Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: The Dragon Griaule, by Lucius Shepard

I first read The Man Who Painted The Dragon Griaule, oh, ten years ago or so. I've occasionally picked up other stuff by the author, hoping to find anything that grabbed me as much as that story did, only to encounter a maddening mix of potential and disappointment. But the additional Griaule stories contained in this collection* only improve and expand the original one, and they're as great as (or better than) I remember. The milieu was established, by all evidence, by a guy who enjoys storytelling, clearly is talented at it, but who despises the trappings of stock fantasy, as if Shepard was grabbed by the idea of a giant dragon in spite of himself, and the beast wouldn't stop tugging at the fringes of his unconscious. As narrative, this conflicted view of the central object plays out brilliantly. Griaule himself is an imposition, a monster as formidable and ubiquitous as the landscape, and as subtle. He's the shape of everything, unnoticed in the way that, when it's all around you, you stop paying attention the lay of the hills and the flavor of the air.

The dragon is a mile or so long, mostly buried, infested and overgrown, built over and (mostly) around, and nearly completely immobilized. His exposed head is roughly the size of a football stadium with (at the opening of the first story) a shantytown crumbling over his eye. But he's not dead, and in more ways than size, the long millennia of stasis have made him something considerably more than a once-flying reptile. When we open in 1853, Griaule has been reduced to (or maybe grown to) a creature of the mind. He occupies the slow years influencing the people of the valley with his silent, malefic will. It's not the sort of pressure one could prove--although one of the shorts centers on a lawyer who builds an improbable case around the idea--but consists of coincidences, inspirations, obsessions, and a generalized sense of oppression, but it's beyond narrative doubt that this is a force which tempts people to the sorts of drama that serves or idly entertains the beast. Whether it's an intelligent malice is left unclear. The animal aspect of dragons isn't ever lost, and Griaule may well scheme and corrupt as a mere part of his nature, which has happened to become as magnificently overgrown as the rest of him. But he's a force beyond the scope of humans, either way.

The stories all play out as an expression of this insidious orchestration, where characters are pulled cleverly to plotted ends. The first of them is by far my favorite riff. The man who painted the dragon steps up before the local council and claims to be able to murder the creature with toxic pigments, by scaffolding his great head and flank and turning him into a mountain-size mural. There's just something brilliant and romantic and doomed about the idea that one of the great forces of the world can be subdued through art, and there's no way that I wasn't going to be pulled in by it myself. (And if it sounds like a potitical allegory, well, it shifts into an explicit one for some of the other stories.) And it's a scam of course, but the proposal nonetheless grows real as it takes over the artist's life, and the region's destiny, and brings Griaule to the conclusion he always desired, with lots of casualties along the way.

And they almost all go down like this. Generally, Griaule draws out callousness, venality, and lust in the men under his influence. Women get to be a little stronger than this (if they're a protagonist) or they get to be a little more fatale than outright nasty (if they're not), possibly less guileless to start with, but given to bursts of openness when the control falters. (God help me, I felt drawn to them too.) As we move through the other novellas, the arc is such that the dragon's mechanisms of control become a bit more overt. In the second one, a young woman is drawn into the guts and veins of the creature, mostly for purposes of housekeeping, to help out a colony of sensitives who take care of the more mundane tasks. (For her, things work out well in the end.) Other stories have Griaule drawing in a smaller, "normal" dragon to help along his seduction, or pushing some people through an alternate timeline to bring along a more spectacular ending than paint. Other broad trends have the main characters growing less sympathetic story by story (by the time we get to 2012, the last guy is a total asshole), and the writing expands a little more nicely and neatens up over time (the plots remain short enough to stay focused, however), with fewer writerly stunts. As well, the geography becomes a little more concrete, and more similar to the present day's. In the opening story, it's set in "a country to the south," and even though it's got some New World flora (banana trees and so on), the proper names and the style of narration seem comfortably European. Frankly, I'd have put it on the other end of the continent as Florin and Guilder. But Shepard has Central America in mind all along, and for the dragon's swan song, his menace becomes part and parcel of the disastrous, violent, meddled-in governance of the area. We are left with the feeling that Griaule, even dead and dispersed, can encompass all of the political evil of the world. I found him a little more palatable in a generic setting, but it's still an engaging read right to the end. Recommended, if you can find it.

*This publication includes the original short, published in the early 1980s, along with five additional novellas that have been written over the succeeding 30 years. I believe that the final one, released last year, is exclusive to this book. For the Googlers, the titles of the stories are, The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter, The Father of Stones, Liar's House, The Taborin Scale, and The Skull. Shepard also includes notes on the various stories, which are interesting (and which comprise most of the evidence about his opinions on fantasy and Griaule).