Monday, February 27, 2012

"In the Night Garden" by Catherynne M. Valente (2006)

"Stories... are like prayers. It does not matter when you begin, or when you end, only that you bend a knee and say the words" (414).

In the Night Garden, the first half of Valente's The Orphan's Tales, is much as one of her characters describes it in the above passage: not a thing with a beginning or end, so much as a meditation. Although this book in one technical sense very literally has no end--insofar as it is only the first volume of a fuller book--it is at least nice to think that In the Night Garden--which is told in the manner of stories that are told within stories that are related within yet other stories--is a cycle that does not require an end. Even though the character of the orphan appears to be the ultimate weaver of all these tales, who is to say that she is not just the penultimate weaver, and yet another resides above her? We lose ourselves in stories, we worship them, we find inspiration and solace therein; and that, it could be argued, might just be enough.

As far as content goes, this is a book of fairy tales: tales of griffons, of shapeshifters, of witches, hags, princes, wizards, and gods. The stories that comprise In the Night Garden are incredibly entertaining in their own right: Valente's masterful weaving brings the stories together in unexpected ways, connecting disparate events across varying narratives, and "worldbuilds" far more effectively--and with far more humanity--than the great fantasy epics usually manage. Her prose is incredibly poetic, and even if her penchant for similes may sometimes get out of hand--everything splashing like milk in a silver bowl, ringing like golden harps strummed by angels, flying like arrows shot from a god's bow--she is, generally, an incredible writer, and In the Night Garden is a worthy read purely for its style. However, despite its general "entertainingness" in terms of plot and prose, I found this book was most interesting as a critique of the fantasy genre.

In the Night Garden is a critique of two fundamentally related ideas. The first is quest-based heroic fantasy, which Valente tackles head-on early in the book:

"[The Prince] had not guessed how much of the body of a Quest was simply walking. He walked until three pairs of shoes were ruined, cursing his lack of a horse. He stomped over every imaginable landscape from dark fen to pleasant farm to alpine ice. And yet, no one greeted him in the villages through which he passed. No one shouted with great joy that the Prince had blessed their village with his presence--what an honor to have you, Sire!--no one insisted he feast at their table--only the best of the harvest for you, Sire!--no one begged to be regaled with a song of his adventures--oh, do tell us of the terrible Witch, Sire!" (87).

Note that this is not simply a matter of making quests "realistic;" this is not a matter of making things "gritty," as might be seen in the flaccid and still-born revolution of "grimdark" fantasy. Rather, while maintaining a mythic stance and voice, Valente directly punctures the balloon of heroism and the commonly accepted arcs of myth. Throughout In the Night Garden, stories do not end as expected, the demands of the "quest" are flaunted and falter, bad things happen to good people, things fail to be resolved, gods are dethroned, heroes appear like villains and vice versa. This doesn't, in the end, feel like a simple reversal or inversion of expectations; rather, it is a humanizing of the world of gods and heroes.

However, what felt far more radical for me--and what I found even more emotionally compelling and intellectually satisfying--was that In the Night Garden completely flips the gender-distribution and gender-roles of fantasy books, by putting women in all the positions of power--and, far more significantly, by having them act like women, rather than masculinized men. Women carry the plot of these stories: whether they are lost girls, great witches, goddesses, or otherwise, all of them take a handle of their destinies without falling prey to the masculine stereotype of Strength-and-Isolation. Rather, these women are presented as forging strong communities, sharing love and happiness with each other, and recognizing common destinies and beliefs. Maybe I've been reading the wrong books my whole life, but I found Valente's feminine characters incredibly inspiring, and far stronger than the brooding brothers--and, in the case of the misguidedly progressive, sisters--that fill most fantasy tomes.

Valente's female heroes are, usually, not just powerful, but also frequently monstrous. Beginning with the eponymous orphan, whose eyelids are black with the ink of the stories she tells, Valente trots out women who are consistently more grotesque--and, as nearly a direct correlation, more powerful. There are sea-trolls, three-breasted pirates, women cobbled together from animal parts, and the humanoid daughters of plantlife. Some of these "monsters" or "witches" are the product of man's artifice, frequently in the guise of the Wizard who, throughout the book, interferes with women by assaulting their bodies and minds. In an early story, looking for a girl on which to ply his experiments, the Wizard says, "Little girls must learn to do things they don't wish to do. It is the way of the world" (130). He then puts a collar around the little girl in question's throat, hoping to haul her off as a test subject. Elsewhere, one of the Wizard's former victims explains, "Being a maiden, you see, is not quite the same as being alive. It is more like being a statue. The main skill of a maiden is to stand very still and look very beautiful" (439).

These citations, of course, do not do justice the strength of the women whose tales are told within the book; but for that, one would be better served to actually read it, and feel the power that is spooled out over many pages. It is worth noting that, despite the "evilness" of the Wizard and other male cronies like the various Kings and Rajas, this is not (or doesn't seem like) a book about patriarchy and its overthrow. This is a book about those women who operate with strength despite those nefarious structures, women who can captain pirate ships, cast mighty spells, thwart those evil wizards, brave dark towers, and all the rest. I really loved this aspect of the book; I suppose I haven't ever read anything with quite this strength of feminism to it, although I don't expect Valente is entirely unique in her positioning (is she?). I'm not sure if this is the kind of book a man is allowed to love--I will always have to ask myself if I really get it--but love it I did.