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).

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)

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).

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)

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).

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)

Click on The Flounder to order your own copy.

Click on The Flounder to order your own copy.

Five by Five Books #5: “The Islanders” (2011) by Christopher Priest

(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).

What’s it about? The Islanders is written in the form of a travel guide to a vast, equatorial, globe-encircling chain of islands called the Dream Archipelago. The names, shapes, histories, locations, economies, and politics of the Archipelago’s islands are elusive and amorphous, defying ready mapping or simple narrative description. Several key characters (a mime, an artist, a social reformer, a reporter, a roustabout, a writer, a stage manager) appear sporadically throughout the text, on a variety of islands, and over wide spans of time, their stories occasionally over-lapping, all advancing through hints and off-hand references and casual mentions. The Dream Archipelago is, by law, ostensibly a peaceful buffer zone between two warring polar superpowers, though both powers wield significant influence and shape the narrative through varying degrees of skullduggery or outright aggression. An apparently unreliable narrator further complicates the proceedings, whoever he or she might be.

Who wrote it? Christopher Priest is a British novelist who cites H.G. Wells as a formative influence; he has served since 2006 as a Vice President of the H.G. Wells Society. His books and short fiction have won multiple British Science Fiction Association Awards, and he has also been nominated for or won various Hugo, Campbell, James Tait Black, Clarke and World Fantasy Awards throughout his career. He is probably best known in the U.S. for his novel, The Prestige (1995), which was adapted into a highly acclaimed and successful film of the same name by Christopher Nolan, with Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in the lead roles. He has also written various film tie-ins and television screenplays under pseudonyms. The Dream Archipelago has been a recurring motif/location in his fiction, first appearing in 1981’s The Affirmation, where a possibly schizophrenic protagonist may or may not be preparing to undergo an operation that will make him immortal, a theme that again appears in The Islanders.

When and where did I read it? This is a relatively new one to me, since I just read it this past May, during the trip that Marcia and I took to Fort Lauderdale, Florida around my birthday. I was not familiar with Christopher Priest when this book showed up on the “Recommended for You” panel of my Kindle, probably because I had recently read the first two books of Jeff Vandermeer’s somewhat thematically similar (in terms of its narrative ambiguity) Southern Reach Trilogy. The unmitigated weirdness of The Islanders‘s premise appealed to me, so despite my general reluctance to buy new books by unknown (to me) authors, I went ahead and downloaded it, and was absolutely delighted by my choice. I finished the book over a couple of days (it was addictive reading), and the lovely tropical opulence of our rental digs at Villa Amorosa provided an absolutely perfect setting and ambiance for the woozy literary magic that Priest concocts in The Islanders. I even dreamed about the Dream Archipelago, further cementing my sense that reading The Islanders was a very resonant, provocative, and haunting (in the good sense of the word) experience for me.

Why do I like it? I have always loved entering and experiencing well-created, fully-realized, wholly inhabitable literary worlds, in books, in video games, in movies, in online communities, anywhere. The Dream Archipelago is one of the most vibrant and rich such literary worlds that I’ve ever experienced, even though the descriptions that Priest offers of it are nebulous, shifting, and certainly lacking in the structural rigidity and formality of, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. That being said, some of the details placed before a reader are sublime: the explanations of tunneling as an art form, or of a particularly nasty toxic critter, or of the denizens haunting a cluster of ancient towers, or of the activities of the polar superpowers’ drones, and so many other scenes, all of which are beautifully elucidated, and instantly memorable. Very little is ever explicitly explained in The Islanders; instead, the reader gains knowledge and perspective pebble by pebble, bit by bit, hint by hint, picking up a lot of information over time, while not actually realizing how much has been learned. The key recurring characters in the novel are also delightfully well-realized, and the often unexpected interactions between them provide some of the novels’ sharpest “a-ha!” moments, where revelation seems close at hand, though it almost always still slips through your fingers if you try to grab on to it too quickly or too hard. 

A five sentence sample text: (From Chaster Kammeston’s Introductory) “Here is a book about islands and islanders, full of information and facts, a great deal I know nothing about, and even more on which I had opinions without substance. People too: some of them I knew personally, or had heard about, and now rather late in the days have learned something about them. There is so much out there, so many islands to discover, while I am familiar with but one of them. I was born on the island where I live now and where I am writing these words, I have never stepped off the island, and I expect never to do so before I die. If there were a book about only my home island I should be uniquely equipped to introduce it, but for quite other reasons I would then not agree to do so.”

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)

CLICK ON THE COVER OF THE ISLANDERS BELOW TO ORDER YOUR OWN COPY:

islanders_rough

Five by Five Books #4: “Titus Groan” (1946) and “Gormenghast” (1950) by Mervyn Peake

(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).

What’s it about? This two-tome story cycle tells the coming-of-age tale of Titus Groan, Seventy-Seventh Earl of Gormenghast, an anachronistic realm ruled from days immemorial by Titus’ forebears, whose seat of power is a vast, ancient, crumbing castle, rife with long-forgotten halls, chambers and secrets. The opening book, Titus Groan, is set entirely between Titus Groan’s birth and his first birthday, with the infant Earl serving less as a character than as a catalyst — seemingly small occurrences surrounding his birth set in motion an ever-growing series of circles and circumstances that come to full blossom in the second book (Gormenghast), eventually threatening the ritual-bound cultures of the ruling Groans and their earldom itself. The books’ characters are introduced as extraordinary Dickensian grotesques for the most part, though the key players gain both depth and breadth as the story advances; Titus’ older sister, the Lady Fuchsia, stands as a particularly complex and heart-breaking literary creation of unparalleled pathos. The story’s main antagonist — the ever upwardly mobile ex-kitchen boy Steerpike — is one of the great villains of 20th Century literature (his accumulated misdeeds also make him one of the most openly sociopathic characters you’re likely to encounter in a book read for pleasure), while the conflict between the Groan family’s loyal retainer, Mr. Flay, and the corpulent chef Abiatha Swelter is delicious in its repugnance and resolution. Beneath and beyond everything else is Castle Gormenghast itself, a literary setting so rich and so perfectly imagined that it almost becomes a character in its own right, its dusty stone hallways serving as the veins and arteries through which the story flows to its unexpected and powerful climax. 

Who wrote it? Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) was an exceptionally gifted English novelist, illustrator, poet and artist whose creative career was unfortunately truncated by premature dementia associated with Parkinson’s Disease. Peake was born in China to Congregationalist missionary parents, and exhibited precocious skills as both a visual and textual story-teller which were nurtured through formal education at the Croydon School of Art and Royal Academy Schools. In the 1930s — while dividing his time between London and the Channel Island of Sark — Peake gained a strong following in both literary and artistic circles through highly acclaimed theatrical commissions, solo exhibitions and the publication of his first book, the self-illustrated Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor. He applied to serve as a combat and campaign artist after the outbreak of World War II, but was instead conscripted into service with the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers; he was eventually invalided out of the Army following a nervous breakdown, though he was eventually commissioned to create a series of works for the War Artists Advisory Committee. Peake wrote and published Titus Groan and Gormenghast in the latter half of the 1940s, intending them to be the first two volumes of a much longer series; only the novella Boy in Darkness (1956) and the slim, fragmentary, controversially edited Titus Alone (1960) were completed of the Titus tales before Peake’s failing health finally silenced him.

When and where did I read it? I first read these two books (as well as Titus Alone, which is generally marketed as the third book of “The Gormenghast Trilogy,” though it bears little stylistic resemblance to the earlier two books beyond shared characters) in my tiny bedroom in old military quarters at Mitchel Field, a decrepit World War I airbase that seemed to reek of the same rot and rust that pervaded Gormenghast. I know I was reading these books in September 1979, because that’s when Jethro Tull’s Stormwatch album came out, which I listened to over and over again at the time, so that the songs on that album are all indelibly linked to Peake’s stories in my mind to this day. I checked the books out from the Nassau Community College library when it was in one of the old military buildings on the base, which I visited frequently because there was a beautiful blonde college clerk who worked there and who I crushed on hugely. If admitted to that building today, I could quickly and easily walk straight to the spot on the shelves where the books resided, so strongly was that spot imprinted by repeated visits to extend the due dates on these long books, and also to flirt with the clerk. The editions of Titus Groan and Gormenghast that I initially read at Mitchel Field (I’ve read and owned multiple versions since then) was a beautiful, heavy old version, hardbound in black fabric, with plates of Peake’s illustrations within; I’ve not seen these editions again since 1979, but would snap them up in a heartbeat if I did.

Why do I like it? Oh, I could wax poetic at length in answering this question, but in keeping with the “Five by Five” premise, I’ll just cite five key favorite points, beginning with plot pacing: it’s slow, for sure, but the central story creeps inexorably forward through numerous asides and detours, so that its occasional concussions and climaxes are truly, deeply shocking and memorable. Second: Peake supplements his core story arc with beautiful illustrations and magnificent poetry, creating a rich and fully-realized world that deploys all of his formidable artistic skills in the process; to some extent, Titus Alone is a failure simply because it is primarily set outside the amazing world that Peake constructs in the first two Titus books. Which brings me to my third favorite point: as mentioned above, Castle Gormenghast is a character in its own right, and I do not think I had (or have) ever read a book that spent so much of its narrative on setting scenes, which sounds dull, I know, but is actually riveting in its obsessiveness. Fourth favorite: I love the incredible development of the central characters throughout the story arc, with the heroes of the latter chapters being largely inconceivable based on how you first encounter those same characters 1,000+ pages earlier. And finally (for here, at least, since I could certainly say more), it all comes down to Peake’s prose: I just love the way this guy writes, and I would cite him as one of the most important influences on my own own knotty and florid narrative style.

A five sentence sample text: “Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.”

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)

Click on Mervyn Peake’s illustration of the Lady Fuchsia below to order a copy of the excellent Overlook Press edition of The Gormenghast Novels, which also contains an outstanding assortment of critical essays and appreciations by the likes of Quentin Crisp and Anthony Burgess.

Lady Fuchsia Groan, ink drawing by Mervyn Peake.

Lady Fuchsia Groan, ink drawing by Mervyn Peake.

Five by Five Books #3: “Nova” by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite books, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? Nova is a space opera set in the 32nd Century and centered around a long-running dynastic feud between the Von Ray and Red families, both of which are seeking to secure and maintain economic superiority across a vast interstellar market. The potentially balance-tilting commodity in the narrative is Illyrion, a super-heavy element that is critical to travel between the stars, and which is only mined in trace amounts in the (relatively) newly-settled Outer Colonies. Captain Lorq Von Ray embarks upon a quest to triumph finally and absolutely over his arch-enemy, Prince Red, by harvesting Illyrion from the book’s titular imploding star, aided and abetted by a rogue’s gallery of crew members and shipmates. Nova features shifting point of view, jumps between flashbacks and the core quest narrative, and offers a unique blend of hard science, mysticism, art, culture, history and music of the future. Ultimately, though, it is the conflict between the Captain Ahab-like obsessions of Lorq Von Ray and the creepy casual cruelties of Prince Red (and his tragic, ill-served sister, Ruby) that powers this narrative, and Nova‘s story arc is powerfully resonant and memorable for all the right literary reasons.

Who wrote it? Samuel R. Delany is an author, literary critic, and university professor with four Nebula Awards, two Hugo Awards, and a well-deserved place in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame under his belt. Early in his career, the iconoclastic Delany offered something of a shock to the science fiction establishment, as the challenges posed by a young, African-American, openly gay writer (like Delany) were enough to induce the vapors among the generally close-knit community of American science fiction writers whose politics and prose were generally rooted in the safe conservatism of the Eisenhower Era’s industrial-military complex. Nova marked a turning point in Delany’s career, standing as the capstone of what we now perceive as his earlier, more linear narrative period. His next published novel, Dhalgren, didn’t emerge until seven years later, and it was wildly different from Nova in many aspects of tone — radically experimental and fulsomely, frequently graphic — though it remains an equally riveting work in its own right. “Chip” (as he is known to friends and admirers) has served as a member of the English Faculty at Temple University since 2001, and continues to occasionally publish through a variety of serial or standalone outlets, in both fiction and nonfiction formats.

When and where did I read it? I purchased this book for the first time in Leavenworth, Kansas, circa 1976, when Bantam Books reissued a lot of Delany’s 1960s titles following his return to popular trade shelves with Dhalgren. I know I got it at a mall bookstore where I used to go spend hours trying to figure out which science fiction or music reference/biography books I would purchase with my limited middle school resources, but I could not tell you, exactly, what it was that attracted me to it over other choices at the time. (It had a $1.50 price tag on it, so that might have had something to do with my decision!) Nova stuck with me as a great adventure story with awesome characters for years after I first read it, though I think I was really too young to understand many of its themes. So when I unexpectedly found a copy in the USS Austin‘s wardroom library during a trans-Atlantic cruise in 1983, I was very happy to read it again, and I have consumed Nova at least two and maybe three more times since then, getting something new out of it every time I read it.

Why do I like it? Nova fires on all cylinders for me, when you get right down to it: a bracing main narrative, an imaginative back story that adds to the richness of the central quest, a plethora of fantastic characters, spectacular settings that span the galaxy (but include known cities from our own home world), and loads and loads of thought-provoking asides, props, theories, images and quotes. I liked the space opera elements the most when I read it for the first time: driven (and possibly mad) ship’s captain assembles motley crew of weirdos and outcasts who pull together as a team to achieve things none of them thought they could. But in subsequent readings, I’ve come to love the strange combination of hard science and mysticism (e.g. characters consult tarot cards before deciding whether or not to drive interstellar space craft toward collapsing stars), and the nearly perfect malice of Prince Red, a truly great literary villain for the ages. The book’s dynastic political and economic themes are also richly developed, so that the history of the dueling Von Ray and Red families feels tangible and important. Nova has an entry in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, which it deserves, though I’d go further and list it as one of my personal Top Ten Novels ever, period.

A five sentence sample text: “Most people go blind in blackness. I have a fire in my eyes. I have that whole collapsing sun in my head. The light lashed the rods and cones to constant stimulation, balled up a rainbow and stuffed each socket full. That’s what I’m seeing now — then you, outlined here, highlighted there, a solarized ghost across Hell from me.”

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)

CLICK THE COVER BELOW TO ORDER YOUR OWN COPY OF NOVA:

This is the version I first owned. I love that cover image, and think it's perfect.

This is the version of “Nova” that I first owned. I love the cover image, and think it perfectly captures the tone of the book, though the “USA” on the crashed probe is incongruous.