by Neil Walsh
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped? columns.]
I'd like to clarify that my last Overlooked/Over-hyped piece about The Prydain Chronicles was posted the day before Lloyd Alexander passed away. I had no idea. Of course, had I known, any tribute I could have composed would have fallen vastly short of the wonderful legacy he left in those and other books. Certainly he will be missed.
In my first Overlooked/Over-hyped, I said some things about Joan Aiken's Cockatrice Boys that caused at least one person to feel strongly enough that I had insulted his race (the English) to write and express his concern. In subsequent correspondence, I believe I managed to convince him that I am not, in fact, antagonistically prejudiced against the English. In my day job I spend the majority of my time writing and editing, striving for precision and clarity of communication. I've been working in writing and editing services for going on two decades. And then this sort of thing happens, and it makes me realize how easy it is to be misunderstood. And how great a writer I'm not.
So let's shift the focus onto a couple of authors who are far better writers than I will ever be.
There are some great things about this book. Stylistically it's a masterful work of literary fiction, with enough SFnal elements to give it a good sharp edge. However, it is 879 pages in the edition I read, and I felt the author could have conveyed his themes and messages (less clear than the themes, by the way, which were also sometimes a bit obscure) in about half of that. Maybe part of the point of the novel is the unwieldy, circular, at times virtual meaninglessness reflects the existence being experienced by the protagonist. You know, just like part of the point of the tedious bit with Sam & Frodo in the swamps is to give the reader a sense of the drudgery they're going through. Or how the density of the text reflects Marlow's slow journey up the river in search of Kurtz. But, damn, 879 pages, and in the end, I'm still not entirely sure what the heck happened. I can't help but think that some of what qualifies as literary genius is really just a clever bit of thinly disguised wanking. James Joyce springs to mind. There's no doubt that Ulysses is sheer genius, but parts of it are so deliberately obscure you can almost imagine Joyce rubbing his hands together with self-satisfied glee, thinking "Ha ha, they'll never figure out this bit!" Yeah, well, you know what they say: There's a fine line between genius and pissing off your reader.
Back to the good aspects. The writing is slick and stylish. There are some visually memorable scenes and genuinely interesting characters -- not least of which is the main protagonist (known as the Kid, Kid, or Kidd, because he can't remember his real name and people have to call him something) who undergoes some fascinating transformations. Much of the character dialogue is insightful and thought-provoking, hinting at a depth of ideas the characters themselves may teasingly avoid. Most famous is the opening of the book, which starts in mid-sentence. Later in the book, Kid(d) finds a notebook with this sentence fragment in it, which is a chilling moment for the reader. The novel ends mid-sentence too, and if you go back to the beginning, the sentence continues. This is particularly cool because it reflects some of the eerie parallels happening in the cyclical (ouroborian?) opening and closing sequences in the novel. It's a clever concept, and should make you want to go back and read the whole thing all over again.
Except it doesn't. It just made me glad it was finally over.
Ooh, that was a little harsh. Let me soften that blow by saying that quite a lot of this book I really enjoyed. Elements of it were, as I have suggested, very cool indeed. Hell, I just compared it to Heart of Darkness and Lord of the Rings, which are two of my favourite books. I'm glad I finally got around to reading Dhalgren. But I don't think it's a work I could recommend to too many people, and it's not one I'll be re-reading anytime soon. It's not at all surprising this novel caused such a stir when it was first published, and I wish I had been old enough to have read it at the time; I'm sure it could have had a much deeper impact.
Like Dhalgren, this only marginally qualifies as SF/Fantasy, and it shares a very open approach to sex. That's about where the comparison ends. The novel follows Kevin Grierson, who grows up a substance abuser selling himself to older men in a very Irish Catholic neighbourhood of Boston. His mother has a sort of split personality, which may in fact be two distinct physical entities. This is a trait Kevin inherits, and his own doppleganger is very tangibly real. Occasionally Kevin's shadow self is helpful, but more often it gets into trouble -- or gets Kevin into trouble. Later in life, after he has cleaned himself up and settled into a more stable lifestyle, Kevin discovers his shadow is still active. Only now it's an echo of what he could have been if he hadn't beat his addiction.
Because it was originally conceived as a series of shorter works only later pulled together into a novel, the story does seem a little disjointed at times. But in view of the character we're following here, that actually works rather well. All in all, a keenly written work that it's surprisingly accessible even if you're not Irish, gay, alcoholic, or saddled with a doppleganger.
The Final Analysis
So just to clarify, I feel obliged to put Dhalgren into the over-hyped category; in spite of having some real merit, it drags on too long and hasn't stood up all that well to the 30-some years since initial publication. Minions of the Moon, on the other hand, is undeservedly overlooked and is well worth reading.
Neil Walsh either reads too much or not enough, depending on whom you ask. He would definitely say not enough. This past month, in addition to the two books discussed above, Neil only found the time to read Strange Things Sometimes Still Happen: Fairy Tales From Around the World edited by Angela Carter (1993), You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem (2007), Rant by Chuck Palahniuk (2007), The Sun Over Breda by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (2007), Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud (1993), The Adventures of Sock Monkey by Tony Millionaire (2000), and Fishin' With Grandma Matchie by Steven Erikson (2005).
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