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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Busta Genre: The Prestige, Carter Beats the Devil, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

I am more literarily open than my spouse. He will, no doubt, bridle at that characterization, but I defy him to identify even one book he has read at my recommendation, whereas I have read many at his. That's not really the point of this entry, though. As it happens, in the last few months, we have each read three of the same books that putatively have magic as their subject: The Prestige, Carter Beats the Devil, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Our opinions on them were largely congruent, although not always for the same reason.

I'm not going to talk too much about The Prestige, if only because I'm waiting for the the movie, and not just because it's Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman (although I AM only human). I am quite interested to see how some of the problems in the novel are worked out in the film.

Likewise, I'm including Carter Beats the Devil only because it fits with the other two in my mind for a few reasons. I really enjoyed it, as did M (in fact, he probably liked it even more than I did). I think that the enjoyment is attributable to the fact that Glen Gold handles some of the issues common to the three books better than either Christopher Priest or Susanna Clarke.

So, what have these got in common other than the two of us have read them? Well, as I said, all three of the books are about magic. The Prestige and Carter Beats the Devil are about the practice of stage magic, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is more explicitly fantasy and set in a world where fairies exist and long-dormant possible magic is being realized for the first time in centuries. They're also all historical novels that incorporate real figures from history. TP is set just before the turn of the 20th century and the inclusion of historical figures (with one exception) is relegated to the background. In CBtD (set in the early 20th century) and JS&MN (set during the British Regency period in the early 19th century), the main characters mingle more freely with historical figures who are more integral to the main plot. Finally, I think each of the authors intended his/her book to cross the boundaries of genres, and that's where most of the differential success is concentrated, in my opinion.

As time goes on I'm more and more open to genre busting in all my art forms. I also understand the risks that genre busting carries from the standpoint of commercial success. If you don't sit quietly on your naptime genre rug and have your genre snack, you make the baby Jesus and the PR people cry. (See, for example, Firefly and Serenity, the most brilliant failed genre-busting experiment I can think of.) The lack of imagination on the part of advertisers and audiences irritates me, certainly, and I think it's likely that we're missing out on a lot of great stuff because people keep running into that wall.

But two of these three books demonstrate that intergenre waters can be eel infested. TP, is a particularly egregious failure (in my opinion) at the multiple-genre endeavor by virtue of its pacing. It is pretty straight historical fiction for the bulk of the book. It does some interesting things with source pastiche and point of view (a la Dracula and most things by Wilkie Collins). And then in the last 100 pages or so, the reader is suddenly and violently upended as Priest streaks through at least three different genres. It's not a book that was painful to read (unlike the odious Great Apes by Will Self), but it's dissatisfying in the extreme.

CBtD is a positive example of crossing the streams of genre. It has appeal for SciFi/Fantasy readers because it's about magic (although it's definitely stage magic here, with no implication of magic in the fantasy sense). Gold is adept at giving the feel of the period without vomiting every detail of his research on it on to the page, and the plot involving real historical figures is outlandish but appealing and not wholly unbelievable. It also has some impressive action and adventure going on. Ultimately, though, it's a good book focused on an intriguing plot, likeable characters, and relationships that reasonate.

I read TP several months ago and CBtD more recently. (In fact, the ZK got the recommendation for the latter as a positive example in contrast to the former's uh . . . last-minute psychotic break.) I only just finished JS&MN a few days ago. I won't say I disliked it, because most of it was quite enjoyable to read (that's one point on which the ZK and I diverge, as he found its pretensions to Austenity tedious). But I was left with the strong impression that this wasn't so much a deliberate attempt on Clarke's part to defy classification as it was failure to make some crucial decisions about the novel's identity and position.

Although it's set in the Regency period, its stylistically a mishmash that borrows from disparate Regency authors. Drawlight and Lascelles seem very Edgeworth inspired, and I suppose Vinculus and Childermass fit that profile as well if what she takes from Edgeworth is preoccupation with class politics. The Norrell section of the book and some elements of Strange's section (most notably his relationship with his wife and brother-in-law) seem to be going for Austen-like dialogue and interaction, but although this may be the sincerest form of flattery, it's not particularly adept. For one thing, the relationships in the novel are peculiarly bloodless, whether they are love matches or matches made to save someone's economic bacon. Some of the friendships have occasional glimmers of real feeling (the only time that Norrell seems at all likeable or believable as a character is during the more harmonious times of his relationship with Strange), but those connections are forgotten when the plot demands it or when she seems not to feel like writing about that any more.

But the worst case of neglect is the fact that Clarke doesn't seem to know who is writing the book or why. Yes, it's a standard third-person, omniscient narrator. But she also uses an overarching conceit that it is some kind of history that postdates the events by an indeterminate (but probably great) amount of time. The author is someone who has access to a body of literature that was not widely available or not yet written during the events of the novel. In general it seems as if the author intends the history to be a "book about magic" (as distinct from a "book of magic"). But that orientation is contradicted by the jarring tendency for the author to insert strange Lemony Snickett-like asides in which s/he expresses a personal opinion in somewhat condescending tones. Likewise, the author of a simple history of the two magicians ought not to have so much insight into the minute-by-minute feelings and motivations of a very large number of characters.

Finally, it just seems clear that the scope of Clarke's canvas just got away from her. She seems to have had great affection for the character of Stephen Black and, initially, a lot of initial enthusiasm for writing him. However, he slips through her fingers almost entirely. (Although he keeps showing up with another character to observe things happening to others, he's kind of a wasted, mortal straight man.) Sir Walter and Lady Pole also seem to have presented problems and suffer a similarly tepid representation in the latter parts of the book and an even more flaccid resolution. Perhaps if she'd restrained the urge to include long digressions on other characters that ultimately have almost no impact on the rest of the novel (I love Mad King George as much as the next gal, but that was, seriously, 80 pages I'll never get back) she might have had more time and energy for those integral to the book.

In the end, Clarke alienates and/or separates the reader from every approachable character. Even the unapproachable characters end up pursuing courses of action that don't make much sense and undermine what I thought I knew about them. (Her ending for Lascelles is particularly hackneyed and out of the blue.) I suppose this was meant to clear the decks for the things that are bigger than the drawing-room world in which she is (sometimes) working, but it left me pretty cold and unsatisfied. The more I think about it, the more I think that my dissatisfaction stems from a failure to accomplish what Garth Nix articulated over at SFX: Clarke is theoretically anchored in two genres that I know quite well (Regency novels and fantasy); however, although she doesn't lack for originality (overall, there are some places where homage bleeds into ripoff), the novel doesn't ultimately resonate within either genre in which she's writing.

Anyway, it's still a tremendous accomplishment for a first novel. I wouldn't avoid her writing in the future, but I do hope that she winds up with an editor or someone who will be somewhat more demanding, not that she color within the lines of a single genre (or even a preexisting genre), but that her writing be more directed and purposeful, rather than accidentally slopping over boundaries as it does here.

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