Monday, October 14, 2013

The Sci-Fi Bike Commute: Part V – Extended, Format-Breaking All-Gormenghast Edition

"When I bought my bike last August [2012] and committed myself to riding to work, I added the following spontaneous and bizarre stipulation: I would listen exclusively to science fiction audiobooks." [and some fantasy]

Phase 13: Year 2 of TSFBC: New Job, New Bike, New Baby

The Book: I don’t remember exactly how Titus Groan ended up in my ear buds. I think it was the only unheard sci-fi/fantasy book left in my Library’s Overdrive catalogue that didn’t look like a pulpy mess - no gleaming abs or lightning bolts shooting out of finger tips. I just got lucky. And that’s the way it goes sometimes. The fates hand you the exact book you were looking for, even if you didn’t know you were looking for it. There I was, knee deep in genre-conforming space opera, loving my whizz-bang plots, paper-thin characters, and dubious technobabble.  And suddenly, I couldn’t get my hands on The Evolutionary Void, the last book in Peter F Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga.  Apparently, the library didn’t see the logic of acquiring the fifth book in a five-book series, when they do carry the first four books. I have a government job, so this makes perfect sense to me. But there was this Titus Groan thing, this brilliantly bizarre cover art. I clicked to learn more and found out Gormenghast is a three book series (Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone). Why not give it try?

Cut to me on my bike, riding to work, laughing, giggling, rewinding the trill laughter of Dr. Prunesquallar. Smiling like there’s something deeply wrong with me. What the hell is this? Where did it come from? How had I never heard of Gormenghast before? And how am I supposed to take it all? Is it a comedy? A satire? A commentary on the drudgery of daily ritual in some pre-postmodern kind of way, or just weird high fantasy, to be taken on its own terms?

And more questions: Where the hell is this place, this Gormenghast Castle? And when?

I knew immediately that I didn’t want to read a word about these books. I didn’t want to know the author, his (her?) country of origin, critical responses to the text, or even the publication date. It seemed essential, and consistent with the text, that I experience Gormenghast in a total vacuum. So I won’t spoil the contents for anyone else who’s weird like that. Which puts me in the difficult position of trying to convince would-be readers to get their Gormenghast on, without really telling them anything more about it. (That's the plan, at least.)

So I’ll just talk about myself instead. I’m possessive about these books now. They feel personal to me, not because I relate to the story or the characters in any meaningful way, but because I get it. Everyone knows the feeling. I understand and experience exactly what the author wants me to understand and experience. Of course, that’s a narcissistic and delusional way to think about art, but that hasn’t stopped any person I know from doing the same damn thing. And it's especially gratifying to get it, when it is something so preposterous and complex and precise. Every decision the author makes to take the story further, to make it weirder, less commercial, less genre-specific, is exactly the right decision, like it’s not even a decision at all. It’s just what is. Never do I question the pacing, the authenticity of the dialogue, or the plausibility of the events. This kind of writing, where a place and time and population are evoked, rather than created, is always the most impressive, where the author plays the role of a chronicler or journalist, that really, he may not have a creative bone in his body. It’s the world he’s reporting that’s doing all the work.

Really, this audiobook, bike-commute project is about how the stories playing in my head affect my perception of the world zooming past me, how what I am listening to separates my experience from that of the other bike-commuters, who physically access the same environmental factors I do. What are the innumerable grains of sand to the guy listening to the Euro-trance techno pulse, compared to the guy listening to NPR? The guy listening to Simon Vance bellow, “I shall go to the Tower of Flints. I am the Death Owl!”? So what does Gormenghast do to the ocean and the airplanes and the RV park? Well, it obfuscates them, blurs them, and in some cases, removes them altogether. Which is not to say I am transported to Gormenghast. This isn’t that type of story. For a richly detailed fantasy story, Gormenghast is not particularly illuminating.  There’s really just a big huge fucking castle and then some other stuff – characters like you’ve never met before. Archetypes taken to such absurd extremes they cease to be archetypes at all. The nanny, the butler, various dowager aunts, the villain, the cook, the doctor, the teachers, the heir, the precocious princess, the Lord and his lady, each one unique to an extreme. What I get from these books is the unending delight you get from being surprised by people. People you think you know, who turn out to be far more interesting and original that you expected. The whole book aggressively working against every expectation you could possibly have. Irony with a capital ”I”. It’s the audacity of the whole thing that gets me. That someone would sit in a room for years and write this stuff. That they would commit themselves to such an absurd project, see it through, make it beautiful and haunting and transcendent. Sometimes I tell myself that - to pick an example at random - the guy I pass on the bike path who pulls a painted red gypsy wagon behind his bike is strange. But the existence of Gormenghast establishes a higher level of strangeness, a more evolved and refined state of lunacy. If nothing else, Gormenghast has reminded me just how powerful good writing can be.

I’m certain I will find more science-fiction books to rival the Commonwealth Saga. For all its entertainment value, it is not unique. But this Gormenghast experience has left me a little anxious. Is there anything this good still out there? Something I’ve never heard of before? Something I can experience with total objectivity?

The answer: Of course there is. (suggestions welcome)

Random addendum: Other chance discoveries that (gulp) Changed My Life!

I remember The Crossing calling to me from a display table in a resort town in Idaho. I can’t say what attracted me to the bleakness of those cow skulls, but I had to read that book. I’d never heard of Cormac McCarthy before. It was a similar situation a few years later with Infinite Jest, only this time I was in Phoenix, stranded at my ex-girlfriend’s parents’ house with unfixable car trouble and the need to punish myself with something dense and dry. Next thing I knew I was scraping bits of skull and brain matter off the ceiling fan in their guest room. 

And the rest, quickly: Arctic Dreams in a hotel’s lending library…in Thailand. Cannery Row in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s gift shop when I was 14 on a school field trip, trying to impress a girl by being the only kid who didn’t buy a stuffed otter. Jude the Obscure in a box of inherited classroom library books. Master and Commander, in a used book store in Boston (again, I think I was just trying to impress a girl with my interest in all things Napoleonic).


Click here for Part VI of the Sci-Fi Bike Commute: More format breaking fantasy! The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls! Plus the end of the Commonwealth Saga!

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