While the future has arrived — we are officially living in the future — the past has not yet disappeared. For all that we're told of the value and viability of ebooks, the printed versions happen to work perfectly fine. They are not susceptible to viruses, subject to DRM, and cannot be deleted.
But they also have weight, heft, and a feel that evokes our memories of life and reading in a manner that is impossible with regards to ebooks. So perhaps it's that which has enable some recent releases of the work of Mervyn Peake from The Overlook Press to capture my imagination so thoroughly. The mere physicality of 'Mr. Pye,' 'The Sunday Books,' 'The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy' and even the newly completed 'Titus Awakes.' By virtue of just being here, they bring back to me the many times and places and ways I read 'Gormenghast' and 'Letters from a Lost Uncle.'
But of course it is much more than that. We'll start with the cornerstone, the (now illustrated) Gormenghast Trilogy ('Titus Groan,' 'Gormenghast,' 'Titus Alone'). Unlike anything written before or since, these novels literally transport the reader to an isolated castle so large that its inhabitants do not really know how far it extends. Gormenghast is the creation of Peake's imagination, but it is not a world of the fantastic.
There is no magic involved, and there are no unusual creatures. Imagine an endless neighborhood from the London of Charles Dickens with no referent or reference to the outside world that we know. The ambitious young man Steerpike plots to make the world his own; Professor Prunesquallor tries to teach the young heir Titus the ways of his world and the world he will inherit.
Peake's prose is stunningly immersive, and yes, Dickensian. It demands to be read on paper from books that have been read and re-read. Peake's power is such that readers will find themselves speaking the words aloud. But Peake was no mere antiquarian aping the styles of yesteryear. Within the seemingly endless confines of the walls of Gormenghast, Peake found the means for grand experiments.
The Gormenghast Trilogy has been in and out of print since publication, but Overlook's new volumes include not just the text, but Peake's remarkable illustrations as well. At $15 apiece, they're a grand bargain for books that will remain a part of your life for the rest of your life. Even as you read them for the first time, you'll know that you are going to read them again.
But Peake did not live to finish the story of Titus Groan. In a development fitting to the world he created, Peake was rumored to have left fragments of a fourth book. That much was true; what was not known was that his wife, Maeve, had written the novel based on those fragments. 'Titus Awakes' does not return to Gormenghast, nor does Maeve try to match her husband's style. Instead of labyrinthine language and world, we are taken out into a world that resembles ours, as is the sensibility of the castle-born-and-raised Titus. It's almost as if the ornate perceptions are shell-shocked by what Titus finds out here. While it is not Gormenghast, 'Titus Awakes breathes with its own gentle poetry.
Readers familiar with Peake know that his talents extended well beyond prose and the imaginary powers of Gormenghast. As an illustrator, Peake's art graced Alice in Wonderland and other works. He was a family man, and spent his Sundays with his family on Sark Island. He'd tell his children silly stories and illustrate them on the spot. Alas, he never wrote down the stories, but illustrations were saved.
'The Sunday Books' is a lovely and remarkable collaboration with Michael Moorcock; Moorcock has written nonsense poetry to accompany Peake's illustrations and provides an elegiac look at the man himself. The book is beautifully produced, and like the best children's literature, it's timeless. I still have my original copy of 'Winnie the Pooh' on my shelves. I just wish that I'd had the chance to have this one as well.
Sark is the setting for Peake's very funny take on the battle of good versus evil, 'My Pye,' in which a smiling, stiff-upper-lipped Englishman arrives therein determined to change everyone he meets. This, of course, proves to me more problematic than he first judges it to be, but it is not problematic for the readers.
'Mr. Pye' is smart, very funny and offers Peake a chance exercise his imagination while remaining paradoxically with the realms of the entirely real. This he does with wit, verve and illustrations. Peake's skill in this regard is not be underestimated. The charm of his simple images enhances the already engaging narrative. As an illutrator, Peake knows the value of understatment, even though he is capable of the wild and the weird. This carries through to the proe as well. 'Mr. Pye' is the sort of comic novel that one wants desperately to read aloud, which is a regular feature of Peake's writing.
So here you have it; a set of books to be read as book, from the time when there were only books to this time when we are told the book is soon to be no more. Overlook Press is something from the past as well, a small press with a particular vision.
The shelves in my house, so full of Mervyn Peake, and the shelves in my mind so full of his stories and my memories of holding the books, of reading the stories, suggest otherwise.
02-22-12:Adrian Bejan and J. Peder Zane 'Design in Nature'
A Scientific Evolution
Editor's note: When I was offered the chance to interview Adrian Bejan, I re-read the book to prepare for the interview. My original take on the book can be found here. Reading it again I found new reasons to like the book, which is why re-reading is a good idea for any title that you happen to own. In fact, that is the reason to own books; even if you don't re-read the whole book.
We often hear about scientific revolutions, but the word revolution is really is misnomer. It implies the swift overthrow of one belief for another. Science does not discard beliefs overnight. It's a measured process, especially now, in an age where so much technology can be brought to examine, evaluate and even discover new data. But discoveries can be made, even basic discoveries.
At least, that is the contention of Adrian Bejan, whose 'Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization' offers a popular-science exposition of a new law of physics. It's both low-key and a grand claim. Bejan discovered his new law of physics some fifteen years ago. He's published it in textbooks and peer-reviewed journals since then. Of course, whether or not this proves to be a basic, universal law of physics is a matter of decades, perhaps centuries. But as a book, 'Design in Nature' passes one key test. Read this and you'll see everything differently.
Bejan frames his book as the story of his discovery, giving it a narrative through-line. He's a mechanical engineer who had been working on a heat sink for computer chips, and found that the best means of doing so involved a series of branching lines, like a tree. While attending a conference on thermodynamics, he heard Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine assert that the similarity between tree-shaped structures in nature was cosmic coincidence. Having just designed a tree-shaped structure to enhance the flow of heat away from a computer chip, Bejan knew that this was not the case. While flying back from the conference, he wrote down the constructal law: "For a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), its configuration must evolve in such a way that provides easier access to the currents that flow through it." Having formulated the law, Began to put it to use to predict outcomes, found that it worked, and he's been going with the flow ever since.
Bejan, and his co-author, J. Peder Zane take the reader on an outward journey, through the various branches of science exploring the consequences of the constructal law in geology and geography, biology and physiology, evolution, and even into sports, academia and the social and political realms. Once you start reading this book, prepare to start seeing trees everywhere you look. The authors are careful to be sure that readers understand that this is not an argument for a "designer." 'Design in Nature' is NOT, repeat, not a stalking horse for intelligent design or creationism. This is a new law of physics that requires no supernatural intervention, and is based on evidence and the ability to predict new data.
The writing is generally informal and informative, but often buttressed by fairly sophisticated math. If you know and care, it's there, but if you don't you can still follow the logic of the authors' thoughts. As 'Design in Nature,' progresses, the applications become increasingly unexpected. But Bejan and Zane are careful to point out the data and hard science that backs up the applications.
'Design in Nature' is pretty powerful book, and it should be. The presentation of a new law of physics to a lay public has to argue in a court of opinion that is wider and less reasonable than that of pure science. Scientists can and always will base their judgments on facts and numbers and experimental evidence. The lay public makes its decisions as much from the heart as from the head. In that presentation, a book like 'Design in Nature' has a lot of weight to carry. Bejan and Zane are equal to the load. It won't happen overnight. The belief will grow slowly and branch outward. The best argument for the constructal law is the fact that it will predict its own acceptance, in science and society.
02-21-12:Archive Reviews: Michael Cisco Meets 'The Divinity Student' and 'The Tyrant'
Editor's note: Michael Cisco is one of our unique voices in prose. His fiction partakes of soe genre fiction tropes, but is much more experimental than most genre fiction. It's powerful and odd, a perfect combination to help readers annhilate their own world while entering his.
Language assumes a different level of import in differing novels. Much of today's fiction attempts and achieves "transparency", that is, prose that does not get in the way of the story and does not require a great effort to read. Some writers hold language to a higher standard. Michael Cisco, author of 'The Divinity Student' is clearly such a writer. You, the reader, are going to have to put some effort into reading this novel. You're going to have to think about the specific words on the page, how they connect to one another, the story — such as it is — to your world and the world the writer is trying to create. From the very beginning, it's clear that 'The Divinity Student' is about language. But it takes about half this slim novel for the Cisco to clue in the reader why language is important to the plot. In the interim, gorge on the gorgeous. Fill yourself up with words. If this is the kind of effort you are willing to make as a reader, then it is well worth the effort.
From the first, let me emphasize that this trade paperback is beautifully produced and printed. The illustrations by Harry O. Morris, one of my favorite illustrators since the (to me) trend-setting Scream/Press edition of 'Books of Blood', are the perfect pitch, surreal, slightly disturbing. 'The Divinity Student' at first struck me as a collection of stories. Each chapter is titled, and many are illustrated. Only recently did I actually suss it was a novel and move it up the food chain and queue for reading. I'm glad I did, and annoyed that I didn't pick up on this when I first bought it, some two years ago. Such are the problems of an overly large reading queue. As the novel begins, the Divinity Student is wandering in afield when he is struck by lightning. In a surreal scene that no summary will do justice, his body is eviscerated, and he is stuffed with pages and resurrected. Soon, he is sent to San Veneficio. The reader might begin to think that the novel will simply be a series of floaty, surreal scenes without a unified purpose. On that level, it's certainly enjoyable as a work of wonderful prose. But that's clearly not the only level.
Cisco is writing the kind of novel that you could easily base a thesis or two on. It would be child's play to write 300 pages of analysis of this 149 page novel. The writer's wordplay is constant, effervescent, leaving the reader feeling slightly dazed. In that event, the book is doing precisely what the writer wants it to. In an interesting, brief afterward, he states that he thinks 'Reading is a form of hypnosis'. If you're reading this book it certainly is.
Now that requires a bit of an effort, as I've stated. This isn't 'transparent' prose that merely gets the action in the reader's brain. This is complex verbal gamesmanship, the kind of writing that often doesn't fare well in an extended setting. Thomas Ligotti excels at this sort of thing, but then he only writes short stories. Cisco actually manages to pull a novel out of his levitation act.
About halfway through in an almost electrifying scene (more so than being struck by lightning, though that's pretty strong writing as well), Cisco introduces the plot. It's like a hint of melody in a minimalist piece of music. Tonic, bracing, it rings true and carries the reader ecstatic through the more gruesome final half of the novel. The images rush, the reader sucks up the words greedily, the words build a world on the page and in the reader's minds, the world's coalesce, dissolve, become one then separate again. All the magic is in the language. And that's all the magic that Cisco needs. Some people can't take hallucinogenic drugs. The experience is too strong. If you're one of those people, you might find 'The Divinity Student' is a bit too strong for your tastes. But if you're ready to be hypnotized, if you're ready to enter a word trance, then there's probably no better place to start than a lesson from the 'The Divinity Student'.
Writing transforms this world. The work itself is added to the catalogue of the world, and within the work, the world is reflected sometimes badly, sometimes madly. Writing is a mirror built with words, capable of reflecting that which does not and cannot exist, of intermingling that which is with that which isn't. But the humdrum reality of it is such that most writing takes on an ordinary aspect, becomes simply another part of the world, neither a world in itself nor a mirror of ours. It's all in the word choice. There is great prose that takes us back to our reality, and there's great prose that takes us beyond. The great virtue acceded to most modern writers is prose that is "transparent." And while it is a virtue, it is not the only virtue. To reflect that which is not, you don't need transparency. You need opacity, language to build a world, bold brushstrokes to create something from nothing. It's vision beyond death.
Ella is a 15-yeal old girl crippled by polio, a genius taking graduate courses in biology and demonstrating a strong talent for working with ectoplasm. She journeys beyond death in Michael Cisco's visionary novel 'The Tyrant'. Taken as an assistant to the famed Dr. Belhoria, she'll be helping Doctor Belhoria in her study of a talented young epileptic man as he descends into a trance which will take him to the Underworld.
Cisco's prose is beyond opacity. It has a palpable density, which is apparent from beginning to end. Thus, it will take the reader a while to realize that the world within which Ella's tale unfolds is decidedly not ours. It is a Gothic, science-fictional mutant, lush, luxuriant with imagination, roots wrapped around the industrial detritus of our rotted inner-city slums. By the time you realize that you're not in the familiar world, the familiar world itself has been transformed by Cisco's prose. It's a remarkable feat as well as an interesting technique.
Of course, not all readers will take to Cisco's prose style. Written in an acid rush of imagery, 'The Tyrant' streams off the page and beyond boundaries set by normal punctuation. For most readers it will require an effort to slip the bonds of normal storytelling and immerse themselves in Cisco's grand vision. It's like emptying your lungs of air to breathe liquid air. You can do it; you used to do it. And once you do, the immersion is total and intense.
Cisco does nothing less in 'The Tyrant' than explore the world in a manner reminiscent of Dante in 'The Inferno'. When the reader is not ensnared in Cisco's science-fiction mutation of reality, the reader is immersed in Cisco's visionary version of the afterlife. Doctor Belhoria makes a fateful decision to unleash her experimental subject, and in so doing, he becomes more than a voyager in the after-life. He becomes, the Tyrant, the conqueror of lands usually outside the descriptive talents of writers — Hell, then Heaven. Cisco carries this off spectacularly, describing nightmare armies of the dead crawling, riding, screaming through the reader's consciousness.
But just when the readers might drown in Cisco's evocative imagery, he ups the ante, returns to his unreal real world and slings the plot around the gravity well of his underworld, into another realm of unworldly, Fortean events. The Tyrant's activities in the underworld have reverberations in Cisco's Sfnal surreality. Ella embarks on a journey around the country and beyond, occasionally encountering sigils that are actually familiar to the reader. The effect is remarkable. Cisco's plot is every bit as luxuriant as his prose.
As novels go, 'the Tyrant' is packed with enough imagery for several normal books. There are so many memorable descriptions within that you'll want to jot down your favorites. Cisco excels at all levels; whether he's describing an insightful character moment or unfurling an army of the dead across a planet of chaos, he will plant the proper specifics with music and breathtaking skill. Not a page goes by without a significant display of literary virtuosity. While this doesn't make for reading easy, it does make it enjoyable — if you're inclined to enjoy literary skills at the level that Cisco reaches for and achieves. The level of unreality, the level of intensity, are not for all readers. But Cisco's work is pretty clearly identifiable as such. You'll know if this is to your taste. And if you think it might be, but are unsure, it's well worth the risk.
That's because Cisco is that best of writers, the risk-taker. He doesn't just risk once in his work. His entire work is a gamble, a quid pro quo deal wherein he offers the readers a guaranteed-to-be-spectacular level of writing and the reader offers him in return the patience of the saints. Cisco is beyond brilliant. He starts where normal brilliant ends, and forges his own path in the wilderness of the unknown. It would be remiss to ignore the fine package that Prime Books puts this novel in. The surreal cover art by Harry Morris and the nice binding and printing give it the heft required to carry off Cisco's audacious work. You may not like it, but you will love it. You may not understand it, but you will experience it. 'The Tyrant' is not like anything else out there. It's the world transformed, horror fiction transformed, the butterfly to horror's caterpillar. It's possible you'll overdose on Cisco's work. But you'll have a hell of a good time dying.
02-20-12:Ben Marcus Ignites 'The Flame Alphabet'
Words, Deeds and Apocalypse
Every day ends; often not well. For most of us, life is not lived at a particularly heroic level. We have jobs (if we're lucky), families (if we're lucky ... perhaps), chores to do that will begin the day and chores with which the day will end — if we're lucky. Luck apparently is at a low ebb, and very probably a zero-sum game. The ends of each day can easily begin to seem like the end of all days. Every night as we close our eyes, we live through another apocalypse.
Ben Marcus offers readers a domestic end-of-days in 'The Flame Alphabet,' a dark and disturbing vision of a family torn apart by a force within that proves to be apocalyptic. Unlike other visions of the end, 'The Flame Alphabet' keeps our eyes obsessively on the ground, if not underneath. This is not a novel where characters experience freedom as the result of society crumbling away beneath their feet. 'The Flame Alphabet' traps readers in a surreal suburb, where words spoken by children have become weapons that sicken and harm adults. It's a metaphysical illness that Marcus manages to transit to his readers. Prepare to be seriously creeped out.
Sam and Claire may have once been a nice couple with an imperfect marriage, but when we meet them at the beginning of 'The Flame Alphabet,' things have already gone pretty much to hell. The sound of their daughter Esther's voice has become so injurious to them that they are trying to flee while she's at school so they can more easily leave her behind. They will eventually get out into the waste-scape beyond their dirt-dull ordinary town. But they will not be the same people and it will not be the same town.
Marcus has constructed a very weird world in 'The Flame Alphabet,' and he reveals that invented world from Sam's necessarily narrow perspective. Because these are houses like we know, and from what we can tell, lives like we know, other than this whole language-as-illness-and-weapon problem, we empathize with Same and Claire. But their world is manifestly not exactly ours. They are "Forest Jews," who attend synagogue each Sunday by going to a hut in the forest just beyond the edge of town. The worship is very private — organically and upsettingly so. Their lives, which we might have taken to be like ours, are revealed to have the same relation to normality that a dissected mouse has to the living thing. Spirituality is made visceral.
Language and prose are the keys critical to 'The Flame Alphabet.' Marcus is a master of writing pithy sentences that stick in your mind like a small piece of rotting flesh might cling to the back of your hand. The atmosphere in 'The Flame Alphabet' is crushingly oppressive, but the prose renders it compelling and engaging, even when the scenes we are witness are, to say the least, off-putting. This is not an easy novel to read, but it is very difficult to put down, and impossible to forget, though you might regret that last aspect now and again. It is always vivid and strikingly well written.
Marcus sets himself up so quickly and with so little effort, creating an icky, weird world, the readers might wonder how he is going to go anywhere, since "here" is at once dismayingly strange and undeniably familiar. 'The Flame Alphabet' employs a Skinner Box plot structure, shocking and luring unsuspecting readers to the bottom of a barrel, then turning the barrel over to display what is underneath. It's sort of a mirror, and not the most pleasant vision you will have. You want to flinch but cannot look away. He leads readers well beyond the suburbs, but have no fear, that sigh of relief you breathe will not last long. Hell, as Sartre learned so long ago, is other people.
Like many master craftsmen, Marcus misdirects readers, who will be so caught up in Sam's experience that they may overlook the care with which Marcus constructs his characters. Event those we don't like (that may be most of them) are compelling and entertaining to read about. The villains, and yes there are characters who compared to the parents leaving their children behind are indeed villains, are grimy, gritty and just funny enough to be really scary.
'The Flame Alphabet' is an engaging, frightening and very original take on apocalypse as experienced by a suburban family. A child may be lost and a child may be found. Wounds can kill, but worse, they may also heal. Ultimately, readers will find out what they should, as readers, already know. Words are deeds —with consequences.
New to the Agony Column
12-02-13: Commentary : Susan Stinson Sees the 'Spider in a Tree' : Blessed in the Hands of An Unknowable God