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The magician seemed to promise that something torn to bits might be mended without a seam, that what had vanished might reappear, that a scattered handful of doves or dust might be reunited by a word, that a paper rose consumed by fire could be made to bloom from a pile of ash. But everyone knew that it was only an illusion. The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish; to become so thoroughly lost that they might never have existed in the first place.
– From “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” by Michael Chabon
Eric by Terry Pratchett (1990) 155 p.
Discworld #9 (Rincewind #4)
I had virtually no memory of what’s possibly the slimmest entry in the Discworld series, and after reading it again I can see why. Eric is the fourth entry in the Rincewind arc, and it doesn’t even manage the more coherent plot of the last one, Sourcery; it certainly comes nowhere near the lofty heights of its immediate predecessor Guards, Guards. Rather, Eric takes us almost all the way back to the scattershot freestyle of The Colour of Magic: a series of disconnected adventures with no overarching theme, story, or really anything other than an excuse to drag Rincewind through a series of comedic setpieces.
When we last left the hapless, cowardly wizard he was trapped in the Dungeon Dimensions after the events of Sourcery; at the beginning of Eric he escapes after being accidentally summoned by Eric, a nerdy teenage demonologist from Pseudopolis. Rincewind and Eric are then dutifully thrust through time and space, visiting a Mayan-inspired jungle society, a riff on the Battle of Troy, the creation of the universe (with the Creator himself being the same shtick about dodgy builders that wore out its welcome back in Pyramids) and then back into Hell itself (where the king of demons is, again, a repeated joke – this time the concept that real hell is bureaucracy, which Pratchett already did with the villain in The Light Fantastic.)
There’s really very little to say here, other than the observation of just how odd it is that Pratchett wrote this directly after Guards, Guards, the best and most mature entry in the series yet. Possibly the problem is inherent in returning to Rincewind as a character; a character Pratchett wasn’t yet willing to abandon. (Rincewind’s books will become fewer and fewer as the series goes on, and the best of them, Interesting Times, is really more about Cohen the Barbarian.) Eric was originally published as a larger, heavily illustrated, sort-of-art book – though this still doesn’t explain why Pratchett wanted to write it in the first place, other than perhaps being unsure of himself as he rode the crest of the increasingly popular series. Or, more charitably, because it was a bit of fun that he could scribble out in a couple of weeks.
Eric is by no means a bad book – it’s breezy, funny, and readable, like everything Pratchett writes – but it’s certainly one of the least worthwhile of the Discworld series. Even The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic have the excuse of being the very first ones. Coming right after Guards, Guards, Eric is a curious anomaly.
Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn (2005) 279 p.
Book four of the Patrick Melrose novels, and Patrick is now a lawyer in his forties, married with two young children. We’ve come a long way from sexual molestation and heroin abuse, but Patrick is still unhappy; the strains of parenthood are impacting on his marriage to Mary, and he finds himself once again slipping back into alcohol abuse and womanising. Meanwhile, his mother is wasting away from dementia in a retirement home, on the brink of signing away the family home in Provence – the last vestige of the Melrose family fortune – to a New Age charlatan.
I’ve seen others criticise these novels on what seems like kneejerk class envy; the travails of a man trying to stop his mother from giving away his immense inheritance, and so on. To me this entirely misses the point. Nothing makes me envy the very wealthy less than Edward St Aubyn. Pain is pain. Suffering is suffering. Patrick is not, and possibly never will be, a happy man.
This should really be the kind of book I dislike – there’s a lot of exposition and a whole lot of sloshing around inside the characters’ unstable minds. But St Aubyn is such a brilliant writer that he makes the whole thing immensely readable. Even the more egregious stuff is forgivable: Patrick’s unbelievably gifted and eidetic five-year-old son Robert who serves as narrator for good chunks of the novel, or the constant (and predictably English) bashing of American society. St Aubyn has a way of crafting almost anything into great prose. These really are wonderful books.
Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson (2014) 430 p.
Rjurik Davidson’s debut novel takes place in a semi-industrial fantasy city, populated by an array of different creatures, magicians, disgruntled factory workers and corpulent elites. New Crobuzon – um, I mean, Caeli-Amur – is on the brink of political revolution, as the injustices of the ruling class can no longer be tolerated by the characters who populate the pages of Iron Council – uh, that is to say, Unwrapped Sky.
I’m always in favour of fantasy branching out from the stale genre of Tolkienesque medieval Europe. But the hand of China Mieville lies heavy on Davidson’s shoulder.
The fundamental core of Unwrapped Sky is political rebellion: the unrestrained power of Caeli-Amur’s political Houses and the attempts by several characters to overthrow them, as part of a band of rebels unimaginatively named “seditionists.” Davidson’s failure to give them any sort of political ideology robs Unwrapped Sky of quite a bit of depth, and in some ways it became symbolic to me of the failure of the novel as a whole. It’s all schisms and strikes and power plays within the seditionist leadership; it reminded me of student politics. Getting excited about that stuff is fine when you’re handing out pamphlets or arguing with other first-years at RMIT, but not so much when transferred onto a fantasy world which needs a bit of weight and depth to it. I cannot bring myself to care about the fate of characters raging against the vaguely-defined tyrannies of some cartoonish fantasy tyrants, especially when those characters are dull in the first place.
Davidson’s prose doesn’t help. Like most fantasy fiction it’s bloated waffling, stilted dialogue and excessive exposition. He never trusts the reader to infer anything, but instead spells out all his characters’ thoughts and feelings and regrets and reflections on every single page – the sort of thing that turns a passable novel into a tedious slog. A decent editor could have cut 150 pages from Unwrapped Sky and greatly improved it. I keep saying this is par for the course in fantasy fiction, because it is, but just once it would be nice to be praising a fantasy author for being concise instead of giving one yet another pass because I don’t expect anything better.
Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey (2006) 269 p.
I don’t know if my story is grand enough to be a tragedy, although a lot of shitty stuff did happen. It is certainly a love story but that did not begin until midway through the shitty stuff, by which time I had not only lost my eight-year-old son, but also my house and studio in Sydney where I had once been about as famous as a painter could expect in his own backyard. It was the year I should have got the Order of Australia–why not!–look at who they give them to. Instead my child was stolen from me and I was eviscerated by divorce lawyers and gaoled for attempting to retrieve my own best work which had been declared Marital Assets.
I can’t remember where, but I’ve seen another reviewer compare Peter Carey to a “bower-bird,” his books the product of a relentlessly curious mind attracted by flashy things and stitched together into an unlikely nest. Although it jumps around the world, from northern New South Wales to Sydney to Tokyo to New York, Theft: A Love Story is relatively restrained in its focus. Michael Boone – a once famous painter – has fallen from grace after a messy divorce and now ekes out a living taking care of his mentally impaired brother Hugh, living in his patron’s farmhouse in northern New South Wales. Michael is working on a painting which he hopes will propel him back into the graces of the art world when a strange woman named Marlene arrives one night, visiting his neighbour to authenticate a (fictional) Jacques Leibovitz painting. Not long after, that painting is stolen, Michael is accused, and the three characters embark upon an odyssey that will take them to Sydney, Tokyo and New York.
Carey, as always, has a beautifully evocative sense of place – although this was the first book I noticed just how deeply Australian that talent is. He can beautifully paint the muddy riverbanks of subtropical New South Wales, the dusty streets of Bacchus Marsh, the urban labyrinth of central Sydney – but his descriptions of Tokyo felt uncharacteristically flat and colourless. Even New York City – which, by the time this book was published, had been Carey’s home for twelve years – doesn’t quite leap off the page as Carey’s homeland does. Nonetheless he still has a turn of phrase, a garrulous narratorial voice, which never fails to please:
The taxis in New York are a total nightmare. I don’t know how anybody tolerates them, and I am not complaining about the eviscerated seats, the shitty shock absorbers, the suicidal left-hand turns, but rather the common faith of all those Malaysian Sikhs, Bengali Hindus, Harlem Muslims, Lebanese Christians, Coney Island Russians, Brooklyn Jews, Buddhists, Zarathustrians—who knows what?—all of them with the rock-solid conviction that if you honk your bloody horn the sea will part before you. You can say it is not my business to comment. I am a hick, born in a butcher’s shop in Bacchus Marsh, but fuck them, really. Shut the fuck up.
Theft: A Love Story falters quite a bit in the middle, but redeems itself by the end with a very clever plot development, and a final line which echoes one mentioned many times throughout, only now with an entirely different meaning. It’s not his best, but not his weakest either. Which, since it’s Carey, means it’s a really great read.