July 8, 2003
Diana Wynne Jones: Howl's Moving Castle
Until recently I had never heard of this book or its author, and I suspect that I'm not alone in this. Actually, "suspect" is too strong a word. Let's try "guess."
But recently Diana Wynne Jones won the novelist's equivalent of the Lottery of Merit, because this story is to be turned into an animated film by none other than Hayao Miyazaki, the acclaimed Japanese artist, writer and film maker. Over a long and distinguished career, Mr Miyazaki was responsible for the extraordinary Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, which are animation's mid-Sixties Dylan.
Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is currently working on Howl's Moving Castle, and the film is scheduled to be released in the middle of 2004. I wanted to see what the fuss is about, and I'm glad I did. It's an interesting book. It's also easy to see why Miyazaki is interested in it. It's a very visual story, with an impressive array of striking characters (including a fire demon, a scarecrow, and a number of witches and wizards) and a castle that does indeed move.
And Jones' story has a number of elements in common with much of Miyakazi's work. The heroine is a young girl, for a start, who is obliged to work for her living from an early age. But she accepts this as quite natural and doesn't mind, as it were, getting on with the business at hand. The business here is trying to survive in a hostile environment, and Jones is good at keeping the reader's curiosity strong.
Jones is also good at exploring a character's behaviour, especially how they deal with their weaknesses. To her great credit, her characters change and develop over the course of the story. Sophie, the young heroine, is transformed by a spell into an old woman, and it's interesting to see how this changes her behaviour. We see her use the opportunity to deal with events with much more nerve than she might otherwise be able to muster.
The book's only real fault is its ending, which is a little rushed and incomplete. Even so, Howl's Moving Castle is an enjoyable and engaging read. I'm pleased that Mr Miyazaki, animated genius, is headed this way.
June 14, 2003
Sam Lipsyte: The Subject Steve
I flicked through the first few pages of this in a bookshop. I was impressed, but not enough to actually buy the book.
A few weeks later, when I borrowed a library copy, I struggled to see what I'd liked about it. The Subject Steve is written in a very distinctive, compressed style. There are very few descriptions of what people are wearing, or what they look like, or what sort of people they are. Instead, there's a great reliance on dialogue to move things forward. Much of the novel is filled with short exchanges of conversation, which reveal the characters' pessimistic, bleak outlook. You'll either like that, and know exactly where Lipsyte is coming from, or you won't care.
Initially I liked it, and then I didn't care. Gradually, The Subject Steve becomes difficult to read. The characterisation is so sketchy that it becomes harder to maintain an interest in the dialogue. Characters arrive, shoot off a few snappy lines, and disappear. And all the conversations mean that it becomes difficult to be sure what's actually happening. By the time I got to the end, I couldn't remember what had happened at the start, or what had happened since then. Something about a guy who may or may not be dying, I think, and some kind of violent cult.
Lipsyte is very skilled at using hip, up to the minute language. He has a keen ear for the words and phrases and ideas of our time, and he plays with them, and takes them further. As a result, you get this sort of thing:
The pilot's voice came over the speaker to announce we'd be taking off shortly.
Lipsyte gives this distinctive, enigmatic dialogue to all his characters, which is good, but most of his characters hate each other, which isn't so good. They treat each other with indifference and disregard, and all their wit eventually counts for little.
The Subject Steve is a grim, dark ride. If that doesn't sound like your thing, avoid it. Or as one of Lipsyte's characters might say: respect your decision not to get involved.
May 4, 2003
Hope Mirrlees: Lud-in-the-Mist
1926's most famous book is probably A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh, though it was also the year that produced Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and Marazan, Nevil Shute's first book.
And, of course, this one, Hope Mirrlees' story of the town of Lud-in-the-Mist. Initially I was a bit puzzled by the style of storytelling, especially the strange tendency to switch between characters, as if the book didn't know whose story it was telling. At some stage, on or before the one hundred page mark, it suddenly became clear that it was Nathaniel Chanticleer's story, the mayor of Lud, and not any of the other characters who are introduced in the first few chapters. As soon as this became clear, I enjoyed the story a great deal and read the last 180 pages in one sitting.
Mirrlees has a superb ability with language, and is a never-ending source of startling proverbs and sayings. She creates a believable world, and entices you into it with a vivid display of intriguing details. The book has a timeless quality, and it becomes difficult to remember that it was first published nearly eighty years ago: Lud-in-the-Mist seems always to have been there, gently awaiting discovery. One small surface indication of its age can be found in its typography. Latin and French words are always presented in italics, so your eye hovers longer than necessary over dossier, ex cathedra and terra firma. I was also struck by the word "password," which is spelt "pass-word."
("Pass-word" was distinctive in another little way. At one point Nathaniel is stopped at a locked door, and is asked by someone on the other side for the password. He successfully guesses it, which makes for a great exchange. But then, only a few pages later, he becomes overwhelmed by other events and forgets the password. In these, the great days of Unix, this seems unbelievable and unforgivable.)
Like a lot of people, I came to this book through Neil Gaiman, who has a secondary career of championing overlooked gems such as this. (Lud-in-the-Mist dwelt in undeserved obscurity for nearly half a century.) He provides a brief but effective introduction, in which he says that Lud is ultimately about reconciliation. This is true, but it's not true enough. Towards the end Mirrlees shies away from describing several key events, leaving the reader a little unsatisfied. The ending satisfactorily resolves the storyline, but it's easy to see how the last twenty pages could've been three times that length, and three times more satisfying.
Still, there's a beautiful sense of creativity and imagination throughout the story. One of the chapters is called "Panic and the Silent People," and the characters have names like Endymion Leer, Professor Wisp, Moonlove Honeysuckle. Early on there's a wonderful description of the garden of Nathaniel Chanticleer, which casually finishes with:
There was also a pleached alley of hornbeams.
The nature and purpose of a pleached alley of hornbeams remains unclear, and this is entirely as it should be. This is a book to make you wonder, in all kinds of ways, about all kinds of things. I really liked it.
(The entire book can be downloaded at The File Library.)