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The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner (1960) 284 p.
Alan Garner is widely considered one of England’s most beloved children’s authors, so naturally I had to investigate what the fuss was about. The problem with beloved children’s authors is that a lot of people love them because they were raised on them, and if you come onto the scene decades later as an adult, you may fail to see what the appeal is, only to be met with wintry glares from everybody else, trying to enjoy their nostalgia binge.
That’s certainly how I feel about The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Garner’s first novel, and the first part of a trilogy. Cardboard cut-outs Susan and Colin (I just finished the book and still had to check their names) are sent to live in rural Cheshire with friends of their parents, who have gone overseas on business. In the habit of rural London children throughout the annals of fantasy, they soon find themselves embroiled in a magical adventure involving wizards, dwarves, goblins and magic stones.
Obviously this is a children’s book, but I feel capable of judging children’s books based on their own merits (see – The Neverending Story and The Thief of Always), and I feel that The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is deeply flawed however you judge it. It starts off promisingly enough, with a well-realised rural setting and a sense of rustic mystery and adventure, but as soon as the monsters and warlocks get involved it goes off the rails. There are multiple antagonists with no particular characteristics to separate them from each other bar their weird names, and the children are assisted in their quest by a pair of interchangeable, stereotypical dwarves who speak in a grating “prithee” and “well met” and “mine eyes” fantasy argot, which reads as though Garner had just finished The Lord of the Rings. The problem with such hollow characters, of course, is that it’s impossible for the readers to care about the world you’ve created for them or the difficult circumstances you’ve put them in. I was bored by The Weirdstone of Brisingamen halfway through, and doubt I would have been any more interested if I were fifteen years younger.
Interestingly, however, Garner wrote the second book in the trilogy, The Moon of Gomrath, in 1963; but he then became bored with his creations and later disassociated himself from them, saying he had moved on and developed as an author, and had no intention of finishing the trilogy. But eventually he did write a third book after all, Boneland, published in 2012 – a staggering fifty-two years after the original. By all accounts, and as you’d expect, it’s a very different book. I find that fascinating, and despite not enjoying The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, I plan to push on with the trilogy purely out of curiosity to see what Boneland is like.
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx (1993) 337 p.
Annie Proulx is these days probably best known for being the author of Brokeback Mountain, the short story which inspired the film, but her original famous work was The Shipping News, which won the Pulitzer in ’94. Heartbroken from the death of his wife and at a loss as to what to do with himself, protagonist Quoyle (I don’t think we ever learn his first name) relocates himself and his daughters to his family’s ancestral home in Newfoundland. Settling into a new job as a reporter for the local paper in the fictional village of Killick-Claw, he gradually grows to feel at peace on this harsh, wintry island.
The Shipping News is a bit of a weird novel. At first it feels deeply comic, casting Quoyle as a hapless and pathetic figure drifting through a series of dead-end jobs and marrying a psychopath. It becomes more serious as the action shifts to Newfoundland, but even there, the residents mostly feel like larger-than-life caricatures rather than realistic characters. Proulx’s writing style also grated on me; she has a habit of inconsistently dropping relative pronouns and conjunctions. There are some wonderfully rendered descriptions of Newfoundland, a place beautiful but deadly, but without a firmer sense of reality anchoring place to people, it never quite washed for me. The book was unsatisfying in a way I find hard to articulate; I didn’t dislike it, and indeed there are many great moments in it, and great examples of writing. But there was something naggingly wrong about it all the way through, something I couldn’t put my finger on. An odd one. Read it for yourself and see.
One of the things I personally enjoy most about games – the thing which I believe indisputably makes them capable of being great art – is their ability to create a world far more immersive than that of books, comics or film. The player’s agency is what makes these worlds feel so much more real than those of any other art forms. It taps into that exploratory part of your brain from childhood, that feeling that you can go anywhere and discover anything; the kind of feeling you had as a kid when you were taken to some strange new place on holiday, given the whole day to explore a forest or a coastline. When so much of life can feel like a repetitive grind, experiencing a new environment can be hugely engrossing.
When I was trying to throw together a shortlist of games I thought I might like last year, while languishing in office-driven cabin fever, I discovered the phrase “walking simulator.” It’s used to describe games which involve little more than walking around and exploring, perhaps with some puzzles thrown in (I never played them, but suspect this began in the 1990s with the Myst series.) Obviously it’s meant in a derogatory tone, but the idea sounds great to me, and it must do to other people as well, since the category tag gets heavy use on Steam. The Moon Sliver was one of the games with that tag that was cheap to begin with and slashed further during the sale, and at less than a pound you can’t really go wrong.
The Moon Sliver takes place on a tiny, desolate island, the sun hanging low over the ocean and the wind howling across the sand dunes. You have no tools or weapons apart from a flashlight, and no indication of why you’re there or what’s happening. As you explore the ruined buildings along the shoreline, fragments of text hover over the screen, and you begin to learn the story of the people who lived here, and perhaps still do – their fate is unclear.
The Moon Sliver is a short game; the opening text suggests you should set aside an hour to complete it, although it took me less than thirty minutes. The story is about as well written as you’d expect from a budget indie game; there are some clunkers of names and phrases, and I can’t say I was hugely moved by it. But what the game does accomplish is creating an environment: a sad, eerie, disturbing place of death and abandonment, the wind whistling over a ruined village, the sunken remnants of houses suggestive of rising sea levels that will one day swallow the island whole. (And it’s certainly very creepy to be expecting to be attacked when you have no weapons and all you can do is run.) For 99p, I got my money’s worth. I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it, but neither did I feel my time was wasted.
When I wrapped up the 50 Book Challenge at the end of 2008(!), I blamed my decline in reading over the previous few years partly on video games. That may or may not have been true, but in the many years since then, I’ve definitely rehabilitated my reading habits, getting through 50 novels a year and (because part of reading is honing the craft) having over a dozen short stories published. But at the same time I’ve come to see reading as something to be quantified – so-and-so number of books a year, classic and literary icons struck off the list, even a bad book read to the finish because I know it has worth to me as a review; a practice of writing.
As I approach my late twenties I begin to feel more and more guilty about time not spent attempting to better my lot in life: jobhunting for a better career, writing fiction, reading to polish those fiction skills, or (more recently) trying to tap into the freelance writer’s market. I miss those days in my late teens and early twenties when like any young man I assumed that modest success, at the very least, was a birthright and would happen as a matter of course. I miss, therefore, being able to happily entrance myself in a game for hours or days.
I played and loved a few well-acclaimed games over the past couple of years – Skyrim, Dishonored, The Walking Dead – but never wrote anything about them. Grub Street is a literary blog which almost solely serves to host my book reviews with a sideline into political opinions, fiction writing and my meandering life, but video games are worthy of discussion and criticism and evaluation as well. I’m just not in the habit of talking about them the same way I am about books. That’s a habit I want to develop.
Steam does an annual winter sale which run for about two weeks over Christmas and New Year, during which time it’s possible to snap up games for insanely cheap prices. (I wish I’d known about this last year, as I began a four month sabbatical expressly aimed at chilling out, but what can you do?) I bought over a dozen of them, old and new, indie-developed or major titles, across all kinds of different genres. Stuff I was interested in, stuff I was going to buy anyway, but also stuff that happened to be on sale and caught my interest. So I’m going to review all of them, for better or worse.
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (2011) 277 p.
I wanted to pick up an Irish novel for my recent roadtrip around said republic, and was aiming for At Swim Two Birds, but my local library didn’t have it, so instead I opted for Kevin Barry’s widely acclaimed City of Bohane. It’s set in the fictional titular city on the west coast of Ireland in the year 2053, but it’s not science fiction – there are no advanced gadgets to be seen, or even any mobile phones or computers. The characters dress in outlandish styles and speak a made-up Irish cant. It feels not so much like a novel set in a future 2053, but more like an alternative present: a wild and lawless city with tastes of Quentin Tarantino, Frank Miller and Luc Besson.
I make those references because City of Bohane constantly struck me as a work of style over substance: a story which would have worked far better in a visual medium, as a film or a graphic novel. Barry is a talented writer who certainly expends an enormous amount of effort in making the tone of his novel pitch perfect, from the pikey slang down to the omniscient narrator, himself a citizen with a love-hate relationship with Bohane. The story, such as it is, involves a feud between two gang factions in the city, and the return of an old rival known as the Gant, who has been abroad for many years. I feel no shame in admitting that the details of the plot and characters washed over me like a tide of Irish whiskey, leaving only vague memories in its wake, when most of the dialogue ran like this:
“Cusacks gonna sulk up a welt o’ vengeance by ‘n’ by and if yer askin’ me, like? A rake o’ them tossers bullin’ down off the Rises is the las’ thing Smoketown need.”
I can very much understand and respect the cascade of accolades this book has across its initial pages: from Roddy Doyle, Irvine Welsh, the Sunday Times, the Irish Times, etc. City of Bohane is one of those books which people will either love or hate. It’s one of those books which I greatly disliked reading but nonetheless admired for what it was trying to accomplish – for what it successfully accomplished, in fact. (It’s not Barry’s fault I didn’t like the road he was going down.) I can appreciate his imagination, his talent, his clear skill with words.
City of Bohane is Barry’s first novel. I’ll keep an eye out for his second, and hope that he proves to be a versatile writer who pens an entirely different sort of book next time around.
The Postman by David Brin (1985) 385 p.
This 1985 post-apocalyptic novel by David Brin is probably better known for the 1997 film adaptation starring Kevin Costner. Apparently it was widely considered terrible, but I haven’t seen it. The book is bad for its own reasons.
Seventeen years after a vague world war which involved both nuclear and biological weapons, causing civilisation to almost completely fall apart, a drifter named Gordon comes across an old US Postal Service truck with a mouldering mailman inside, and some undelivered bags of letters. He takes the uniform for warmth, but finds as he travels that people respond well to it; it reminds them of their old lives and makes them pine for the days of organised government. Being something of an actor and a conman himself, Gordon makes use of this and begins to pose as a representative of the “Restored United States,” trading letters between towns in exchange for hospitality. As his amateur postal network grows, the guilt about his lies begins to gnaw at him – but also raises the philosophical question of whether something is still false if enough people come to believe it and make it happen.
All this stuff is fine. It’s a relatively well-drawn apocalyptic landscape, the scenario it raises is interesting, and Gordon himself is a fairly sympathetic character. The writing is a bit clunky, but that’s what you expect from a popular science fiction writer. But two things rubbed me the wrong way about The Postman.
The first is the ultimate direction of the plot, which turns into a battle for supremacy between Gordon’s network of semi-civilised towns and a fascist survivalist militia. This is a fairly sudden swerve in narrative direction; Gordon’s fears and doubts about his nascent communications network pretty much go out the window as the story turns into a tedious good vs evil conflict. The militia itself is known as the “Holnists,” named after their initial leader, Nathan Holn. This name manages to feel both boring and unrealistic – I tried for a while and couldn’t come up with any modern organisations named after their founder. (Adherents to a philosophy, sure, like Reaganites or Maoists, but not coherent organisations. It’s the little things.) The ending goes completely off the rails, with the most brazen deus ex machina I’ve read in some time.
The second thing that bothered me was Brin’s attitude towards women, which is best described as… problematic. It’s not that it’s sexist, exactly. It’s actually fairly sincere and well-meaning. But it’s also downright laughable and embarrassing.
The Postman begins with the fairly standard scenario of the apocalypse having regressed humankind into a more primitive, feudal state, in which women’s rights have mostly been swept back by the tide of events. This is a realistic enough assumption, in my opinion, but you can’t help but sigh by where Brin takes it. In the first village in which Gordon poses as a postman, a nubile young woman comes to his bed at night and explains that she thinks her husband is sterile, so it would be ever so kind of Gordon to try to impregnate her. (A male fantasy: all the sex and none of the consequences.) I mention this minor event because it’s a harbinger of things to come, as Gordon later encounters a feminist character who introduces the bizarre notion that women are responsible for the evil men of history because they didn’t realise they’d be evil with female intuition and drown them at birth… or something like that? And then a bunch of women get themselves killed in a honeypot plan to try to take out the top Holnist leadership, knowing that they’ll fail but just wanting to spark a legend for future women? Or something? I don’t know. It’s utterly crazy, and by this point the entire book is starting to come apart, so it just becomes part of the general background noise of craziness.
In the afterword, Brin doesn’t fail to thank his inspiration for his philosophical musings:
And finally, my thanks to those women I’ve known who have never ceased to startle me, just when I’ve grown complacent and need to be most startled, and who make me stop and think.
There is power there, slumbering below the surface. And there is magic.
Look, I’m sure he’s a very nice guy. But – and to be fair, you could probably say this about a lot of science fiction and fantasy authors, even today – he clearly needed to spend less of the 1970s and 1980s in the company of other nerdy men.
I can’t recommend The Postman – not because of its attitude towards women, which is more fascinating than anything else, but because the story falls apart in the second half and fails to live up to its more interesting premises. Brin nonetheless struck me as having talent in the traditionally fun areas of science fiction, like worldbuilding, even if he fell down a little on stuff like dialogue, characterisation and ultimate resolution of plot. (But who among 1980s science fiction writers would dare cast the first stone?) I’ll still try some of his space opera stuff, like the Uplift series.