Ishiguro and the Remains of a Legend

Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, The Buried Giant (Knopf, 345 pages), is an eccentric addition to the King Arthur corpus. Those who have certain expectations regarding the fantasy genre should set those expectations aside when they sit down to read it. This novel, Ishiguro’s first in a decade, reinvents the most English of folk legends and turns it into a very personal vision. Arthurian scholars will be appalled by the book. As for casual fans… if you are expecting a semi-sequel to T.H. White’s lively The Once and Future King, then you will be disappointed.

The main characters in The Buried Giant are Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple living in England’s Dark Ages. They belong to a tribe of Britons. For those of you not up to speed on British history, the so-called Dark Ages refer to the time period (roughly 5th and 6th centuries C.E.) when the Roman Empire lost its hold on the island nation and Saxon tribes from northern Europe began invading and settling. The presence of these new Saxon tribes caused friction and outright conflict with the older Briton communities. The legend of King Arthur, who was a Briton, rose up during this era.

Axl is a former knight of the Round Table. But his mind is clouded. So is Beatrice’s. Near the end of his life, King Arthur asked his sorcerer, Merlin, to cast a spell of forgetfulness over all the tribes. After many years of wars, Arthur wanted to preserve peace in the kingdom after his death. Merlin used a dragon named Querig to achieve this result. So long as the dragon breathes out its mist, the people will forget their past hatreds. But there’s more to it than that. Axl has a vague recollection of once being a knight. But he cannot remember for certain. Both Axl and Beatrice know they have an adult son. Where is he now? They cannot remember for certain.

 The first edition of  The Buried Giant  (photo taken by blog author).

The first edition of The Buried Giant (photo taken by blog author).

It’s a shame that the philosopher George Santayana was born far too late. He would have advised Arthur that: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Based on the descriptions in the novel, life on the island is not particularly peaceful or pleasant. Axl and Beatrice live in a cavernous establishment dug directly into a hill. Ishiguro describes it as a “warren” – a rambling series of corridors and chambers in which an entire community lives in squalor. Ishiguro conveys a memorable picture here of nature invading the bizarre architecture (writing about the couple’s chamber door): “…a large wooden frame criss-crossed with small branches, vines, and thistles which someone going in and out would each time have to lift to one side.” Furthermore, we see that people are just as suspicious and violent as they were during wartime. Outsiders are viewed as either possessed or dangerous, and every man is quick to draw a sword.

Axl and Beatrice decide to leave their depressing home life and find their estranged son. They hope to move in with him. On their journey, they will encounter several unique individuals: an orphaned Saxon boy named Edwin, a lone warrior named Wistan, and the aged knight Sir Gawain. Gawain’s stated mission is to find and slay the dragon Querig in order to lift the spell. During their long walk, they must be mindful of skulking ogres. Viewed in this light, The Buried Giant is a classic saga.

My first thought on finishing the book was that Ishiguro loves symbols. Let’s count a few. Everyone in the warren is an amnesiac, and Axl and Beatrice are denied even one candle to light their room – a life without “illumination.” Check out their names. Beatrice is a reference to the lead character in Dante’s Paradiso (a tip-off as to where the novel is headed). The name Axl is the Scandinavian version of Absalom. If you remember your Sunday school, Absalom was the rebellious son of King David. So Axl has some personal history to hide. When we encounter the dragon near the end, it is not quite what we expect. Its physical state is a clear analogy to England at that time. The ferryman the couple meets has a parallel in Greek mythology. If you enjoy decoding symbols, then this is the novel for you.

My second thought is that The Buried Giant is an assured artistic statement. Ishiguro could have easily used the King Arthur legend to write an entertaining rendition along the lines of Stephen R. Lawhead's The Pendragon Cycle. But Ishiguro has loftier ambitions. This novel is a meditation on the power of myth, memory, and the human need for loving relationships. He uses the famous legend as a platform for his exploration of these themes. In my view, it is speculative fiction of a high order: an Arthurian fantasy transformed into literary art.


ALEC GREENFIELD

Alec Greenfield graduated from Carleton University with a degree in history. After that, he taught English in South Korea for 14 years. He is fascinated by writers who are daring or unique. Besides spec-fic, his interests include movies, travel, politics, karaoke, and Kierkegaard. He lives in Ottawa.

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A Genius You've (Probably) Never Heard Of

Is there a musician who you love...and no one else cares about?

Since this blog is about speculative fiction, I want to give props to a writer whose works I greatly admire, but he's not exactly a household name.

Back in 2003, Harold Bloom, the high-minded literary critic, gave a shortlist of five great living American novelists "who are still at work and who deserve our praise." The writers he cited were: Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and John Crowley.

I’m sure that most people’s reaction when seeing this list is: John who?

(We’ll set aside the fact that the writers are all aging white men—that’s a whole other column.)

John Crowley is a fiction writer, screenwriter, and essayist whose most famous works are in the realms of fantasy and speculative fiction. Having said that, his aesthetics are closer in spirit to Iris Murdoch or Umberto Eco rather than Harry Potter. If you cannot stomach his books, then I feel sorry for you—you’re missing one of the finest literary stylists in the English language.

If there is a quintessential Crowley novel, then Little, Big (1981) is it. A winner of the World Fantasy Award, the novel is extraordinary and almost indescribable. A magic realist fable set mostly in a sprawling mansion in upstate New York, the plot is about an eccentric family and their contact with the dimension of Faerie. Oh, and we also meet an autocratic presidential candidate who is the reincarnation of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Gulp!

I agree with Bloom on this one. “It is literally the most enchanting twentieth-century book I know,” he wrote. It’s worth a look, simply for the style. Here is a description of the mansion’s unique architecture: “a severe, classical façade softened by ivy, its gray stone stained as though by dark tears…pillars turned pilasters and disappeared. Like one of those ripply pictures children play with, where a face turns from grim to grin as you move it…the house had become cheerful and mock-Tudor, with deep curling eaves and clustered chimneys like comic hats.” Now that’s a mansion!

 The most recent edition of  Little, Big  (image taken from Amazon.com).

The most recent edition of Little, Big (image taken from Amazon.com).

If you are feeling ambitious, then I’d also recommend Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle. The cycle is a tetralogy of novels concerning the intellectual adventures of an American writer named Pierce Moffett. He sets out to find the hidden history of the world, and his research delves into Hermeticism and the writings of the real-life occultist, John Dee. All this intellectualizing is putting a dent in Moffett’s personal life. The poor guy just wants to be loved. Is the Aegypt Cycle esoteric? Yes. But it’s also brilliant. Critic Michael Dirda raved about it in a long essay.

Here is the best way to approach a Crowley book—don’t think…just dive in.


ALEC GREENFIELD

Alec Greenfield graduated from Carleton University with a degree in history. After that, he taught English in South Korea for 14 years. He is fascinated by writers who are daring or unique. Besides spec-fic, his interests include movies, travel, politics, karaoke, and Kierkegaard. He lives in Ottawa.

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The Agony and the SF

Writer's block is no fun.

I recently went through a brief bout of it. For my creative writing class, I was asked to write a short story. Being a sci-fi fanatic, I wanted to do a piece in that genre.

It was a Saturday afternoon and I put on some choice jazz music to get me in the zone. I knew I wanted to write a story about an android. It's a classic SF trope, so I sat down in front of my computer. I was all set.

I had a name for my protagonist ("Reggie"). Also, I had a vague idea that I wanted to do a love story about a female android being passed off as a human. I even had a title in mind—I would call this tale The Necklace. And yes, a necklace would be my MacGuffin.

I typed for a half-hour or so, and I reached the end of page one.

And then... nothing.

After writing that one page, I was stuck. I had set up the story—a lonely man purchases a female android who is an identical copy of his former lover—but now I was questioning the plausibility of it all.

In order to write a good SF story, an author must achieve the suspension of disbelief.

That "suspension" was tripping me up. Who made the android? How was it designed to resemble a real human being? If Reggie buys the android, how does he explain this situation to his friends? Won't they notice that the automaton resembles his ex-lover? If the ex-lover finds out, how will she react?

Questions like these were invading my mind.

 One question after another!

One question after another!

I needed some advice.

I remembered what the distinguished SF writer Orson Scott Card once said: "Writer's block is my unconscious mind telling me that something is either unbelievable or unimportant to me... (It) is never solved by forcing oneself to write through it."

That settled things for me. I realized that my idea was too ambitious and it wouldn't fit into the confines of a five-page story.

Therefore, I would set the idea aside and do something entirely different.

I ended up writing a nostalgic and realistic story about a family cat.

I can write a spec-fic story. I wrote a weird fiction tale a few weeks back about a troubled young boy and his pet praying mantis.

But on that day, SF wasn't going to happen.

Win some, lose some.


ALEC GREENFIELD

Alec Greenfield graduated from Carleton University with a degree in history. After that, he taught English in South Korea for 14 years. He is fascinated by writers who are daring or unique. Besides spec-fic, his interests include movies, travel, politics, karaoke, and Kierkegaard. He lives in Ottawa.

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Loving and Hating Lovecraft

Unknown. Despised. Revered. Debated.

That basically sums up the reputation over the years of spec-fic master Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937). If you are unfamiliar with H.P. Lovecraft's work, you can think of him as a kind of counterpart to Edgar Allan Poe. Lovecraft revelled in the supernatural and the macabre. In addition, he has had an immense influence on genre writers who came later: Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Neil Gaiman, to name a few.

Critic Edmund Wilson despised Lovecraft, dismissing his work as "bad taste and bad art." But you know when the Establishment hates something, it makes the object of that hatred more alluring. In the decades since his death, Lovecraft's stories have become increasingly popular, even analyzed in English lit courses.

 A Gothic night out (taken from Freeimages.com).

A Gothic night out (taken from Freeimages.com).

What's the appeal of a Lovecraft story? Simply, he transports us to another world. I guess the question is whether you have the stamina to go on that journey with him. In a typical Lovecraft outing, you may encounter sentient ghouls, subterranean terrors, or ancient extraterrestrial entities. According to him, human beings are insignificant players in a vast, cold, and dangerous universe. We call this cosmic horror. His tales reflected his worries about scientific advances and his recurring themes are alienation, neurosis, and paranoia.

Yes, it's fair to say that Lovecraft's fiction may not be everyone's cup of Darjeeling.

But enough with the philosophy. I enjoy Lovecraft's work because he had a hell of an imagination. His novella At the Mountains of Madness, set in Antarctica, is a triumphant statement of weirdness with a cryptic ending. The Colour Out of Space is one of the creepiest short stories I have ever read. The Library of America published a volume of his Tales in 2005 that amounts to a greatest-hits package (virtually all his fiction is in the form of short stories).

 The Library of America's volume of Lovecraft's  Tales  (photo taken by blog author).

The Library of America's volume of Lovecraft's Tales (photo taken by blog author).

The only misgiving I have regarding Lovecraft is this - the dude was a bit of a racist. Do you have an eccentric granduncle in your family? You know, the kind who complains loudly about conspiracies and then blames foreigners for all the country's problems? You want him to stop talking....

Regrettably, in a couple of his stories, Lovecraft's toxic notions about race are apparent. One of them is here. Was he a man of his time? Perhaps. But the language is still corrosive.

So, in my view, admiring H.P. Lovecraft's fiction is like admiring the music of Richard Wagner (who was a notorious anti-Semite). We can love the art... but hate the man.

 Fear comes in many shapes (taken from Freeimages.com).

Fear comes in many shapes (taken from Freeimages.com).


ALEC GREENFIELD

Alec Greenfield graduated from Carleton University with a degree in history. After that, he taught English in South Korea for 14 years. He is fascinated by writers who are daring or unique. Besides spec-fic, his interests include movies, travel, politics, karaoke, and Kierkegaard. He lives in Ottawa.

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Rethinking the "S" in SF

When someone says to you their favourite genre is SF, what does the "S" in that term mean to you? I'm in the minority on this one - for me, the S means "speculative."

I know, I know. That's not what most people say it means. They say the S actually stands for "science."

But I want to start a new trend. From now on, let's say that SF means speculative fiction.

For starters, speculative fiction is an umbrella term. When you say that a piece of fiction is speculative, that includes the following: sci-fi, fantasy, horror, alternate history, and weird fiction.

Now I see an obvious question coming. Someone may legitimately ask: These are separate genres - why do you think they belong together? It's a fair question.

The late, great Rod Serling, the mastermind behind television's The Twilight Zone, referred to his show as "the realm of the imagination." What an awesome turn of phrase!

These genres are related because they inhabit the imaginative realm.

All fiction is imaginative, you say. I see your point.

However, the stories described in these specific genres describe situations that will never happen in the real world. Perhaps we can call them "unrealistic."

What is the other common denominator of these genres? Well, all of them are incredibly freeing for a fiction writer. Anything is possible in SF. An ambitious writer can explore themes and philosophical conundrums with more ease than in the conventional genres.

Which writers are part of the speculative universe? It covers everyone from H.G. Wells to Neal Stephenson, Mervyn Peake to Clive Barker, Ursula K. Le Guin to Neil Gaiman, and Edgar Allan Poe to Stephen King.

It also includes mainstream writers who have occasionally dabbled in speculative fiction: Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood, Iris Murdoch, P.D. James, and Mark Helprin.

We must not forget some of the notable writers from outside of the English-speaking world: Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jose Saramago, and Italo Calvino (to name a few).

So, dear reader, let's celebrate all these talented ladies and gentlemen and designate them as leaders in the art of SF - speculative fiction!

 SF is "the realm of the imagination" (taken from Freeimages.com).

SF is "the realm of the imagination" (taken from Freeimages.com).


Alec -- photo.jpg

ALEC GREENFIELD

Alec Greenfield graduated from Carleton University with a degree in history. After that, he taught English in South Korea for 14 years. He is fascinated by writers who are daring or unique. Besides spec-fic, his interests include movies, travel, politics, karaoke, and Kierkegaard. He lives in Ottawa.  Facebook and Twitter.