Sunday, August 21, 2011

Michael Cisco's "The Narrator"

"The Narrator" is probably the craziest book I've ever read. By "craziest" I guess I mean "most surreal;" but this might cover up the fact that I enjoyed "The Narrator" as much as I did because it agreed with me in a lot of ways about "real" things, even as at the same time it presented a world so fantastic that, trying to locate it within the locus of science fiction/fantasy/literary/experimental/slipstream/whatever, it shattered all these distinctions with an absolute and distinguishing calm, a literary poise and acuteness I've read probably nowhere else.

Some of the reviews I read about "The Narrator" (which ultimately led me to buy it) suggested that it was a sort of critique/investigation of narration, truth, stories, histories, etc.; and, although it was, I don't think that Cisco pulled those elements off in a really interesting or special way, or that what he did hadn't been done before. Most of the elements that bore directly on narration I found cutesy, hackneyed, or pure fail (the statement "Who is narrating this?", the correction of grammatical errors in-text, metaphors accompanied by descriptions of how the narrator cannot possibly use this metaphor in good faith, or the switching between first/third person that I found ineffective or purely plot-based); I think the question of questioning narration can be far better accomplished in a pure essay format. But this fact didn't actually matter, because "The Narrator" succeeded the most, in my opinion, by its poetics, and its structure as (anti-)war story.

Cisco's images are intense. The book was, for me, a series of massively intense images that preyed on my senses of beauty and horror. They are created via different modes of writing - short passages, long passages, dialogue, action, description - but it was very rare that a passage - any single passage in the entire book - failed to bruise up against me.

To wit:

"Winter comes so swiftly in the mountains that the leaves are frozen green on the trees, the grass in the meadows. The foliage never turns color or falls, but hibernates in clear ice casings until the spring thaw restores their interrupted life again. So the winter landscape is tinkling green, dazzling with flakes of light, crisp through the snow. The many rock-lipped streams freeze clear as well, and the fish are suspended in place like spangles of precious metal until spring." (pg. 7)
"Without any urgency I can detect, a distinct, earnest murmur escapes his lips. He may be speaking to me, but he seems instead to be speaking to space, or to an invisible presence. I've heard the language, and I recognize it, but something is wrong with my hearing, because it sounds like gibberish to me. 'A, ab ab ab ab a abab ab, ab aba ab abab ab ab ab ab ab ab aba ab ababab ab.' Some time passes, and I become aware again of his voice, which had not, I think, paused once." (pg. 274)

Picking these citations is difficult, but also senseless, because there are so many in the book that are just as powerful or that made just as much an impression on me. There were a few things that annoyed me - there's just too much fog in Cisco's world, and a little too many instances of the colours blue, silver and black - but, in something this image-laden, repetition, and a revelation of the author's visionary psyche by the reader, is, I suppose inevitable; and, overall, I was not just impressed, but consistently overawed by the power of the author's language.

What struck me the most in this book was "The Narrator's" depiction of war. We could say that this is a war book where everybody dies and nothing is solved, and this might make us think of the trend now in fantasy, started (from what I understand) by George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, of writing "amoral" fiction, where opposing viewpoints are observed to instill a sense of the lack of right and wrong in matters of war/life. That's great, but what I've noticed, for example, in reading Joe Abercrombie (who is frequently compared to Martin; I haven't read any of the Song of Ice and Fire books), is that just having all the characters be enemies doesn't reveal the absurdity of war, because in these kinds of stories you still tend to root for characters and see things solved by violence. In "The Narrator," violence is completely senseless, deadly, and terrible, and nowhere can we find something over which to exclaim, "That [i.e. this violence] was awesome!" Rather, it all falls flat and meaningless.

"The war is up there on the island, where we're going to meet it, but there's no war there, nor could there be... Where is the war? In the guns and helmets and uniforms? Is it in the rock from which the ore to make the gun was mined, the grass that fed the sheep whose wool went into the uniform, or the sun that lights the battlefield?... Two men meet, and one will give his life for the other, or they will each try to kill the other, while the day is still blandly unfolding around them." (pg. 145)

There's even more powerful dialogue on the subject of war later on; I found the end of the book incredibly satisfying (in a... bilious kind of way) just because of its final treatment of war, the blandness of it, the stupidity of it, the kinds of stories people tell themselves about it. But it would be better if you found it out for yourself.

I highly recommend this one. It is one of the few books I've read in the last year that has truly been worth reading. Perhaps that's because I'm perusing the wrong shelves most of the time, but I feel like it is rather because there aren't many books like this published.


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