Haven’t written too much about books here recently because I’ve been in the middle of a reviewing jag. In the course of this I’ve got through one 500-page novel that seemed to go on forever, and one novel not much shorter which was over in a flash. The longer novel is, I suspect, going to be a bestseller, because it flatters the reader into thinking it is a very clever book though it is far shallower than it pretends. The somewhat shorter novel is, undoubtedly, the best novel of the year so far, but it is probably not going to be a bestseller, indeed it is probably not even going to be published in the UK, because it genuinely is a clever book and is actually much deeper than it pretends.
Okay, let’s not be coy, the best book of the year is Lord Byron’s Novel, The Evening Land by John Crowley (Morrow), which more or less does exactly what it says on the tin, recreating the highly romantic tale that Byron might have started those evenings at the Villa Diodati. The potential bestseller is Vellum by Hal Duncan (Macmillan) which is picking up advance praise by people like Jeff Vandermeer and is getting the sort of push from its publisher which suggests they know a sure thing when they see one.
I did not dislike Vellum, I have read many many far worse novels in my time, but it is distinctly a case of being less than the sum of its parts. When you come down to it, this is the corniest of fantasy story lines: the ultimate war between the forces of good and evil, but it has been tricked out with a handful of familiar postmodern tropes and Duncan has stylishly blurred the distinctions between the two sides. Rather like Philip Pullman before him, we end up cheering for Satan and the angels are on the wrong side. He flatters us by incorporating, wholesale, chunks of Mesopotamian and classical myth, and then through puns and similar-sounding names and other devices allows us to detect a continuity between them, Christian mythology and this story. He tosses in neat science fictional devices, like near-future nanotechnology, and moments of blood-curdling horror, so it comes across as a fashionable Miévillesque transgenre fiction; but this is really gloss on a core fantasy that’s about as traditional as they come. And in the modern era sections he takes us to a series of iconic twentieth century scenes – the trenches of the First World War, Guernica, a Nazi concentration camp – which gives an air of serious intent. Though when a man strung out on the barbed wire of the Somme is suddenly translated into Prometheus chained to a rock and pecked by eagles, seriousness is sold out to cleverness. When he is translated again into an avatar of Satan being gruesomely tortured by the chief angel, then the linkages across time and mythology begin to seem merely gratuitous.
There is cleverness, too, in the writing. Vellum opens with a series of very short scenes which involve abrupt shifts of location, character, action, even viewpoint (most of the novel is third person, but every so often a passage will be in first person with no indication of who the ‘I’ might be). These scenes do not come anywhere close to resolution before we are plunged willy-nilly into a new piece of action, so you keep reading to find out if we’re going to find out what was going on. As often as not, we don’t. As the novel progresses the scenes become somewhat longer, but this basic narrative structure remains (which is why the book seems an awful lot longer than it actually is). It is also one of the ways in which it flatters the reader, it feels as if it should be intellectually demanding to keep so many characters and plots and so forth in the mind. In fact, of course, it is nowhere near as demanding as all that, because we don’t need to keep these things in mind. Duncan has invented a form of Moorcockian multiverse – the ‘vellum’, the neatest invention in the book, and I only wish he’d done more with it – but this allows anything to happen. All too often this liberality is used as an excuse for laziness. If he doesn’t want to resolve a particular stand of the plot or he gets a character into an impossible situation, we just shift to a different part of the vellum and repeat it all in a slightly different way so it all comes out this time. It means, among other things, that although all his characters end up being archetypes rather than genuine people, they never have to be consistent.
In the end, therefore, although Vellum appears on the surface like a rich stew overstuffed with plot and character, it is actually rather thin stuff. Lord Byron’s Novel, on the other hand, appears on the surface like pretty thin stuff, but actually gets richer and deeper the more you venture into it.
It is a tripartite novel, and in the ludicrously short review I wrote for Interzone (400 words, I ask you?) I noted that these all call to mind other works, something that I consider unprecedented in Crowley’s work. The main body of the book is, of course, Byron’s novel, which is reminiscent of Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Heel, though Crowley’s ventriloquial skills are far greater than Spinrad’s. The novel is annotated by Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace (shades of The Difference Engine), and such annotations have been seen before in novels ranging from Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. The third part features the emails exchanged by those involved in discovering and working on the novel, which is, of course, something we have seen before in Mary Gentle’s Ash. So why does the novel feel so original? Because underneath the three parts of the novel we find not three linked stories but just one story in three aspects, and we need to understand the three parts separately in order to fully appreciate the one story in total. That’s a trick which demands subtlety and intuition on the part of the reader as much as it demands a high degree of skill on the part of the writer. Where Duncan flatters his readers into thinking they are clever, Crowley simply assumes that they are.
The Evening Land itself is highly coloured, full of the ingredients of the literary world where the gothic flights of ‘Monk’ Lewis are shading into pacy adventures of Walter Scott. There are larger than life characters who delight in their evil, there are noble men who sacrifice themselves for others, there are women who fade away in exotically draped bedrooms, there’s a zombie and a doppelganger, there’s a ruined Scottish castle and a jail break and smugglers, there are wars and secret societies and hair’s-breadth escapes from death. It is a glorious romp, and Crowley is pitch perfect in his recreation of the literary style of the time.
But it is also a novel written by Lord Byron, and much as we might enjoy the surface story the author looms large in his own novel. It is full of references to and reflections of his life. The daughter who never knew him, Ada Lovelace, somehow acquires the manuscript and annotates it. She notes in particular the elements within the novel which pick up on his life, though there are other references which somehow she doesn’t notice. I confess I have only a general knowledge of Byron’s life, acquired more through novels such as The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers than through any biography, but even I noticed some though I suspect not all of Ada’s omissions. These are significant, because one of the things the underlying story concerns is the inability of children to know the full story of their parents. Ada is, moreover, dying at the time she does this, signs of her final illness slip heartbreakingly into the broken sentences and faltering thoughts of her annotations. She is, however, ordered to destroy the manuscript by her mother – another example of the generational fault lines running through the novel. She burns it, but not before translating it into the proto-computer code she was working on with Charles Babbage.
The code survives, and in the third section is rediscovered by an American lesbian researcher. Through her emails we learn of the cracking of the code, the uncovering of the novel, and its preparation for eventual publication. But through the emails we also learn of her relationship with her father. He was a noted Byron scholar who fled America while she was still a child because he had raped a young girl. She has not seen him since. There seems an obvious parallel between their story and that of Byron and Ada, but the parallel is noted once and then dismissed. But if the obvious parallel does not work, there are less obvious parallels, and thought they are never made explicit (Crowley trusts his readers to work at his novels, to pull connections out of hints and omissions rather than having to have them made plain) these parallels do work. So as the three stories come to an end, the unresolved story of Byron and Ada is (at least partially) resolved in the present day.
All of this is in the novel, but it is never on the surface. It is a beautifully told story – the writing is gorgeous – but as you are enchanted by this you begin to realise there are things going on underneath, and the more you listen for these half-heard echoes, the richer and deeper the whole work becomes.
It is, as I say, the best novel of the year so far. What a pity it is not going to have the same commercial success I predict for Vellum.
First published at Livejournal, 23 June 2005.