The Iliad – Homer

I first read this book long ago — we won’t say how long — and it impressed me as one of the greatest works I’d ever read. After all these years, what has stuck with me is the power of the symbolism.

Let’s start with one Greek hero, Achilles. The name seems to be a series of puns/symbols: Kleos means glory, for instance. Straightforward enough. But Achos means grief, and Leos, the people, as I understand it. (Please excuse my layman’s naivete, I am no master of Greek). And there is the first double meaning. But tehre’s more: Leos can also mean “corps of soldiers,” and so Achilles also symbolizes the grief of war. That grief can be two-sided: when his fighters act correctly they are grief for their enemies, when they behave badly, grief for their people. Moreover, maybe glory is truly just a cover for grief. And that is how Achilles is consistently depicted, as a grief to his own side, then to his enemies, as glorious, and then the truth underneath the glory. Such double meanings create deeper symbols, and slippery ones. They make the whole story a huge, sliding puzzle of fascination and fun.

Agamemnon has a girl he won in battle. But her father, a priest of Apollo, God of reason and light, comes to ransom her. The rules of piety require Agamemnon to give her up. No dice. Agamemnon and his co-ruler Menelaus, leaders of the Greeks, are ruled by their passions. So Apollo sends a plague upon the Greeks, for not following reason. The interplay of god and mortal deepens the symbolism in this way all through the book. Only Odysseus is consistently pious, and he often does not have much sway.

Achilles learns of this impiety, and asks Agamemnon to give the girl up. In her stead, Agamemnon seizes Achilles’ favorite girl. A complete betrayal, that has terrible results. Achilles would fight him for her, but Hera sends Athena, Goddess of wisdom, to Achilles to bid him bide his time. So wisdom bids its time to overcome passions. So women give wise counsel to men.

And that’s just the very beginning. Such shifting of meanings… which god holds the upper hand at which point, what does that mean for the fortunes of armies and individuals, who is humble, who pious, who arrogant… resonates deeply with the reader. We know these same tensions in ourselves, in those around us; we have seen the consequences of listening to reason or releasing ourselves to our passions.

This is a very familiar story, as the author understands the same cost of battle that our soldiers still must pay today. The grief, the friendships forged, the betrayals, the chaos of battle, the loss, even to loss of self. It’s all there. It’s immediate, and heart-wrenching.

There is a reason this ancient story is still around. And it bears close study, for any writer who might want to add depth and meaning to their own tales. No one has ever done it better.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in my mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, intends to establish a kingdom of peace and justice, despite disasters that threaten his people. You can find these books on Amazon, at the above links.

Related blogs:

The Underground Man – Macdonald

Lorna Doone – Blackmore

The Magnificent Ambersons – Tarkington

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Od Magic – Patricia McKillip

When I think of McKillip’s writing, I think of atmosphere. A sense of mystery grows throughout her novels, until often I don’t actually know as a reader what is going on. Now, I don’t know if that confusion is intentional on the author’s part, and I don’t really care, because I enjoy the result, a story where I can’t predict what the next thing to happen will be. Which means I can’t predict how the story will turn out. And that’s kind of rare.

Her book, Od Magic, is a prime example of this sort of storytelling-as-exploration, and how atmosphere can drag us along. “Brenden Vetch found the Od School of Magic beneath a cobbler’s shoe on a busy street in…ancient…Kelior. The sign hung over the door of a tiny shop that badly needed paint.” Okay, well from this beginning we know that whoever runs this shop is not overly concerned with outward appearances, they might be, well, odd, and we don’t know where things are going. In other words, this is going to be fun.

A certain amount of McKillip’s charm as a writer is her telling the stories of characters who do not fit in. And as she develops her hero Brenden, he is certainly that. “Not that he blamed Meryd. He’d gone wild, reclusive as an animal, she said…” So loss and a wistful melancholy follow our hero like perfume. Even his brother takes off on him. So here he is, his old world gone, trying something new.

Another aspect of atmosphere in this tale is the commonplace having uncommon resonance. “We’ll go… see what kind of cottage the king lives in,” his brother says, but Brenden demurs. “‘I’d miss the wind.’ / ‘What?’ / ‘I need it. The sounds of it. The smells.’ / ‘Wind’s everywhere,’ Jode said bewilderedly.'” There. That’s it, the confusion we feel as readers, because the characters do not, or cannot, express themselves clearly. Why the wind? What is it about the wind? We are not told, or not right away. It’s almost indescribable, the magical connections of the characters to their world. All magic is indirect, not easily pinned down. And its practitioners are… as I said, odd.

But somehow we trust these people, we take it on faith this world is worth exploring. There is a kindness under McKillip’s narration that carries us along despite our bewilderment, with the result that, as with much of her writing, the tale of Od Magic takes us in directions we could not predict. In the end, we are left with a sense of how precious life is, and how precious are the connections we make with others, despite our own inarticulate ways.

A delightful story.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in my own mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, intends to establish a kingdom of peace and justice, despite disasters that threaten his people. You can find these books on Amazon, at the above links.

Related blogs:

His Majesty’s Dragon – Novik

Assassin’s Apprentice – Hobb

The Name Of The Wind – Rothfuss

 

The Underground Man – Ross Macdonald

Ross Macdonald is the greatest mystery writer you’ve never read. Yes, I’ve read all of Chandler, all of Hammett, my share of Christie and various others. The difference is that Macdonald never stopped trying to improve. So every one of his novels is better than the last (maybe excepting his very last book, the Blue Hammer, when he was fighting dementia), and by the end, Lordy he was good.

The Underground Man was 3rd to the last of his books. By that point in his career, he’d worked on plot, characterization, emotion, language and metaphor, all the techniques a writer needs, and he had turned to mastering symbolism. The big symbol in the book is a wildfire that’s burning over the California hills. (Ironic, considering the troubles we’ve had this year with such fires.) And just as the fire moves — now almost under control, now bursting out again and threatening disaster — so the characters fall under pressure from this surprise or that. I admit to work such a conscious symbol sounds precious, but he was good at it, an education to us all.

The book starts with the hero, Lew Archer, meeting a young boy, his neighbor, just as the boy’s father comes to pick him up from his mother. There is tension between the married couple, and the boy doesn’t want to go with his father. But Lew cannot protect the boy from his father, and encourages him to go. He fears for the boy, and we know this is not going to end well. They are going to the boy’s grandmother, in Santa Teresa. A great way to start the story, as we have sympathy for the child, and share the helplessness of the hero, putting us firmly on his side. Expert work.

In chapter two, the mother asks Lew to get her son back, as a forest fire in Santa Teresa now threatens the grandmother’s house, and she’s worried for the child. And for her husband, though Lew earlier sees him buzz off with a blond girl. But father and son disappear.

After that, it’s a race to find them, with the fire threatening all. The plotting is expert, the tug on our heartstrings keeps us engaged, and Macdonald makes this more than a quick read by using the fire to examine their lives, how things get out of control, how a little carelessness here or there creates the potential for catastrophes. It’s rarefied air for a detective novel. And of course no one is a straightforward hero, no one a simple villain.

These are real people. That’s essential to the power of the book. Even with a beautiful woman in the car, our hero is not the slick charmer, but far more human. “After I made the turn onto Sepulveda, I spent a little time preparing a remark. / ‘I seem to be getting a little less lonely, Mrs. Broadhurst.'”

Wow. So much happens in those two short sentences. We see his essential humanness, his shyness, his holding to formality as a shield, his yearning for connection, his chivalry. Characterization in action, a slick trick if you can do it.

Another trick, as I mentioned, is his use of metaphor, mostly dropped in casually, and understated. “Like something in an old movie, a World War Two bomber labored up from Van Nuys Airport and turned north. It was probably headed for the fire in Santa Teresa.” Again, look what he has done. The metaphor pulls the reader into the story, and at the same time creates a feeling of unreality; we see extraordinary efforts being made by the authorities to fight the fire, without any explicit mention of same; we are threatened by the fire, which on page 19 has only barely been mentioned. But it’s there.

The threat of the fire slowly comes closer in time and distance, classic suspense technique. The husband and son vanish, and the wife hires Lew to find them. Though the money may not be there, as she is poor. Will Lew get stiffed? No murder yet, but plenty of danger and mystery. Why did the father vanish with the son? We don’t know. We learn the marriage has been on the rocks, but they find evidence the father is not sleeping with the blond. Little by little, the walls between the detective Lew and his client, the wife, fall as well. Will they get together? Skill in weaving so many threads of suspense is rare, but few ever managed it better than Macdonald. A thug shows up and says to Lew that the husband better give him his money. “He gave me the tricky look of a half-smart man who had never learned the limits of his own intelligence.” Lines like that are like electric shocks, paying us off for reading with jolts of pleasure.

The fire powers many great lines. “Before we reached Santa Teresa I could smell smoke. Then I could see it dragging like a veil across the face of the mountain behind the city.” Think about it: veils create mystery. They are worn at weddings… and funerals. It’s a brilliant metaphor, and as I said, almost a throw-away line. It gives me a frisson, the sense that I am in the presence of a master, to see him drop line after line like that into the story. We don’t think of big symbols as adding tension, but in the hands of Macdonald, that is exactly what happens.

This is great writing. The symbolism of the fire gives the story meaning, gives our whole lives meaning, if we let it. Such use of symbolism forces us to examine who we are, how we are living, why we have the connections we do, and even what they count for. That’s a heady ambition for a mystery story, to challenge us to change our own lives, before it’s too late. But isn’t that what the best fiction aims to do?

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons, the first novel in my own mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, must understand the deeper workings of the world, and his own soul, before disaster overwhelms his people. You can find the book on Amazon at the above link.

Related blogs:

The Moonstone – Collins

The Age Of Innocence – Wharton

The Magnificent Ambersons – Tarkington

 

 

His Majesty’s Dragon – Novik

What I admire most about His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik’s debut novel, is how she couches the moral dilemmas that her hero Laurence faces so perfectly within his own culture, noticeably different from our own.

Her Temeraire series is set in an alternate world, during the Napoleanic Wars, in a world that includes dragons. An intriguing enough premise that I would have read the story anyway, so it’s sweet icing that it’s gloriously written, due to those aforementioned moral dilemmas. Novik gets inside the head of a naval officer who is waylaid in his career by becoming the partner of a newly hatched dragon. We feel his angst at losing the chance to be a noble ship’s captain, with the attendant threat of losing his fiancée, when he is perforce commanded to become one of those scurrilous types: captain of a dragon’s crew. That is, join the air force. His duty conflicts with his aspirations, but he is noble, and accepts the losses that come with being a loyal citizen, even to the loss of his engagement, and scorn from family and friends.

But the moral conflict grows as he becomes aware that dragons, treated like slaves and scum, are intelligent creatures, as moral, upright, and deserving of equality as any human. His subsequent nobility of course gets him into trouble with the powers-that-be, and lends a driving impetus to the whole series. Any moral conflict that juicy can be mined for thousands of pages. And his sacrifices make him a sympathetic character indeed, engaging us deeply. Yay!

Novik also uses language to reinforce the differences between her world and ours. When Laurence initially leads his ship’s crew to victory over a French ship, “the (French) captain was obviously deeply overset by the defeat.” Novik scrupulously adheres to such quaint language, and we trust her the more because of it. People act differently in her world, as well. Despite how important victory is to the French captain, when he gives his word not to lead an uprising among his men, Laurence gives him back his sword. Honor is that important a code, even between members of enemy nations.

To move from moral crisis to moral crisis, where right does not confront wrong so much as two rights confront each other, makes for powerful storytelling, and a delightful experience for the reader.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons, the first novel in my own mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, must understand the deeper workings of the world, and his own soul, before disaster overwhelms his people. You can find the book on Amazon at the above link.

Related blogs:

Assassin’s Apprentice – Hobb

Across The Nightingale Floor – Hearn

Wizard of Earthsea – Le Guin

 

Lorna Doone – Blackmore

What a grand adventure of a novel. If you ever wondered where all the epic novels got their roots, well, this is one of the places. Lorna Doone was written in the 1860’s, but it’s set in the late 17th century, whence arises a good part of its charm. For the sort of saucy humility in its tone is a great asset of the story. John Ridd is its hero, a farmer of Exmoor, a region in the southwest of England, lonely and wild at the time of the tale. John is constantly telling us how he must be humble, then boasting anyway. A sort of early version of the humble brag, but he ultimately does have a humble view of himself overall, and of his position in the world, and yet does his duty to the best of his ability, so we like the guy.

He falls in love with Lorna Doone, a girl kept by a local band of robbers, ostensibly as a daughter. She is more practical and clear-sighted than he (as indeed many of the women are visa-vis the local men). The robbers kill his father, but he forebears to seek vengeance, being a peaceable man. You can imagine how well that works out.

The quaintness of the setting, and the language, and the attitudes of the characters keep us amused, but a refreshing cynicism running underneath everything keeps the story from being too treacly. After the Doones kill his father, due to fear of the robbers: “none will doubt, when I tell them our good justiciaries feared to make  an ado, or hold any public inquiry about my dear father’s death.” Such are the rolling tones of the book, which give it such a rollicking flavor. Lots and lots happens, this is not a tale of subtle character and shades of inflection. And of course, enough humor to keep me entertained, and cheerful.

Lorna Doone held me to it. It’s a long book, but whenever I flagged in my reading, some quirky insight or troublesome quandary popped up, and off I went again. Very much worth reading, even all these years later.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons, the first novel in my own mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, must understand the deeper workings of the world, and his own soul, before disaster overwhelms his people. You can find the book on Amazon at the above link.

Related blogs:

The Age Of Innocence

The Moonstone

Assassin’s Apprentice

 

Assassin’s Apprentice – Hobb

When Megan Lindholm decided to reboot her career, renaming herself Robin Hobb and starting her series in a world whose depth, resonance and complexity humbles us all, in the very first book she set herself a challenge few would care to match. She made her hero an assassin. Not a sparkly, irreverent thief, not a naive, handsome sword swinger, no, her hero FitzChivalry is one of those skulkers in alleys, mean, duplicitous, sneering, and above all, unsympathetic. Or he should be, given what he does for a living. A billion book sales later (maybe I exaggerate a little), it’s worth asking, how did she do that?

Well, by making FitzChivalry sympathetic of course, despite his role in the world. How? Well, she starts him out as a victim, cast off by his mother’s family at a very young age, thrown into an alien, uncaring society in a castle, bastard son of an heir to the throne. And naive. And utterly unschooled.

But Hobb is subtler than most writers. She does not make his new world overwhelmingly oppressive. He receives little kindnesses from guards, beast masters and even a lord or two. Still, it is not a gentle life, and there are threats, not very explicit at first, and dangers, not least of which arise from within himself. He has two kinds of magic, one a lordly magic, the Skill, which allows him to manipulate others (first used to defend others), and one a forbidden, shameful magic, the Wit, allowing him to bond with animals.

Moral complexity is a hallmark of Hobb’s work. We don’t know how the hero is going to turn out. So when he is taken up by an assassin, we fear for his soul, if you will. For we see the kindness in Fitz, and the generosity. He is constantly giving food to his puppy companions. Animals like him. Heck, girls like him. It is the danger of the arc towards evil, more than anything, that keeps us reading, worrying, and hoping. If fiction can be seen as an emotional delivery vehicle, Hobb is the ultimate dirt track demon.

And she immerses us first in his world, giving readers time to bond with young Fitz, and understand his world. He is lonely, unloved, yearning for love and purpose. All our protective instincts are given the chance to come out. He does not meet his tutor, the master assassin Chade, until page 72. Even there, we are drawn along by the mystery of the man. Chade is a puzzle to solve. We first meet him in Fitz’ bedroom in the middle of the night, as the boy comes awake all unwary. “You’re awake,” he said. “Good. Get up and follow me.” No explanations, no background, just ‘come along, reader, and see what happens.’

Not that we are sheltered from what is to come (although the details are often cloaked, just enough). Right up front Chade tells the boy, “As to what I’m to teach you… It’s murder, more or less… diplomatic assassination.” That bluntness is also intriguing.

And there’s the key. Fitz is not doing it for himself, but for the benefit of his people. It is a weird service, and a troubled one, but that he gives up his future, gives up a normal life, in service to others, that is ultimately what keeps us turning the pages, and rooting for him. Hoping that a life of peace might finally be his. It creates a sympathy in us that just goes and goes and goes.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons, the first novel in my own mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, must understand the deeper workings of the world, and his own soul, before disaster overwhelms his people. You can find the book on Amazon at the above link.

Related blogs:

The Name Of The Wind

Across the Nightingale Floor

A Wizard Of Earthsea

The Name Of The Wind – Rothfuss

Continuing my trend of writing about how mystical fantasy novels work, I thought I would tackle Patrick Rothfuss’ first novel, The Name Of The Wind.

His angle to get us into the spookiness is to start his prologue with the lines “It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.” So we can guess right away this is a novel of shadows, filled with mysteries. The idea of different kinds of silence intrigues us. It fits with our own experience, and yet who ever thought of putting it that way? Always good to get that sort of resonance. So we read enough to learn what the three kinds of silence are, and by the end of that, we know something about the place, and are introduced to the hero, who goes by the name of Kote, but soon will reveal his real name, Kvothe. And why does he hide his name?

By page 3 we have magical monsters, the Chandrian, around whom fires turn blue: unnatural creatures, dangerous, and hard to spot. And closing in, of course. So Rothfuss gets the suspense going right away, or we wouldn’t stick around long enough to catch on to what his novel is about (in my view): a roman-a-clef about a young man learning magic, and the damage to him and to the world as he does so.

There is a natural intrigue to any story about learning the real meaning of the world. The allegory/symbol here is the hero’s wish to know the name of the wind. That means, in this world, to control magic, control his world, and in a deeper sense, understand why he is here. As readers, we hope WE can learn something more about why we are here. We all want to make sense of things, and we are willing, if the writer is skilled enough, to follow along, hoping she (or he in this case) can explain some of it to us.

I don’t know that Rothfuss actually delivers any of that mystical promise, but somehow, I am content anyway. It is enough that he takes us along on the ride, gives a glimpse of what his own questions are. We can say: ‘yes, that’s me, I see it that way myself. I have that same wonder, and that yearning to know.’

Now for a novel like this to work, there have to be enough mysteries, centered around intriguing characters who gradually reveal themselves. There is a Chronicler, who we learn is there to get at the truth of Kvothe’s story. There is the Arcanist, who prepares the young Kvothe for entering the Arcanum branch of the University, where he will learn magic, and mystical connections with the universe. Or not, depending on his own flawed nature. And always things are under-explained, so we’re constantly waiting for the big reveal.

Now Rothfuss grounds us in his world by being is quite explicit in what the hero needs to do to learn magic. For instance, early on, he must suspend his belief in gravity, while watching a rock being dropped. If he can just believe enough… And we think ‘yes, if I can just believe enough, yes I see how that can work.’ It helps us enter his world, helps us suspend our disbelief. A nice trick.

Maybe Rothfuss’ best trick is that this is the first book of a series, so he doesn’t really actually have to deliver the big reveal until somewhere far down the line. A fine first novel, chock-full of romance and mystery.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons, the first novel in my own mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, must understand the deeper workings of the world, and his own soul, before disaster overwhelms his people. You can find it on Amazon.

Related blogs:

Across the Nightingale Floor

A Wizard Of Earthsea

 

Across The Nightingale Floor – Hearn

I write mystical fantasy fiction, so it makes sense that’s what I love to read. In my view, there are few practitioners better than the Australian author, Lian Hearn. It’s kind of a tricky genre, because to be good at it, the writer needs some sort of “mystical in.” ;-> If not actually a mystic, one at least needs good references. And then the book should be well-written, and it doesn’t hurt if it moves along quickly, and the plotting and characterization are good…

Rookies pretty much need not apply.

Of course, I have no idea what Ms. Hearn’s spiritual contacts may be, but in Across The Nightingale Floor, she sure flexes some writerly muscles. The series, called Tales of the Otori, is set in an alternate, medieval Japan. Right there I’m happy, not only because I love Japanese culture, but because it is less-explored in western fantasy. More room for surprises.

She starts off at a good gallop when her hero, Takeo, escapes into the woods as a rival clan ambushes and murders his family. He ends up in the clutches of the Otori lord. His uncle steals Takeo’s inheritance, but he is adopted into the Otori clan, and from there works to win back his inheritance.

Of course, to gain power to fight for what’s his, Takeo must learn magical practices, and magic is gained through spiritual insight. Let’s define spirituality as identifying with something larger than ourselves, and mysticism as joining the spiritual with our whole being. Such a grand goal needs a very specific, grounded world to operate in, or it gets too precious. And Japanese mysticism is grounded very much in the natural world. Going into the forest on a spiritual quest, meeting the creatures therein, gaining their wisdom one way or another. Good stuff, and it all happens here. Who we are, how we fit into our world and why, humbleness in the face of the sublime, these themes matter to me, and Across The Nightingale Floor does a marvelous job of delivering on them.

Of course there’s a love story, and much action, and Ms. Hearn balances these elements well, plays them off each other, and leaves us hungry for the next book.

Kind of a spoiler: it’s every bit as good as this one.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons, the first novel in my own mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, must understand the deeper workings of the world, and his own soul, before disaster overwhelms his people. You can find it on Amazon.

Related blogs:

Storm Front

Wizard of Earthsea

Harry Potter

Lord Of The Rings

Storm Front – Butcher

Jim Butcher kind of stormed the ramparts as a fantasy writer a few years ago, creating this wonderful series of novels about a wizard detective named Harry Dresden. Now, Glen Cook and others have created wizard detectives, but not with the same elan, nor (I think) success, so what Butcher did seems to me of interest.

As a student, I’m always most interested in the first novel in the series, cuz that’s the one that hooks us in. For Butcher, that first book was Storm Front. And three things seem unusually effective in Storm Front.

First is the voice. “My phone rang. I stared at it in a somewhat surly fashion. We wizards are terrific at brooding.” This irreverent, even mouthy tone may not be breathtakingly unique, but it is appealing. Raymond Chandler by way of Robert Parker (and Greg MacDonald and many other authors). It’s even an archetypal tone. It speaks to us, gets inside us, helps us cheer for the hero right from the start.

The second stand-out skill is the ability Butcher shows to pile one trouble after another on his hero. To start, Harry has no money, he’s behind on his rent, and even the local letter carrier scoffs at him. Then he gets a call from a client who vacillates about showing up, finally agrees to meet in an hour… and then the local police sergeant calls, tells him there’s been a bad murder, and he needs to show up pronto. He agrees to give her a few minutes. So we have a time problem, a cash crunch (which plays as an ongoing problem) and conflict with the local police. Wow effective. Then he adds suspense. At the double murder scene, the first victim is a henchwoman of a vampire, the second is a henchman of the local human mob. And the murder is sexy, violent, and mysterious. So we know bad things are happening. Yay (speaking strictly as a reader).

The third stand-out ability (as if Butcher needs another) is the ability to generate sympathy for his heroes, both Dresden and the police sergeant, Lieutenant Karrin Murphy. She is being pressured by higher-ups in the department, he is being dissed by other members of the force, they are both trying to do what’s right in a cynical and somewhat corrupt environment. Classic stuff.

Next, Butcher mixes that ongoing program of building sympathy with add-ons to the suspense, going back-and-forth between the two. This is not easy to accomplish, and Butcher gains our respect, right from the first, for pulling it off. His ability to play can-you-top-this with more and meaner monsters, and more and meaner situations, keeps us reading right to the last page, and leaves us wanting more.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Disk of Dragons, the first novel in my spiritual fantasy series, can be found on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Disk-Dragons-Saga-Sinnesemota-ebook/dp/B00DEVF6UG

Related blogs:

Wizard of Earthsea

Harry Potter

Lord Of the Rings

 

 

The Age Of Innocence – Wharton

People change. Worlds change. But we don’t necessarily want such change, nor adjust very well. The technique I am most impressed with by Wharton in this splendid novel is her use of setting to move the story along, creating tension in the characters, and pushing them into rash actions.

The book begins in New York City, among the smart set, starting in the 1870’s. For the very rich, this is a clubby world, and the hero, Newland Archer, exults in his understanding of how it works. He is to marry a beautiful girl, basically because he is supposed to. that’s how his world works. He will take a fancy job as a lawyer, not that he is expected to do any work. What matters is the world of fashion, the world of entertainment, and how people fit in or do not fit in.

But an agent of change enters, in the form of a cousin of his fiancee, the Countess Olenska. She is nearly a fallen woman, not at all the sort who should be accepted in society, but her family flouts convention and allows her to enter their Opera box, and sit next to his fiancee, May. It is a society scandal, and he is embarrassed and irritated, because it diminishes his girl in front of society. Wharton tells us, few things to Newland are more awful than an offense against “Taste.”

To me it is brilliant to have a man who cares so much about what others think live in and react to such an insular world, where people go to their respective summer homes on the same day each year, go to only certain parties, not others, and value their houses, carriages, and other props so overwhelmingly. They define themselves by their things. Countess Olenska does not, however, and Newland gradually feels the tension of chasing after her, a free spirit who cares about people, versus living in his conventional world, with his conventional girl.

But May is anything but wallpaper, and when she realizes her new husband is falling for her cousin, she fights back with all her might. She has only her conventional weapons, integrity, appeal to goodness, and such, and soon Newland realizes his dilemma. We are told the New York rituals are precise and unchangeable, but “It surprised him that life should be going on the same old way when his own reactions to it had so completely changed.”

He even begins to find relief in the rituals, popping back to his old routine at the office. He has grown old before his time, perhaps, but he can at least see the hints, in the changes of the world around him, that change is possible. Why, they might even build a tunnel under the Hudson River!

Wharton does not leave this tension of changed character in unchanged world alone, however, she is too deft. Soon the world is changing as well. Just when he wants it to stay the same. We see, underneath all the high collars, the harshness of the real world, and more, how we bring our own cruelties into whatever world we are in.

But when he realizes how cruel he has become, the cruelty of the lover, and realizes his wife knows, it forces a decision in him. Again, the use of setting is exquisite here. After the confrontation with his wife, as she is leaving, he notes “Her torn and muddy wedding-dress dragging after her…”

It is one of the big changes of life, however, that forces his decision: his wife May is pregnant. And though he still would hope to wriggle out of his reality, live in a cruel fantasy land, his world essentially forces him to grow up, accept his position, and do right by his wife and child-to-be. The Countess leaves, and will no longer have him.

By the end of the novel, the world is nothing but symbols of change: he goes to an inauguration of the new galleries at the Metropolitan Museum, his son calls him long distance on the telephone, and he is the old guy the world has mostly passed by, burrowed into his old ways. But now his wife is gone, and his son knows something of his old flame, and wants to introduce him to her.

It is all so natural, and so well-done.

There is a reason this book won a Pulitzer.  This final choice of Newland shows how much a world can inhabit a man, until he becomes almost completely a symbol of his situation, following the obvious choices laid before him, choosing in this way, through the wisdom of the old world, to be kind rather than cruel, and reliable rather than revolutionary. Guided by forces even he does not understand. A great novel, displaying an equally great use of setting to help make its point.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Disk of Dragons, the first novel in my spiritual fantasy series, can be found on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Disk-Dragons-Saga-Sinnesemota-ebook/dp/B00DEVF6UG