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November/December 2015
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Charles de Lint
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Michelle West
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Jerry Oltion
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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May, by Mark Z. Danielewski, Pantheon, 2015, $25.

The Scarlet Gospels, by Clive Barker, St. Martin's Press, 2015, $27.

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson, William Morrow, 2015, $35.

PRIOR TO this column, I had read and heard a lot about Mark Z. Danielewski's writing without ever having experienced any of it. When The Familiar crossed my desk, I thought to remedy that.

The Familiar's prologue is intriguing (and printed sideways across the page, in three sections). There is no obvious connection between the three sections, but the questions they raise made me continue. I'm glad that I did.

There are nine viewpoints (and a small section given to a tenth), and each viewpoint is in a different font, many with different layouts, some in columns, some in vague cut-out shapes that adorn empty spaces. The last time I read a book that skewed presentation of text so much was in the early '70s, and it was a textbook, a compilation of different poems.

The book opens with Xanther, a twelve-year-old girl, in the car with her father in a rainstorm at 8:19:15 A.M. on the tenth of May. She is thinking about rain. About How Many Raindrops there are. About questions to which she will never have answers (such as that one). Those questions permeate the short section, as they will every section devoted to Xanther. She is awash in questions, a constant stream of which drag her narrative all over her internal map before swerving, with herculean effort, back to the point that started her musing.

She is compulsive in a very visceral way. If she cannot turn the questions aside, if she can't get out from under their weight, it's bad: Xanther is epileptic, and the spiral of the unanswered and the unanswerable invoke seizures, one of which almost killed her in the recent past. But her questions are a shield, a way of not asking questions about loss and death.

This weighs heavily on her parents—and she knows it. She knows that her doctors, her special diet, her psychiatrist, her inability to cope and fit in at school, have drained the household of money. I found this heartbreaking, as a parent.

From Xanther, we travel to Luther, at 8:43:58 of the same day. He's a large, scarred man who works, or worked, as an enforcer. He has just returned to what was, at one point, as much of a home as he's ever had; it's owned and run by Lupita, a one-time prostitute who has both trained other girls and, it's implied, done other odd jobs—none of which are likely to be legal.

At 8:43:59, we return to Xanther, or more precisely, to Anwar, her father. He picks up the journey in the rainstorm, his point of view entirely unlike his daughter's, but concerning some of the same things; it's here we discover that Xanther's biological father, Dov, died recently. Xanther has been raised by Anwar, but it's clear that Dov remained part of her—and her family's—life. And he's gone. The dead don't answer questions.

From Anwar, we move to jingjing, at 00:19:21, in Singapore on the 11th of May. Until now, the book has been centered on the mundane—if you consider the violence inherent in an enforcer in L.A. to be mundane—but it's in jingjing's section that hints of things less mundane first appear, which is both creepy and frustrating. jingjing's English is not standard (as jingjing says, "sometimes how you talk is all you got. even if your talk is wrong"). (jingjing doesn't use capitalization in the standard way, either.) I had to read a chunk of this section out loud, because some of the spelling is phonetic ("oreddy" for "already" as an example).

But jingjing lives with tian li, a woman considered a witch doctor (not the words he uses). He's not impressed by her or the stories "they" tell about her; to jingjing she is both special and pathetic simultaneously. The only thing that impresses him—as in, terrifies him enough that he never talks about it—is her cat. Or rather, the shadow her cat casts. "…shadows of his hammock, himself, singapore, withdrawing before it, across the floor, like all shadows could fear this shadow most."

From jingjing we go to Astair, Xander's mother, who is worried about her daughter, about her dissertation (Did she pass? She must have passed. Did she pass?), and about her house, rented as-is, which leaks when it rains. She is planning a big surprise for Xanther: a dog. She is certain Xanther will love a dog, because the dog will love her and belong to her in a way that twins, as siblings, don't. All of this becomes significant later, but in a skewed way.

At 11:51:10 in Texas, we meet a woman named Cas. She and her partner, Bobby, are clearly in hiding. They have with them something Cas calls the Orb. It seems, at first blush, to be a VR simulator, but it's clear that the Orb is more than that; people have been killed because of it.

And so the book continues, adding viewpoints and cycling unevenly between each of their stories. There is a textual weight to words and thoughts, but those words and thoughts, like the oddly shaped blank spaces around which they converge, imply and invoke rather than stating things clearly.

So. What is the book about?

I usually talk about the initial plot of a book before I talk about how it worked for me. It's not very easy to do that with this book. There is a plot, but it's built in strands of viewpoint and the slow way parts of them begin to overlap; it's a weave of internal narratives, each distinct, that only come together as they progress. A name might be mentioned in passing. An event of which the narrator is aware, the way we'd be aware of news reports in the midst of the rest of our daily life and its concerns. The places in which elements overlap are only rarely the focus of the narrator.

Throughout each section, there are parenthetical additions, explanations, even translations, which have nothing to do with the actual narrator's voice. These are distinct and consistent in format across all viewpoints. Each viewpoint section is stamped with place, date, and time, almost as if they form sections of a report, with the parenthetical intrusions something that occurs on review, after the fact. It gives a kind of broad structure to the overall book, which raises questions but doesn't really answer them. Knowing more about those parenthetical observers doesn't, either. And given the prologue, it's clear in some fashion that the over-arching additions are from voices that are ancient, and possibly not even ours.

Danielewski is not concerned with fourth walls. He's not concerned with normal, narrative structure. He's not concerned with traditional type, layout, or even use of text.

But reading (and rereading) reveals a shape to the whole, of which each strand is a thread. Elements cross over between them. Interactions, chance comments, even names, come up in different contexts. Here, a bit about computers, hacking, and the ability to scrub data—entirely—from the internet and all its many corners. There, a bit about a terrifying cat, whose shadows eat or disperse all normal shadows, as if shadows are sentient enough to be afraid.

It's like one giant poem about death, as seen, mostly subtly, through the eyes of the living—each of which is a narrative construct.

As the various characters go about their single day and we see glimpses of all of it, the overall story coheres—and it's dark.

I'm not certain who to recommend this book to. It is not straightforward; it almost demands a second reading. Many readers might (even justifiably) consider its form and presentation either pretentious or precious.

But I find the viewpoints compelling. They are presented as-is; no excuses are made for them, and explanations often have to be inferred. Having finished the first volume, I'm looking forward to the second. If Neal Stephenson wrote in this elliptical, digressive way, this would be the book I think he would write.


*   *   *


Years ago now, Clive Barker posted on the internet about an original short story he was writing for a collection of previously published stories. He wanted to write a closing arc for Pinhead, arguably the most well-known of his many creations. The short story became a novella. The novella became a short novel. The short novel became two hundred and ten thousand words—which had taken him to a place he'd not thought to return. He shelved it to edit later. But he said that the title was The Scarlet Gospels. And I've been intensely curious ever since.

The Scarlet Gospels, as published, is not two hundred and ten thousand words. It is about Pinhead, about Hell, and about Harry D'Amour, a man who was born to live on the borders of the space between our mundane lives and the numinous—which in Barker's case involves a lot of horror and death. He has encountered demons, has taken profound losses from those encounters, and has also killed a number of them.

Pinhead of the Order of the Cenobites is front and center in the prologue, as is the violent, painful death he causes as a matter of course. He has been hunting—and killing—members of the Circle, an organization of present-day sorcerers, in large part to plunder their personal collections in order to amass sorcerous knowledge and power. As the book begins, he is at the end of his long search, and at the beginning of the final move in his long game.

But he is a creature of Barker's Hell. He comes to Harry D'Amous because he wants a chronicler. He wants someone to write—to be—a new gospel, in effect a new holy story. Harry, no surprise, refuses.

But unlike Pinhead, Harry has friends—the few that are capable of surviving the friendship and all that comes with it. One of these, Norma, is blind—but she can see the dead. She's always seen them. Her job, as she understands it, is to shepherd those dead who are lost and confused. And perhaps to shepherd Harry, and for the same reasons, although he's not asking.

When Harry refuses to be the witness to the birth of these new gospels, Pinhead takes Norma with him; he knows that Harry will follow. And follow Harry does, even though the path leads straight to Hell.

I don't read a lot of horror, but I did read Barker. Barker was part of the splatterpunks, and in the days of Books of Blood, was considered almost a master of the form. But to me, Barker wasn't writing horror, although all of the imagery and actual descriptions would fit in the horror mold.

Barker's work never seemed to want to invoke horror or terror, to me. Instead, it seemed immersed in a kind of compulsive fascination; Barker wasn't horrified by the strange and grotesque images that haunted his work. He was compelled by them. Fascinated by them. There was a strange sensuality about the multitude of his descriptions, and once I'd started, I couldn't really look away.

That shifted, slowly, with time, or possibly with new fascinations. And regardless, a short story doesn't have the structural burden of a novel to carry.

There's a lot to like in The Scarlet Gospels, but the horror elements almost feel flat, absent the almost hypnotic quality that imbued Barker's earlier works. He's returned to Pinhead, and to the over-the-top horror that marked those works, but there is only one passage in the entire book that invokes that bizarre sense of wonder for me.

Instead, the focus is on the questions raised by the prologue: Why did Pinhead gather power, and what does he intend to do with it?

The answer involves the very absent Lord of Hell: Lucifer himself.

Hell is always going to be personal; it's one of the reasons I was very curious about The Scarlet Gospels. Our sense of torment and suffering is individual, and while there might be overlaps, no two Hells are going to be the same. In theory.

But Barker's Hell is strangely non-fantastical. Oh, there are all variety of mutant deviations, torments, deaths—but the structure of Hell mirrors the structure of our world in many ways. The denizens of Hell who have no power gather—and work—in the streets, comforted by the torments of those whose screams they can hear, because it reminds them that their lives could be worse. There are bureaucrats, and the structures of bureaucracy, with its quasi-religious trappings and rules. Hell seems like a run-down version of earlier iterations of our own history, but in fancy dress. As above, so below.

It's almost as if the subtext here is that life is hell. Even Pinhead's quest, when it's finally revealed, is ultimately human, entirely comprehensible.

I don't think Barker is phoning this in, for what it's worth. There is a point in the book at which Harry thinks: This has been your life…. You have wandered among evil things, seized by a sickly intoxication that allured you to playing the role of hero, while all the time you've been indulging an addiction. I think that same awareness permeates the narrative. What this book is missing, for want of better words, is the sickly intoxication.

What ultimately saves the book for me is Barker's Lucifer, because Barker's Lucifer is in all ways unexpected. The ending of Pinhead's long quest works perfectly for me, and it carries the weight of the book, overwhelming the quibbles I had with it up to that point.

But if you are squeamish or you don't like horror, this is probably not the book for you.


*   *   *


As a general rule, I don't like disaster books or movies. As a general rule, I do like Neal Stephenson books, which is the only reason I picked Seveneves up. The central story of two thirds of Seveneves is disaster on an epic scale. Something has crashed into—or through—the Moon, and the impact splinters the Moon into seven large pieces.

Dubois Harris—Doc Harris, scientific populist, to his legion of viewers—has been on the talk-show circuit since that singular event, explaining what's happened to the best of his ability. But when two of the larger pieces collide, resulting in an eighth fragment, he realizes that he's been explaining the wrong things.

In short—and in the first chapter, so this is not a spoiler—he and many other scientists, all hitting numbers and making frenzied calculations, realize what's going to happen: The pieces of the Moon will continue to collide in their rough orbit, until they no longer have the cohesion of that orbit. The fragments will be drawn—as meteors are—into the atmosphere, there to burn up. En masse.

He doesn't expect the surface of the planet to survive this.

He is looking at the end of the world.

So these are large stakes. I've seen similar things as the prologues of books before—but the bulk of the book takes place in the after, and the prologue is a historical footnote, a color text.

That is not this book.

Plans are made to send as many people as possible into space. The International Space Station will serve as a central hub as claustrophobic, tiny ships are sent to join it. They will carry information about DNA and a few samples into the ISS, as a repository of Earth and the life it contained.

They have two years to make this work.

The bulk of this book is about those two years, and it is grueling—but in a good way. Stephenson is not graphic, per se, but he understands his characters and their multiple viewpoints, and he doesn't flinch as he chronicles the end of the world, because it's perfectly clear that this plan has maybe a snowflake's chance in hell of actually working.

Personalities clash, camps form—but this is almost expected in a tiny, enclosed space. There are pages and pages and pages of what, in other hands, might be info-dump; explanations of orbits, genetics, and the requirements of living in space. Stephenson has always been a wordy writer, and that hasn't changed.

But I find a curious type of comfort in the viewpoints he chooses. People are people, but the thought processes of his make sense to me, long explanations included.

This is possibly the most emotionally raw book that Stephenson has ever written, or perhaps it's more accurate to say that this is the one to which I've connected emotionally on a visceral level. It is also, in feel and tone, the most traditionally sfnal book he's written.

If you like Stephenson, you'll like this book. If you like traditional sf, you'll like this book.

There is one caveat. Readme, which is my least favorite of Stephenson's books, nonetheless had the best structural ending, and endings have up to that point been Stephenson's weakness. Cryptonomicon, which is one of my favorites, has a terrible structural ending.

Seveneves is not Cryptonomicon in that regard, but it's closer to that than Readme. There is an ending, the ending is earned, but given the pacing and the information flow of the rest of the book, it's too short and it doesn't carry enough weight. It isn't a cliffhanger, but it almost demands a sequel, which it's unlikely we'll get.

But Stephenson isn't an author I read specifically for structure, and the strength of his writing is not destroyed by a weaker ending. I still highly recommend this.

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