Wednesday, June 6, 2012

All Bad Things Must Come to An End: Alan Garner's RED SHIFT

Alan Garner's oeuvre, according to various sources, is young adult literature (though he doesn't especially target such readers, he says), and Red Shift seems to be lumped, by these sources, with his other works of fantasy for younger readers. This is baffling. Given the sexual themes, which are quite adult, even if dealt with elliptically most of the time, the book seems more for mature readers. Additionally, there isn't a clear fantastic element in this novel. One set of murders is unexplained, but I'm not sure Garner wants us to provide a supernatural explanation; also, the faint connection between the novel's three timelines is arguably a fantastic or science fictional element, but it plays, rather, as a tying together of motifs rather than some actual connection.

The book seems to earn the appellation tour de force; like anything that gets called a tour de force, it is single-minded, single-toned, sustained . . . and, if it's like the author's other novels, not really a tour de force but just "the way this writer does things." Since I haven't read Garner's other works, I can't judge whether he's achieved something unique here or whether I'm just seeing a slice of his much larger pie. I have ordered another book of his from the library, so I'll have a better sense of where this fits in Garner's corpus later. For now, I'm also ignorant of the novel's historical placement; there's probably something online about the novel's timelines, but I'm going to review it while still steeped in ignorance.

We follow a modern couple, separated by distance for weeks at a time and, when not, given some hassles by his caravan-dwelling parents; in the distant past, maybe the fifth or sixth century, in the same English location, we come upon Roman soldiers trying to survive in the hostile country; a third narrative takes place somewhen in between—Irish invaders are approaching the church where our protagonists wait in fear. Aside from location—and geography is central to the book's structure, as well as an ancient ax-head binding the three timelines—what holds the three tales together is a focus on male-female couples. In the ancient past, the former soldiers slaughter a village but keep a woman who is some sort of goddess-conduit. Or something. In the, um, middle past, one of our hapless English folk is deeply in love with a woman who previously had a relationship with one of the invading Irish rogues. I think. Each relationship (the goddess-woman ends up connecting with the soldier who tends to flip out into a psychotic rage) takes an unexpected turn. And a graffito reminds us that this too shall pass and most of our protagonists are long dead. Despite one (and-a-half?) not-completely-tragic tale-endings, the book is pretty grim, making one feel as positive about human love  as if one had instead read Chesil Beach.

However, some of the book's effectiveness is undercut by the very style that makes it compelling. There's little description, and the writer collapses the space between events, as if, until someone speaks again, nothing has happened. Dialogue drives the narrative, but it's often unattributed dialogue. This is fine on occasion, but quite often the same person speaks twice in a row in two disconnected paragraphs, and you haven't been warned; more often, more than two people are speaking, and it's impossible to tell who is who (especially, I felt, in that confounding middle time period, when a scene gets repeated and there's even less context than in the other times). The style gives the novel a propulsive quality, but it also means you miss a fair amount of what you likely aren't supposed to miss.

I enjoyed much of the novel. It largely achieved that aim that Poe pushed for, the "single effect"; additionally, while I couldn't follow events as well as I'd have liked, the emotional turn of each story was effective. I can't quite recommend the book, since I'm not sure who would enjoy it, but the novel certainly possesses power and, since it's fairly short, might be worth a look by someone who appreciates a challenging text.

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