So, I finished The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Holy shit, even though it sort of ended as I suspected it might. Some thoughts:
- The series encourages you to read as if boundaries of life and death do not matter to readers. They matter to characters: even though several return from the dead, they are never what they were, never having the same feelings they had when alive. The seeming permeability of the boundary between life and death, though, means that readers are never sure if a beloved character will disappear forever or not. Characters are kept alive in communal memories, and they are returned from the dead for specific purposes, and they suddenly wake up in a sense only to find themselves in something a Christian might call hell. The mechanism of how this works is not explained to us.
- The specifically purposed returnees are routinely bizarre: suddenly communal and weirdly humorous Jaghut, the Bonehunters with their captain now charged with guarding Death’s gate (clearly unsuccessfully), and so on…and of course one entire race chose to kill themselves (I guess) and become undead in order to ‘survive’ an attack on the Jaghut.
- I felt the most compassion for Toc and Onos T’oolan, because they were both given such huge tasks as undead.
- The sense that armies and professional soldiers engage in a profession that has a short life expectancy willingly permeates the series, and all sides spend a lot of energy trying to justify why they’re engaging in war. Part of that reasoning comes from folks who like killing (Smiles is the best example) for some not very healthy reasons, some of it comes from the Malazan desire to impose law and order rather than despotic rule (something they also fail at), and some of it comes from the lust for imperial glory (which is torn apart in the torture that poor Rhulad Sengar goes through as he dies a thousand deaths).
- In this way MBOTF feel particularly 20th century – wars fought for vague or ill-explained political reasons, with soldiers who mostly are conscripted in the worst sort of ways (I think as well of the cannibal hordes of the Pannion Dominion). The piles of war dead don’t help.
- In this book, the Malazans are talked of with a sense of fear and loathing in ways that I wasn’t sure I liked.
- I still like the sense of humor evident in humans, something no other race seems to possess.
- In odd ways this felt like the only novel that is sort of preachy. I’m not sure what to do with that either.
In my recent spate of fantasy novel reading I finished Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Some thoughts:
- Although the characters fit into some sort of configuration of what Western fantasy usually consists of, they were also pretty dramatically different. I got that Freudian sense of the uncanny as the novel helped the familiar be just strange enough.
- I would not quite call the space liminal, if by liminal we mean a space no longer familiar but for which we have no ready answers. In a good sense the novel sort of put me there, especially with the renegade Prince who seems to be far more in contact with the Khalif then seems possible…
- The reason, though, that the space isn’t completely without answers is because Ahmed neatly provides some answers, all of which feel appropriately set in this culture…
- There are no piles of corpses in this novel. The world saviors are the only ones we see at risk, and they have all taken the risk either willingly or through a sense of duty. That is definitely a change from recent fantasy like ASOIAF and MBOTF in which soldiers are asked to die in that most 20th century way, for objectives that even their commanders cannot articulate.
- The trio of heroes (helped by an alchemist couple) consists of the profane (in multiple ways, including his body and choice of mate), the pure (a dervish fighter, one sworn to purity), and the abject.
- Each is given enough point of view to enable me to take them seriously.
- The source of evil is also interesting – as much as the novel willingly invokes religion, the evil ones are humans who have sought to extend their natural life limits, and to transcend natural borders by entrapping natural, primal forces (wind, water, etc.) in service of their own needs.
- I enjoyed the Doctor (who is a combination of a wizard, a holy man, and a flawed individual) as a protagonist, but the most interesting characters are the dervish and the shapeshifter. Their sacrifices and sense of honor are interesting cross-currents in the genre, especially as someone like George RR Martin calls into question just who sacrifices really benefit, and how convoluted honor can be.
I’ve asked my English 440 class to think about genres this year, and their posts made me think about my own genre expectations.
Primary among those, I think, is that I’m a bit disturbed by the fact that I increasingly expect writers to be willing to commit all kinds of horrific acts on their protagonists in order to somehow prove that they’re not in love with them (and thus conforming to the Hallmark-card version of story-telling). My wife and I are watching Breaking Bad, which we missed live, and the physical punishment that Walter and Jesse take proves something in my mind about the seriousness with which the writers are taking their characters. I don’t think that’s right in a literary sense, let alone a moral one, but that expectation is one that I’m finding I put on the texts that I read.
I also find that expectation bleeding into genres and their borders. Much like (in my mind) Neal Stephenson ends cyberpunk with Snowcrash, I thought that Colson Whitehead might well have ended the zombie novel (at least as a serious exploration of cultural anxieties and work) with Zone One, a novel so powerful that I read it twice (and that conforms to my rule that the author be willing to beat up her or his protagonist, as Mark Spitz describes himself as ‘average’ and then proceeds to live up to those expectations all the way to the end). Whitehead works overtime to let us know that Spitz only survives because he is willing to divorce himself completely from his emotions, and not because he’s some sort of Denzellian superman wandering the wasteland, and the complete hopelessness that overpowers all human relationships throughout the novel (and his intense literary talent and profound imagination) make me wonder how anyone can write another zombie novel.
And yet, of course, the genre persists, in ways cyberpunk never will. In part I wonder if that persistence is caused by its crossing mediums and moving to graphic novels and teevee in the form of The Walking Dead, a series that meets my expectations for beating up characters both physically and emotionally.
It’s an age-old question, of course, that delicate balance that writers and readers try to maintain between innovation and expectation, and perhaps the idea lies more in how circles of audience overlap, and in how certain stories seem to endlessly need retelling.
A few notes about Zone One:
- it begins with Mark Spitz in New York, as a boy…establishing NYC as a creature of sorts…
- he is then carefully described as ‘their typical, he was their most, he was their average, receiving hearty thumbs-ups from the gents in the black van parked a discreet distance across the street.” (9)
- constant blurring of borders between the living and the dead – in a law office after the fall, he notes that this firm was a crusher when the world was pre-Last Day, and that “even angels are animals” (11)
- he is attacked by a former HR employee (he guesses), and thinks that the ‘transformation’ wrought by the plague fits: “surely this one possessed the determination befitting a true denizen of Human Resources, endowed by nature and shaped by nurture into its worthy avatar. The plague’s reclibration of its faculties only honed the underlying qualities” (17)
- His teammate, Gary, looks worse than the undead, like he had “clawed out of a coffin”, a sort of junkie look brought on by working in an auto body shop (22)…
One of the key elements of this film that struck me was the way that the zombies in it desperately want to return to being human. The genre has long had a problem with this longing – we fear being mindless automatons or animals, the Other in a completely unholy sense, an involuntary relinquishing of what we perceive as our humanity.
As the genre morphs and twists, I’m not sure what this means. One of the reasons why the zombie transformation is so resilient is because it invokes a combination of fear of loss of self that might become a desire for this loss of self – after all, perhaps the desire to unhinge our primal selves becomes a subject of unhealthy longing in a sense.
This is Kristeva territory, of course, and I am far from an expert in connecting her sense of the abject to anything. Still, there seems to be an aspect of the transformation that is Genetian – actively embracing the grossness that is the primal mother in order to remake their own identities.
The explosion (and gentrification) of the zombie world into mainstream teevee is fascinating, and makes me think of the ways in which the genre is able to question the boundaries of being human. We root (I think) for Rick and his group to survive, and Year Three (farmer vs. warrior) is the only year that anyone truly questions their decision, based mostly upon the humane presence of Herschel (and his desire to raise his family the right way). The notion seems quaint and old-fashioned, and the show demonstrates just how quaint, as Rick tills his garden while wearing an iPod. As soon as he removes it, the growling of the zombies becomes clear, and the debate seems moot.
The Governor makes sure of that.
It also doesn’t help that Darryl and Michonne are by far the coolest characters.
So, the boundaries of humanity become a combination of inner and outer features – we watch the young ones go crazy in this season, killing each other, and we watch the older ones try to wrestle with their own demons. In this sense, the zombies becomes mere animals, and we don’t need to be horrified by them in ways that we might have been in the earlier incarnations of the genre, as the ultimate transgression of the ultimate boundary.
My guess is that once we find out what Rick and his group do to the cannibals we’ll be even more confused, and middle-class boundaries and codes of conduct will seem even more quaint.
I wonder about my surprise, though – after all, Year One and The Reapers are the Angels are incredibly literary novels, and I’m the original believer that genre fiction can be transcendent and, perhaps, might even qualify as literary…