Posted by Matt | April 25th, 2012
Martha Wells, The Cloud Roads. Night Shade Books 2011 (US): paperback.
A blog post! Not something that happens every day around here. I do have several half-finished potential posts written, so there may be more content here sooner rather than later. And in fact the reason for today’s post began as one of those half-finished pieces: my latest book review, of the first two volumes of a new fantasy series by Martha Wells, has been published by Strange Horizons. The books are The Cloud Roads and The Serpent Sea; the series is called The Books of the Raksura. I had started writing something on The Cloud Roads last year, but gave it up as too similar to things I had already written when reviewing the author’s previous book. Reading the second book in the series this year made me want to revisit and finish the piece, if only to sort through my own conflicted feelings about the series so far.
When I’m reviewing an unfinished series I like to make some sort of public guess or prediction about future content–a way of putting myself on the line a bit, of testing whether I’ve understood the pattern of information and possibilities that the author has provided. I couldn’t fit that into this review–it was long enough already–so I’ll state it here. In the first book of the series, we learn that the evil Fell have begun a program of abducting young Raksura–the similar winged species to which the protagonist of the series belongs–for use as breeding stock; weaponized rape as a species survival tactic. We know that Moon, the series protagonist to-date, believes his colony of Raksura was wiped out by Fell when he was only a small child, although he was too young to remember any details. But we also know that the Fell’s breeding program has gone on for at least long enough to produce a hybrid of a similar age to Moon. So it’s not really much of a prediction to suppose that some of Moon’s siblings might in fact have been abducted rather than slain; that they might have been young enough to have fallen in with the Fell; that Moon might have hybrid relatives who he will have to confront in later volumes of the series.
But we’ll see.
Selected past reviews at other venues:
- Christopher Barzak, The Love We Share Without Knowing
- Elizabeth Bear, Chill
- Darin Bradley, Noise
- Avram Davidson, Adventures in Unhistory
- David Louis Edelman, MultiReal
- Theodora Goss, In the Forest of Forgetting
- Brent Hartinger, Dreamquest
- Brent Hayward, Filaria
- David Marusek, Getting to Know You
- J.M. McDermott, Last Dragon
- Patricia McKillip, Od Magic
- Geoff Ryman, Ed., When It Changed: Science Into Fiction
- Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss (eds), Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing
- Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem, The Man on the Ceiling
- Catherynne M. Valente, Palimpsest
- Kaaron Warren, Walking the Tree
- Peter Watts, Blindsight
- Robert Freeman Wexler, The Painting and The City
- Zoran Zivkovic, The Last Book
- Zoran Zivkovic, Seven Touches of Music
- Zoran Zivkovic, Steps Through the Mist
Posted by Matt | September 15th, 2011
This month Strange Horizons begins its annual fund-raising drive for 2011. I’ve donated, and while I wouldn’t feel comfortable suggesting that you should, too–I don’t know you or your circumstances–I thought I might outline some of the reasons that I value Strange Horizons as I do, some of the ways it fills needs that I think are worth supporting.
Most immediately, as an occasional writer and voracious reader of in-depth reviews of fantastic fiction, I value Strange Horizons as one of the only edited, paying venues for such reviews that is freely and widely available. It is one of the very few edited online review venues unaffiliated with a book publisher; it is perhaps the only online venue that positions itself as accepting unsolicited reviews; and it is one of the few venues, online or in print, without a strong editorial bias against negative reviews. If a reviewer wants their writings to be considered seriously, openly, and widely–if a reader wants serious coverage of a wide variety of fictions–then Strange Horizons must occupy a central position of consideration. As such, Strange Horizons serves as something of a hub for independent-minded readers and writers with a deep affection for the fantastic in media, but who are generally able to distinguish between I like it and it is good.
This is a fraught distinction that I’d suggest is more important now than ever. As the publishing landscape has changed over the past decade, there have emerged not fewer gatekeepers, but more. Myriad small presses and imprints with editorial guidance tuned to myriad tastes and affinities mean that it is easy for potential readers to find any given book or story being advocated, but harder to find coverage that looks at what readers outside a targeted affinity group might make of a book. Likewise, it has become harder for readers to find reviews written with the intention of being interesting and valuable whether or not the reader goes on to read–or has already read–the book; harder to find venues that value and nurture reviews in their own right as worthwhile methods of conveying ideas. At the same time, it has also become harder for authors of fiction to garner balanced feedback on their work; for an author this new media world must seem divided into fans and haters. With editors less able to spend time actually editing, the only detailed feedback writers may receive to measure their success and improve their craft must now come mainly from other sources, such as reviews. By striving to provide all of this, Strange Horizons reviews thus serve an invaluable role to multiple audiences.
Of course, Strange Horizons publishes more than reviews. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the publication has been its inclusiveness of material. Strange Horizons is one of the few paying markets to treat poetry as integral rather than a separate niche; it is a regular part of each weekly issue. It was one of the first online venues to integrate art, although that has diminished–perhaps due to lack of funds. And of course Strange Horizons has been publishing leading-edge fiction for more than a decade. Fantasy, science fiction, horror, slipstream, interstitial: the determining factors of publication in Strange Horizons are not category but quality, an avoidance of the clichés that are the bread and butter of many other story markets, and a contemporary attitude toward intersections–between normal and strange, past and future, known and unknown. You never know quite what you’re going to get with a Strange Horizons story, except that it will be something that deserves publication. This is its excellence for readers, and as a market for writers.
Recently I have been volunteering time to help proofread some of the older issues of Strange Horizons in preparation for a revamped website. It’s been an eye-opening experience to discover (or in some cases, rediscover) so many gems from the past decade. (A “best of the decade” volume of Strange Horizons content would be phenomenal.) In those archives are a gaggle of stories from award-nominated authors who have just recently seen, or will soon be seeing, publication of their first novels and collections–N.K. Jemisin, Will McIntosh, Genevieve Valentine, Lavie Tidhar, Kameron Hurley, Amal El-Mohtar, Saladin Ahmed, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Theodora Goss are just names off the top of my head–as well as now-established vets like Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake, John Scalzi, and Justine Larbalestier. Writers of such quality would have achieved success without Strange Horizons, of course; but there’s a lot to be said for the way that the openness of Strange Horizons can help writers simultaneously expand their range and their readership.
What’s been most pleasing about Strange Horizons in recent years is seeing how hard the publication has worked at improving itself. In particular, at bridging gaps without losing its identity. Among various improvements and additions in the past year, Genevieve Valentine’s film columns have been bridging the gap between surging film/media fandom and the more traditional, book-oriented; Mark Plummer has been bridging gaps between that traditional SF&F fandom and individuals who like some of the fiction but don’t necessarily self-identify as fans; Vandana Singh has been providing a look at real science not as the gee-whiz Golden Age savior of so much Western SF, but as a holistic component of the choices people worldwide make when we interact with the world, and each other. Strange Horizons also took a lead role in examining issues of diversity in genre reviewing early in this year, including a hard self-examination; an informal count of its subsequent reviews shows improvement, with a number of new contributors offering interesting perspectives on a noticeably more diverse distribution of works.
No publication is perfect, none get it right all the time. I do not enjoy every Strange Horizons story; I don’t find every review meaty enough; not every interview asks the tough questions that I wish were asked; not every poem reads to me as more than an over-determined set of words joined by indifferent grammar. But Strange Horizons seems better than most at being self-aware and working to improve. It is the publication that feels to me least satisfied with the status quo–its own and the larger field of narrative fantastika. It seems to have the largest vision, the widest aspirations: to serve as an example that diverse content from diverse hands leads not to “the problem of maintaining quality,” but rather goes hand in hand with increased quality; to catalyze an aesthetic that appreciates the consideration of individual nuance, complexity, and ambiguity, rather than easy morals and quick, rigid categorizations; to represent people living in a world that is indeed facing strange horizons, but to present the unknown as something that, while sometimes scary, can also be suggestive of openness and possibility. Change may not always be good, but it is inevitable, so let us make the best of it; let us make art of it.
In short, Strange Horizons is doing a lot right already; I’d like to see what it can achieve if this fund drive enables further improvement.
Posted by Matt | July 20th, 2011
“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” asks the epigraph from the Book of Job that introduces Terrence Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life. Interestingly Malick omits the rest of that Biblical line: “Declare, if thou hast understanding.” Possibly Malick guesses that understanding may be asking too much of audiences–NPR reports that at least one theater has put up a sign declaring that not understanding the film is no grounds for a refund–or possibly Malick hopes that he has crafted something that can be appreciated without fully understanding it. (The raft of early positive reviews that nevertheless throw up their hands at the film indicate this is indeed the case.) More than both of these possibilities, though, I’d suggest that the omission stems from the very impossibility of true and complete understanding that is a core theme of the film.
After a brief flurry of disorienting shifts in time and tone–from the first our desire to understand is under assault–the present tense of Malick’s story opens with Jack (Sean Penn) and his wife getting ready for their workdays in their up-scale house, relations between them slightly strained. A possible reason for Penn’s emotional distance is soon revealed when he lights a candle for his younger brother. It is the anniversary of that brother’s death, and it is clear from Penn’s guarded portrayal that unresolved issues linger. As the day progresses we see Penn at various moments in his workplace, a concrete and steel urban jungle given life only by a single tree. And then we see Penn in the elevator of his office building, talking on the phone to his father–played by Brad Pitt, in a (as a friend put it) “you sometimes forget that Brad Pitt can actually act” performance–apologizing for an earlier conversation during which he blamed Papa Pitt for the brother’s death.
The rest of the film is a record of everything that led up to that moment of apology and implicit forgiveness–literally everything, starting with the Big Bang, the moment of foundation.
Back, then, to that epigraph. Where wast thou? God is saying to Job, essentially, “you weren’t even there when I created the Earth, so don’t presume to understand how this world that I made works.” But in an extended sequence that The Discovery Channel really should license, what Malick does is–contra God–take us there, based on scientific ideas of the formation of the universe, the Earth, and complex life. And as the questioning, whispered voiceovers suggest (“where are you?”), the God of the Bible isn’t there. The “foundations of the Earth” were laid by natural processes; just as the “foundation” of humans and human nature was laid by animals, chance, and evolution. An aquatic dinosaur blunders onto the beach to escape predators, laying a foundation for life on land; a meteor tumbles toward Earth, laying the foundation for the end of the age of the dinosaurs and the rise of mammals. A recurring scene shows Penn walking among labyrinths of water-formed tunnels, volcanic rock, the seashore…the geological foundations of the Earth, of life on Earth. He is there, part of the tree of life. And this seems to be a recurring device in the film, to link events and images backward and forward in time. The lone tree Penn sees in his urban workplace recalls the tree he remembers from the woods of his childhood recalls the first tree we see back in the dawn of the world. Boys swimming recall the origins of life in water, boys being capricious recall dinosaurs being capricious. The world is fractal, everything now contains traces of what came before: in the scientific sense of biochemistry and geological strata; but also in our memories, racial and personal.
The suggestion is made early in The Tree of Life that people must choose between “the way of nature” and “the way of grace.” The film then spends the bulk of its copious length recasting this as a false dichotomy. In part, this is done through sets of similar images linking the natural and the transcendent, finding grace in nature and vice-versa.
If these grandiose, musical scenes of the history of life on Earth recall Kubrick’s 2001, Malick’s scenes of boyhood life recall the small-but-growing personal world of Stephen King and Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me. Seemingly disparate, the two sets of scenes are linked, different sorts of foundation-laying. One is wonder at the childhood of the world, the other is the wonder of a child in the world. In both, all is new; in both, sense is born of nonsense, solid features shaped by liquidity. Like King’s fiction at its best, Malick captures so well the trunculent adolescence of 1950s small-town Americana. There is the endless anarchy of summer, the testing of the world that leads children to sometimes do things without understanding why, without having a reason; there is fraternal love and familial love, cut with resentment and competition; there is the encounter with the other, in various forms; there is the God-like archetypal roles of parents, so akin to the two faces of God in Penn’s memories–Pitt’s stern, uncompromising musician-inventor, Jessica Chastain’s ethereal, angelic nurturer. Together they represent for Penn nature and grace personified.
So much of The Tree of Life is memory, is about memory. “I think about him every day,” says Penn of his dead brother. Christian religion promises a heaven where we are reunited with those we love, but memory already provides that, every day, whenever we dare call upon it. Christian religion promises grace, but nature already provides that, too–in memory, and in imagination, as the film’s final scene of reunion shows. When it comes this finale is sudden, feels unearned. (Everyone will find their own flaws with the film, and for me it was a wish for a few minutes less of the music of the spheres, and a few minutes more building up to the end.) But I think the suddenness is quite intentional. It is the suddenness of eucatastrophe, of unexpected grace. It cannot make sense; the freeing release of forgiveness feels as it does precisely because it is a release from the chain of cause and effect. And that chain is one that had dragged down Penn and his family–the litany of questions to God that God can never answer: why do bad things happen to innocent people, why does effort go unrewarded, why are people loving one moment and cruel the next, why is my brother loved more than me, where are you? We cannot believe that the world works the way it does, we cannot not search for understanding (exhibit A: this review). Even when religions tell us otherwise–as when the town preacher tells the family to expect a capricious God–we cannot not believe in reasoned causes, in ideas like fairness. “Some day…we’ll understand it all, all things” declares the pious Pitt, even as he inwardly seethes over his failures and his perceived lack of appreciation. And so a release from the chains of cause and effect must feel transcendent; and yet, must be human choice. Penn’s adult forgiveness is one of the few uniquely human acts in the film, an act not linkable to animal behavior (contrast it with another such act, shooting animals for pleasure as a child). When Chastain then whispers “I give him to you” to Penn’s wife, we have an inkling of what possibilities have been unlocked. By forgiving his father Penn is potentially allowing himself to be more open, to drop the stiff mask of cultural and personal history that all characters in the movie wear, to perhaps mend the icy formality that exists between himself and his wife.
A pensive Penn sets aside his mask.
It’s memory and imagination, then, that allow forgiveness and moving on–not understanding. Some matters cannot be proved or disproved–the God of the Bible may not be present in The Tree of Life
, but nothing in his vision precludes a Deistic God, who has set the universe in motion and now watches; nothing precludes a theosophical
understanding of the world, a union of science and spiritualism, nature and grace. And indeed much of the film, starting with its title and its first image, has theosophic overtones (the swirling lights that appear when characters try to talk to God are from theosophic artist Thomas Wilfred
’s lumia piece “Opus 161″). But The Tree of Life
does not insist on any specific understanding, so much as wondering how to live given the limits of knowledge and understanding. These limits are everywhere in the film: what we are not told by Malick can be as telling as what we are. We are not told what happened to Penn’s other brother, the third sibling, but his absence from the present-day narrative is telling; equally telling is that Penn and his wife appear to be childless. More centrally, we know next to nothing about the argument between Penn and Pitt. All we know is that Penn has accused Pitt of somehow causing his brother’s death, but then, when he’s had a chance to think about it, takes the accusation back and apologizes. And that’s The Tree of Life
in a nutshell. We can put together some puzzle pieces around the circumstances of the brother’s death, but we cannot know the reasons behind Penn’s accusation, or its accuracy. In the context of Penn and Pitt’s argument this information simply isn’t important; what is important is that whatever happened, Penn would have found a way to believe that Pitt had caused it. But as we–and he–sift through his memories of childhood, triggered by the sad anniversary and the glimpse of the tree, we realize that sometimes we do things for no reason at all, without being able to explain or understand why. Sometimes things happen for no reason at all. That’s just the way nature works, and trying to understand these events as a meaningful, mediated sequence of cause and effect mostly leads to disappointment and recrimination. But nature does also give us those other gifts–memory, imagination–and they can more than compensate if we embrace them, as Penn finally does. Especially in the hands of a storyteller like Malick, they are nature’s own forms of grace.
* * *
Note that these impressions are based on a single viewing of the film several weeks ago; this review is an artifact of memory.
Posted by Matt | June 19th, 2011
As Deathless so often plays with the folktale “rule of three” so, too, does this review, split into three parts. This is the third and final part; part one (“Love in the Time of War,” on the book’s foreground character story) and part two (“Nation-building,” on the book’s construction of Russia) are best read before this.
Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente. Tor, 2011 (US).
The third time I follow the path set down by Catherynne Valente’s new novel Deathless
, what I notice is that it is a story about stories, about the struggle for power and control over stories. As it must be. In Deathless
as is often the case with Valente’s works, the recognizable story on the surface–the familiar folktale, or fairytale, or history, or in this case all three–is an entry point to the deeper fairy tales that rule the dreams of modern societies, and so become loci of conflict. By digging into the hidden kinks and power dynamics of the historical tales, Valente reconnects those tales to modern times, reconnects us with our past–and gives us a sense of just how much could still stand to change in the future.
Soviet Russia is doubly significant ground in this regard, first because of its attempt to erase stories of the past:
“Would you … get me a firebird’s feather, or fetch a ring from the bottom of the sea, or steal gold from a dragon?”
Ivan pursed his lips. “Those sorts of things are so old-fashioned, Masha. They are part of your old life, and the old life of Russia, too. We have no need of them now. The Revolution swept all the dark corners of the world away.
And Soviet Russia is equally of interest because of its founding belief in a new story of the future. “The Soviet Union was founded on a fairytale. It was built on 20th-century magic called ‘the planned economy’, which was going to gush forth an abundance of good things,” to quote the blurb for Francis Spuford’s Red Plenty–another good candidate to complement Deathless. Of course one might equally say that the United States was founded on a fairytale–of the inherent fairness of the market economy, of expansionist manifest destiny–or the same of any nation. But in addition to the self-consciousness with which it related to stories, the Soviet Union uniquely presents a modern, 20th century tale that at this point feels told, a failed and dead experiment.
Not for the last time, Valente uses the logic of folktales here as a tool to isolate just the elements of the world she wants to focus on: stories and their role in life, and in death. Much of Soviet Russia’s sweeping of dark corners involved literal death. Stalin’s purges of those who would tell a different story, political or religious; famine when the economy proved less susceptible to planning than planned: both loom unspecified in the background of Valente’s tale, but ever-present in its war against death that is “always going badly.” More to the foreground is death in the time of war, as Valente illustrates with a heartbreaking chapter on the Siege of Leningrad. And alongside these literal deaths, more sweeping of dark corners was done in the death of Russian national culture and spirit: Valente has Koschei’s brother Viy, the Tsar of Death, represent both equally. As a character who dwells in Viy’s land tells Marya:
I would never [...] be caught committing the crime of remembering that anything existed before this new and righteous regime. [...] The redistribution of worlds has made everything equal [...] Equally dead, equally bound. You will live as you live anywhere. With difficulty, and grief. Yes, you are dead. [...] But what does it matter? You still have to go to work in the morning.
Except people did remember; and eventually, in the late 1980s, people in Russia stopped going to work in the morning.
As with the relationship between nation and character in the book, Valente’s use of this historical knowledge gives the relationship between nation and story in Deathless a tight focus–enough to satisfy as a narrative, but not enough to escape the feeling that the story is not quite doing justice to the concepts that Valente has brought to bear. The dates, and the manner that the novel positions Russia on either side of the Soviet Union’s history, for example, and the way St. Petersburg is noted as returning to its old name, all make it feel like “Russia” is being affirmed as an intrinsic, irrepressible feature of the world. That it is deathless. There’s not much material on the degree that Russia itself is a story projected onto the world, that once was not; something that has changed and grown over time (St. Petersburg indeed being a relatively recent addition, in the 18th century), and something that may yet change more in the future. On how all nations are stories, often defined by conflict. And again, Valente doesn’t have much to say of those who believed in the Soviet system as an agent of life, rather than death; the hopeful Revolutionaries who believed that Communism would usher in that better world. Or at least, a better alternative to Tsarist rule. They should have seen the obvious problems, the sense of the book is. Instead, Valente here is in the unusual (for her) position of celebrating the story of the historical victors.
This, of course, is no bad thing. The years following the collapse of the USSR have been filled with works drawing remembered folktales and history out from the dark corners of the world and back into the heart of the former Soviet states. Ekaterina Sedia’s Secret History of Moscow, Sergei Lukyanenko’s World of Watches series, and Dubravka Ugrešic’s Tiptree-winning Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, to name only a few. And another excellence of Deathless is how it justifies itself in just this way. Marya and Koschei go underground, become subversive figures, quietly working for and waiting for the day when they can emerge and be told anew, when all these books can be written, when Valente can write Deathless.
Valente, as is her wont, emphasizes this by never letting us forget that we’re being told a story. Some of her techniques are readily apparent: the repeated phrases, the triads of encounters, the book within the book, the question of narration raised by the story itself. Deathless also strikes me as Valente’s strongest work to-date with common, baseline elements of story. While many of her past works focused on the inner conflicts of her characters, the addition of an external antagonist, Viy, here helps throw the plotting into greater relief, lends the telling more urgency. At the same time, the spotlight on Marya allows Valente to delve deeper into a single character study than she’s done in her previous big-press novels. (Which according to her back-flap bio are all that exist–”Catherynne M. Valente’s first novel, The Orphan’s Tales, was released in the fall of 2006 when Cat was twenty-seven”–speaking of stories that erase history.)
Other techniques that emphasize the storytelling of Deathless are more subtle. Symbols are used that excite the mind because of the commonalities in their seeming contradiction–like birds, which seem to represent both a symbol of freedom, of flying away, and also the urge to family and domesticity, nesting. (Safety is one thing I’d suggest they share in common.) Important themes may be introduced without fanfare: it’s a delightful feeling, after having finished the book, to remember the demand that the title of the prologue makes, to notice anew that the prologue depicts a trial for desertion. And indeed Valente is excellent with the timed release of information throughout. Only gradually do we learn just how alive the city of the Tsar of Life is; only gradually do we learn what kind of character Madame Lebedeva is; which all emphasizes how we are at the mercy of the storyteller.
Withholding information in this manner is in a sense a power play, and this feels very natural here. More even than in Valente’s past novels, Deathless teases out the implicit kink of storytelling. Storytellers are seducers, in a fairly obvious sense. Less obvious are the power relationships in storytelling. The storyteller might be assumed to be the dominant partner, but the reader can always stop reading; throwing a book across the room is the ultimate safe word. And writers, to at least some degree, publish in the hope of being read well, of having their writings understood. Not unlike Koschei. It makes me wonder who is who in this story? Meanwhile, reviewers of course attempt to overlay stories of their own: like, a good way to get the most out of Deathless is to consider it according to these three conceptual levels….
Which is all to say, the question of power in a story is the question of who gets to define the narrative.
The fourth time I follow the path set down by Catherynne Valente’s new novel Deathless, what I notice is that there is a fourth time, that I’ve been led off the path. The storytelling “rule of three” popularized by Russian scholar Vladimir Propp in Morphology of the Folk Tale–and often invoked when discussing Deathless–is based on patterns of two wrongs and then a right, two failures and then success. Three is the minimum number required to establish and then break a pattern. So Cinderella is the third sister, Rumpelstiltskin’s name is correctly spoken on the third night, the third bed that Goldilocks sleeps in is the one that is the right size. But Marya is the fourth daughter (it is Ivan who is the youngest of three sons); after seeing her three sisters marry three birds, the man Marya marries is not really a bird; her first three attempts at ordering her relationships all end unsatisfactorily. So there is here, one final time in Deathless, a subtle but important rejection of the usual pattern of such stories: important because it represents Marya finding her own personal path; important because it represents the rejection of a simple, neat dialectical pattern–thesis (“too big”), antithesis (“too small”), synthesis (“just right”)–in favor of a view of the world and its relationships as a series of more complicated, ongoing conflicts.
Which is apt. Deathless is not an unproblematic novel, but it comes by its problems honestly, by ambitiously melding a variety of complicated subjects, and making hard choices of focus in order to say something interesting about almost all of them–while remaining at heart a well-written, compelling character drama. For all its awareness of itself as a story I do wish that Deathless showed more awareness of the limits of its story, of what is being left out. But for the most part Valente’s newest novel has conflicts and contradictions because our world that it represents has conflicts and contradictions; because an unproblematic story is a dead and lifeless story. Far from that, Deathless lives up to its name.
Posted by Matt | June 13th, 2011
As Deathless so often plays with the folktale “rule of three” so, too, does this review, split into three parts. This is part two; part one (“Love in the Time of War,” on the book’s foreground character story) and part three (“Storytelling,” on the book as a story about stories) are best read in sequence.
Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente. Tor, 2011 (US).
The second time I follow the path set down by Catherynne Valente’s new novel Deathless
, what I notice is that it is a story about the struggle for power in shaping a nation, Russia, from before the First World War to after the Second.
This focus on the idea of a nation is rare for Valente. Her past novels have dealt mainly with the household, the city, and then outward to the level of worlds; when she has dealt with nations, they have often been city-states. And to a large degree Deathless does use Marya’s home of St. Petersburg to represent Russia. As St. Petersburg becomes Petrograd and then Leningrad, as Gorokhovaya Street where Marya lives becomes Kommissarskaya Street becomes Dzerzhinskaya Street, we see in these re-namings both an echo of the political changes the nation is going through, and again–as with the changes Marya’s own name undergoes–the way that naming is used by those in power to define the parameters of a narrative, to establish and reify a history of rule.
In a larger sense this illustrates Valente’s tendency to focus on ideas both at a high conceptual level and, simultaneously, at the low level of the individual on the street–while often avoiding a certain middle layer of organizations and institutions. It’s again a question of register; again, and not for the last time, Valente uses the logic of folktales as a tool to isolate just the elements of the world she wants to focus on.
Indeed folktales are among these elements, and the way folktales can represent a nation. It is remarkable how thoroughly Valente populates Deathless with figures of Russian folktale, and how directly their presence identifies the novel’s setting as Russia. She mixes and matches elements from several different versions of the Koschei tale–mainly the version from Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book, along with some cleverly modernized images from Stravinsky’s The Firebird. To these she adds a who’s-who of Russian folktale personages and monsters:
“You can see there a firebird on the door, and Master Grey Wolf on the chimney, and Ivan the Fool scampering over the walls, with Yelena the Bright in his arms, and Baba Yaga running after them, brandishing her spoon. And that’s a leshy, creeping in the garden, and a vila and vodyanoy and a domovoi with a red cap. And there–they’ve put a rusalka near the kitchen window.” Kseniya turned to Marya. “And Koschei the Deathless is there, too, near the cellar. You can see him, painted on the foundation stones.”
That last line feels doubly significant. The deepest tenets of a nation are often embedded in its folktales–folktales can represent the foundation stones of nations. Valente’s catalog of monsters is thus not just there for cultural authenticity; rather, it is a statement of artistic intent, of the argument the book is making about the ties between the Koschei tale and Russia.
Indeed, while Marya is the central figure of Deathless, the novel’s kickstart choice is Koschei’s: his choice to pursue Marya, after hundreds of times choosing a very different type of woman. From the domino of this choice, all others fall. The question of what led Koschei to pursue a different type of bride is unasked and unanswered by the novel, but the implication, I’d suggest, is that it is the changing face of Russia that brings about a corresponding change, and need for change, in Koschei. This introduces the notion that plays out over the rest of the book, of the connection between the state of Russia and the state of the war between Koschei and his brother, between Life and Death.
Subtler but more pervasive: while I would not want to equate Marxism with Russia–other countries are or have been Marxist, and Russia was a particular strain of Marxism–the story of Deathless has conceptual ties to Marxism in that it is not merely a story of conflict, but of conflict that is dialectical. That is, there is a sense in the book’s conflicts–in people and in nations–that ideas are unstable, and that they create their own opposition. And that, as in Marx, that instability, that conflict, is a continual dialogue that drives progress. Valente’s style of writing, which so often encapsulates the performance of an argument, feels very much at home here. Her writing has always incorporated a seeming tension between luxurious language, and stories of those pushed to the economic and social margins of societies. Russia, land of caviar and champagne, land of the proletariat revolution, has a long history with both.
The street-level focus on Marya lets Valente use a minimum of formal description and depiction of the nation–people don’t think too much about what they’re familiar with looks like. That, and the fact that many of Marya’s adult years take place outside of Russia in various magical realms, mean that while the feel of Deathless is often of Russia–in addition to the above, there are matters of weather, recreation, animals, writers, and perseverance by black humor even when the end is never in doubt, which all point to the nation–there’s a universal aspect to the novel as well. Folktales and relationships are good pathways to understanding Russia; but Russia is also a good pathway to understanding folktales and relationships.
There are downsides to Valente’s somewhat distant treatment of the nation, however. For one, Deathless can feel like it is romanticizing the past. It largely dodges what it might have meant to be in the middle class during Russia’s years of revolution and civil war, in the city seat of Lenin’s power. Not only does nothing much happen, but there is no worry that anything might happen, to Marya’s family or their acquaintances. Yet Marya’s middle-class beginnings also mean that Russia’s Revolutionary history is presented as a linear slide downward, whereas I suspect that for large masses of the working class the historical journey was more complex. This sense that the past was better, safer, is further exacerbated by an otherwise excellent sequence where pillars of Russia’s political history, de-clawed, are gathered into a sort of Fletcher Memorial Home: Rasputin harmlessly reenacting his own death for the amusement of Tsarina Alexandra. It’s a wonderful mix of cute and macabre–one can almost see cartoon lil’ Leon and lil’ Joseph, two young brothers fighting again only to make up by dinnertime–but because this setting is our only view of the power figures of pre-Revolutionary Russia, its hazy golden perfection can easily be taken as a statement of the novel’s perspective on that era.
Deathless also feels murky in the ways it relates Russia’s history to the lives and actions of its characters. There’s a promise implicit in that early line that Marya “surmised that love was shaped [like] a treaty between two nations,” between equals, and then saw her surmise proven wrong, that instead love is a battlefield; a promise implicit in the linkage between Koschei and the nation of Russia, between the war with his brother Death and the war for control of Russia. The promise is that the novel will draw interesting parallels between the personal and the national, the interpersonal and the international. For the most part, however, the connections that Valente gives us have the feel more of isolated wordplay and tweaking of the folktale back-story than conceptual payoff. “I befriend your friends; I eat as you eat; I teach you the dialectic!” says Marya to Koschei–but it’s an isolated line, we see no indication that Tsar Koschei (or by then, Marya) care about the dialectic. It is a throwaway morsel of local color. Several lines do work better in capturing the feel of relationships vis-à-vis nations and wartime–a foretelling of Marya’s fate comes to mind–but they, too, are isolated rather than extended metaphors. The problem is not that the statements don’t all cohere into a sensible whole; the parallels between national and personal are too complex for simple coherence. But the hope in any such comparison is that it will be a useful engine for spinning out insights, and that potential feels largely untapped here.
Some of this, I think, is down to an ahistorical aspect to Valente’s narration. The story’s telling ends in 1952, near the end of Stalin’s life and rule. Yet there are flashes of a more contemporary perspective and knowledge. Deathless begins “in a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again”–that final name reversion only occurring in 1991. Even more interesting, Valente essentially ignores the creation of the USSR: no mention is made of it whatsoever. This is a novel of Russia, written with an awareness that Russia existed before the USSR and would–does–exist after it. This is an enormous double-edged sword for the book, an enormous gamble on Valente’s part. On the negative side, it cuts down the potential for human insight by transforming statements and actions into a theater of the ridiculous, that which should be ridiculed. When Ivan, having found a job in Leningrad with the Cheka national security bureau, tells Marya that “I am good at arresting. It is an art, you know. The trick is to arrest them before they have done anything wrong”–it is just the sort of buffoonish statement we expect from Ivan, but more than that, it is just the sort of buffoonish statement we in the West expect from a fictional character who believed in the Soviet system. And yet, real people did believe, and Deathless abdicates its chance to say anything about the potential for such belief–as it applies to countries, as it applies to relationships. On the positive side, however, the omission of the USSR in favor of Russia from start to finish makes the novel’s thesis unmistakeable: that history is always a story accompanied by a struggle for point of view; and that some stories can never be wholly suppressed, even on pain of death. And it finally does allow Valente to make her claim of connection between the idea of nation and the idea of the personal. Who is to rule? is a question in both cases that must be asked, cannot be ignored in favor of fantasies of perfect, static equality. The negotiations of power in a relationship don’t end after marriage, not for people who keep learning and growing; the negotiations of power in a nation don’t end after revolution. The best we can do in both, Deathless seems to suggest, is to better understand what it means to rule and to be ruled, and then to have the freedom and the strength to choose when, and to who, we do each.
It is deeply ironic–but apt, considering that both are books that demand to be read in their own particular registers–that Valente’s Deathless and Adam Roberts’s Yellow Blue Tibia actually make an interesting and mutually-rewarding reading pair. Valente’s book chronicles the death of one sort of fantasy–the folkloric cultural identity of Russia–in the wake of another, a modern fantastic narrative of equality and science, in the forty years leading up to the end of the Stalinist era. Roberts’s book in turn begins with the Stalinist era, and deals in that modern narrative’s own death throes forty years later. What both novels suggest is that the question of power in a nation is the question of who gets to define the nation’s narrative.
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