Monday, July 26, 2010

Dual Book Review: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde and The Equations of Love by Ethel Wilson

My attempts at reviewing have been somewhat delayed as of late. It started with my utter failure to compose a review for Joe Meno's The Boy Detective Fails, a satirical examination of the boy detective genre, a very good book whose highlight, unfortunately, is still its title. The failure continued with the library's other Meno book, The Great Perhaps, which revolved around a man who had a seizure when he saw a cloud, and his wacky family. Searching the library for that book had led me to select a third book based purely on the title: Golfing with God by Roland Murello. I'll give it this much: it delivered what it promised. I followed that up with two other Murello books, A Little Love Story, and American Saviour, the latter of which features Jesus Christ's run for president of the United States. For each, I intended to write a review. Or least construct an interesting footnote. But time wounds all heels, and I just never got around to them. So, I vowed, on completing Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey, we will review it! There will be no more delays! And then I put it off, and finished reading Ethel Wilson's The Equations of Love instead. My plan then was to write two separate reviews, but I noticed in mentally composing them both that the end point I was reaching was the same, even though the books themselves are wildly different. And so, I decided on a joint review.

As such, this is going to be a long post, even my standards. Read accordingly. Divide it into chunks. Break it up a bit. No one needs to be a hero here. We're looking at about four sections here: the usual starting quotations, a run through of each book's premise, a quick sketch of what I thought of each, and the concluding thoughts. Ready? Let's do it, then.
* * * * * * * * * *

"The Standard Variable procedure was in place to allow very minor changes of the Rules. The most obvious example was the 'Children under ten are to be given a glass of milk and a smack at 11:00 a.m.' Rule, which for almost two hundred years was interpreted as the literal Word of Munsell, and children were given the glass of milk and then clipped around the ear. It took a brave prefect to point out--tactfully, of course--that this was doubtless a spelling mistake, and should read 'snack.' It was blamed on a scribe's error rather than Rule fallibility, and the Variable was adopted." --Shades of Grey

"By this time, now, that Vicky Tritt is thirty-nine, she is little Miss Tritt who has drawn her cloak of anonymity so closely about her that the dreaming eye does not observe her. She is anonymous, as a fly is anonymous. To the alert and glancing eye she is like so many others that she is indistinguishable, but is recognisable when see repeatedly in the same place, as, behind the counter where she sells the notions; or customarily leaning against the rail down by the docks watching--as you do--the seagulls; or sitting, withdrawn, in a pew at St.James Church; but you will not know her again when see her in another place; the place has to be united with the person before Miss Tritt exists as Miss Tritt. This satisfies her. She has not thought all this out, but she has so ordered (if that definite word may be used) her timorous life that she is able to avoid all notice on the potential acquaintances, or, worse than that, of friends. She is sufficient unto herself, in a parched way, and she is sometimes lonely with a vast loneliness that for a dreadful moment appalls. She goes her way by day and by night and all is well enough; and then suddenly she is aware of a loneliness which is insupportable. What makes her suddenly aware and alone? It is not the crowd in the street, for the anonymity of the continually passing crowd suits her; it is, perhaps, the greeting with delight of the woman with woman, of man with woman--not of man with man, which stirs nothing; it is the emptiness of time and occupation, the desert that lies between now and sleep; it is the inexplicable fusion of something within her and something without." --"Tuesday and Wednesday."

* * * * * * * * * *

Every now and then, the term "speculative fiction" gets bandied about as an alternative to "science fiction." It's the same sort of urge, I imagine, that led the "Sci Fi" channel to rebrand itself as the eye-rolling "Sy Fy." I appreciate the benefits of the term: it allows the potential for a broader mandate that science fiction, but keeps traditional science fiction as well--it even maintains the same initials, sf, so you can keep the same abbreviated form. On the whole, though, I'm against the term, purely for what it implies about its predecessor. In short, it says that science fiction isn't good enough. It says, simultaneously, that science fiction is too childish to be taken as serious literature, and too geeky to achieve mainstream attention. It's purely an optic change, rather than any change of substance.

That said, I think the term is appropriate for discussing the work of Jasper Fforde. It's not quite science fiction, as the science behind his work is always loopy at best. It's not quite fantasy either; there's just enough explained that the world within could come to exist without the dreaded "M" word rearing its ugly head. The best description I can think of is China Mieville's worlds run by Douglas Adams' attitude. The conceit behind shades for grey is that, after some cataclysmic event, the average human's eyes have been altered so that each person can only see color in a limited spectrum. The result, after an indeterminate number of years, is a rigid caste system bound by its founder Munsell's rules, in which a person's standing is determined by the colors he or she can see. The result is a society that's half way between 19th century England, with families setting up marriages that enhance their color standing, and Orwellian Big Brother, where merit points become the given currency and a negative enough ledger means going for a Reboot via the Night Train to Emerald City. The plot of the book starts simply enough: the narrator, Edward Russett, accompanies his father to East Carmine, where he has been ordered to conduct a chair census as a punishment for making an unsolicited suggestion regarding a potential improvement in Rule-based queuing. Edward wants to get the census over and behind him as soon as possible, so he can get back to wooing up-spectrum Constance Oxblood. The only problem--besides the town's mysterious murder, bizarre Yellow disappearance, and Apocryphal Man--is that he has fallen in love with the low class Jane Grey, and thus thrust into a world of intrigue that he never imagined. Suffice to say, the Revolution will be colorized. (Sorry.)

Ethel Wilson's The Equations of Love, in contrast, is a very different kettle of fish. Rather than speculative fiction, it hails from a different genre: Canadian modernism. (It was written in the 1950s; modernism took an extra twenty five years to reach Canada. Prime Minister MacKenzie King personally held it back as a campaign promise.) I've always had somewhat of an estranged relationship to Canadian literature. Yes, it's the written words of my country men and women, and yes, I'm very proud. That said, from Sinclair Ross to Margaret Atwood to Alice Monro, I find it very well written, but also very, very depressing. Then I read Ethel Wilson. To paraphrase Firefly's Malcolm Reynolds, my days of finding Canadian literature depressing have finally come... to a middle.

The funny thing is that, in terms of plot, neither of the two novellas that make up the Equations of Love is that depressing. The first novella "Tuesday and Wednesday" follows two days of the life of Mort and Myrt Johnson, and the people surrounding them (including Myrt's cousin Vicky, featured in the quotation above). The two quarrel, adopt a kitten, and at the end of the day, Mort dies in such a way that Myrt can preserve his memory as a heroic figure. (Oh--spoiler alert) The second novella "Lilly's Story" follows the life of Lilly Waller from childhood on, and her obsession with raising a daughter that is better than her. Lilly hides her identity, flees multiple homes, and tells endless lies to protect her life. And yet, after all this striving, she manages to find herself, in her mid 50s, meeting a nice enough 60 year old man, and settling, at long last, into domestic bliss. The depressing part of both stories is the execution. Myrt is as bitter a woman as you will ever come across in fiction--she accepts the heroic version of her husband's death purely so she will be able to spend the rest of her life lording it over her "friends." And besides Lilly's driving need to escape the attention of the police and raise her daughter, there is nothing to her--Wilson compares her in multiple instances to a cat in her complete unwillingness to think about the future or even think about a situation.

* * * * * * * *

So what did I think about these books? Well, first, Shades of Grey was fun. Incredibly fun. While never quite reaching the absurdist heights of his Thursday Next series--in which Mr Toad and Miss Haversham, for example, have a drag race--there were several moments where I'd put the book aside and just revel over the sheer brilliance of the situation Fforde had set up. The book has an engaging inventiveness to it, and in despite of the dystopic influence and nineteenth century primness, there's a sense that the world Fforde's created is an inviting place to explore. It doesn't take itself too seriously, and I think that's important in a world that deviates this far from our own. And that's why the ending leaves a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth. Not to give too much away (like I did, say, with Equations of Love), but Edward and Jane's fortunes take a turn for the worse, and Edward's forced to make a decision without a good option--in short, the book goes from a sort of happy-go-lucky adventure to something much darker and sobering. It doesn't damage the book irreparably by any measure, but it did strike me as an unnecessary raising of the stakes in order to show that This Is Serious Business.

I have to give a full endorsement to Equations of Love as well. Not for the wild inventiveness, but for the accuracy of the characters she depicts. From Myrt to Mort to Mr H. Y. Dunkerley, Wilson is a master of the character sketch, setting up a believable, fully fleshed person in the absolute minimal amount of space. And that, to be honest, is my problem with her as well. These sketches seem so complete that, at times, they seem like prison sentences, where the character is doomed to live out a life that seems defined by being petty and small. Vicky won't so much live as become invisible, and Myrt will always wear her widowhood as a weapon as she descends into obscurity and scruffiness. Wilson's keen eye for realism is one of the best I've seen, but the realism slides into cynicism so indiscernibly that I barely realize it until, well, until for example, Lilly's latest boyfriend is compared to a kennel "into which a homeless worthless bitch crawls away from the rain, an out of which she will crawl, and from which she will go away leaving the kennel empty and forgotten." Any port in a storm, but in some lives, it always seems to be raining.

* * * * * * * *

And now it's time to draw everything together. It should be clear by this point that I've got a similar stance on both books, despite their wild incongruity: both are extremely well written, but both have a negative streak running through them. I think I've mentioned before that my early reading had a large fantasy component to it, and I think one thing a lot of fantasy reading will do to you is make you into a literary optimist. Flo Keyes, in the Literature of Hope in the Middle Ages and Today, argues that hope that everything will turn out well as the defining trait of fantasy literature, and I'd agree that most of it moves towards that point.

And yet there seems to a recognizable trend to inject an almost false pathos into some fantasy/speculative lit, as if by doing so, it crosses from make-believe kid stuff into serious writing. I see it in Fforde's Shades of Grey, and I see it in other books, such as Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, a book that starts off as an audacious blend of the heist genre with high fantasy, then descends into a revenge tale after a series of gruesome deaths. Particularly, I see it comic books--the books designed for children are allowed to be fun, but the others have to be "serious," and "mature"--because a comic book that features a terrorist villain blowing up a school or ripping off limbs is clearly the height of maturity. To say it plainly, rather than seeming more serious, the gratuitous pathos of such events make the books often seem maudlin, and more ridiculous than the original fun because they're trying so hard to be taken seriously.

Again, Ethel Wilson's Equations of Love is something different. Rather than ground its adventure with pathos, it avoids both extremes in the name of realism. Wilson's choice of title is incredibly apt, because the stories treat love as an equation, as a sum. In the Wilson story, love is what you call anything that fills the void, the void that you reach when you can't hide your loneliness from yourself anymore. Is that cynicism, or realism? For the fantasy comparison, there's a scene in Terry Pratchett's Hogfather where Death is pretending to be Santa Claus--in order to save him from the Universal Auditors--and is asking Hex, the Unseen University's mechanical sentient, to help by believing in Santa. Hex responds by composing a wish list of gifts. When Death objects on the grounds that Hex isn't even alive, and shouldn't have any desires, Hex responds: "All things aspire." Many, perhaps all, of Wilson's characters don't aspire; they scheme, they covet, they survive, and they live, but actual aspiring seems beyond them--or maybe apart from them.

That's always been my problem with the modernist movement, to be honest. I don't have the same problem with postmodernism, because whatever else such novels are lacking, your basic postmodernist novel never entirely forgets that a story is always a game, something to be played. Modernism allies itself closely with realism, and in its claim to be reality, it seems to leave games behind. It seems that there was always a sense of this in our high literature, going all the way back to Plato, who rejected fiction for its failure to be real, and Aristotle, who preferred the pathos of tragedy to the frivolity of comedy. In Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, he traces the evolution of realism in Western literature, and while he never comes out and says it, he definitely implies that the pursuit of realism is the point, that true literature is always striving for the imitation of the real, and that the modernism of Wolfe and Joyce and others is as close as we've gotten. I--as you've probably gathered by now--disagree. I like my stories with humor, and joy, and fun. And I like my life the same way. That doesn't mean ignoring the pathos and realism, but it does mean keeping an eye on them so they don't take over everything else.

So after that philosophizing, let's finish with a return to the books. In making this argument, I've presented a false picture of both of them. Shades of Grey is almost entirely fun and games, with inventive twists on 19th century Victorian plots and sci-fi tropes. And the best scenes of Wilson's novellas come in either quiet moments such as Mort and Myrt's bonding over a kitten, or in Vicky's one shining act, standing up to her tyrannical cousin (even if Wilson makes a point of mentioning that she'll retreat afterwards for the rest of her life back into friendless obscurity). They're both beautifully written, but in completely different ways. Read them for what they are, and they'll entertain, enthrall, and engross.

And really, isn't that all we're looking for in our stories?

Later Days.

1 comment:

Charlie Jane Anders said...

Hey I love this post. Can you drop me a line?