Read It, May 2015: Progress Report 2

Word Cloud

Red Shift by Alan Garner

I finished Red Shift by Alan Garner. It is quite a short book, but a bit difficult. You will need to take your time with it. For an American, some of the British word usage was confusing. I had to double-check to verify what a “caravan” is, in Garner’s usage. It didn’t help that it involved dialect and concepts from three different historical periods.

The multi-layered story is told almost entirely in dialogue, with extremely minimal description of locations, objects, and actions. The book interleaves events and characters from three different time periods, centered around a place and an artifact. It’s difficult to tell what is going on, at times. This makes it “high-concept” or “arty” so if you dislike work that might be called “experimental,” avoid this novel. Personally I love work like this in general, except in those cases when the concept takes over and ruins the art, as in (in my opinion) Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions.

That does not happen in this book. The work produces some genuine shiver-up-the-spine moments, this juxtapositioning of ephemeral human lives like gnats around a fixed landscape. It’s dark, but vivid. Look up pictures of “Mow Cop” and you will get a sense for the spiritual power of that place, and perhaps understand, just a bit, why it inspired Garner.

Hav by Jan Morris

Continuing with my red-spined NYRB Classics, I’m halfway through Hav by Jan Morris. This is a work of fake travel-writing. It’s beautifully done. I wish I could visit Hav. If I had done more traveling myself, I’m sure this fake place would seem eerily familiar and the wry humor she brings to her descriptive language of the people and places of Hav would produce outright laughter instead of simply grins. It’s also elegiac, and I find myself in mourning, just a little, for a place that never existed. How weird is that?

For what it’s worth, while I was looking up other work by Morris, I discovered that she wrote a work called Conundrum that is the story of her transition from James Morris to Jan. I have not read Conundrum, and I don’t think anyone has a perfect claim on understanding just what comprises a feminine voice, as opposed to a masculine voice, in writing. But from the beginning of this book I was struck by the unusual combination of physical detail, the sense of secret history, a clear love of architecture and design, the male-seeming attention to military rank and uniform, and hierarchy and power and authority in the characters, but also to the details of women’s dresses, interior decorating, and a sensibility that constantly delights in describing light, colors, textures, and flavors.

Is it possible that, because the author presented herself at different times in her life, and so interacted with others as, both a man and a woman, her perspective on an imaginary place is somehow wider? Maybe that’s just something I’ve retroactively imagined. In any case, I mean it only admiringly. It seems fitting that the author of such an extraordinary story had an extraordinary life story herself.

Saginaw, Michigan
May 19, 2015

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