Five by Five Books #11: “The Maze of Transparencies” (2019) by Karen An-hwei Lee

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

What’s it about? The Maze of Transparencies is set in a (near?)-future agrarian barter economy civilization, the denizens of which live in a foggy state of highly-localized, wholly-disconnected disorientation that has emerged following the collapse of the world’s data networks, and hence perhaps the world itself. The slim novel is narrated by Penny (short for “Penelope the Predictive Panoply of People’s Data”), a sentient, orphaned data cloud, who closely orbits Yang, the human who developed her, even though the two can no longer communicate outside the sphere of Yang’s dreams and memories. Yang is a gardener, a thinker, and a cook, and he possesses a black bento box of algorithms that was left behind by the Nine Muses of the Junta, who ruled Uberasia until it and they vanished in the aftermath of the data collapse. The box of algorithms describes seven harbingers of happiness, each embodied by an individual human deemed by the Muses to be catalysts for an antidote to the dysthymia that eats at the collective data-saturated soul of the species. Yang seeks to better understand each of the harbingers, visiting and interviewing each human manifestation of their virtues, with Penny as  witness and chorus to his journeys.

Who wrote it? Karen An-hwei Lee is a poet, critic, novelist and translator with an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University and a PhD in British and American Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, who is currently serving as an administrator at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California. Lee has been awarded fellowships by the National Endowment of the Arts, the MacDowell Colony for the Arts, the Millay Colony for the Arts, the Yoshiko Uchida Foundation, and the Beinecke Foundation, among others. She has received multiple Pushcart Prize nominations, and was the recipient of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America, again among many other honors. Lee’s published works include two novels, three collections of poetry, a book of literary criticism, and she has appeared in numerous literary and popular periodicals and anthologies. She also served as translator for Doubled Radiance: Poetry & Prose of Li Qingzhao, the first English collection spanning the full creative spectrum of the 12th Century Song Dynasty poet-essayist’s works.

When and where did I read it? I just finished The Maze of Transparencies this week, devouring it over a couple of days in our apartment in Des Moines. It is the first book since Christopher Priest’s The Islanders (which I read in 2014) that felt so unique, enjoyable and thought-provoking to me that it merited immediate inclusion in this evolving list of the most memorable novels across my lifetime of reading, most of which have had to marinate for a much longer period of time before being so enshrined in my personal pantheon. I learned of Lee’s novel via a web feature called Seven Books About Cyberspace by Women Writers on the Electric Lit website, my eyes drawn first by its evocative Ernst Haeckel cover art, my mind then equally engaged by the description of its contents. My daughter works in data analytics, and she, my wife and I have had numerous conversations about her explorations into the philosophical underpinnings of her professional activities over the years, so this slim tome seemed like it would be of shared interest to us all. Having long since shifted (alas) to consuming books on a Kindle, I was surprised to discover that The Maze of Transparencies was not available in digital formats, though in retrospect, having to order a print copy actually enhanced my overall reading experience, the mostly-lost tactile contact between flesh and page fitting perfectly with the post-technological themes of the work.

Why do I like it? Lee’s skills and accomplishments as a poet shine most clearly throughout her deeply unique The Maze of Transparencies, in both the prose components of the book, and in Penny’s and Yang’s recurring flights of poetic fancy and reflection, which are knit together perfectly, creating a luminous tapestry of transcendent language beyond language. The creative world within which Penny and Yang seek their respective happinesses is believable and inhabitable, with a fine compositional balance between that-which-is-explained and that-which-remains-mysterious that allows readers to experience the novel’s little details and overarching narratives much in the way we do our “real world” day-to-day lives. It’s not “Hard SF” by any stretch of the imagination, but the macro technological, scientific, psychological, philosophical and mathematical underpinnings of the story (considerately explained in the book’s end notes) are robust, internally-consistent, and highly thought-provoking, while at the micro end of the narrative spectrum, Lee gloriously details the simple graces of Yang’s worldly existence and experience, with an especially fine focus on foodstuffs that reminded me of another book in this series, Günter Grass’ The Flounder. Penny’s hopeful and helpful non-corporeal spirit made me think of similar elements in John Crowley’s haunting Engine Summer (#1 in this series), while Lee’s deft blend of poetry and prose in service of place sense and perspective further evoked The Flounder for me, along with poet-painter-polymath Mervyn Peake’s paired masterpieces Titus Groan and Gormenghast (#4 in my Five By Five Books collection). Those overlaps with earlier installments on my list perhaps best demonstrate why this new (to me) book pushed so many of my preferred literary buttons.

A five sentence sample text: “. . . what cruel message would blooming floribundas and grandifloras portray in a season of mass underground vanishings — nay, let’s name it, dear reader — of genocide? Or did the nine muses themselves shapeshift into bots, a virtual feat of zoomorphism, then obliterate all traces of their own existence, and if so, why? Were the bots a figment of our collective anima or animus, the hazy archetypes of empiricsm, female and male digerati of molecular amphoterism or hermaphroditic binarism? Why do questions about a bygone technocracy of fiefdoms matter when no one controls the biomasses clouding the biosphere anymore? (And while we mull over these mysteries, the maze of transparencies in the noosphere trembles ever so slightly with unmoored clouds like me, i.e. a hodgepodge of information without answers, or data set adrift without meaningfulness).”

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ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)

Five by Five Books #10: “The Vorrh Trilogy” (2015 to 2018) by B. Catling

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

What’s it about? The Vorrh Trilogy is an immense creative work (1,390 pages spread over three books in its initial American print run) that takes its name from a massive, mysterious forest at the heart of the African continent, which may or may not host within its confines the Garden of Eden and/or various flesh eating monsters and/or angels buried in the soil and/or vast wealth to be exploited by European colonialists, among other things. Few visitors can be quite confident of any of these things with any certainty, because the Vorrh erases the memories and time senses of those who penetrate its depths, thus requiring the Europeans to raise and employ an army of baby-eating ghouls to work its plantations. The colonial community lives at the periphery of the Vorrh in the city of Essenwald, transported in toto, brick by brick, from Europe (where other segments of the epic are set), and riddled with its own mysteries, including a house where brown plastic robots raise a human cyclops with loving attention and care. A dizzying assortment of characters (including some non-fictional ones) and plot lines come and go, some returning later to advance the narrative, some never to be seen, heard from nor resolved again. It’s such a sprawling web of content, context, and confusion that, at bottom line, any attempt to answer “what’s it all about” must ultimately default to this: The Vorrh Trilogy is about The Vorrh Trilogy.

Who wrote it? B. Catling (the initial stands for “Brian”) is an Emeritus Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University’s Ruskin School of Art, with an accomplished career history as a poet and artist, in both the visual and performance realms. The Vorrh (2015 in its U.S. edition) was his first novel, taking its title and inspiration from a forest mentioned in Raymond Roussel’s proto-surrealist novel Impressions of Africa (1910), a fantasia carefully composed via a series of arcane rules of Roussel’s creation, its setting bearing no semblance to any other Africa, real or fictional. The first book of Catling’s trilogy prominently features a nameless analogue of Roussel as a core character, along with a variety of Victorian era (and earlier) historical figures, despite the fact that the trilogy’s nebulous chronology regularly includes inventions and devices that would seem to place it in the first half of the 20th Century. Catling followed The Vorrh with The Erstwhile (2017) and The Cloven (2018), extending the trilogy’s narrative both forward and backward in time, and across continents, rich with language that often leaves it feeling more like an impressionistic stream-of-madness poem than a linear prose work. After completing The Vorrh Trilogy, Catling published a novella, Only the Lowly, and his next standalone novel, Earwig, will be published in the United States in the summer of 2020.

When and where did I read it?  By 2015, I had (somewhat sadly) already transitioned to the point where I did most of my reading on a Kindle, rather than actually getting the tactile enjoyment of holding paper and ink in my hands, so on the random occasions when I did amble into a bookstore, I was usually looking not to buy anything, but rather for ideas on what I might download later. When I first spotted it, The Vorrh had been recently released in the United States (it had came out two years earlier in England), though it wasn’t (and isn’t) enough of a blockbuster to be prominently placed in the “New Arrivals” section, but was rather tucked away unobtrusively in the Science Fiction and Fantasy stacks. I honestly have no memory of what drew me to pick it up (perhaps just the weirdness of the name?), but the glowing endorsement quote on its cover from The Southern Reach Trilogy‘s Jeff VanderMeer (which and who I adore) quickly sold it for me, no additional questions asked. I remember reading sizable chunks of The Vorrh on my Kindle in its waterproof sleeve while soaking in our back yard hot tub in Des Moines, and I also remember that it took some perseverance to reach a point where I had opened myself to the experience and began to feel the book’s narratives and rhythms, wherever they went, and whether I understood them or not. Soon after I finished The Vorrh, we moved to Chicago, and I acquired The Erstwhile and The Cloven there upon their respective releases, though I was such a road warrior for work at the time, that I read sizable chunks of both books in hotel rooms scattered coast to coast across the country.

Why do I like it? If you’ve read any of the prior nine installments of this occasional book review series, the answer to this question is probably obvious: The Vorrh Trilogy is big, audacious, immersive, surreal, grotesque, written in gloriously florid language, and screamingly unique in just about every way imaginable. I relish epic weirdness of that stripe, deeply valuing the authors who can create it, and the persistence of vision required to birth such fully-formed beautiful monstrosities from their forebrains. The experience of reading Catling’s work is akin to being presented with a vast accretion of elements, amalgamated from the wide range of his varied creative pursuits, at times feeling like a poem, at times like a sculptural assemblage, at times like the script from a deranged performance piece, at times like a treatment for a wordless experimental film. It’s big enough that you can never really look at the whole thing as a singular entity, but instead you must circle around it, never quite sure what the next facet will present, and never quite sure that you can remember what you saw two turns ago. I remember reading one less-than-enthusiastic review that referred to The Vorrh Trilogy as “a mess,” and I actually agreed with that assessment on some arcane plane, considering it to be a compliment when applied to something as gloriously, explosively over-the-top as this intense and immense work.

A five sentence sample text:  “This is where the man-beast crawls, its once-virtuous body turned inside out, made raw and skinless, growing vines and sinews backwards through the flesh, stiff primordial feathers pluming in its lungs, thorns and rust knotted to barbed wire in its loins. Guilt and fear have gnawed the fingertips away to let the claws hook into talons, sharpened by digging a home in the shallow grave. It is seen on all fours, naked, and worse across the broken ground on sharp knees that are red raw from chiseling the earth to gain some purchase. Prowling inside a trench blinded by stark glares of explosions. Another bellowing flash sculpts the rippling muscle of its back and arms and the thick prophet’s hair that has become soured by warfare into itching dreadlocks, mud-filled like the beard of dribble and tangled ginger grit.”

Click here to order the full trilogy.

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)

 

Five by Five Books #9: “Gog” (1967) by Andrew Sinclair

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

What’s it about? This immense novel opens with a naked, seven-foot man washing ashore on a beach between two cliffs in Scotland. He has no knowledge of his identity, nor any memory of his past, and the only clues available to him in unraveling those mysteries are the words GOG and MAGOG tattooed across the back of his knuckles. The giant experiences an overwhelming compulsion to reach London, some four hundred miles to the south, and after a brief stay in the hospital where his rescuers carry him, he stuffs stolen bread into the pockets of a stolen uniform and sets off on his quest, not knowing why he wants to go, nor what he expects to find when he arrives. Gog describes the giant’s journey in glorious detail, down the full vertical span of Britain, mostly by foot, his unfolding story tangling knotted ropes of past, present and future as recurring allies and nemeses (it is often hard to tell which are which) assist or dog him along the way. While he relearns, recreates and/or revisits his own stories, Gog (as the giant eventually identifies himself) also uncovers the ancient narratives and mythologies of Great Britain and how they shape the narrative of modern England and its people.

Who wrote it? Andrew Sinclair (1935 – 2019) was an English novelist, historian, biographer, critic, and filmmaker. After earning a Ph.D. in American History from Cambridge, he pursued an academic career in the United States and England, publishing his first novels in 1959, and his first nonfiction works in 1962. Gog, published in 1967, is his best known novel (it eventually spawned two sequels — Magog in 1972 and King Ludd in 1988 — forming what Sinclair called his “Albion Trilogy”), while his nonfiction work has included books about the American Prohibition Era, the emancipation of American women, Che Guevara, Jack London, Francis Bacon, 20th Century European Aristocracy, Dylan Thomas, and many other subjects. In the early 1970s, he wrote the screenplays for and directed a trio of films, most notably Under Milk Wood, based on Dylan Thomas’ play, and starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole. He was honored during his lifetime as both a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

When and where did I read it? I first picked it up in a public library during my high school junior year in Newport, Rhode Island, sometime soon after I had read The Flounder by Günter Grass. It was one of those books that I had to hide while reading at home, as the title alone (referencing the twin nations that would ally with Satan in his final battle with Christ and His Saints) would have been enough to set off alarms with my highly-religious parents, never mind the earthy, bawdy horrors and hoots they would have found had they opened its covers. I got maybe a third of the way through the book before I had to return it to the library in advance of our family’s move to Jacksonville, North Carolina — and then I don’t think I ever saw the novel again, anywhere, for decades, despite looking for it every now and again in libraries or used book stores over the years. Those occasional searches finally paid off when Valancourt 20th Century Classics reissued Gog in 2015, and I acquired and devoured it on my Kindle, mostly in our condo in Chicago. In the glow of finally completing this monumental and inspirational work, I did track down used print copies of Gog‘s two sequels, though they remain unread as of this writing; the original novel was such an epic totality in its own right for me that the early goings of Magog undermined the original in my estimation, rather than enhancing it, so I set both sequels aside, have not returned to them, and may never do so.

Why do I like it? This one pretty much hits on all cylinders and pushes all buttons when it comes to the things that move me in literature. It tells an immense story through both macro (e.g. the history of the people of Britain) and micro (e.g. the grittiest, grimiest, grossest details of Gog’s travails southward toward London) lenses, and it deploys all of Sinclair’s formidable skills as novelist, researcher, journalist, and screenwriter as it unfolds, with chapters whipsawing between formats and styles, each suited to its own particular theme or topic, like some shaggy modern-day fellow traveler of James Joyce’s more-urbane Ulysses. The book’s recurring characters are all archetypal, though they hide their true selves from the reader, and from each other, and from Gog (the character), until they don’t, but unlike most literary archetypes, Gog (the novel)’s dramatis personae are not stereotypes, nor are they even internally or externally consistent from scene to scene and chapter to chapter, even though they always are what they are, except when they’re not. While Britain (real) and Britain (ideal) are certainly documented and documentable, and Gog certainly touches upon centuries of story-telling and history-making in placing its rollicking narrative within both of those Britains, the specific literary megacosm through which our giant protagonist strides ultimately represents a masterful piece of world-building, where the reader is rarely sure whether he/she is experiencing Gog’s delusional interpretations of a factual world, or Gog’s factual interpretations of a delusional world. I enjoy few things more than a fully-realized surrealist universe that feels like something we could all live in, somehow, somewhere, sometime, despite its hallucinatory fantasias and suspensions of natural law and logic, and Gog is simply nonpareil on this front.

A five sentence sample text: “Beyond Innerleithen, the first attempt is made to kill Gog. He has walked through the bruised border town with its hopeful crest of a tame bear and bridled horse, supporting a shield, which shows St. Ronan calming the troubled waters that rear up a full inch high above the mottos Live and Let Live and Watch and Pray, as though these words had ever been the least defense against the boiling Border barons, who made the local ballads bloodier than anything since the Old Testament.  And Gog has passed the old graveyard in the town where a weathered anchor is carved on a sailor’s tomb with the pious expectation, SOON LOST BUT NOT TOO SOON FOR GLORY. And Gog has passed Traquair House, standing among its trees in tall granite and freestone rubble, with its windows slit against arrows and crows. And he has sweated up the steep slope of his first real hill, the track towards Minch Moor on the short cut to Yarrow, with flies teeming about his burning face to drive him mad.”

Click the link to score your own copy of this epic masterwork.

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)

 

 

Five by Five Books #8: “Smallcreep’s Day” (1965) by Peter Currell Brown

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

What’s it about? Pinquean Smallcreep is a machine worker who cuts slots into pulleys on an assembly line inside a vast factory. After many years at his task, he begins to grow curious about how his slotted pulleys are ultimately used, and once this curiosity reaches obsessive levels, he sets aside his assigned task and walks up the assembly line, hoping to find its end. The labyrinthine nature of the factory and its attendant offices and support spaces quickly render his quest more complicated than Smallcreep had anticipated, and he is forced to rely on the kindness (or, more often, lack thereof) of his fellow factory workers to find his way forward, or backward, or simply out. Smallcreep meets a veritable menagerie of machinists, laborers, managers, directors and other characters, who often seem evolutionarily designed to their tasks, and are almost always shocked by the audacity — and ever-increasing futility — of his odyssey. The book’s resolution is shocking on a variety of fronts, but at the risk of spoiling it, I won’t describe why.

Who wrote it? There’s not much information available in the public domain about Peter Currell Brown, and Smallcreep’s Day stands as his only published novel to date. I know that he is English, and that he was an anti-nuclear activist in the early 1960s, serving a six month prison sentence as a result of his actions. He worked in a factory as a young man, and his experiences there inspired and shaped the narrative of Smallcreep’s Day. In the late 1960s, he founded and worked at a small craft pottery factory, and seems to have abandoned professional literary pursuits. If he figured that he got novel-writing right the first time he tried it and didn’t need to do it again, I’d be inclined to agree with him.

When and where did I read it?  I first became aware of Smallcreep’s Day while living in Newport, Rhode Island during my junior year of high school, when Genesis bassist-guitarist Mike Rutherford titled his first solo album (1980) after the book, and included a side-long suite of songs loosely related to its story. Brown’s novel was long out of print at the time, and the album wasn’t a strong enough recommendation to make me go hunting it down. Fast forward to early 2015, when I read Rutherford’s excellent autobiography, The Living Years, which briefly touched on the musician’s experiences with reading the novel and composing songs around its key themes. I have always been a fan of Rutherford as a musician, but I found myself really liking him as a human being after reading his book, and that made me more interested in understanding what, exactly, had so moved him when he first read Smallcreep’s Day. Through the never-ceasing wonders of modern technology, I then discovered that a Kindle edition of Brown’s novel was available, so I clicked a couple of buttons, and, voila, let’s read this thing, finally.

Why do I like it? I had always assumed — from its seemingly playful title, from the nominally happy ending of Rutherford’s song cycle, and from the cover art I’d seen — that Smallcreep’s Day would be a family-friendly, light read that whimsically used a “journey of personal exploration and growth” narrative structure to casually explore some topical themes related to how people work, and what they get out of it. Once I got a couple of chapters into the book, however, I realized that I couldn’t have been more wrong in this presumption: Smallcreep’s Day is a dark, hallucinatory, surrealist parable that injects a small, tragic figure into a sequence of large, very adult situations that grind like machinery toward an inexorable and unforgettable climax. While few characters are ever named (we only learn the protagonist’s full moniker toward the end of the book), the novel is filled with memorable Dickensian grotesques, their features and characters described in lurid, often horrible detail. The exploration of the relationships between labor and management are also surprisingly deep and insightful (a contract negotiation scene between the two parties is a satirical masterpiece), with the interesting twist that both are viewed as being victims of their situations, though one tends to live and work in much nicer surroundings. I thought about this novel and its message quite a bit after I finished it, and when all is said and done, that’s about the best recommendation I can offer for reading a particular book.

A five sentence sample text: “First thing of all I’m always conscious of a wheel — or perhaps before that I’m conscious of spinning, in the abstract as it were, but then there is always this huge wheel all shimmering with lights and divided into segments of light, and a loud singing or humming noise. The wheel is not turning fast, but not slowly either, and it doesn’t turn in one particular direction but both ways at once. After a time of spinning and shimmering and singing a kind of feeling of unease comes in. I can recollect all these things quite plainly, it’s always the same. The wheel get clearer, and there’s more uneasiness, until there’s suddenly fear, and a feeling of being stuck, or paralysed and pinned in, like waking up to find you’re inside a concrete block and you can’t breathe or move or see or shout or anything.”

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)

 

 

Click on this 1973 edition's cover to order your own digital or print edition.

Click on this 1973 edition’s cover to order your own digital or print copy.

Five by Five Books #7: “The Mabinogion Tetralogy” (1936 to 1974) by Evangeline Walton

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

What’s it about? The Mabinogion Tetralogy is a modern re-telling of a twelfth century collection of complex Welsh heroic tales called Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi (“The Four Branches of the Mabinogi”), which are often considered to be the earliest known prose literature of Britain. Each of Evangeline Walton’s four books correlates with one of the Branches of the Mabinogi, telling the inter-connected stories of Prince Pwyll of Dyfed (Prince of Annwn), Llŷr’s daughter Branwen (Children of Llyr), Llŷr’s son Manawyddan (The Song of Rhiannon) and Math, son of Mathonwy (The Island of the Mighty). Pryderi, son of Pwyll and Rhiannon is the sole character to appear in all four books, which are primarily set in the Kingdoms of Dyfed and Gwynedd, post-Roman states established in early Fifth Century Wales. The stories include fantastic and mythological elements, though they are deeply rooted in a specific historical time and place, feature exceptionally well-realized, very human (read: flawed) characters, and address a sophisticated series of issues related to gender roles and relations, science vs magic, modernity vs tradition, and inter-cultural conflict between antagonistic belief systems. The complex web of dynastic loyalties and betrayals is evocative of the more widely known Arthurian legend, especially in the ways that seemingly simple romantic entanglements can have profound ramifications well beyond the intimate spaces in which they occur.

Who wrote it? Evangeline Walton was the pen name of Evangeline Wilna Ensley, born in 1907 in Indiana and raised by highly-educated, liberal Quaker parents, whose progressive views infuse Walton’s works, especially with regard to her portrayals of female characters. The vast majority of her work was written between the 1920s and the 1950s, though little of it saw publication at the time of its conception. Walton’s first novel was the unfortunately-titled (by her publisher) The Virgin and the Swine, which disappeared without a commercial trace upon its release — only to be rediscovered three decades later, retitled The Island of the Mighty, and issued in 1970 as part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series. The other three long-languishing volumes of what ultimately became The Mabinogion Tetralogy finally made it to market between 1971 and 1974 under the Ballantine imprint, and then the collection was re-published in 2002 as a single volume in its proper narrative order. As her work gained popularity late in her life, another intriguing facet of Walton’s youth emerged into public view: she had been treated for bronchial infections as a child with large doses of silver nitrate, which caused her skin to turn blue — making her quite the magical figure at science fiction and fantasy conventions. 

When and where did I read it? I first read The Mabinogion Tetralogy in 1978 to 1979 while living at Mitchel Field on New York’s Long Island. I loved the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series (even though I wasn’t an adult yet), having already read Lord of the Rings and The Gormenghast Trilogy on that influential literary imprint, which played a direct role in the successful commercialization of post-Tolkien swords and sorcery literature. (It’s hard to imagine Game of Thrones existing today without a generation of creative types having been awed by those Ballantine Books and their successors). The physical copies of the books I read were borrowed from my friend Jim Pitt, and I suspect that he pilfered them from his parents, since they did contain some frank sexual content that likely would have kept them off of the junior high school library where we usually found our books. I’ve re-read The Mabinogion Tetralogy twice since then (most recently during my early years living back in New York, circa 1993), and I was pleased to discover recently that the full set is now available on Kindle — so I can more readily pester other people into reading it and talking about it with me.

Why do I like it? One of my favorite books in elementary school was Norse Gods and Giants by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, a beautifully written and illustrated re-telling of 30 Scandinavian myths that somehow made its fantastic characters seem very real and grounded in ways that resonated deeply with me. I jumped from that beautiful book to C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in fairly short order, and loved them both — but it was not until I read The Mabinogion Tetralogy (in the original four-book Ballantine editions) that I experienced the same sense of real-world earthiness that Norse Gods and Giants evoked, where characters engaged in fantastic battles or dramatic love affairs or behind-the-scenes skullduggery in ways that I imagined real people would, even if the settings for their adventures were other-worldly. (I would cite T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and Mervyn Peake’s The Gormenghast Trilogy — both of which I read for the first time soon after The Mabinogion Tetralogy — as equally resonant on that plane with me). I also liked (and still like) the fact that there were lots of strong women in The Mabinogion Tetralogy, and that the book addresses the nature of male-female relationships at some very granular levels, especially with regard to the biological and sociological rights and responsibilities associated with paternity, and proof thereof, in a pre-scientific culture. Of course, the sexy bits that came with all of those strong and assertive women were certainly more agreeable (and understandable) to a teenage boy than were, say, Aragorn pining away for the insipid and largely absent Arwen in The Lord of the Rings, but even without that adolescent hyper-hormonal response, the depictions of (again) those very real, earthy, grounded power dynamics between men and women during times of social and cultural flux remain profound.

A five sentence sample text (From Book One, Prince of Annwn): The Welsh say “She is casting rain,” not “it is raining,” and in Pwyll’s day men still knew why. Rain and sun, crops and the wombs of beasts and women, all were ruled by the old mysterious Goddess from whose own womb all things had come in the beginning. The wild places were Hers, and the wild things were Her children. Men of the New Tribes, Pwyll’s proud golden warrior-kind, left Her worship to women, and made offerings only to their Man-Gods, who brought them battle and loot. But now Pwyll began to wonder if those hunters were right who said that all who went into the woods to slay Her horned and furry children should first make offerings to Her, and promise not to kill too many.

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)

 

 

Click on the cover of the original Ballantine edition of

Click on the cover image from the original Ballantine edition of “Prince of Annwn” to order your own copy of the complete Tetralogy.

Five by Five Books #6: “The Flounder” (1977) by Günter Grass

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

What’s it about? At bottom line, this is a book is about men, and women, and food, so how can you go wrong with that, right? More descriptively, The Flounder (Der Butt in its original German) tells the tale of an immortal fisherman, the women he has loved through the centuries, and the talking fish who meddles in their lives, incidentally instituting the patriarchate in the process. Loosely anchored in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Fisherman and His Wife, Günter Grass’ epic Flounder blends absurdly cerebral elements (e.g. a court trial of the talking flounder, who is being persecuted by militant feminists), with visceral, earthy depictions of human bodies and the fuel (food) that powers them, some of it beautiful and sweet, some of it bloody and filthy, most of it some combination of all of the above. The main narrative of the book is broken into nine parts (called months), through which the Fisherman tells his pregnant current wife, Ilsebill, about the women (all cooks) who came before her, all the way back into the blissfully oblivious (for men anyway) matriarchy of the Neolithic era, when people ate in private, then gathered in groups to move their bowels together, socially. The book also provides a reasonably accurate history of the politics and culture of the Vistula River region around Danzig/Gdansk, which is sometimes German, sometimes Polish, sometimes Lithuanian, sometimes its own Free City, but always distinctive and recognizable in Grass’ depictions.

Who wrote it? Günter Grass is arguably post-war Germany’s most famous — if often controversial — cultural figures, a left-leaning, politically-active playwright, novelist, sculptor, illustrator and poet, whose work is frequently categorized as an integral part of the Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“Coming to terms with the past”) movement in contemporary German arts. Grass was born in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland), and his works are often set there, in the crook of the Baltic Sea where eastern and western empires have clashed for centuries, all of them coveting the deep water port and strategic importance of the ancient burg, which has as a result changed hands (politically) at least 15 times in the past 1,000 years. His most famous book, The Tin Drum (1959), was the opening salvo of his so-called Danzig Trio, and it was later made into an Academy Award and Cannes Palm d’Or winning film, released in 1979 — just after The Flounder received its first English pressing. Grass has won numerous awards and plaudits throughout his career, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999 for his book, My Century. He continues to write, and provoke, to this day, most recently earning headlines on our shores for his 2012 poem “Europe’s Disgrace,” in which he lambastes the European Union for condemning Greece to poverty through its (mis?)-handling of the sovereign debt crisis.

When and where did I read it? I first read The Flounder in Newport, Rhode Island, in the summer of 1980, as America’s Cup 12 meter sailboats trained, transited and raced outside of my bedroom window above Fort Adams State Park. I had seen the film adaptation of The Tin Drum a few months before we moved from Long Island (after four seminal years there) to Rhode Island, and read that novel soon thereafter, surprised and delighted to discover that there was a long and important second part of the book that had not been included in the film. Soon after we arrived in Newport, I visited the public library downtown, and am fairly certain that The Flounder was the first book I ever checked out there. It’s a long, somewhat difficult book, and I know I had to renew it a couple of times before I finished; oddly (it seemed to me) nobody else wanted to check it out. The book’s bizarre potpourri of water, and fish, and food, and women, and history, and politics, indelibly underpins my memories of a summer spent on the shore, during political season (John Anderson for President, anybody?), while eagerly pursuing women, and food, ideally at the same time.

Why do I like it? Like I said, men and women and food, so what’s not to like? Actually, the thing that impressed me most on first reading was the book’s rich structure, the layers of history, with poetry and prose intertwined, and an absurd and satirical contemporary story line providing the anchor from which upon thousands of years worth of deliciously dirty, meaty, sweaty, sensual yarns and tales are spun, ostensibly to entertain a pregnant woman through the nine months of her term. Grass’ deep sense of place (the Vistula estuary, Kashubia, Pomerania, Danzig), and his vast affection for food and its preparation are contagious and memorable, and I found myself wanting to reproduce many of the recipes described in the book, even though many of them would be viewed as disgusting my most modern gourmands, just for the experience of eating things we generally don’t eat anymore. The (titular) Flounder is an amazing character — a mystery, a meddler, a bon vivant, a maker of bad jokes and puns, a know-it-all in both the best and worst senses of that phrase — as are the 11 cooks, all powerful women, each in their own ways, flawlessly envisioned and embodied by a master writer. Credit must be given to Ralph Manheim for his English translation of this knotty (and naughty) work; the language never feels forced, nor dumbed down, nor stiff, and I think that’s a rare and significant accomplishment in a field that’s largely invisible or forgotten by most readers of foreign novels.

A five sentence sample text: “He, the one and only, the talking Flounder, who has been stirring me up for centuries, knew all the recipes that had been used for cooking his fellows, first by the heathen and later as a Christian Lenten fish (and not only on Friday). With an air of detachment and a glint of irony in his slanting eyes, he could sing his praises as a delicacy: ‘Yes, my son, we happen to be one of the finer fishes. In the distant future, when you imbecilic men, you eternal babes in arms, will at last have minted coins, dated your history, and introduced the patriarchate, in short, shaken off your mothers’ breasts, when after six thousand years of ever-loving womanly care you will at last have emancipated yourselves, then my fellows and relatives, the sole, the brill, the plaice, will be simmered in white wine, seasoned with capers, framed in jelly, deliciously offset by sauces, and served on Dresden china. My fellows will be braised, glazed, poached, broiled, filleted, ennobled with truffles, flamed in cognac, and named after marshals, dukes, the prince of Wales, and the Hotel Bristol. Campaigns, conquests, land grabs!”

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)