Saturday, February 23, 2013

Depths and heights: Robert Olmstead's COAL BLACK HORSE

On the back cover of Robert Olmstead's 2007 Civil War novel, Coal Black Horse, author Richard Ford refers to the book as a "fable." This may seem nitpicky, but I think it's important to challenge that description in order to get at the kind of tale Olmstead has actually told.

Technically, a fable involves anthropomorphized animals. (Orwell labels Animal Farm "a fable," but he's being cheeky, since it's more of an allegory, given its particular historical referents.) This book is no fable, but the use of that term made me wonder whether some other familiar term would fit. The story of a boy who sets out, at his mother's oracular insistence, to fetch his father back from the war, the novel unreels increasingly brutal horrors before our formerly innocent protagonist, who, by the end, has certainly been altered, in ways necessary if not virtuous. Is it a "parable"? Arguably, though a parable ought to contain a moral lesson, and I think Olmstead means to resist anything transparently informative; still, a parable could also be viewed as a story that tells us something about "the way things truly are," so perhaps that'll do. Robie, the young boy, does discover how the world moves and the frailty—physical and moral—of the people who move upon it. I think the book may also be a "fairy tale," for though it lacks supernatural beings, the boy resembles those innocents who set off at the start of a story only to find the world changed from what they thought it to be; additionally, against all reason, the boy (and the titular horse) manage to not get themselves killed, the boy certain early on that he'll live to tell this tale, and the charm that encompasses boy and horse as they journey out and back seems lifted from a story of the fantastic. Fairy tales too, though typically told to the young, often contain no moral beyond "Beware."

It occurs to me, while writing this, that the book may rather intentionally follow the pattern of Dante's descent into hell. Each circle Robie enters, each new encounter, exposes him to some new human horror, and surely the scavengers, both men and beast, moving among the fields of the dead at Gettysburg resemble the demons doing Lucifer's work in the deeper pits of the Inferno. Early on, it becomes evident that Robie is following a downward path in a story that can only get worse as it proceeds. (So when he returns home at the end, still with his guide, is he now in Purgatorio, the next stage of Dante's journey, a place of suffering that is, however, not utterly without hope?)

As with Olmstead's Far Bright Star, which I read in 2009, the novel is densely poetic, most tremendously during times of great violence. This can get confusing, as the complex syntax and use of abstruse language sometimes work against clarity; the result, though, is to slow down the violence, so that no matter how swiftly it comes, the impression is of something momentous and drawn out. Olmstead's vocabulary is rich, and he had me reaching for the dictionary at least a dozen times; he also uses words creatively, constructing adjectives and verbs from other parts of speech. Even so, the book reads smoothly; it's beautiful writing that's carried along, in the manner of Cormac McCarthy, by a narrative voice like God's from the whirlwind . . . or like Lear's into the storm.

The language is rich with nouns, with words having to do with the earth, growing things, parts of horses and human bodies; even as the narrative plunges into the depths of human suffering, the language transcends by refusing to transcend, refusing to leave behind mortal things. The boy's eyes reach upward, too, seeing stars and constellations, watching birds and changing skies, but the boy sees things for what they are and does not see signs of another, better world. The story is a grim one, and the protagonist at times participates in the grimness, but he also works to bring coherence and peace to this shattered world, which is just what Olmstead's writing achieves.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

PKDick's "High Castle": Alt-history and motorcycle maintenance

I had to read it. A friend had referenced it in relation to a new short story of mine (he assumed I'd read it), and it's often mentioned as an important book in the history of science fiction . . . and I own it, having just bought the novel last year.

When I'd finished Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, one place my post-reading ruminations took me was to Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a novel I deeply disliked when I read it and which has not been improved by the fog of memory. Perhaps my own education in philosophy was shoddy, but I didn't think the book did a good job presenting a History of Western Thought, which seemed to be its primary purpose. The bigger problem, though, was that there wasn't much of a story; additionally, the main character didn't do much—he just talked about philosophy, though not in a way I found interesting or particularly coherent. 

Plot and character. If Aristotle is right on this (as he sometimes is), those are the primary elements of a good narrative. (He applied this to tragedy; and he's talking about plays, since novels don't exist yet.) In these two matters, The Man in the High Castle falls woefully short, though I believe I understand its strengths, even if they don't move me to much praise. It's a novel of ideas. The people in the novel talk about ideas, think about those ideas, and act on those ideas. But rather than characters, the people seem like means to advance or consider a concept; and by the end, the concepts have become muddled by the plot itself.

The book is set in a world in which the Axis powers won WWII; following the victory, the Germans and Japanese split the U.S. between them, with the middle of the country and the Mountain States somewhat left to their own devices. The Nazis got overzealous in their efforts to remake Africa, we're told, and turned it to ash. The story takes place in San Francisco and Colorado, the two venues tied together by Frank Frink and his ex-wife, Juliana. 

Dick uses this set-up to explore issues of authenticity and the weight of history, both indirectly and directly. (Perhaps no other writer would have seen these as the issues to explore in this context, and it's possible that the strange-bedfellows pairing of the alternate-history conceit with this particular set of ideas is at the heart of why the novel seems, to me, such a misfire.) Several of the characters are in disguise: a Jew who changed his name (though "Fink" to "Frink" seems a weak effort); a Japanese general assuming an alias; a hired assassin who seems to be a working-class truck driver. There are characters at opposition with themselves: a German who questions everything about being German; a white American who has adopted the manners and speech of the Japanese overlords. People change their hair-color, struggle with their culture, imagine themselves in a fortress, imagine other worlds. Japanese and Americans both consult the I Ching, a Chinese text. (Oddly, there's no mention of a cult of the emperor continuing past the end of the war.) Throughout, people respond variously to a popular book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternate-history novel (written by "the man in the high castle") that imagines the Axis powers losing WWII—though with an outcome that looks nothing like our own world. (Though the novel is quoted from at length, it's not an especially vivid text.) Characters question the character of their own cultures and judge the other cultures. Japanese collectors hanker after "authentic" Americana even though the provenance for such artifacts is questionable. A man holds a lighter that was owned by FDR—he has the paperwork to prove it—though we know that the paperwork itself is fraudulent.

The ideas are interesting, but they don't cohere into a plot with a satisfying arc or resolution. The conclusion is stiff and unconvincing, and it comes in the last few pages. Seeing that there were only a few pages left, I worried that, like an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a complicated explanation was going to be shoehorned into a quick final scene. However, Dick instead undercuts the scene, has people act in oddly formal ways, and deflects questions with a final jab at questions of authenticity and reality. 

Stylistically, the book is annoying. Much of the novel consists of characters' reactions and reflections, but Dick almost never allows himself to paraphrase a character's thoughts; instead, we get each character's fragmented running commentary. I can read Joyce and Faulkner; I can handle stream-of-consciousness writing. That's not what this is. This is stream-of-talkativeness, stream-of-blather, stream-of-chattiness. It strikes me as a lazy way for Dick to spew out ideas, letting people ramble on. Some of what they say is interesting, but it often reads as merely erratic nonsense, full of emotions that lack adequate external or internal prompts. The worst examples of these internal narratives come from Robert Childan, the white seller of Americana; Tagomi, his potential client; and Juliana, the one person who manages to reach the man behind the controversial novel. Throughout the book, Japanese characters speak a clipped English, English that often lacks its articles. There are non-idiomatic constructions, novel uses of words, and struggles to say what's meant. While that makes sense, it doesn't make sense that someone's internal narrative would suffer from the same problems. Why is a native Japanese thinking in broken English? Why is Childan, who has adopted this speaking style in order to fit in with his customers, thinking this way? These are grating, amateurish choices. Juliana's internal voice simply falls apart as the character, introduced so solidly, becomes a set of inexplicable choices and reactions.

I flew through the book—initially, because it was involving; later, because one could move through the characters' increasingly redundant or circular internal blather rather rapidly. As the characters—especially Juliana and Tagomi—lost all coherence and became jumpy sets of responses (like something out of a slapdash pulp novel by Van Vogt), the only thing holding my interest was the man behind the book-within-a-book. But then he turned out to be a let-down, also neither compelling nor coherent, a rushed and incomplete aspect of a novel that aimed for great things but that didn't evince the necessary care to reach those great things.