Tag: Arthuriana

Review: The Mabinogion

TW: rape.

Oh, do we have to talk about The Mabinogion?

Even though it’s 8pm and I’m going on holiday in the wee hours of Friday morning and there’s still a million things I haven’t done?

Well, fine. If you insist.

Probably the first thing I should say here is that the sum total of what I know about the original Mabinogion – the Welsh story cycle whose closest analogue is probably Arthurian mythology – comes from reading Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and not enjoying it much. So I can say pretty much nothing about what Evangeline Walton has done to the tales – what she’s removed or added or emphasised. Which is a pity, really, because looking at an author’s sources is the quickest way of discovering what they’re trying to do.

Anyway. Walton’s The Mabinogion is actually an omnibus containing four novels: Prince of Annwn, in which a prince called Pwyll ventures into Death’s land to vanquish a terrible enemy of humanity and of the world; The Children of Llyr, in which a malcontent stirs up a devastating war between Britain and Ireland; The Song of Rhiannon, which sees a king trying to break a curse that’s fallen on his land; and The Island of the Mighty, which like The Owl Service retells the tale of Blodeuwedd, a woman made out of flowers and given to a British prince to be his wife, with predictably awful results.

So there’s a lot going on: it’s 700 pages long, after all, and it has politics and war and grief, and trickster figures who live by their wits and bards and riddles and rash promises, and heartbreak and treachery and fear and humour and joy and hope.

But it’s also not an exaggeration, I think, to say that the whole thing is in part a discussion of gender. Throughout their various high-jinks, their magic tricks and their battles and their quests, the novels dramatise a clash between the Old Tribes, whose people, male and female, sleep with whoever they like (well, they’re all straight, but you can’t expect everything from novels written in the 1930s) and leave when they’ve had enough, and the New Tribes, who have discovered how babies are made (I’m serious) and have therefore invented marriage as a way of controlling women and consequently male lineage, and virginity is a concept, and therefore so is rape, and basically the New Tribes are shit.

(It’s pretty clear, too, that Walton thought much of this was true: the idea of a sexually promiscuous Celtic society giving way to a patriarchal one was fashionable in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge, and she footnotes her sources several times throughout the book.)

I spent a lot of energy trying to “solve” The Mabinogion. Is it “good” because it’s sex-positive for both male and female characters and because it sees consent as essential (which is not a given in early twentieth century literature, sadly)? Or is it “bad” because none of its female characters have the kind of reality its male characters have, and because it has a rape scene whose repercussions are more about the perpetrators than the victim, and because it sees all women as mothers at heart?

The answer, of course, is “both” (there’s a brilliant essay here by China Mieville about how culture is oppressive precisely because it’s flexible enough to accommodate both sides of a binary) and “neither” (from a critical standpoint, it’s a product of its culture with no intrinsic moral value). What’s interesting – or, rather, troubling – is why I put all that effort into coming up with a value judgement. I think there’s a lot of pressure – fuelled, undoubtedly, by the blessing and curse that is Twitter – in progressive pop culture to “solve” a text, to be able to label it objectively problematic, in which case everyone who ever reads it and enjoys it is a terrible person, or objectively progressive, in which case you are allowed to read it and express your love for it. I’m guilty of this myself: everyone who expresses admiration for Stephen Moffat’s work on Doctor Who is instantly suspect in my book, for instance, and I’m not even joking about that. There are good reasons why this is so: we’re all anxious about being aware of our cultural biases and making sure that what we recommend to others isn’t going to harm them and listening to minorities when they say their representation isn’t good enough. And those are all good things to hold in our heads. But, sometimes (just sometimes), I think we close down discussion and dialogue in favour of easy answers. That’s a problem because we live in a problematic culture, and so every product of that culture is going to be itself problematic, and labelling just some texts as problematic erases the wider context that created them.

(By the way, that Mieville article says everything I’m trying to say, only much, much better.)

This is a rather wide digression from The Mabinogion itself, which just goes to show how (not) engrossed I was in that text during the interminable three weeks I was stuck in it. (By way of comparison, I can usually read a book in 4-5 days.) I bounced hard off the representation of women here, and that stopped me from enjoying pretty much anything else in the book. That’s an un-nuanced reaction, and one which, yes, stems from the labelling impulse I’ve just talked about, and maybe if I read it again I’d find other things to value about it (as Kari Sperring does at Strange Horizons). For instance: I think there’s probably something interesting to be said about how Walton repurposes these Welsh legends to talk to wider Anglophone culture (Walton was American). In The Mabinogion, she takes up the function of myth, which is to tell us something about our place in the world, in a profoundly feminist cause; her thesis is that we came to be here, inhabitants of a misogynist culture heading rapidly towards ecological collapse, because of patriarchy. Which I agree with, partially, and it’s something I want to admire (especially given when these novels were first written, which I cannot emphasise enough), but…and here we are again.

And – well, I’m not at university any more. I don’t have to spend three weeks of my precious reading time trying to suck meaning from a text that’s actively annoying me.

I hope, though, that if I find myself talking to someone who’s read it as well (which seems vastly unlikely, but you never know) I’ll actually have a discussion, with listening instead of labelling.


Review: Libriomancer

This review contains spoilers.

Jim C. Hines’ Libriomancer has a premise calculated to appeal to every book lover ever: libriomancers are magicians who can summon objects to life from books. Not people, apparently, because their brains turn to mush. And not anything that wouldn’t fit through a hole the size of an open book. And really powerful objects that would ruin the world – like Tolkien’s Ring, for instance – are “locked” inside their books by the head libriomancer, Johannes Gutenberg (yes, the Gutenberg), who has apparently discovered the secret to eternal life and promptly locked it away again.

So. Our Hero is Isaac, an ex-libriomancer who was retired from the field after an attempt at reining in unauthorised libriomancy went horribly wrong. As the novel begins, he’s working in a library specialising in SFF, cataloguing books that contain potentially useful weapons for libriomancers. This may sound like the awesomest job in the world to us mere mortals, but of course Isaac misses magic. Luckily for him, some vampires rock up and attack the library he’s working in, as well as a number of prominent magic-users, and he’s pulled back into the field to try and work out why the vampires have broken their delicate peace with humanity.

It was probably inevitable that Libriomancer would disappoint me – a premise like that is fiendishly hard to live up to. I think my disappointment boils down to the fact that the novel doesn’t do very much with its various intertexts – that is, it’s not particularly self-aware about its status as an SFF text in explicit conversation with the SFF texts Isaac uses for his libriomancy. That’s partly because the rules of libriomancy, and the demands of the plot, don’t allow Isaac to summon anything much more interesting than fancy SFnal guns; and, diverting as the sudden appearance of a lightsaber is (even if Hines isn’t allowed to call it that because of copyright), it turns out that weapons look pretty much the same whichever novel you summon them from.

The one piece of literary criticism Libriomancer does indulge in felt vaguely problematic to me. Or, rather, it fell into that interesting mental category labelled “I don’t know what to do with this”. One of Isaac’s sidekicks is Lena, a dryad from what Hines describes as a subgenre of mild SFF 1960s erotica. (I don’t know if this is an actual thing, by the way, since I can’t remember the name of the author Hines name-checks. Let’s assume that it is for the purposes of this review.) Lena’s been written to be the perfect lover for whoever her romantic partner happens to be – so her appearance and her personality both change to suit them. (I can’t remember now why Lena is exempt from the brain-turning-to-mush that afflicts most fictional characters coming to the real world.) At the beginning of the novel, she’s in a relationship with a woman called Nidhi Shah, a therapist who’s kidnapped by the vampires. Believing Nidhi dead, Lena propositions Isaac (who, I got the impression, lives several hours’ drive from Nidhi), because – get this – she thinks he’s her best option.

Werl…Isaac is inoffensive enough, but for this literally perfect woman to stake her entire being on him as the best possible romantic partner feels like the most enormous wish-fulfilment fantasy – not to mention the tangled issues of consent and free will spiralling around here.

It turns out, of course, that Nidhi aten’t dead. But now Lena is magically attached to both of them! Whatever shall she do?

The answer is, in fact, unexpected, and probably the best way of dealing with an immensely problematic plotline: she shall date both of them (no, not in a threesome-orgy-male-fantasy type way), and so, being not quite perfect for either of them, find something like autonomy in the cracks between their desires.

I mean, I do appreciate this thinking outside the box of monogamous heterosexual romantic normativity. And I also appreciate that the point of Lena’s storyline is to point up how problematic the idea of “the perfect woman” is. I just think that this particular novel is not really up to handling it. For one thing, Isaac is incredibly creepy towards Lena: while slightly (but only slightly) uninhibited on truth drugs, he tells her (in front of one of her colleagues):

This is not how I used to fantasize about you turning up on my doorstep.

Uh…inappropriate much? And, however much Lena may appear to go along with this behaviour, she’s magically obliged to do so. Isaac’s creepiness never gets dealt with; I got the impression I was meant to read it as slightly inept flirting, which it is not.

Add to that the fact that Hines’ prose is serviceable at best and wincingly clumsy at worst, and that he seems more interested in explosions and vampires than in unpacking the intricacies of Lena’s situation, and it begins to feel like the romance subplot is something of an afterthought tacked onto the story Hines really wanted to tell. Essentially, there’s a lot in Libriomancer that demands significantly more attention than it ever gets; so everything feels underserved.

TL;DR: I shouldn’t read books that haven’t been recommended to me. Because usually there’s a reason why they haven’t.

Top Ten Books I Read in 2017

There are a few days left of 2017, but I think I’ll manage at most one more book in that time.

As always, these are books I personally read in 2017, because who’s organised enough to read stuff in the year it’s published?

  1. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. I’ve read this approximately two-and-a-half times this year, probably more if you count all the times I’ve dipped in and out of it. I love it. I love its discursiveness, its artful artlessness, its gentle and undemanding hope, its ultra-readable engagement with literary theory. It’s become my go-to comfort read, and it’s not even SFF. (Sorry, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.)
  2. Palimpsest – Catherynne Valente. Palimpsest continues my quest to read all the Valente that exists in the world. It may actually be my favourite Valente (although that is an ever-changing thing). I read it slowly, on a long train journey, savouring Valente’s gorgeous prose and the lostness of her characters. I want to cosplay November someday. (I doubt anyone would get it, but there you go.)
  3. The Melancholy of Mechagirl – Catherynne Valente. Yes, it’s a bit troubling that this is a collection of stories and poems about Japan by a non-Japanese author, but that’s an aggregate issue; individually, each piece in The Melancholy of Mechagirl is gemlike, heartbreaking, enchanting, utterly and sublimely lovely.
  4. The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin. It took me ages to get around to reading this, but I’m glad I made it eventually: it’s  incredibly cleverly structured, with a chatty narrative voice that plays with reader expectation and generic conventions. It features three different POV characters, each telling a horrific tale of institutional emotional abuse, tragedy and oppression.
  5. Starbook – Ben Okri. This is a novel rooted in fairytale. And, like a lot of novels rooted in fairytale, it doesn’t quite manage to escape the sexist mores fairytales so often encode. It’s fucking gorgeous, though, and doing something very clever with irony and sincerity, its apparent naivete concealing and revealing the horror at the heart of the Atlantic slave trade.
  6. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. Another short story collection! These are hopeful, open-ended stories, full of queer characters. Like Valente’s work, they ask us to look at life again and re-experience it as magical.
  7. A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers. I didn’t like this as much as The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet: I missed the episodic, rambling structure of the first book. But I loved that A Closed and Common Orbit is just about people looking after each other. I think we all need more books like that.
  8. The Dispossessed – Ursula Le Guin. It’s so very rare that I read something that imagines a genuine alternative to capitalism; The Dispossessed does exactly that, building a world in which mutual aid, not competition, is the basis for all human relationships. Also, it has gay couples. In 1974. That’s awesome.
  9. Viriconium – M. John Harrison. This volume collects Harrison’s novels and stories of Viriconium, a city at the end of time that’s haunted by a long-distant past that it can never truly access. It’s a Gothic riff on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, as well as a lot of other things. It’s hypnotic, unsettling, shifting: a science fictional Gormenghast.
  10. Nova – Samuel Delany. Nova surprised me immensely: you expect certain things from SF published in 1969, and Delany’s novel is none of them. It’s incredibly colourful, interested in the sensual rather than the rational; it plays interesting textual games.

Review: The Summer Tree

This review contains spoilers. TW: rape, suicide.

I am finally out of the woods of NaNoWriMo, and what a luxury it is to have as many words as I want to ramble about books in.

I mean, it’s a pity that my first post-NaNo review had to be about Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree, which manages to be simultaneously enraging and utterly uninteresting, but the Spreadsheet of Books is merciless, and so here we are.

So. The Summer Tree is the first novel in Kay’s Fionavar trilogy (also called, with irritating preciousness, the Fionavar Tapestry), and feels like an unholy cross between Narnia, Tolkien and Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels. Five university students from our own world are taken, by a mysterious and not at all suspicious wizardy figure named Loren Silvercloak, to a fantasyland named (yes, you guessed it!) Fionavar. More specifically, they end up in the kingdom of Brennin, which is in the midst of a terrible drought because the High King has selfishly refused to sacrifice himself to the gods on the titular Summer Tree. There are also rumblings of a deeper evil at large in the kingdom: the orcs svart alfar are abroad, killing indiscriminately in the manner of evil fantasy races. Does this perchance have anything to do with the dark god Rakoth Maugrim, chained under a mountain for a thousand years?


Like Stephen Donaldson, I think what Kay’s trying to do here is put psychologically modern characters into a Tolkienian fantasy world. (And, incidentally, I think both writers are doing so out of an urge to improve Tolkien: Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge informs me that Kay worked for Christopher Tolkien on editing The Silmarillion, which is suggestive at the very least.) But where Donaldson’s characters react believably and productively – Thomas Covenant’s refusal to believe that the Land is real may be frustrating, but it’s at least part of what helps him save it – Kay’s, um, don’t. They become part of the (forgive me) fabric of Fionavar, of Middle-earth, unquestioningly and thus problematically.

It almost goes without saying (though it shouldn’t) that Fionavar is a typically cod-medieval place: a land where women are wives and priestesses and seers while the men are fighters and drinkers and counsellors; where the dark-skinned people away south are decadent and evil; where the nomadic tribe in the north is a thinly-disguised, stereotyped Native American analogue; where criticising the king is punishable by death.

What rings really false about The Summer Tree is that the five bright university students from our own world – even a 1980s version of our own world – don’t question any of this. There are two women in the group: one of them, Jennifer, attracts the (unwanted) attention of Brennin’s crown prince, Diarmund, and though she pushes back on it the narrative fails to read Diarmund’s continued pursuit of her as actual harassment. And though one of the students criticises Diarmund’s execution of a peasant who spoke treason against the king, he gets over it pretty quickly, and in fact becomes Diarmund’s friend. (And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that two of the students enable Diarmund’s rape of a princess from that decadent southern country.)

There’s a particularly egregious and harmful moment when the real-world characters actually participate in Fionavar’s regressive social roles. One of the students, Paul, is severely depressed after the death of his girlfriend in a car accident. When he goes off to sacrifice himself on the Summer Tree and so end the drought, his best friend Kevin reacts to the news thusly:

Let him die for you, if he can’t live for himself…Let him go.

Kevin knows Paul is ill: earlier in the novel he’s said something like “he’s been sick for a long time” (I don’t have the novel to hand, thank goodness). Heroic self-sacrifice, in medieval-inflected contexts, is a performance of bravery and chivalry. Key to that performance, key to the value of the sacrifice in a chivalric culture is that the hero chooses to do it, cold-bloodedly, rationally. Whereas what Paul’s doing is suicide – he’s dying from the often terminal disease that is depression, and, crucially, he is not in a state to choose rationally to sacrifice himself. Equating suicide with self-sacrifice is fucking dangerous. “Letting” a depressed person “go” is an abdication of responsibility, not (as Kay sees it) a recognition of the depressed person’s right to choose.

For me, this is sort of the crux of what’s wrong with The Summer Tree: Kay’s blending incompatible sets of social mores (a medieval shame culture and a modern guilt culture), and in doing so ends up utterly misrepresenting both. It might have been interesting to see the five students learn the rules of this new fantasyland and start following them; or to see them critiquing Fionavar’s regressiveness (although that approach has its own problems). Kay’s gone for an unholy blend of both, and it’s deeply problematic, as well as just plain tedious.

TL; DR: Don’t try to fix Tolkien. No, really don’t. Unless you are literally a medieval scholar, you don’t know enough.

Also, don’t read this book.

Review: Viriconium

M. John Harrison’s Viriconium is actually an omnibus: a collection of novels and short stories set in the city of, you guessed it, Viriconium. Harrison’s famous for being part of the “New Wave” in British SFF in the 60s and 70s – a kind of backlash against the mundanities of pulp SF – and he’s often cited as a key influence on China Mieville’s work, which is why I picked Viriconium up (on my first book shopping trip in my new London flat back in April, in fact).

Readers, Viriconium is every bit as interesting as Mieville, if less readily accessible.

I’m becoming increasingly fascinated with place and space in SFF, especially cities and big old haunted mansions, and the Viriconium stories are very much stories of a city. (There are a few recurring characters, but they are fickle and transient, flickering in and out of reality.) Viriconium is a city at the end of the world, the capital of the last human empire. It looks back to the Afternoon Cultures – our culture, and those that came after it – as times of impossible enlightenment, knowledge irretrievably lost. Fragments of those times remain: the Great Brown Waste, a desert made by humanity’s unimaginable depredations; flying machines powered by glowing engines; the Name Stars, man-made satellites. But – unlike, say, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which would be interesting to compare with Viriconium for reasons I’ll get to later – it’s impossible for the people of Viriconium to comprehend the people of the Afternoon Cultures. There are no clues, no context for what those cultures looked like. We, as readers, can guess a little more; but not that much more. Viriconium is a city at the end of history which has lost its own history. It’s surrounded by symbols which ought to mean but don’t. As one of Viriconium’s knights remarks in The Pastel City, the earliest of the Viriconium sequence, “All empires gutter, and leave a language their heirs cannot understand.”

Echoing this half-present history is the way that the texts themselves are full of cultural allusions and references so over-saturated with meaning as to be functionally meaningless. The Pastel City and “The Lamia & Lord Cromis” both broadly recall Arthurian romances, with their knights and their codes of honour and, in The Pastel City, a feud between Queen Methvet Nian and her evil cousin which has more than shades of the Arthur-Mordred story. But the classic story-structures are punctuated, become bathetic and/or pathetic: in “The Lamia & Lord Cromis”, an analogue of the story of Pellinore and the Questing Beast, the monster Lord Cromis has sought and feared all his life is easily killed by another person, who Lord Cromis kills in his turn because, “I was to be killed killing [the Lamia]. Who am I now?” And the would-be Avalonic ending of The Pastel City is disturbed by the presence of the Queen herself appearing to tell her knight to cheer the hell up.

Place-names from our world are mentioned, often by mad people, and go unrecognised. The chapters making up the last of the novels, In Viriconium, are named after Tarot cards for no particular or perceptible reason. There’s a cafe called the Bistro Californium; a street called the Rue Sepile; a square called the Plaza of Unrealised Time. Like many place-names, these feel like they should be significant, but aren’t; their varied provenances and registers point out this essential meaninglessness which punctuates our own lives.

But Viriconium’s true intertext is T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. One of the city’s principal streets is the Margarethestrasse; the cry ou lou lou lou punctuates the texts; a quotation from Jessie L Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, which Eliot famously claimed to have based his poem on, stands as the epigraph to one of In Viriconium‘s chapters.* Like Martin Rowson’s graphic novelisation of the poem, and Stephen King’s The Waste Lands, Viriconium takes The Waste Land‘s Modernist “heap of broken images” and turns it Gothic – surrounds its sparse fragments with dense, excessive, Gothically hypnotic prose:

They had made camp amid the ruins of a single vast, roofless building of vanished purpose and complicated ground-plan. Although nine tenths of it had sunk long ago beneath the bitter earth, the remains that reared around them rose fifty or sixty feet into the twilight. A feeble wind mumbled in off the Waste and mourned over their indistinct summits. Among the dunes meandered a vile, sour watercourse, choked with stones worn and scoured by Time.


Here is no water but only rock/Rock and no water and the sandy road/The road winding above among the mountains.)

The point being that this deliberate Gothic overwriting both reveals and conceals the screaming void at the heart of meaning. It seems to invest things with a significance that they turn out not to possess. Viriconium – both the city and the texts about the city (and that’s an important Gothic trait, too – that the Gothic place and the textual space turn out to be one and the same thing) – is, deliberately, “a heap of broken images”. (Lest this sound like a criticism – it takes a lot of skill to pull this kind of textual strategy off, to avoid meaning so deliberately without leaving the work feeling pointless. There’s a reason The Waste Land is still famous.)

So, what does Viriconium, this future city, mean to our present? To answer that question we have to turn to the last story in the book – the last short story and the last text: “A Young Man in Viriconium”. Despite the title, the story is actually about a young man in England – a young man who’s been looking for Viriconium all his life. After a long search, he meets a man, Dr Petromax, who tells him what it’s really like there:

The streets stank. At six in the morning a smell so corrupt came up from the Yser Canal it seemed to blacken the iron lamp posts; we would gag in our dreams, struggle for a moment to wake up, and then realise that the only escape was to sleep again.

And yet:

The night I [left] you could see the lights of the High City, sweet, magical, like paper lanterns in a garden, filling up the emptiness. If only I’d gone towards them, walked straight towards them!

Dr Petromax is like a reader of epic fantasy (the comparison with Narnia is reasonably obvious): longing after a world that seems invested with more importance than our own broken-imaged one, not realising that every possible world with humans in it is estranged from its own symbols, despite having experienced this truth first-hand. “A Young Man in Viriconium” is probably the most important text in the whole book: it reveals to us that Viriconium is, on one level, a self-reflexive discussion of reading itself, especially SFF reading. It deflates the symbol of Viriconium which, despite everything, we constructed in our minds as we read. It reminds us that much SFF is only “a heap of broken images, where the sun beats”.

There’s plenty more to say about Viriconium, of course (oh, to be able to write a thesis on The Waste Land in Gothic literature!). It’s one of those texts you can never quite finish with, because it’s never quite finished with you. It belongs on a shelf with Mervyn Peake and House of Leaves and Ann Radcliffe: Gothic fictions that strip away our illusions and reveal the emptiness behind. It is, in other words, right up my street, and I’ll be reading more of Harrison’s work.


*Harrison has a great sense of irony: here is the epigraph:

I believe that the “Waste Land” is really the very heart of our problem; a rightful appreciation of its position and significance will place us in possession of the clue which will lead us safely through the most bewildering mazes.

No such clue is, of course, forthcoming.

Review: Hexwood

Hexwood‘s protagonist is Ann Stavely, a teenage girl who, convalescing from a fever, watches out her window as a series of strangely dressed people enter – but don’t leave – the mysterious Hexwood Farm Estate, opposite her house. The next day, well enough to get up, she visits the tiny wood next to the farm. It’s the kind of wood recognisable to most people who grew up in a small town or village in England: a handful of trees with a dusty path running through them, exciting and safe all at once. But, this time, it goes on and on, uncannily, until Ann stumbles across a man named Mordion: a wizard who creates a child from his blood and from hers.

Ann returns to the wood several times over the next few days to visit Mordion and the child, Hume. But time in the wood is odd: one day Hume will be an infant of five, the next a teenager of fifteen. Magic works there, and there are castles, and monsters, and dragons, and other beasts of story.

We’re told that these effects are being produced by the Bannus, an enormously powerful machine that creates simulations to help with decision-making, which has been hidden away on Earth so no-one important can get their hands on it. But now it’s woken up; and as Ann visits Mordion and Hume on Earth, the important and despotic rulers of Earth and a good deal else besides are getting ready to visit Hexwood Farm and shut it down.

Hexwood feels a little like Diana Wynne Jones by numbers (which, to be clear, is still quite a lot more interesting than a lot of fantasy being written at the moment, even for adults): the plucky, pragmatic heroine; the knowing use of genre tropes; and, especially, the dizzying shifts of perspective as the things we thought we knew about the world of the novel change and move outwards. Like Power of Three, Hexwood starts off simple and becomes ever more complicated – a reflection, perhaps, of how the world becomes ever more complicated as we grow up.

That technique of “zooming out” has some particularly interesting things to say about how we use stories. The Bannus, it turns out, isn’t just a decision-making machine: it’s actually the machine that was once used to decide who the next rulers of the galaxy would be. Since being hidden away on Earth to keep the current Reigners in power, it’s schemed to bring everyone eligible to Earth, so it can test them: and this it does, specifically, through story. As the despotic Reigners enter Hexwood Farm – where the Bannus lives – one by one, they disappear into the Arthurian simulation it’s running; they forget their purpose. Meanwhile, the good characters – Mordion, Hume and Ann – though they become caught in the simulation, never forget that they’re not actually Arthurian knights; they never forget that they’re only playing roles.

In other words, Hexwood warns us against getting lost in the stories we tell. They’re useful places to play out scenarios and make decisions; but we have to avoid getting lost in them, and forgetting that we are more than the stories.

Which raises an interesting question: because Hexwood itself is, despite the ontological uncertainty it generates by switching from fantasy to science fiction and repeatedly questioning the reality it has established, at root an essentially traditional kind of story. The evil or weak characters all die or disappear, often in comic or ironic ways; the good characters become kings and queens; there’s even a love story (although it’s delightfully pragmatic: Ann, feeling “a queer pain in her stomach,” thinks, “Oh no! I’m in love with [spoiler]!”). It’s a comedy, in other words, an essentially conservative tale whose effective function is not to disturb the status quo but to restore it.

So, the question for the reader of Hexwood (and I’m not sure if it can be answered) is: is this a tale which we’re in control of, which we can use to make decisions and play out certain scenarios? Or, is it a tale we have become lost in, seduced by romantic tropes and consolatory happy endings, so that we forget the world is wider and more unsettling than any story?

Something to think about.

Review: The Waste Land

The Waste Land is a wondrous and entirely unexpected thing which I acquired for the princely sum of 20p at my local library: a graphic novel retelling of T.S. Eliot’s seminal Modernist poem by Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson. It seems there are two editions of this gem: issues with Eliot’s estate meant a second edition had to be published – it’s this edition I’m reviewing here – which couldn’t quote any of the original poem; not that this seems to have affected the general parodic quality of the piece.

Anyway. The story, such as it is, follows a hard-boiled noir detective, Chris Marlowe (an escapee from a Raymond Chandler novel, or a seventeenth-century playwright, or both), as he searches for his missing business partner, Mike the Minoan, in Eliot’s Unreal City: London, though a disconnected and fragmented version of it. (“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many.”)

A Goodreads reviewer, Liam Guilar, suggests that Marlowe’s search for his partner in Waste Land London is a performance of the search for meaning with which befuddled first-time readers approach Eliot’s poem – “the irony being the only coherence the poem has to offer is the reader’s search for it.” This is a brilliant and elegant reading which, frankly, I wish I’d come up with myself. (There are also interesting resonances here with the theme of the Grail quest Eliot threads half-heartedly through the poem.)

So Rowson renders Eliot’s text as place – specifically, as a nightmarish version of London, identified mainly (as it is in the poem) by the River Thames, curling its symbolic, stinking way through the text’s heart. Marlowe is literally a stranger in this city; in the first chapter of the book he’s knocked out and shipped across the Atlantic to London, and we see it through his stranger’s eyes – the caricature grotesquerie of Rowson’s art style rendering it larger than life and half-unrecognisable. As another Goodreads reviewer pointed out, rather less insightfully, “the story seems to jump all over the place.” Well, yes. That disconnection is pretty much the whole point of both texts: Eliot renders it linguistically, as a breakdown of cultural touchstones, a scattergun range of quotations and intertexts that don’t relate to anything, “a heap of broken images” with no shaping connective tissue; Rowson renders it narratively, in a search that doesn’t make sense with a solution that “is no solution” (Guilar again), and spatially, in a London that doesn’t look quite like our London, teetering on the edge of the familiar, and populated by anachronistic historical figures: Queen Elizabeth I in a modern-looking crowd on the banks of the Thames, Joseph Conrad in a London pub.

That spatial rendering is rather Gothic, in the sense that Rowson’s London looks and works a lot like the huge, impossibly rambly castles and country homes in Gothic literature – like Gormenghast and Manderley and the Navidson house. These Gothic spaces are uncanny: they take the familiar, ordered space of the home and render it unknowable, unmappable, architecturally impossible. The Gothic as a mode is often associated with the bourgeoisie, but here Rowson’s making a connection with Modernism too; a connection that’s always been latent, because if the Gothic disturbs the rational space of the home then it also, simultaneously, disrupts the rationalism of the Word – the Western Christian construct of the written word as holy, always true, a perfect window into the thoughts of men. The Gothic, characterised by linguistic excess (there’s a reason all those eighteenth-century moralists were appalled by the idea of young ladies reading The Mysteries of Udolpho), by sentence structures that you can get lost in just as you get lost in the corridors of the castles they describe, conceals and reveals the void at the heart of all things, especially at the heart of Western rationalism. And that’s something Eliot’s Waste Land, not to mention Modernism at large, is also urgently concerned with: “the centre cannot hold”, as Yeats wrote just three years before Eliot published The Waste Land; Western morality and thought has become a haunted house, the shared cultural and religious touchstones we used to have in common dissolved and vanished. “I can connect/Nothing with nothing.”

Why is this important? What does it add to our understanding of The Waste Land?

Something which I do find suggestive about Rowson’s treatment of the poem – which links back to Guilar’s point above about the search for coherency in Eliot’s poem constituting the only coherency the poem possesses or can offer – is that, for readers familiar with the original, it becomes a way to navigate Rowson’s text; we decode Marlowe’s search for Mike the Minoan by spotting the references to the poem, a self-reflexive circle which points out the essential meaninglessness of critical approaches to The Waste Land. The poem by its very form denies meaning, even obfuscates it deliberately; that’s ultimately what Rowson’s parodic treatment brings us to realise.

I still love Eliot’s poem, and you get the sense that despite his mockery Rowson does too. His graphic novel treats it as the cultural touchstone it (ironically) is nowadays, and yet it also uncovers and deflates the nihilism that lies behind its artistic vision (and, by extension, the artistic vision of much of today’s literary establishment). It seems sort of pointless to write anything else about The Waste Land – Rowson’s said everything there is to say. Which is good value, for 20p.