Tuesday, July 30, 2013

David Foster Wallace - The Broom of the System

David Foster Wallace began what would become The Broom of the System as his honors thesis in English, meaning that he wrote it at an age uncomfortably close to my own. That similarity aside, and despite its place at the very beginning of Wallace’s body of work, The Broom of the System is, I imagine, likely approached how I came to it, which is to say by those who have just read the brilliant Infinite Jest and are curious about what else Wallace has done.

From that vantage point, the most obvious characteristic about this work is its relative simplicity. Here we have less technicality, fewer pages and characters, less experimentation, and no footnotes at all. But viewing The Broom of the System as only a building block on the road to Infinite Jest is not a fair way to view an earlier work. Looked at it at least partially upon its own terms, The Broom of the System is a fun, silly, and bright novel that occupies, albeit to a lesser extent, the same intersection of insight and absurdity that Wallace’s masterwork is known for.

We begin with Lenore Beadsman, a telephone operator in her mid twenties at a publishing house, whose brilliant but eccentric great-grandmother vanishes from the nursing home where she has lived in a temperature-controlled room for decades. In theory, the book is about searching for her. As this is a Wallace book, however, we don’t so much proceed forward through the plot as we do outwards. Though time does pass over the course of the novel, no real progress is made on the search, and just about none of the other plot threads are really brought to a conclusion. Instead, Wallace uses the search for the great-grandmother to introduce us to and explore those around Lenore. We meet her brilliant but deranged brother in his college dorm room, see her horrendous and hygiene-anxity-obsessed psychologist, and get to know quite well the head of her publishing house, Rick Vigorous, who is also her obsessive, controlling, and neurotic lover.

The absence of much more than a cursory plot tells more here than it did in Infinite Jest. Wallace strews the novel with the promise of events – some personal, some world-changing – and they are uniformly either not followed up upon or are advanced in the most ambiguous fashion possible. The tactic works for several of the book’s main threads but left me wondering why we had bothered with some of the smaller ones. Details like Lenore’s psychologist really not being a psychologist at all but rather an impostor  put in place by unknown hands, are added but never expanded. The book ends in mid-sentence, something that balances between powerful and obnoxious, and might lean toward the latter.

Still, lambasting our failure to find Lenore begins to, after not too long, miss the point of it all. This is not a novel about searching. Rather, The Broom of the System is a story about stories. Lenore’s great-grandmother believed in Wittgensteinian fashion that the world is words (p. 74). Lenore, therefore, is terrified that the world is nothing but words, that All that really exists of my life is what can be said about it (p. 119), that hers is A life that’s told, not lived (p. 119). What, she cannot help but wonder, sets her apart from a character in a story, controlled entirely but what is said by and about her?

Fittingly enough for a book about stories and their telling, The Broom of the System is packed with voices. Wallace proves himself as a chameleon, able to shift into new kinds of speech with each addition to his cast, and the focus is often almost entirely upon the words being spoken. Some scenes are presented as transcripts, nothing but tags and dialogue, leaving the reader to read the emotion in between the lines. Others go so far as to remove the tags, simply presenting us with monologues or with two or more conversants that are only separated by their manners of speech. Our first introduction to Rick Vigorous and the grown Lenore is a conversation between them that shows us their voices before their names. All of this is a choice that could prove disastrous, but Wallace is a skilled enough writer that I never had a moment when I couldn’t tell who was talking.

Stories are in no shorter supply. Frequently, it seems that much of what Lenore does is stumble across stories, and colorful backstories are often the object in the spotlight. We are also treated to many of the submissions that Vigorous receives for his literary magazine, and they were a prime example of how Wallace can balance levels and extremes. The stories are awful, and Vigorous, as he relates them to Lenore, frequently comments upon the terrible sentimentality or ideas in a section – but, perhaps in part because of their license to be contrived that allows them to then deny that very charge, they are often moving as well. Besides which, they are the location of some of Wallace’s most madcap creativity and are always a joy to hear described.

One of the results of Lenore’s belief in the totality of words, and one of the key ambiguities that the novel ends on, is whether people can change along with their words. In the prologue, a teenaged Lenore is sexually menaced by a collegiate Lang, who is joking but still threatening. Years later, as the novel nears its end, the two end up together. Lang insists that his earlier actions were just because they were kids back then, and, when Lenore asks why he now talks differently around her, he says I guess maybe we all talk differently with different people (p. 411). The implications, if we really are just what we say, would be that we are genuinely different people in different circumstances. The novel ends before we get to see if Lang is genuinely different, but I think that my extreme discomfort whenever he was with Lenore give at least my answer to the question.

Wallace’s commitment and ability to have his own cake and eat it too, to mock the excess of the submissions but still communicate it, is present throughout the book. It can be seen in Wallace’s tentative but inevitable approach to metafiction. The Broom of the System is far too concerned with its own telling to really be anything but, but Wallace is aware of the dangers. As Lenore says of a story, she read, It wasn’t real at all. It was like a story about a story (p. 335). Wallace being Wallace, he is not so much scared off by those dangers as he is enticed to play. One of the most amusing bits is his brief stab at all the college kid writers out there that write too-dark, too-pretentious stories and should be out partying instead, something that applies to not only me and my own dark, pretentious stories but Wallace himself at the time of writing this whole thing.

Indeed, Wallace is a master at finding tensions in stories and psychologies, and many of his deepest insights – and even his most poignant moments – come from such regions. Early on, he discusses how one’s obsessions – in one’s appearance, say – are counterbalanced by an equally strong obsession to not appear obsessed with the first obsession. Soon after, we hear, in a Vigorous submission, of how Ironically enough, a man, in whom the instinct to love is as strong and natural and instinctive as can possibly be, is unable to find someone really to love (p. 180), for his need to love proves hopelessly unattractive and prevents him from fulfilling it. Vigorous himself exhibits a paradox not far from that. He is defined by his love for Lenore, is desperate to ensure that their relationship survives, and, because he is so desperate for that, threatens to drive her away with his jealousy.

Other great details and insights abound throughout the novel. Wallace is the kind of writer that can draw the truth out of almost any situation and restate it in a fresh way. One example of that is what Vigorous comes to refer to as The Reversal after Lenore describes it to him, the way that at first you maybe start to like some person on the basis of, you know, features of the person. The way they look, or the way they act, or if they’re smart, or some combination or something. […] But then if you get to where you, you know, love a person, everything sort of reverses. It’s not that you love the person because of certain things about the person anymore; it’s that you love the things about the person because you love the person. (p. 287). Then there is how Wallace draws connections between every facet of love and our fundamental need/desire to not be alone, such as how one character comes to realize that Weight Watchers sees itself as a warrior in the great war against loneliness (p. 90).

Besides all of that, Wallace is a damn funny writer. Continuing (or, I suppose, preceding) Infinite Jest’s tradition, some of the best lines involve facial hair, such as the college kid that has a little blond beardish thing sprouting from his chin, making it look a little like an armpit (p. 14). Another character works in neuroses like a whaler in scrimshaw (p. 58). Needless to say, the humor continues above the level of the sentence. One of the novel’s most amusing running jokes is Vigorous’s attempt to write. The reader is treated to scenes and stories of his as he spitefully reenacts the scenes of his life with better results through his fictional altar ego in the most childish way possible. Earlier on, the governor of Ohio decides that the state has gone soft and decides to give the people a blasted area to measure themselves against, leading to the Great Ohio Desert – or G.O.D.

The Broom of the System is a smaller work than Infinite Jest, one with less searing brilliance that could have used a bit more of an ending and a bit less game playing. Still, it’s interesting to see how David Foster Wallace got his start, and, more than that, this is an interesting and worthy novel in its own right, one at home on the tight-rope balancing act of comedy and insight, storytelling and commenting upon storytelling.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Iain M. Banks - Against a Dark Background

[Against a Dark Background went from my To Be Read shelf to before my eyes with the news of Banks' illness. By the time he died, the review had been written for a few weeks. The temptation to sanitize it and remove any criticism was strong. One generally does not speak ill of the dead in even minor ways, after all. But reviews are not bad mouthing but rather conversation, and it seems to me far preferable for a writer for their work to be engaged with, both in positive and negative ways, after their death, rather than for their work to be eulogized in a well-lit but sterile corner.]

When not writing literary fiction as Iain Banks, Iain M. Banks was best known for his Science Fiction novels set in his famous Culture setting, my favorite of which is Player of Games. Against a Dark Background is one of his few SF works that does not share that setting, though the Golter system that it develops is not far off in terms of Banks’ usual inventiveness. Problems in its plotting and pacing hold it back, but it does still possess power in its dark conclusion.

The novel follows Sharrow, a noblewoman that once led a crack mercenary team. She is drawn back into action when a religious organization, the Hushz, obtain a legal warrant to kill her due to their longstanding dispute with her family over a long-lost and incredibly devastating weapon known as the Lazy Gun. Accordingly, Sharrow gets the old team back together and goes after the Gun herself. Things get progressively more complicated from there. Other players operate in the shadows, and each step closer to the Gun forces her closer and closer to her family’s secrets.

Sharrow’s search takes her through just about all of Golter and the planets around it, giving Banks a book’s worth of opportunities to play tour guide. Luckily, his creations don’t disappoint. Against a Dark Background’s setting is a dystopic satire of the late twentieth century filled with hilarious people, ideas, and institutions that are as zany and often as awesome as anything Banks has created. Unlike in the Culture, technological progress did not bring Golter to enlightenment. Golter’s people reached the stars, but their system was impossibly distant from anything else. As Banks writes: “[Golter] had found itself alone and it had spread itself as far as it could and produced so much, but it was still next to nothing” (p. 4020).

Technology brought no wisdom. Instead, numerous wars left humanity sitting in its own rubble. Marvels from the past, known as “antiquities” (p. 22), are hunted by teams like Sharrow’s, the world’s fragile peace is maintained by the litigious and bureaucratic World Court, and we all sit on piles of weaponry more than sufficient to annihilate one another. Religious cults of increasing strangeness abound. Some of the faithful keep themselves permanently chained to walls, a kingdom is run by the Useless Kings that style themselves the “Prime Detesters of God the Infernal Wizard” (p. 227), and a roving band of pirates is composed entirely of solipsists.

It’s a setting that allows endless, madcap adventure, and Banks capitalizes on it. As Sharrow travels to first recollect her team and then follow the clues she finds toward the Lazy Gun, the book is divided into a succession of miniature arcs that are separated by changes in scenery and that each culminate in grand set pieces. There is an SF train robbery, the thieving of priceless and closely-guarded jewels from a city of boats, ambushes in bars, escapes from armored cars, contended battles through miles of woodlands, assassination attempts via flying beasts, and much more. To all that Banks adds a series of flashbacks detailing Sharrow’s past and youth with her team and her family, many of which manage to be genuinely touching – and to explore yet more corners of Golter.

Alas, problems soon set in with these adventures, beginning with the sheer number of them. Moving onto a new chunk of Golter, or even onto a new planet, after each heist breaks up any momentum that might have otherwise built up. Save the team, everyone else is left behind, and Banks’ ingenious creations soon start to have the feel of theme park rides: thrilling and well-constructed but suited to one purpose only and best left as soon as that purpose is done. Up until the very end, the intensity of the heists itself doesn’t change much. Though the prize of the Gun does get closer with each victory, hunting down clue Y rather than clue X does not feel like appreciable progress.

More importantly, Banks somehow manages to find the perfect, unbalanced position between a character that can do anything and a character that is helpless against the odds, and the result is a near total lack of tension. When Sharrow and her team hatch a scheme, it will succeed. We never see them outwitted in action, at least not for long. Whenver they decide to avoid the Hushz, they do so with ease. But, with no warning at all, Sharrow is frequently outwitted and captured. Those scenes are so abrupt that not only can Sharrow do nothing against them but also the reader has no sense of building danger. Whether or not a given scene plays out in her favor seems entirely out of her hands or anyone else’s. Banks doesn't so much incorporate both Sharrow’s abilities and the danger she faces as he does veer wildly between them.

Despite all that, the last hundred or so pages do manage to tie much of the novel together and to deliver a powerful thematic punch. The comedic, light adventures of pursuing the Lazy Guns and the clever wit packed into the guns themselves and the quest is set against the titular dark background of Golter’s degenerate state and even of mankind itself. As the novel nears its conclusion, that background grows, and we watch it swallow the tiny pinprick of light that is our main characters and their quest. The reader has the tendency to clutch onto the light all the harder, to hold onto it like a man dangling over a cliff. But Banks stomps on our fingers and lets us fall.

Golter is a world shaped by violence, a world scarred by the destruction wrought upon it to the extent that men can never forget it, keep circling it endlessly, afraid to move away lest any change trigger more upheaval. As Sharrow knows, “All I’ve ever been was made by weaponry and death” (p. 483). The only way out, Geis tells us, is to tear it all up and move on: only a new order can save poor Golter, only some new message can win people’s hearts and minds. All you see here, however precious it might be to us, might have to be sacrificed. Perhaps we need a new beginning; a clean slate. Perhaps that is our only hope (p. 473). Reform is impossible. The system must be torn up entirely and remade anew.

It is this kind of reformation that Sharrow comes to oppose in the novel’s (stupendous) final chapter. Destroying the remnants of the past system will only lead to further horror. The well-intentioned upheaval planned by Geis will be an upheaval like any other save that it will be even worse for its totality. As Sharrow acts to destroy his new order, rejecting his half-hearted apologies for the carnage and his offers to her to join him, she thinks: Sorrow be damned, and all your plans. Fuck the faithful, fuck the committed, the dedicated, the true believers; fuck all the sure and certain people prepared to maim and kill whoever got in their way; fuck every cause that ended in murder and a child screaming (p. 484).

By its final pages, Against a Dark Background has become a clear-sighted and devastating work. Banks acknowledges the horrors of the world. He doubts that any subtle, peaceful reform can change it. But he also knows with a cold certainty that any attempt to tear it up, to force disobedient and warring men into a utopia is a cure worse than the disease – indeed, is a cure that only revitalizes and intensifies the ailment. Though the institutions that we have cause great harm, Banks tells us, the horror is not truly in them. It is in us. No new configuration can change that. His is a novel that, despite all of its fun and wit, brings us up to the problem of the world’s darkness, and, instead of offering an easy way out, it discards the solution that the people of Golter (and of Earth) have tried so often in the past.

After all that, Against a Dark Background is a rather hard book to review. It has problems. The pacing is off, the thrills are not spectacularly thrilling, and much of its middle quests pointlessly. But it also has some of Banks’ strongest, most cutting writing and thinking. Though I wouldn’t start here, I will say that I think that Against a Dark Background is an essential work for anyone that wants to grasp Iain M. Banks’ full vision.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Arthur Conan Doyle - The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

This was my first concentrated dose of Sherlock Holmes.  That’s different from my first dose, mind you. Before this I had read A Study in Scarlet  and The Sign of Four, had even seen some of the movies. But those were solitary forays into the great detective’s world and forays, especially in the films’ case, that revealed less of Holmes than they did of flash and explosions. Reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a rather different experience. There are fewer explosions, though I expected that. There is also more of Holmes’ genius on display, or at least enough of it on display in a far wider variety of settings and with less background noise that it is far more radiant. There is also just, well, more. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes presents twelve examples of a formula honed to perfection, one more than capable of dazzling – and yet still very recognizably a formula, and, as such, one that grows grating long before the collection’s end.

Before we get to that, though, we have to discuss Holmes’ deductions. They are brilliant. Better than that, they are a joy to read about. These are not the kinds of mysteries where the reader is neck and neck with the detective in the race to put together the answer. There is no competition. Rather, the reader does their best and then watches Holmes zip ahead of them at impossible speeds. Strangely enough, the best instances of Holmes’ ability are not the most dramatic. Indeed, it’s when there’s nothing much at stake, when it’s not a matter of a crucial detail misinterpreted but one overlooked entirely, or when Holmes reads a life from clothes and details, that the detective is at his most awe inspiring.

The cases that we encounter are a fitting trial for the great detective. Of course, the crimes are preposterous, with just about every criminal expending energy completely disproportional to their goal in their quest to find the most bizarre ways to reach their objective. But that doesn’t matter when compared to the puzzles, which soon prove themselves ingenious to the point of elegance. Doyle slips in and out of different genres with the specifics of the criminals and their objectives, and, even if each is flattened into a lock with a tricky combination when Holmes enters the scene, it’s still fun to see the lovers in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the bald-faced absurdity that is just cocky enough to work of “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League,” and the pseudo-Gothic nature of “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb.”

But the sheer number of these cases and the deductions that follow – or, more accurately, the way the deductions always appear at the exact same spot in the exact same structure – is impossible to ignore. Kyle Freeman, the volume’s editor and quite the Holmes expert, agrees that it’s a key part of the stories but offers a positive interpretation. To avoid the risk of caricaturing it, I’ll provide it in full:

This plot repetition, which might seem a weakness, turns out to be a strength. It contributes to that sense of solidness we get from this world in which logic triumphs over superstition, and where justice in one form or another is meted out to violators of the social order. The sense of order that runs through this world is one of the great satisfactions of these stories (p. XXII).

It’s a fair point. There is a way in which the repetition of logic is the very stuff that makes up its triumph. Holmes’ victory is not a fluke. Clear thought, when applied, can always, Doyle tells us, best the darkness in man.

And yet, as repetition adds that thematic depth, it also serves to thematically flatten Holmes’ reason for all of this crime fighting and one of the story’s facets that was most interesting to me. Holmes is not simply a moralist. Though he passes moral judgments, he does not fight crime because it is the right thing to do. Rather, stopping evil is, for him, a way to escape boredom, to find purpose in life. He is as much a thrill seeker, if not more so, than any of the criminals that he contends with. It is a way to escape from the commonplaces of existence (p. 224), a love of all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life (p. 206). As Holmes puts it at the end of one case, The only way we have still to solve is how to while away these bleak autumnal evenings (p. 358).

My attraction to this side of Holmes is likely obvious to regular readers of this blog. In a way, Sherlock Holmes is like an inverted piece of Weird Fiction, with Holmes knowing that there has to be more to life and yet only being able to approach (and never reach) that more by ruthlessly cutting down any attempt to deviate from the mundane rules of everyday existence that he seeks to escape. What a paradox!

But, outside of fantastic sentences about autumnal evenings, there is no sense of any of this in the stories. The repetitive structures kill it. We come in as the case begins, and we end as it is solved. There is no sense of life outside of them, no contrast. Holmes speaks of normal life and drearily (existentially?) unfilled evenings, but we never see him when he’s not matching wits against a foe, and so it’s a bit hard to take that as anything more than talk.

The main problem with the repetition, though, is far simpler: it’s repetitive. Horrifically so. The excitement of the hunt bleeds out once the reader realizes that they are, if not exactly running on the same track each time, at least running at the same speed and passing the same landmarks at the same points.

This is compounded in the most infuriating of fashions by Doyle’s habit of not only telling the reader what to think with alarming regularity but also repeating sentences and ideas almost verbatim from story to story. In “The Five Orange Pips,” Holmes says: “I think, Watson,” he remarked at last, “that of all our cases we have had none more fantastic than this” (p. 266). In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”: Of all these varied cases, however, I cannot recall any which presented more singular features than that which was associated with the well-known Surrey family of the Roylotts of Stoke Moran (p. 307). In “The Red-Headed League”: In the present instance I am forced to admit that the facts are, to the best of my belief, unique (p. 207).

Those aren’t the only places a nearly exact variant of that appears, and that is not the only phrase that pops back up. Let’s try this one: The more featureless and commonplace a crime is, the more difficult it is to bring home (p. 240). How, exactly, does that differ in meaning from: It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling (p. 215)? Or: there is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace (p. 225)? And so on and on and on. Any chance the reader has of viewing the new tale as anything but a retread of the old one is dashed when the exact same superlatives are applied by the same people in the same way almost every damn time.

By the point I was halfway through The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I had a very simple way to tell if I would like a story before I had even turned the first page. I asked myself: how long has it been since I read a Sherlock Holmes story? For the tale’s opener, the answer was over a year, and I loved the thing. For the fourth in a row (it was a long train ride, and I hadn’t brought anything else to read), I was ready to chuck the book at Watson for saying how odd it all was for the umpteen-thousandth time.

I think that my final thoughts on the collection, and in the review, really come from that. Sherlock Holmes stories excel at what they do, but they only do one thing, and they do it over and over again. I highly recommend that any mystery fans read a story of his. I wouldn’t recommend at all that they follow that first story up with another without a very healthy pause between them. So, following, my own advice, I may return to Sherlock Holmes again – but I think I’ll wait at least a year before I do.

[Note: all page numbers are from the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1. Those interested in reading the tales, though, might be interested to know that they are freely available online at places like ProjectGutenberg.]

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

E.R. Eddison - The Worm Ouroboros

By the time it wraps up, 2013 will, I am sure, have more Fantasy novels with imaginary kingdoms warring in invented worlds than anyone could possibly read. 1922 had one. The Worm Ouroboros is a strange beast to read now. Back then, three decades before Tolkien’s masterwork, it must have been utterly, overwhelmingly bewildering. But it is not only interesting historically. Though seriously flawed, The Worm Ouroboros is an interesting beast indeed, a novel that reads something like what might have happened if Shakespeare had written an alternate universe Epic Fantasy version of Homer’s Iliad.

Readers looking for purely second world, immersive fantasies might be confused by the book’s opening. Eddison begins with a man named Lessingham that, due to entering a strange room in his house, is transported to Mercury to observe what his guide insists will be something extraordinary. It’s a less than stellar opening that reads like Eddison sticking his toe into the then-uncharted waters of secondary world fantasy before he can quite summon the courage to dive in.

But dive in he does. The world he creates ceases to be the barren, overheated lump of rock we call Mercury as soon as Lessingham arrives, and Lessingham himself is quite literally forgotten about within the first few pages, never to be mentioned again. In his place, the reader finds themselves in an imagined world dominated by the struggle between vast nations. These nations, it must be admitted, have atrocious names. Demonland and Witchland are the main combatants, with Impland and Pixyland showing the caliber of the rest of Eddison’s nomenclature. The lack of skill in naming, however, does not translate to a lack of skill in world-building. Though it doesn’t seem to have much at all to do with demons as we conceive them, Demonland (and the other nations that Eddison creates) is a richly imagined place with a wide cast of characters and a well considered history.

The war between Demonland and Witchland begins with a challenge issued by the cruel King Gorice XI of Witchland and the “wrastling” match that commences. When the Witches’ reincarnated leader, now Gorice XII, proves disinclined to honorably back down, he summons the fearsome Worm Ouroboros. When the Worm takes one of the four brothers that rule and lead Demonland and tosses him to some godforsaken corner of the world (for… some reason?), the others set off to save him as the war begin the two nations begins.

The war is a fought solidly in the heroic register. It is a matter of great champions and their quest for glory, one where the heroes believe that “all occasions are but steps for us to climb fame by” (p. 118). As such, these battles are welcome, for it is through them that glory may be won and great deeds done. As our protagonists say: “Are not all lands, all airs, one country unto us, so there be great doings afoot to keep bright our swords?” (p. 129)

The cost of this register is that these characters are more collections of grand deeds than they are complex personalities. To briefly give you the chief cast of Demonland: Juss is the strong but wise (ish) leader, Goldry Blusczo is the great fighter seized by the Worm, Brandoch Daha is the pretty boy master swordsman with a wonderful name, and Spitfire does seem to on occasion spit fire. That about sums them all up. The cast of villains is somewhat more interesting but, with one exception, is not greatly so.

One of the few different notes is Gro, who is essentially a normal fellow forced into this superhuman world. He is the savvy, amoral manipulator of the bunch, and the few times we see him fight do not end particularly well for him. He is also an explorer and a writer, a man that has realized that it is all but "a fable of great men that arise and conquer the nations” (p. 311). Truly, glory fades with death and time, so he has aimed himself at, instead of it, “to love the sunrise and the sundown and the morning and the evening star ? since there only abideth the soul of nobility, true love, and wonder, and the glory of hope and fear” (p. 312). He may be no more moral than the rest of our cast, but he seeks a quieter kind of hedonism, a glory not of great deeds but of love and the enjoyment of life. It doesn’t go well for him, but I loved him all the same.

The other variances from the shallow but epic heroics that make up most of the cast are the female characters. Alas, they are different but not well done. The female nobility we see spends their time being seduced, wooed, and threatened with rape. One particularly uncomfortable scene has a woman sent by her father to the king to try and seduce him towards the father’s point of view. King Gorice laughs off the attempted persuasion but does enjoy her body after he finishes explaining how futile her errand was and how powerless she is.

Despite the shallowness of the characters, Eddison thrives in his depiction of the grand deeds that his creations accomplish. Mountains are climbed, beasts are slain, battles are fought, and each encounter comes through to the reader with impossible richness. Much of the success of the novel’s atmosphere, and of how Eddison imparts its almost hedonistic heroic code, come from Eddison’s prose. Eddison writes like a time traveller from Jacobean times. His every word and phrase is strange, but it is a managed strangeness that he crafts without a misstep, and it soon begins to read not so much like an actor desperate for a role in Shakespeare as it does like the standard dialect of this distant, heroically elevated world. For an example of it at its height, witness Gorice’s calculated decision to use magic against his foes: “But I, that am skilled in grammarie, do bear a mightier engine against the Demons than brawny sinews or the sword that smiteth asunder. Yet is mine engine perilous to him that useth it.” (p. 54) But while Eddison’s writing is heavy, it is not without its playfulness, and the grandiosity of his style also allows for profoundly silly moments, such as one’s character’s exclamation: “devil damn me black as buttermilk” (p. 143).

Still, moral problems with this kind of fiction creep in. The characters are shamelessly elitist. They refer to the “common muck o’ the world” (p. 150),and uncountable numbers of those that make up the muck are slaughtered in the grand battles in which Juss and his brothers win their glory. When the lords of Witchland conquer Demonland, we hear of how they oppress the populace. But the reader comes to wonder long before the end of the book whether the lords of Demonland are actually any better. Celebrating glory becomes hard to do once you realize that the glory is attained by slaughtering one’s fellow (albeit, if you ask your heroes here, lesser) man.

But the novel’s ending shows that Eddison was aware of that problem throughout. [Note that a discussion of the ending will, obviously, contain SPOILERS.] Having finally defeated Witchland, the heroes of Demonland see the hollowness of glory and become despondent. “Thinking that we,” they say, “that fought but for fighting’s sake, have in the end fought so well we never may fight more; unless it should be in fratricidal rage against each. And ere that should betide, may earth close over us and our memory perish.” (p. 431) They realize that glory must be constantly renewed, that, once the fighting is over, it fades and death returns. Without a new battle to fight, they are not only prevented from doing new deeds but must see their old deeds fade: “We […] have flown beyond the rainbow. And there we found no fabled land of heart’s desire, but wet rain and wind only and the cold mountain-side. And our hearts are a-cold because of it,” Juss says (p. 432).

And so Eddison, in the last pages of his work, brings forth his final and devastating twist: the Gods grant the heroes of Demonland their prayer. Their war is eternal. It began an infinite amount of time before The Worm Ouroboros did and will continue forever after. Gro was right, and the glory of the strong will fade with the years until they, eventually, die like anyone else. The only way for them to escape that fate is to fight on, to fight for ever. And so the Lords of Demonland fight an endless war, causelessly slaughtering the common man again and again for all of time so that the great might retain their glory and greatness.

The Worm Ouroboros is a bizarre book. It lacks the characterization that fans of modern Fantasy no doubt expect to find. But that is not to discount it. Eddison simultaneously succeeds at the best modern evocation of Homeric heroism that I have read while also managing to critique and ultimately expose the horrors of that ideal, creating a book that both thrills the reader and makes them question even the ideals of heroism, greatness, and war in their modern form. After 1922, Fantasy developed down a very different path from this. But The Worm Ouroboros is a unique beast that is very much worth looking at, one that exists and immerses the reader in its own archaizing language and elevated cosmos.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Assassin's Creed 2

It’s been a while since I played a video game. The last one I talked about was a Fallout 3 expansion back in July of 2011. Assassin’s Creed 2’s Renaissance setting and fluid gameplay had what it took to draw me back to the medium. Despite growing plot problems and a few flaws in gameplay, the game didn’t make me regret my return.

The game begins with a youthful Ezio, and a surprising amount of time is spent in its introductory sections. It’s not time wasted. Though Ezio is not the deepest character, he exceeds the previous game’s protagonist, Altair, by far, and the mounting disaster aimed at Ezio’s family gives the player time to get immersed in Ezio, the setting, and the gameplay. Still, I was looking forward to the game’s opening up from the word go, and, once Ezio’s family has not-so-surprisingly been defeated, the heart of the game begins: Ezio, the assassin, is loose in Italy and out for the blood of those that have destroyed those he loves.

The game’s evocation of Renaissance Italy is breathtaking. Cities and landmarks are rendered in loving detail, with reams of historical data that can be accessed by the curious and ignored by those less interested. Historical events weave in and out of gameplay, including the fantastically badass Caterina Sforza. Crowds react to Ezio as he moves, and the sentences of Italian peppered through the dialogue work wonders, although I do wonder how annoying they would be for any player who dislikes subtitles and the handy translations that come with them.

Moving through the environment is a joy. Ezio free-runs up walls and across rooftops, and the sensation of freedom and acrobatics is free and flawless, even if most of my deaths did come from foolishly hurtling myself off a building after miscalculating a jump. Guardsmen fill the streets, and so Ezio has a wide variety of assassination techniques. Creeping up on foes, leaping upon them from the rooftops, and grabbing them from below ledges are all sheer pleasure. Accordingly, I spent the vast majority of my playtime sprinting across the heights of Venice (my favorite of the game’s cities), hunting down its oppressive soldiery, and concocting elaborate quests for myself, such as silently infiltrating a particular bank from the starting position of the tall tower opposite.

Once stealth has been disposed of, the game’s combat succeeds – save for counters, the game’s key fighting element and massive stumbling block.  An enemy attacks, and so Ezio counters, stylishly dispatching them. In the early portions of the game, this makes combat graceful and visually spectacular, as Ezio weaves in and out of his enemy’s blows and deals death. Even then, the problem is clear, for, once the player learns the counter, they are effectively invulnerable. You block; they strike; you kill them. They have no recourse against this tactic, and you can simply sit in your blocked position if you desire until one of them strikes. Later, hardier enemies come, but, though one counter does not kill them, it still deals damage and halts their attacks. This means that, though a battle against fifty-five enemies may take quite a while, with each foe soaking up a counter or seven, the battles are still utterly toothless.

The developer’s ultimate answer to this, the counter-proof enemies with either battle axes or pole arms, are a mixed bag. They do successfully break up the standard grind that blocks and counters can settle into, but they are rare enough that they don’t change the key mechanic. Moreover, the surest way to kill them is an unarmed counter (in which Ezio steals their weapon), meaning that we have not only left the problem of countering behind but have changed the game’s mood from adrenaline-charged to silly, as Ezio, when confronted by the gravest odds, puts away his sword and prepares to fight like a boxer.

It’s up to the player, then, to step aside from the unbeatable counters and strive for a more versatile combat style. Though you’ll still spend a lot of your time countering when pressed to a wall, I would advise incorporating the different techniques that Ezio acquires. Most are not the most efficient way to get the job done, but experimenting with smoke bombs, poisoned blades, and throwing knives allows for far more ways for an encounter to unfold. Fighting with Ezio’s hidden blades, rather than his sword, also allows for some tenser encounters, as counters are significantly more difficult with them.

All of this killing is in service of first Ezio’s personal revenge and then the Assassin order’s greater aims against the Templars. The story for most of the game is not particularly noteworthy but is adequate and serves its purpose of sending Ezio in and out of moments of historic upheaval all across Italy. Story sections usually end in set piece assassinations, which allow the player to mix planning, daring, stealth, and combat as they desire on a far grander scale than can be reached by simply wandering on or above the streets.

Alas, by its last quarter or so, the plot goes mad. I suppose I should have expected it from playing the first Assassin’s Creed, but, as the time nears for a big climax, the developer’s decide that history doesn’t have nearly enough cool stuff to suit them. Prophecies enter the mix, and magical objects soon follow. Things get silly and then sillier still. The feel of the Renaissance setting, masterfully built up over hours and hours, is tarnished and then utterly trashed. Minor positions like the Pope are brought into the quest and are treated as little more than stepping stones on the path to a (literally) Edenic bauble. Machiavelli is revealed to be an assassin and spends his free time leaping into piles of hay. The game’s final mission has Ezio beating the Pope in a fistfight (because weapons are for losers) before speaking to what seem to be Gods but are really the survivors of a First Civilization that have stuck around to give man some great warning.

It’s become clear to me that the Assassin’s Creed series is one of two halves. On the one hand, it has set out to bring to life a number of interesting historical eras. On the other, it wants to tie them all together with a plot that is half mystical and half Science Fictional. Though I do not object to plots of the latter sort on principle, and though I do not think they are unmixable with history, I think that Assassin’s Creed does a very poor job of melding them, something evidenced by how the game’s incorporation of the pope serves only to squash the grandeur of that office rather than to raise the grandeur of Ezio’s quest. Seeing as the modern, Desmond-focused frame story of the games is silly as can be, and as, with each movement forward in time, the games are heading away from what the ancient historian in me finds interesting, I suspect that the Assassin’s Creed series’ trajectory is taking it out of my area of interest.

Still, it has not yet left that area. Assassin’s Creed 2 strikes me as a kind of giant, Renaissance playground. It gives the player a beautiful setting and lets them run loose. Eventually, I followed the path it wanted, and I have my problems with that path. But that’s not to diminish the sheer fun of climbing famous landmarks and then leaping off them to assassinate an unlucky foe.