Sunday, January 03, 2010

What I'm Reading

I've got a couple of books going right now, both of which are making me very happy.

The first is City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff Vandermeer. It's compilation of novellas and short stories of or otherwise having to do with the fictional city of Ambergris. Vandermeer was recommended to me by my good friend Nathan, and I have to say that it's totally rocking my world. Technically, it's New Weird Fantasy, which is a somewhat obscure sub-genre in whose most famous practitioner, as far as I know, anyway, is China Mieville (whose New Crobuzon novels are just absolutely amazing). New Weird Fantasy subverts the traditional mode of the fantasy novel by contextualizing it more deeply, building large, culturally and politically complex worlds to serve as settings for the narrative action and producing a more engaging reading experience through the unexpected and bizarre nature of the imagined worlds in which the stories occur.

It's the subversion of the reader's settled and comfortable expectations that produces the effect. The typical fantasy novel, at least the kind I cut my teeth on as a reader, has a pretty common set of tropes and storylines that, entertaining though they are, can grow a bit stale as time goes on. It's one of the reasons my pleasure reading made the turn to science and speculative fiction, because the worlds in which the stories occurred were more challenging and alien, and learning their internal logics was more fun for me as a reader.

But the New Weird Fantasy has brought be back to fantasy novels and provided some highly satisfying reading these last few years. Jeff Vandermeer looks to be a new favorite. He's got a lot of books set in Ambergris, his fictional city, that I'm greatly looking forward to reading. After seeing what he's done with City of Saints and Madmen, I'm especially keen to read some longer-form fiction set there, just to see what he does with it.

The book itself is comprised of four novellas, which take up about half the book, followed by an appendix of shorter pieces referenced in the last of them, The Strange Case of X. The stories are not your typical fantasy fare, being more deliberately literary in character, and somewhat postmodern in their execution, in the absolute best sense of the term (those who know me know that I have a somewhat... complicated relationship to said term, and mostly consider it a pejorative, but I can't think of any other way to characterize this guy's work). Narrative voices, even the most seemingly straightforward ones, become problematic, as authorial characters reveal themselves over the course of the work causing some interesting retrospective questions to come up and not a few 'a-ha' moments. There's less in the way of action, as typically understood in fiction, and more in the way of history and the sort of cultural background that makes a place and a time make sense. But it's not history as told from an objective, omniscient third-person voice, but from a more human-scale voice, set within a larger, albeit fabricated, historical narrative, which enriches not only the reading experience but also the world in which the stories take place.

And it's weird, so delightfully, unexpectedly, refreshingly weird. Like the best narrative fiction, it makes its own kind of sense, a sense you just have to sort of surrender to in order to understand what's going on. He intersperses a lot of official-esque narrative as well, as with the second story, The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, and the third, The Transformation of Martin Lake, which is about a painter and alternates between a more traditional narrative and a scholarly treatment of Lake's work after he has become famous.

What I like most about City of Saints and Madmen is that it is mostly context. World-building. It's about the art and culture and history of this strange place, not its politics and heroes. Fully half the book is a semi-random accumulation of works in Ambergris' varied and occasionally problematic intellectual history, that are mentioned only in passing in The Strange Case of X and would seem to be provided in order to give that particular story more heft and context. It's fascinating stuff, and extremely well-written. In his own voice, Vandermeer writes with an eye for small, telling details and an almost gothic, elegaic tone. In other places, he creates authorial voices that are every bit as believable and well-developed as anything Kierkegaard ever put to paper, and far more entertaining to boot.

In all, a big thumbs up. Highly recommended. The payoffs may not be the stuff of traditional fantasy or literature, but they're worth it and then some, because while the work is challenging, it's also enjoyable.

And go read some China Mieville while you're at it.

The other thing I'm reading, or, in this case re-reading, is The Princess Bride by William Goldman. I never realized until this go-round that it's as old as I am, having been published in 1973, and it surely does stand the test of time.

Obviously, it was the movie that brought me to this story in the first place. I was in high school when it came out, and loved it. To this day it's still one of my all-time favorites, being one of the first movies I was aware of to engage in the sort of ironic self-awareness and subversion of traditional storytelling tropes that've become almost de rigeur these days.

It's a truism that the book is always better than the movie, and The Princess Bride is no exception. While the dialogue does lose just a bit of its snap on the page, the story is richer and more fully elaborated, especially the backstories of some of the most beloved characters (Inigo and Fezzik spring most readily to mind). And it doesn't lack for a certain degree of postmodernity, either, which is pretty impressive for something written in the early '70s. The author continually inserts himself, both in his own voice as well as in the voice of S. Morgenstern, the fictional author of the ur-text of which The Princess Bride is the abridged version, creating a dialogue between the various levels of the story and its fictional historical context. Also, it's laugh-out-loud funny.

What's best for me about this particular reading experience is that I'm reading it out loud to Kendal and her son August (it was one of his Christmas presents from me). Kendal told me early on in our relationship that she really likes being read to, and she reads to August as well. Previously, I read her The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which was enjoyable for both of us and a fun read either out loud or just to oneself. But I'm finding The Princess Bride to be especially enjoyable to read aloud, both for myself and for my audience. It gives me a better feel for the language, and it makes me pay more and better attention, since the window of comprehension for the sense and rhythm of the language is so short between entry through the eye and exit through the mouth. Given that I plan eventually to release my own novel, these many years in the making (and many more to come, if my present pace and constant need to revise continues), in podcast form as well as written, it's good practice for me. And it's just a really fun story, with pirates and giants and swordfights and escapes and true love's triumph in the face of overwhelming odds. What more could you ask for, really?

So yeah, the written word continues to provide me with much joy and stimulation, and if you're looking for something to read, oh reader mine, I heartily recommend either of the above selections. You won't be disappointed.


kendal swinski said...

No joke- Being read to rocks! The story is fun and it's great to have others sharing the experience! More people should read to their loved ones. Thank you Dallas, you're the best!

kendal swinski said...

AND, I very much look forward to the time when you start podcasting bits from your novel!