Occasionally I’ll be reading a book and I’ll come across something that just knocks my socks off, because it’s profound or I can’t get it out of my head, or I’m angry about it or I haven’t come to a conclusion about it yet and need to think about it some more. Sometimes it’s just that it strikes me particularly funny. This is from Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood, which purports to be a novel¹ made up entirely of questions:

If you were part of a couple living in a three-story Victorian house with a bad paint job outside and a shabby interior, to the extent that some of your rooms were lit by bare lightbulbs on swinging cords effecting heavy glare on the beadboard walls, wouldn’t you consider it an appropriate diversion for the two of you to play Norman Bates and his mother at least sometimes?

I may not be able to quote this ten years from now but I bet I will on occasion remember the general sentiment, the specificity that makes you think that the author is driving towards a conclusion you really can’t imagine, and then you get there and it absolutely is that and it’s even more off-the-wall than could have been predicted.

I’ve been having a lot of trouble with insomnia lately, often manifesting as waking up at 1am and being unable to fall back asleep for hours (or even, on  one memorable night, at all). So maybe it was the 1:30-in-the-morning-and-reading-punchy effect, but dang, that question just zinged me.

¹I don’t know how much I’m inclined to agree with this classification, yet, but I suppose I’m only half-way through this admittedly fairly short work. Not even sure I can recommend it. There have been other good moments, but I haven’t been able to pick out anything that feels quite like narrative yet.

Softening the landing

Caveat lector: this post discusses the end of the book Bel Canto, so if you’d rather not know, you’ve been warned.

Today I finished reading Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, a book I had been reminded of because recently there’s been a film adaptation¹ and I had wanted to read it when it was originally out but I did not have the same amount of time to read then that I do now. I was happy for the reminder, through it on my holds at my local library, and picked it up a couple of weeks ago.

Reader, it is terrific. It’s everything I could want in a literary novel, cleanly written yet capable of deep insight, drawing you into these characters’ lives, allowing you glimpses of their soul. You kind of get lost in it. I even copied out a couple of brief passages to the notebook I carry around with me. It spoke to me, often. I may even give opera another try.

If you’re not familiar with the novel, it’s fiction based on real-life events. In late 1996, hundreds of people at a party in the Japanese Embassy in Lima were taken hostage by a little over a dozen revolutionaries². They were in a heavily fortified building and the standoff lasted for 126 days; I can remember it happening. As far as I know, the only hostage who died was killed when the military stormed the building. All of the revolutionaries were killed, and some of them were later determined to have been killed “extrajudiciously,” which is to say, they were murdered after having been subdued or having surrendered.

So, I knew where this book was headed. Talking it over with my friend who had also recently read it, I said that the process of reading it was like watching an enormous tree that has been cut through, to fell it, and much of the book felt like watching a moment where the tree was teetering before it fell. Except that here, that moment lasts the hours it takes you to read the book. And, more accurately, I felt that for a few hundred pages, I was that teetering tree.

As I neared the inevitable, I started to wonder how the ending would be handled. I thought a little bit about how I might end the book; I considered that I might end it just as the assault began, just cut it off entirely short, let the reader envision the violence. I thought maybe the book would end in the violence itself, with the shock of the survivors as they were rescued and witnessed the deaths of these people they had spent months with, who they had come to know and who had revealed surprises about themselves. Both would have been kind of staggering gut-punches.

Both of those endings and others like them seem to me to be maybe the very male way to end the book. To attempt to gain for the book a little more critical heft, leaving the reader in that state of being just absolutely drained emotionally by what they’ve read. I can even imagine the sorts of words the reviews would use: daring, unsparing.

Patchett took a different approach. She attached a very brief epilogue, the specifics of which I won’t go into but which look just a little bit forward. It’s hopeful, and it’s tender.

It’s also very generous to the reader. Having been through what we’ve just been through, in those final pages of the novel, just how gut-wrenching it has been, in part because of how it’s been building to its inevitable conclusion, Patchett gives us a moment of comparable grace. It feels like a more feminine approach, I think — it cares more for the reader, it gives you a glimpse of a future, a reason to go on. It doesn’t throw you to the wolves, it doesn’t leave you soaking in the pain.

I felt really well cared for in those last few pages, and I think the novel is better for them. I felt like the author was there with me, knowing the ache I had in the pit of my stomach, that sadness I was carrying with me as I was preparing to set the book down. I felt her holding me for just a few pages, helping me return to the world. Helping temper that sadness. Helping me go on. Reminding me that you can. We do.

¹Reading it, it seemed like a film adaptation would be a tough job, one that would need a truly visionary director to find the heart of and communicate, like a Schnabel or a Todd Haynes or others along those lines. Although I understand why they chose the director they did, because of superficial similarities between this and a show that director executive produced, Mozart in the Jungle. Looking at his film credits, I think it’s safe to suspect that this was a cynical, near-Oscar-season kind of attempt at a prestige grab and I am going to pass. Overall it seems critics have not been tremendously kind. (back)

²Generally speaking, they are referred to as terrorists in what few articles I’ve read. I’m not really comfortable with that term, based on the events. Absolutely they took hostages, and did exchange gunfire with the military, but were not notably violent towards their hostages. I’m not sympathetic to their violent acts by any means, but terrorism is the inspiration of fear as the tactic, and this was more like a negotiating tactic. (back)

Finding the Fantastic in Fantasy Again

I’m going to talk about leaving and returning to enjoying the reading of fantasy novels¹ in a moment, but first I need to talk a little bit about my Dungeons & Dragons group. Bear with me.

I’ve played various tabletop role-playing games in my life, but D&D was the first and the one that had the most staying power. But before this year, the last time I had played had been while I was still at LucasArts, back in the early aughts. After moving to Maryland, I never really had a peer group that fit. I had a huge collection of modules and manuals and magazines in my basement, but mostly they gathered dust.

That changed this year when my elder son asked me if I would DM for a group of his friends, none of whom had played before but who were curious. It ended up being 8 kids² and so I ran two sessions over a weekend in March while they were on Spring Break. One was a one-off, and the other turned out to be a kick-off to a campaign. We’ve played every other week or so through the summer.

And they’re hooked; you can tell from some of them when they’re at the table — excited, engaged, enjoying themselves. Another’s mother told me about how much she hears about the sessions after the fact. And my own son tries to pick apart the various mysteries of the campaign over meals. They often gather after a session and discuss it together. They’re into it.

And their enthusiasm has carried back to me a bit, and mostly because of one fact: all of this is new to them. When I was young³ and playing this for the first time, we all knew too much about the game. We were in a time when there were fewer distractions, and we were all fairly obsessed; we studied the manuals when we weren’t together. When a creature was described, we’d all know exactly what it was, we’d know what we had to do with it. The game was somewhat more geared towards that at the time, to be honest, but it was also just a function of our age and the relative paucity of other distractions.

So what’s been great about this group is that I can describe the appearance of an undead troll, and they don’t know it’s a troll. They also don’t know that it regenerates or the only thing that will permanently damage it is fire. There’s mystery in it for them, and I really appreciate that sense of wonder that they have. It’s made it fun for me, and it’s also helped me realize why I’ve been able to return to reading some fantasy fiction.

I drifted away from reading fantasy maybe a couple of decades ago — I might pick up something from time to time, but for the most part it wasn’t part of my normal reading diet, and on those occasions I read it, it was more likely to be science fiction. I read more literary fiction, and I’ve always enjoyed detective, mystery, and police procedurals, with maybe the occasional espionage novel thrown in.

That was a strange departure: fantasy was how I first came to fiction, when I read The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings over a few weeks when I was fairly young. We had gone to the ocean for our summer vacation but when we first got there an off-shore storm had really roiled up the surf and I was too small to be able to get out into it safely4. My father bought me The Hobbit and long after the sea had settled I was spending all my time reading that.

It kept on. I followed adventures in Prydain and Narnia, and probably a dozen others I can’t even remember now. As I got older I read Conan and Weis and Hickman and Thomas Covenant and David Eddings’s Belgariad and whatever the other one was called, and even later Robert Jordan and Dave Duncan and just all kinds of stuff. But at a certain point, it just no longer engaged me; at the time, I put it down to growing up and putting away childish things, if I thought about it at all. I did read Harry Potter, but I skipped Game of Thrones even as it became this cultural phenomenon, even when I was surrounded by co-workers who really admired it and recommended it to me. I was just kind of done.

But over the last couple of years it has been slowly winning me back, and it’s been because I’ve sought out fantasy that isn’t primarily white and medieval. I had a year there where I read only women and I wanted to read genre fiction from them as well, and so I dug into Octavia Butler and Lois McMaster Bujold and Jo Walton. This year Ursula K. Le Guin died, and I went back to read her early Hainish novels and I loved them. I had a few that didn’t quite connect with me, but more that did.

In the last little while, maybe a year or so, I’ve especially enjoyed the work of N. K. Jemisin (The Thousand Kingdoms), Nnedi Okorafor (Binti), S. A. Chakraborty (City of Brass) and now Laura Anne Gilman is a new discovery to me (Silver on the Road). These aren’t the same medieval white fantasy novels of my youth; they’re something else. I’ve even been making my way through the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett, which treat the staples of my earlier reading life with a welcome and uproarious sense of humor.

I’ve realized that the reason I drifted away from fantasy was that it became entirely too familiar. I’m not dismissing any of that stuff5 I’ve read in the past, nor anyone’s enjoyment of that or the new stuff in that vein; I took a lot of pleasure from those books. But for me, I could no longer take pleasure in it because there was no longer any mystery in it. The familiar is never fantastic.

What I needed, I guess, was fresh fantasy. I didn’t know I needed whole new mythologies, or just stories set in mythologies with which I was less familiar. I didn’t know I wanted a fantasy version of the wild west until I stumbled upon it. But I found my way to all of that by explicitly seeking out different voices, in authors who were women or people of color (or in many cases, both).

I’m glad to be back reading fantasy fiction again, that it’s back in the mix. And I’m glad to be able to play Dungeon Master for a bunch of kids who helped me realize what I had been missing in it. What a gift. Now if I can just get some games to go out there and find some new settings….

¹Note: I use fantasy often to also include science fiction. There’s probably a better term, but I was taught that science fiction was a sub-genre of fantasy when I was a lad, and it has just stuck.

²They are kids to me, though they are 19 or 20. Those that are attending college enter their junior year a month from now.

³I started playing in ’81 or so, around the age of ten. A kind teacher used to let us use his classroom during recess to play, or after school.

4I’d get out there to body surf and just be pummeled into the sand, to the point I feared I wouldn’t be able to come up in time. I remember it well. It was the first time I felt pure terror in my body.

5Though, to be sure, some of it is a lot better than others, and some I would probably not necessarily recommend anymore.