explanatory note at the end of the text, taken from one of Chesterton’s columns published the day before his death, in which he calls attention to the work’s subtitle and the fact that most people ignore it. For me, that subtitle– “A Nightmare”– is one of the biggest riddles of the work. As I reread it recently for a course I’m auditing, “The Catholic Imagination in 20th-Century Fiction,” that question kept coming back to me: in what terms does Chesterton view this story as a nightmare?

It’s certainly dreamlike. The protagonist, Gabriel Syme, is an undercover policeman charged with infiltrating a secret ring of anarchists. He does so by a remarkable chain of events that results in him being elected to the Central Council of Anarchists, a body in which each member is given the codename of a day of the week (hence the title). The monstrous leader of this council and of the worldwide society of anarchists is Sunday, a figure that looms over the entire narrative like a thunderhead.

The course of the novel is one of sudden reversals and switches, a series of unmaskings that are sudden and sweeping and– eventually– somewhat ludicrous. Our hero soon realizes he is not the only person on the council who is not what he appears. The frequent and increasingly elaborate disguises are certainly dreamlike. So are the sudden changes of scenery (moving from London to the French countryside and back almost effortlessly), the weird weather (a breakfast on a balcony followed by a sudden snowstorm), and the bizarre chases.

There is also throughout the book the dreamy quality that makes all of Chesterton’s work so memorable, but it is a sharp and specific dreaminess: his characteristic attention to beauty and the mythological vistas in the everyday. Syme’s prosaic London and its various scenes (buildings along the river, rides in hansom cabs through neighborhoods, glimpses of bushes across a meadow) are glorified– even sanctified– by Chesterton as things of true terror and sublimity. Syme notes, for instance, during a duel in which he realizes he may likely die, that he is not only fighting against anarchy on behalf of all ordinary and wonderful things (a parallel here I think to how Chesterton saw himself as a philosophical champion against the anarchy of nihilism) but that he would be satisfied to lay his whole life beneath a certain almond bush glimpsed across the field, looking upward through its branches.

Though aspects of the novel have a feel of a nightmare (especially the penultimate twist that seems to have Syme and his allies alone against the world), it is the final unmasking, the revelation of the nature of Sunday himself, which takes place during the most dream-like sequence of a novel, that I still don’t see in light of the subtitle. The identity of Sunday, and what it signifies for Chesterton’s view of nature and the universe, is the central theme of the novel. In many ways, I think Syme’s experience with Sunday is an analogy of Chesterton’s conversion experience: he thought he was a man alone, defending the ordinary against the forces of anarchy, but in all his defiance he found himself continually driven back to orthodoxy, always finding the figure that he thought the greatest architect of anarchy grinning out from the cracks of reality. He kept, he has Syme say, feeling he was seeing the backside of nature– all its grimness and cruelty and beauty– but he (in the character of Syme) finally sees its face. And it’s that final realization that I have trouble understanding in the context of the tale as nightmare.

The final twist might be seen coming a long way off, and the ones leading up to it might start to feel a bit ridiculous, but the entire novel still feels fresh and exuberant, if a bit slapdash. Chesterton’s prose is easy and engaging, even when it’s dashing off on a tangent to describe clouds above the city at sunset or how the buildings across the river look like monsters. This is the point, for him. The buildings are monsters. The sunset is a flame. And this may perhaps be the most poignant part of the thing called the Catholic imagination, the thing that rings through all of Chesterton’s work– the idea that the world is almost shockingly, unbelievably good, and the greatest adventure is living among the ordinary things of creation and seeing them so.

A dream, perhaps. But I hope not a nightmare.

The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the DayThe Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The back of my copy of Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day uses phrases like “elegant,” “cruel,” and “quietly devastating” to describe this slender volume. This was another book read on the recommendation of my sister, and neither she nor the cover blurbs lied. I found the work to be a nearly flawless study of the life and reflections of a figure that has been often parodied but seldom understood– the English butler, living out a long and possibly futile career of service to a grand manor house in the first half of the twentieth century.

My readings lately have been orbiting around the First World War. I read Logicomix not long ago and was struck by the role that the War played and realized how little I knew of the history of the conflict. Logicomix led me to Wittgenstein’s biography, in which the War was the backdrop to the dissolution of the philosopher’s native culture and empire. Right now I’m about halfway through Keegan’s excellent one-volume treatment of the First World War, and I was not surprised to again find the War haunting the pages of Ishiguro’s work, its repercussions echoing down the halls of the house to which Ishiguro’s protagonist, Mr Stevens, devotes the prime years of his career.

The Remains of the Day is a novel about reflections, reminding me in many ways of Gene Wolfe’s Peace, one of my all-time favorite novels. As far as actual action and plot, not much happens on the surface: a butler, Mr Stevens, who has spend his career as the head butler of Darlington House in the service of Lord Darlington, finds himself in the evening of his life (this is where the title comes from) reflecting on his years of service as he takes a motoring trip across southwest England to renew an old acquaintance. The larger themes come out only slowly, as Stevens’ interior monologue takes him back and forth between reflections on the countryside and villages he is passing through and his own memories of past years at Darlington House.

You learn several things right away. The first is that Stevens defines himself in terms of “dignity”– a quiet, steady service to a worthy lord. We meet Stevens’ father in his recollections and see how this shaped his upbringing, and we get hints of the sort of international policies that were hammered out in unofficial meetings between great personages coming together at Darlington House. This is where the echoes of the Great War make themselves felt: Lord Darlington and his allies feel the terms of the Treaty of Versailles deals too harshly with the German people and want to preserve international peace by mitigating some of the more draconian strictures.

Stevens explains his view of the world at one point: To us the world was a wheel, revolving with these great houses at the hub, their mighty decisions emanating out to all else, rich and poor, who revolved around them.

As the novel progresses, Stevens is forced to acknowledge the ultimate failure– and indeed the sinister advantages made– of Lord Darlington’s naive idealism. What is more difficult though, is his slow realization of the costs his years of service have had on his own life. It is in this slow, subtle realization that Ishiguro’s writing truly excels. Stevens’ self-reflection, his recollected narratives, are couched entirely in painfully reserved– at times almost Asberger-like in its emotional detachment– preoccupations with proper decorum, dignity, and service. His attempts to reflect on his own feelings, such as those associated with his father’s death and his own unrequited love, are painfully stymied and round-about.

In many passages I found myself reminded of nothing more than Data from Star Trek: the Next Generation trying to understand certain difficult human emotions or expression. Stevens admits that a truly great butler– and for all his humility it is clear that he believes himself to be one by dint of doing good work at a great house– wears a persona he must never remove, and even in his own self-reflections, in the monologue within his mind, we see this persona so carefully constructed that he is unable to escape from it, even at the cost of his relationships with others.

This makes Stevens himself an unreliable narrator, something that again reminds me of Wolfe. It’s not that Stevens tells outright lies, but he either cannot reveal or cannot even perceive emotional nuances that would be obvious to anyone else. Because of this we don’t, for instance, ever learn the true extent of Stevens attachment to the acquaintance he is traveling to see or what their past relationship may have entailed– not because Stevens is covering it up, but because to speak of such things would be irrelevant or unseemly. He doesn’t give us his own emotional state; we’re left to learn of how he is feeling at particular times by the interactions he has with others and the questions they ask him. What we have, always, is the consummate butler.

I don’t know what Ishiguro knew of this world, nor do I know how much a story like this was a model for things like Downton Abbey today. But it seems to me he got a lot right about people who give themselves up entirely to a certain cause or perceived ideal and what happens when one is forced to live up to the fact that loyalty may have been misplaced or– even worse– ultimately futile.

If I have a single complaint about this novel, it’s because I’m partial to fantasies in which the house itself is part of the story. The quote by Stevens above puts me in mind of places like the Professor’s house in The Chronicles of Narnia or Evenmere of The High House. In this novel, Darlington House is never anything more than the background. We don’t see much of its character. We don’t really get any sense at all about what it looks like or its moods or atmosphere. Perhaps this is intentional: for Stevens, it is simply a workplace to be managed with a quiet and ceaseless efficiency. It also means that Darlington House has the strength of non-specificity; imagine any large, stately English manor house: that is Darlington House.

Like every story, The Remains of the Day is a love story at its core, but it is a buried love story. It is a love story of carefully spoken courtesies in which the shape of things unsaid only slowly become apparent. It is a romance of averted glances and missed opportunities, all the more tragic because the hero only slowly has any awareness that they have been missed. The ending, for all its soft cruelty, was satisfying, if not unexpected. This is not a book about storms or sudden, swift changes. It is a book about an evening– of an age as well as a life– about the slow fading of light and the reflections that long English evenings in the countryside entail.

The Land of the His-lonyups

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My daughter writes stories. They’re terrifying and delightful. She’s six. Her latest is a fully illustrated book, made up of several sheets of white scrap paper bound together along the righthand margin with eight haphazard staples.

“What can I do?” she had asked after we arrived home from a day in Chicago. I was tired and wanted a break from kids.

“Anything you want,” I said. “Read a book, draw a picture, play with–”

“No,” she interrupted. “What can I do for you?”

“Oh.” I paused. “You could write me a story and illustrate–”

She didn’t even let me finish. Before I was done speaking, she was at the table with the paper and the pencils, bent over her work.

Later, she brought me the finished product. “It’s pronounced ‘His-lon-ee-ups,’” she explained.

“What are his-lonyups?”

“I made them up.”

I’ve recreated the text of the work below, edited for spelling. It’s grim, folks. The girl is a miniature Edward Gorey.

The Land of the His-Lonyups

The cover has a image of a skull and a backward question mark. From the side of the skull protrudes the hilt of a sword, along with what might be an effluence of blood or brain matter.

Long ago in a far away land, there was a man who was named Peter.

She introduces the story’s main character. In his image he is depicted as a young, smiling man with spiky hair. He holds what might be a milkshake in his left hand and wears a backpack. Our hero is obviously young, hopeful, and prepared to travel.

He went to an island on a boat.

There are hints here of Where the Wild Things Are, especially in this image, which shows Peter in his small boat on the waves. The island he approaches holds trees– flame-like protuberances on slender sticks. But what is this hidden among them? Do the trees bear fruit, or is that something more sinister?

The island was creepy. He heard a noise. SRESS! [sic] went the noise.

She’s effectively building atmosphere as well as intrigue. What sort of island is this creepy island? What kind of animal would make a noise like “Sress!” Is it a shriek? Or a hiss? Or some unholy combination of the two? The image here gives us no clues. It simply shows Peter, now as a stick-figure, approaching a weirdly-shaped tree. In a thought bubble over his head hangs the ominous backward question mark from the cover.

Then he saw a black face stick out of the trees!

This image shows Peter– his face now bearing an expression of horror and surprise– at the base of the strange tree. Extending downward from one of the branches, hanging upside-down like a bat, is the face of what I can only assume to be a his-lonyup. Twin fangs extend upward from a grinning mouth. Its eyes are thin and slanted; its ears sharp and pointed.

It was a his-lonyup. The his-lonyup kild [sic] him . . .

Our worst fears have been confirmed. Peter, the plucky protagonist, lies prone, his dotted eyes replaced by the familiar cartoon Xs of death. The his-lonyup, which we can now see as some horrific bat-cat crossbreed, stands beside him. The slitted eyes are wide, the smile even wider. This monster, it is clear, kills not for food or from a sense of self-preservation but for the simple pleasure of it.

and he still remains in the graveyard forever more.

The final image is a tombstone marked “Peter.” What may have been a cautionary tale of youthful exploration gone horribly wrong on this final, poignant page becomes something deeper– an examination of the mortality we all carry with us. We will all, one day, the author seems to be saying, face our own his-lonyups– the savage, inexplicable wilds of our own existences that kill without thought or mercy. We are all Peter, and each day is an island. Who knows what horrors await among the trees?

I told my daughter the next morning that I had nightmares about his-lonyups all night. She grinned.

I think she’s already at work on a sequel.

What the Elfmaid Brought

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Last week my latest story, “What the Elfmaid Brought,” appeared in Daily Science Fiction. DSF is a professional-paying market that publishes a wide gamut of fantasy and science fiction, primarily very short stories and flash fiction. Each weekday their website features a new story that is also sent out via email to their (free) subscription base. “Elfmaid” was a Friday story, which meant it was visible on the main DSF page for the whole weekend as well.

Sometimes writing stories for me is like pulling teeth, but other times a certain phrase or image strikes me and the entire thing sort of tumbles together. This was the case with “Elfmaid.” The kernel was an idea a friend of mine gave me in a conversation. He offered– in a context I can’t recall– the thought that the elfmaid gives the narrator at the beginning of this story. I liked the idea, and I like books and elfmaids and magic libraries, so I put them all together in this piece. It’s the second short surrealist bit I’ve written about interesting characters walking into my office. The first was about me losing my bicycle. This is about loss too but also about new beginnings. Take a look and let me know what you think. It got some nice feedback on Daily Science Fiction’s Facebook page.

In other updates, the work proceeds apace on my science fiction thriller, First Fleet. The first third of the novel (which will be serialized by Retrofit Publishing) has been accepted by the publisher, and I’m about two-thirds of the way through a draft of part two. I’ve seen some concept artwork from the artist designing the covers, and I’m quite excited. It’s been a fun process but a challenge as well as I’ve never attempted an extended narrative of this length. Stay tuned for more on this project . . .

Mason & Dixon

Mason and DixonMason and Dixon by Thomas Pynchon

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The past is a different country, but in Pynchon’s work it might as well be a different planet– or at least a different reality. It is without a doubt someplace foreign, somewhere on the boundary of narrative and myth. Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon is, superficially, a historical fiction recounting the work of the British astronomers Charles Mason (1728–1786) and Jeremiah Dixon (1733–1779), who observed the 1761 transit of Venus across the Sun from the Cape of Good Hope but are better known today for measuring the colonial boundary known today as the Mason-Dixon line.

Mason & Dixon had been recommended to me because of its treatment of the history of astronomy. And there is indeed some great historical astronomy in here. I tagged a passage for my introductory astronomy class to read to illustrate that much of what we know as astronomy in the eighteenth century had nothing to do with probing the nature of celestial objects but was instead a means of measuring position and distances on the Earth’s surface. The primary characters are historical personages, and the narration frequently alludes to Mason’s journals. I wish, however, Pynchon would have explained in either a prefix or an afterward exactly what his sources were that formed the kernel of truth behind what was in many respects a shifting landscape of surreality.

On the skeleton of a historical framework, Pynchon rears a sprawling, phantasmagoric edifice that belies any sort of easy classification. Early on in the narrative the main characters meet a talking dog. Things get stranger from there, and their travels include encounters with a sentient, robotic duck, erotic Jesuit assassins, a Jewish Golem as large as a mountain, ghosts, giant vegetables, and signs of a pre-historic advanced civilization among ancient burial mounds. Most of the action takes place in the wilds of colonial America, where Pynchon uses his stream-of-consciousness approach to paint a wilderness of our own national legends and myths. It is a realm where what we think of as “real” history blends with history-that-could-have-been, or should have been, or was once imagined.

Pynchon’s writing style doesn’t make it any easier for the casual reader. The first thing to master is the eighteenth-century spellings and capitalizations, carried throughout the work. To be fair, once you’ve gotten used to this, it is no longer quite so noticeable and indeed deepens the feeling that you’re actually experiencing life as it was lived and thought over two hundred years ago. The following passage gives a good feeling for Pynchon’s stylistic approach. All of the ellipses are true to the text:

“What Machine is it,” young Cherrycoke later bade himself goodnight, “that bears us along so relentlessly? We go rattling thro’ another Day,– another Year,– as thro’ an empty Town without a Name, in the Midnight . . . we have but Memories of some Pause at the Pleasure-Spas of our younger Days, the Maidens, the Cards, the Claret,– we seek to extend our stay, but now a silent Functionary in dark Livery indicates it is time to re-board the Coach,and resume the Journey. Long before the Destination, moreover, shall this Machine come abruptly to a Stop . . . gather’d dense with Fear, shall we open the Door to confer with the Driver,. . . no Horses, . . . only the Machine, fading as we stand, and a Prairie of desperate Immensity. . . .”

What is harder to come to grips with is Pynchon’s casual treatment of chronology. Dialogue between characters describing a past event will move without warning into a firsthand narrative of said event with no transition. Pynchon’s approach of presenting the entire narrative as a story being told as a recollection by one of Mason and Dixon’s traveling companions in post-independence Philadelphia and switching back and forth between the narrative and description of what’s happening in this Philadelphia drawing room– frequent at first but falling away by the novel’s end– is also disconcerting. All of these scene and temporal shifts come on top of the reality-surreality disjunction that runs through the entire work, contributing to a sense vertigo that makes the whole thing– the primary extent of which chronicles the wanderings of the surveyors in America– feel like an extended fever dream.

It was beautiful in many places, and the weirdness and wonder of the story itself hung nicely with the practice of astronomy during this period, often portrayed in other sources as dull and unromantic. Pynchon plays with connections between carving lines of latitude across a wilderness and early modern (and lingering) beliefs in lines of energy and occult forces across landscapes. (Dixon, we learn, spent his student years not only learning how to mark surveying lines but also using them to fly across the English countryside on a broomstick by night.) But the sheer volume of the tale and its dizzying arabesques of flashback and fantasy and story within story grew (for me) wearing. Maybe Pynchon was making us feel the grind of Mason and Dixon across the unexplored countryside, driving a carefully calibrated visto across America’s “dreamtime,” but all of their eastward and westward peregrinations started to blend together in my own mind. What was I supposed to find in Mason’s melancholy and Dixon’s tales under those strange stars?

The strongest aspect of the story was the relationship between the two astronomer-surveyors, which is played to an excellent effect in the novel’s beginning, during their time at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, loses momentum in the bulk of the novel, and only reappears after they have returned to England at the novel’s conclusion. In between, for much of the work, I was as lost as Pynchon makes it feel Mason and Dixon were themselves, with only their lenses and latitudes to guide them. It’s a journey with no real destination– into the wilderness and back, and Pynchon shows you that not even the astronomers themselves were satisfied with it, leaving the reader with ghosts and narrative echoes: an imagined image of them continuing westward and Mason at long last returning (maybe?) from England to America to die.

“Meanwhile, there all of you are, accosting Strangers in Taverns, spilling forth your Sorrows, Gratis. One day, if it be his Will, God will seize and shake you like wayward daughters, and you will thenceforward give nothing away for free.”

The High House

The High House (The High House #1)The High House by James Stoddard

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is a survivor, one of those volumes that has come through multiple bookshelf purges over the years. It was purchased in an age of Brooks and Jordan and Star Wars novels, but it was solid enough that it remains when most of my pulp paperback science fiction and fantasy are gone. I was reminded of it recently by the graphic novel Joe the Barbarian, so I fished it off the shelf and decided to return to Evenmere, the epigrammatic house of the title, for the first time since childhood.

Evenmere is the central idea and the setting for The High House, which is more of a fable than a fantasy novel. The story is of Carter Anderson, a boy who grew up in the country English manor and only now returns to it as a man. The master keys of the house have been stolen by Anarchists, and Carter has to seek the mantle and the sword of his missing father and take his rightful place of Master of the House. This house, however, is more than a rambling mansion. It is a world unto itself, with entire kingdoms and countries within its rooms, corridors, and courtyards. The image of the house itself is enough for Stoddard to hang his tale on, and the concept comes to life with his descriptive language. Evenmere is Gormenghast done brighter (even with the Room of Horrors). It is a more cosmological version of Wolfe’s House Absolute. It is the extension of the house Susan, Lucy, Edmund, and Peter found a wardrobe within. Stoddard takes the idea of finding an entire world in a cabinet and transforms it into a place where a suite of rooms can be a kingdom without ceasing to also be a suite of rooms.

What is it about this kind of rambling, magical house that has such an appeal in fantasy? Stoddard’s house is a Christian house, the house of the created universe. There is an appeal here to a certain type of fantasy writer (and reader): those who believe the universe was indeed created and that we are all living in our Father’s house. It touches on a way of seeing the universe itself. Stoddard has his main character spell it out after a day of wandering empty corridors:

I love these halls, the crannies and endless passages. The secret panels. The promise of adventure. I think there is something wonderful in all the desolate places. It’s like being a child again, walking outside at night, with the wind stirring the trees, and the sudden fear that something would leap out before I reached the house. But beyond the fear there was a question, a mystery of what inhabits a land when no man is there. What do the trees do when they are alone? And the stones? And this is another desolate place. Think of it, year upon year, and perhaps we are the first ones to walk her halls in many lifetimes.

It is the same thought a friend voiced upon viewing a planetarium show on exoplanets: what does it mean that there are these worlds out there with measurable wind speeds and surface temperatures? How is it significant? In a sense, these places are the empty rooms, the barren corridors. For a writer like Stoddard, they are not simply random or wasted space. They are aspects and portions of a created order. Evenmere is a representation of a universe in which every seam and joining of space was crafted. There is meaning or significance to all of it. The characters spend days walking down empty corridors with dusty sconces and threadbare carpet. But even the empty parts were designed. They are part of the plan of the house. As empty or desolate or far away as they may be, as endless, they are still part of a home.

That’s the power of this book, the idea of a house as an entire universe, which reflects the idea of the entire universe as a house. The rest of the work, unfortunately, has not held up as well as it did when this book first captured me. The characters, though likable, are wooden and predictable. Besides their names, it is difficult to tell one from the other. It is a fable, not a character piece. You follow an Everyman on an adventure through the house, an adventure in which there are no deep personal twists or surprises or stakes beyond the survival of the universe itself. The bad guys, including the Wicked Stepmother, are unequivocally bad. The good guys have to wrestle with their own weaknesses but never in a way that transforms how they think. Everyone is on a set trajectory from the novel’s very beginning. In fable though, these are not necessarily weaknesses.

More disappointing reading this as an adult was the realization that the central theme, a house that is a universe unto itself, could have gone so much deeper. Stoddard’s Evenmere is beautiful, but about halfway through the novel I started getting tired of wandering its corridors. The world of the house starts to become simply an endless variation of architecture and decorating along with a network of secret passageways, all painstakingly described. But a house is so much more than that. There’s an entire universe in the plumbing alone, or the chimneys and gas pipes, or a hundred other things that could have been brought into play. Stoddard has written a sequel to this work that I have not yet read, and he is apparently working on a third novel as well, so perhaps these are aspects of the house he will explore in the future.

One final quibble: the dreams. A house that contains entire kingdoms within its walls is dreamlike enough, but a major portion of the action in this book takes place in long, meandering dream sequences that didn’t do much to move the plot along. These made the action drag.

The High House may not be a perfect, tightly executed novel, but it is a wonderbook, a quest through a beautifully rendered world hidden in the hallways of a house as old as time. In this respect it is simultaneously as new and mysterious as a house you’ve never visited and as familiar and comforting as your own hearth.

Peace Like a River

Peace Like a RiverPeace Like a River by Leif Enger

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My sister has some credibility when it comes to recommending books. The last one she told me I had to read was Gilead, and I was not disappointed. It was iridescent. So when she delivered another novel about family and love and God set in yesterday’s Midwest, I dutifully put it in the basket beside my bed to ignore for a few months—but not forget. And I eventually got around to it.

Leif Enger creates a family, a single father and his three children in a small Minnesota town, and writes their meandering tale beginning with an abortive act of violence through escalation to the eldest son’s irrevocable act of retaliation (or perhaps preventative justice) and exile. All of this takes place in roughly the first third of the book. The rest is the father and the remaining two kids going to find the lost son.

In grittier hands this would be a tale of a family broken, of the ideals of pacifism playing out against darker realities in a strained relationship between father and son, maybe something like We Were the Mulvaneys. But Enger’s not going to go in that direction. There is murder, at several points throughout the book, and injustice, maybe even some suffering; but from the first page you realize this is a Christian novel, set in a Christian world with a Christian protagonist and by gum it’s going to have a good, Christian ending (and not some ambiguous Catholic ending either).

But, like I said, my sister recommended it. So I kept reading. And to be fair, Enger has a knack for creating characters and (when he’s not laying it on too thick) bringing the bleak beauty of the Midwest to life.

There are a lot of things going on in the novel. The most poignant for me was the characterization of the narrator—the middle son—and his relationship with his exiled older brother and his younger sister. This was where the story felt real. I admire anyone who can bring such a depth of characterization to a tale.

As far as the plot goes, there are snatches of courtroom drama, road trip narrative, romance, a touch of mystery, and—a bit incongruous but not unexpected—eschatology. There’s also a pleasant under-layer of Western lore communicated through the stories and poetry of the younger sister. The language is lovely if at times heavy-handed. The plot drifts but never slowed enough to lose me, though there were moments when the narrative structure was strained. The novel’s superficial villain, for instance, becomes a superficial friend, only to disappear and be randomly murdered off-scene.

My biggest difficulty was with the character of Jeremiah Land, the father who is in many respects the hero of the novel. Imagine a cross between Atticus Finch and Old Testament Elijah. Land is the pole-star of the narrative, the hinge on which everything else turns, and the way that Enger handled this character is what makes this work to me sit firmly in the camp of “Christian literature” (i.e. something you might see on the shelf at Family Christian Stores beside a lighthouse painting and a Precious Moments display.)

In one of the novel’s first episodes, the narrator witnesses his father praying several feet off the ground. If that sounds bizarre, it’s mediated a bit by the fact that the narrator is explaining all this through the haze and hagiography of a nine-year-old remembering his father. Miracles follow Land around throughout the novel: he is carried off by a tornado but lands unharmed, he has a good measure of prescience, and he heals people (specifically his enemies) with a touch. He works as a janitor. He’s humble. He’s good. He’s strong. He’s kind.

A child’s recollection of a saintly father is one thing. And a flat character is not necessarily a bad thing. What was more difficult for me in this book was what Land’s character said about Enger’s God—or rather, the independent, self-reliant, American Midwestern ideal of God. Jeremiah Land is a man alone, at times against the world, but his confidence comes from experience: his God is always the big guy upstairs who has his back and tells him what to do.

The irony is that Enger creates a tale in which a man like Land is faced with what would seem to be a huge challenge: a horrific act that has fractured their family and called his own ideals into question. At the very least it seems there would be some self-reflection. Some soul-searching. Some transformation of character. But there doesn’t seem to be any growth or change or introspection or foundational shifts at play throughout the novel. No one ends up seeing the world in a different way. Simply dig a bit deeper in the King James Bible and wrestle a bit harder in prayer, and things will work out. (And even if they work out [spoilers!] with you dead—no worries, we get a glimpse of paradise.) There’s no loss in this novel, no ambiguity. Characters end the novel with the same opinions, the same outlook and perspectives, that they had when the book opened. That includes everyone we get to know: the narrator, his sister, Land, and the exiled son. The peripheral characters, those who enter Land’s orbit, never get developed; they simply become obliging satellites to Land’s sanctity.

The events at the beginning of this novel set it up to be jarring, to give you some things to wrestle with. But nothing really comes of it. Ultimately you get some good stuff in a good book, just sort of jangling around, with a feel-good God.

She has The Remains of the Day next on the list for me. My hopes are a bit higher.