Monday, June 29, 2009

Review: Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

As a rule, I try to avoid harboring prejudices, but sometimes they're difficult to avoid. With an American Colonial history buried deeply in the nooks of one side of family, and an Irish line on the other, I must occasionally fight a reflexive anti-Englishness. Or maybe not a prejudice: better call it a distaste for certain aspects of my own east-coast cultural heritage, which I see as largely a refutation of the gentility of English classism, but which, like a rebellious teenager, never ended up so far away from Mom and Dad as it imagined. Our vaunted revolutionaries trended pretty aristocratic too (albeit Enlightened), even if our landed gentlemen were uncouth sorts, the pre-industrial agrarian society that spread through (the aptly named) New England was an outgrowth of the Old(e) England model. We're still telling our kids English fairy tales and English nursery rhymes, emphatically re-imagining some snug English pastoral spirit every single Christmas. (That the uptight breed invented "twee" is almost reason enough to detest them.) And like the English, we romanticized the lost inner frontiers once we tamed them, even if the brutal pacification of ours was only recent history and the landmass proved a lot bigger. Our nasty Empire is a take on the British model too, complete with state protection of favored lucrative industries, a similar missionary zeal to export our exceptionalism to the brown hordes even as we enrich satraps and butcher the lowly. The British of the early nineteenth century were particularly loathsome to us Yanks, given that 1812 was among the stupidest of wars fought on this soil, although perhaps we can cut them an ounce of slack over the next several years for resisting the Continental imperialists.

Which isn't to say that there are no fine stories to be crafted from this upper-crust milieu--some of the finest are, of course--it's just that any writer who dares present a bunch of gouty windbags (I mean, there's crazy old George the fucking Third ferchrissakes!) unironically congratulating themselves for their Englishness has got a bit of a handicap to overcome. And really, all this is a lengthy apology, because when Susanna Clarke served up a helping of these tobacco-reeking indolent old farts, I loved them from the first sentence. And if Clarke's aristocratic England is mildly romanticized, then it's tempered with an equally understated, but devilish, subversiveness. She is not shy, for example, about presenting servants who are superior in character than their masters, nor for subtly criticizing the absence of women from the circles of self-defining meritocracy. These things are shown, not lectured, and they are in the context of a historical verisimilitude that works at least here, considering she's taken the liberty of exorcising (or, perhaps, dramatically understating in a footnote or two) the differences that the real Christian church had with witchcraft, and to create a history which included magician-kings and in which the roads to Fairie could be mapped, even as the destination remained as inscrutable as in any old country tale.

How does the literary evolution of Faerie go again? Something like from the backyard gods of a woodsy people, to compilations, to Bowdlerized children's versions, to serious rediscovery in various nostalgic forms that have suited any convenient version of the people's lost connection to the world, whether thanks to the Great War or just under the usual thick layer of coal smoke and asphalt. I like faeries this way, as timeless natural spirits, creatures faintly adversarial, untrustworthy but beautiful, inhuman but representative of an ancient ecosystem that includes humanity, of a mysterious but familiar natural universe that people can neither tame nor do without. Clarke navigates this landscape of character pretty well, playing up one supernatural gentleman who has been in a thousand-year groove of wickedness and mystery, but generally working Faerie, into the countryside and into forgotten corners society too, keeping up with the general consensus of modern fantasy writers, without feeling very derivative of anything. Her magicians--the titular characters--are the bridge between the wild magic intrinsic to northern England and to modern society.

Although this conflict underlies everything in the story, it's not developed very explicitly. Much of the conflict is underdeveloped, even while all the elements for it are in place, and should work. There's a prophecy about the two magicians, that while brilliantly conveyed in a character, carries no logic or force. There is the matter of Mr Strange's wife, whose interactions with the faerie occur far too late in the novel, and which, as a plot-moving elements, are strangely attenuated. I've little idea why Strange had to spend so much time in the (largely bloodless, but chalk that up in part to the cultivated English understatement) battlefield, and given the events, it's a bit off to see the likes of Canning and Castlereagh doffing about with such casual pipe-scented aplomb. And I suppose these conflicts are all approximately resolved by the end, but without sufficient tension, there was no particular satisfaction. Pleasant as it is, the book still sagged in the middle, and I don't think it was entirely due to my damn job interfering so much in my reading schedule. The book didn't quite reach the point of being nice to read but easy to put down--I didn't get bored in 800 pages--but it did approach that point.

And the conflict between Strange and Norrell, I should add, was well-executed, and satisfying. Clarke's general strength is character, and both the men are pretty great ones. Norrell particularly: here's a timid little bookish bore of a man, completely unsuited to society, politics, or generosity. If anything else, the novel is an entertaining portrait of how it turns this unlikely little fellow, nothing worse than a packrat of knowledge really, into an influential tyrant, scooping up information from the reach of his betters and leaving the world to swallow his own viewpoint, so tediously expressed that no one can make it past the first couple of sentences. That Clarke could conceive that he and the ambitious, carefree Strange should find intellectual communion is a quality bit of writing, but in truth, every character is improved in the vicinity of Norrell. He's such a font of negative interest (and her best trick is showing him charmingly in spite of this), that his servants, collaborators, sycophants, must be that much more compelling to overcome his utter boringness.

So, call it good writing, and pleasant telling, and with only just enough plot to keep it from being merely atmospheric. I recommend reading it by a roaring coal fire, snug from the rainy February chill, with, of course, tea.


twif said...

not much to add, but i enjoyed strange & norell a good deal. it's by no means fresh in my mind though, so that's all i've got.

Keifus said...

Hey, twif. Not the most coherent review (I'm technically absent this week), but I liked it too. Quite charming. Thanks for the rec.

artandsoul said...

I read it too - seems like ages ago. I'm afraid that when it sagged in the middle I put it down. I admire your perseverance.

Do try "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell, I think you'd really enjoy it!

(did I already say that somewhere?)

Keifus said...

Thanks art, you did. Consider it on the list...

twif said...

hell, i can get absorbed by the back of a cereal box, so rare is the book that i will not finish.

that said, "shattered", by dean koontz, stands out as a book i did not finish. i may have actually thrown it across the room in disgust. not that i ever expected much from the man beyond a standard suspense/horror plot and a scare or two. still, this was an unfathomably awful book. cringe-worthy. avoid it, like the plague it is.