Rax E. Dillon (rax) wrote,
Rax E. Dillon

Book Notes: Beasts; Engine Summer; Little, Big (all John Crowley)

So for a few years I've had a random three in one huge paperback thing including Beasts, Engine Summer, and Little, Big by John Crowley on the shelf, and I've always meant to read them (in my hilarious failure to read speculative fiction a few years back I went to find a book by him and ended up with The Translator [0]). The last couple of flights I brought the huge paperback with me so that I would read the novels contained therein, and I have thoughts about each of them, so I figured I would blog about it so y'all can read something that's not a tasklist. I'm not planning to reveal any endings or anything, but I will cut-tag for spoilers just in case.

Beasts (1976) presents a future in which human/lion hybrids fight for something approaching rights in an America where the accessible tech level has declined sharply for all but the most powerful. Themes of human/animal interaction and intertwining run throughout the novel, and there are some beautiful moments where similarities and differences that often go undernoticed are cast into light by the novel's plot. In addition, there is a Reynard, and he is a good Reynard, although not the best; I collect Reynards and I'm glad to add him to my list. On the whole, though, the book isn't very good. The beginning is really clumsily written, although it hits its stride later. It's not really clear what happened to fuck everything up techwise and politically. The lion-people are described with language I'm used to seeing racialized in the 1800s and it creeps me out kinda and while this may be the point I don't think it was managed super well. The female character who has Protected Her Precious Virginity In Slavery but then falls into bed with the lead lion within a day because he is soooooooo sexy grates and doesn't turn into what she could have. The gay character only having interest in boys, not men, is really itchy. Overall unless you're really looking for a good Reynard I'd pass on this one.

Engine Summer (1979) I'm not really sure how to write about. It was definitely my favorite of the three and the one I would recommend to others. It's a post-apocalyptic novel about the journey of a character who wishes to become a saint without quite understanding what a saint is. The world is much more fleshed out here than in Beasts; there are multiple believable societies who have picked bits and pieces of mythology out of what came before them, there's a better sense of how things got here without too much time being wasted on it, and while the characters are a bit ethereal they work and their interactions are interesting. The journeying is interesting and recognizing the husks of our civilization is always an apocalyptic treat. (Oh, that's a highway! I get it now.) The whole time I was reading it I wanted a machine that would let me distill books into themes so that I could use the machine on Engine Summer and Riddley Walker [1] and then take a diff of what came out. There's clearly something going on in Engine Summer that's not going on in other apocalyptic fiction but I'm not sure what it is, and I think if I could put my finger on it, I'd like the book more. Right now I can't help but think of it as "Riddley Walker, but with magic." Has anyone else read both of these books? Help?

Little, Big (1981) gives me such mixed feelings. It's a novel that spans generations about a family in upstate New York living in a house that gives them a connection to the world of the Fae, or maybe they have the connection and they imbue the house with its Fae-connectedness, or maybe something else, but the connection is definitely focused on their family and the house and the intersection. This is all well and good. The storytelling wanders between different characters and paints some members of the family in great detail and others in lesser; this is very well handled, I think, although occasionally I lost track of minor characters and just accepted them as "one of the ancillary people or maybe their kid, whichever." There are structural reasons there need to be many characters --- the structure of the book is frankly brilliant and folds on itself in fascinating ways and obviously involved something along the lines of a giant bulletin board with lots of index cards and thread. This book, too, extends into a near future where some sort of collapse is happening and people farm in New York City and the non-elite lose access to technological resources; it fits here better than in Beasts, but the causes for this are definitely abstracted away.

For all that the book is awesome, though, there are some things in it that gross me out. Some of the main characters are blatantly and awkwardly racist, in ways that are uncomfortable to read and not really undercut by the narrative. The narration itself is uncomfortable at times ("Negroes" in 1981? Really? Really?) and the fact that the character of color (a Puerto Rican woman who is a real developed character but whose family and background are kind of cardboard cutout, admittedly shown through the eyes of a racist white kid from upstate fairlyand) who also has the fairy magic is secretly part of the main family because of one-night stand shenanigans is kind of ick. Magic done by non-white actors is presented as dirtier or more dubious (although still effective) and the named black character speaks in awkward dialect, acts as a guide to white characters, and then when he's gotten the white characters into Fairyland, gets turned into a tree for his trouble. Ew. :( It's also kind of gross about queer stuff but I found that a lot more forgettable/ignorable.

Little, Big got me thinking about how fairyland-as-a-parallel-to-here-accessed-though-an-endless-forest functions as a trope, though, and what it depends on. I don't think it strictly requires that most or all of the characters involved be white, although I've always seen it done that way. (Were all of the characters in The Great Night white? I forget. ^^;;) The Fae can be written many different ways, or maybe not even be there. The forest, though, seems structural; what would it look like to go through desert to get to fairyland? Arctic tundra? Ocean between islands? I suspect that different places grow different kinds of myths but I also wonder about the transposition; I spend time wandering through what feels like endless desert, and I want to know, what sort of Fairlyand would I get to if I walked in one too many circles and didn't come back out at the trailhead? The couple of books I've read like this drew really heavily on First Nations mythology, and that's potentially really interesting (and potentially really exploitative!) but not what I'm thinking of here. Has anyone put the path to Fairyland not in the forest but in the desert, or somewhere else, and seriously explored what that shift would mean? I'm kind of tempted to try, but I'm woefully underread in this genre and don't even really know where to start research.

[0] Ruth has a reading of the book in which the main character is actually an angel and everything is taking place on a symbolic level, and while I find this reading really interesting, I don't personally find it compelling as the reality --- whatever that means --- of what's taking place in the novel. Your mileage may vary.

[1] Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban, is a post-apocalyptic novel written in the first person in the pidgin language left over from English after what is presumed to be a nuclear war. It's frickin' brilliant, it takes a lot of effort but if you are up to learning almost a new language by reading a book written in it, go read it. 
This entry was originally posted at http://rax.dreamwidth.org/116834.html.
Tags: books, desert, fairyland, john crowley, race, review
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