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06-13-12: Susanna Clarke Meets 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell'

Hint at Histories

Editor's note: Here's a novel that time has been very kind to. It was superb when it came out, and we can re-immerse ourselves in the work now and enjoy it even more since it has pretty much singlehandedly inspired an entire genre of rather good work. It's probably increased in monetary value as well. But how can you sell memories? Judging that it took her ten years to write this one, we still have a couple of years to go for the next.

It's tempting to dismiss fantasy as lightweight literature because, after all, the author's just made it up. Invention, in this view, is no substitute for scholarship. But fantastic invention itself can become scholarship, as demonstrated by authors as diverse as J. R. R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert. The best fantasies are those in which the author has created an alternate world, and from that world, simply selected a story to tell. The trouble is, that creating an alternate world is a time-consuming task. The reward for telling a story set in your alternate world is uncertain. And yet, there are certainly rewards for the risks.

Susanna Clarke spent over ten years re-creating the world we knew, and readers may now reap the rewards of her efforts in the form of her first novel 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell'. Like many of the great fantasies, this novel reveals itself to be a work of great scholarship. Clarke has gone back and carefully re-invented English history as we know it. Into our mundane world, she's inserted magic and a sort of alternate universe inhabited by sinister faeries. Her history with magic starts long before the novel itself begins, in 1806. But that history haunts every page, overshadows every conversation. As we read 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell', we sense the immensity of tradition, of lore, of stories and tales that populate Clarke's revised reality. Moreover, we actually get to read a fair number of them in footnotes to the text itself. Clarke's scholarship doesn't stop behind the scenes. She brings it up front and makes it thoroughly enjoyable.

'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' does not simply rest on its scholarship. Having made the world anew, Clarke decides to tell her first story from that world in a manner appropriate to the setting. She writes in a style reminiscent of the great Victorian novelists, particularly Charles Dickens. Readers hoping to find slick bestseller-style prose amidst these pages will be sorely disappointed. While Clarke does smooth out the diction and avoids some of the stylistic excesses that make Dickens tough sledding for the average reader, she does adopt the grammar and even the spelling found in novels written nearly two centuries ago. She laces her story with footnotes and asides, histories and fairy tales from the alternate history that she has so carefully created. With every word, every phrase, Clarke immerses the reader in her world.

Having arrived in that world at page one, the reader will find that this particular novel recounts the exploits and experiences of two magicians who try to resurrect the almost lost tradition of magic, beginning in the year 1806. The first man we meet, Gilbert Norrell, is a snappish, insecure scholar who has amassed a collection of nearly every known text on the subject of magic. He alone, in the "modern" world of 1806, has the ability to actually practice, as opposed to study, magic. But Norrell is petty and rather cowardly. Only when he's conned the other magicians in York out of their volumes and ability to practice magic does he actually do anything. Having succeeded once, he moves to London to once again bring back the tradition of English magic. He intends to do this entirely by himself, deliberately excluding all other magicians. Every success is tinged by the anxiety that someone else might learn his secrets. Eventually, he does take on one gentleman as a student, Jonathan Strange. Strange manages to elude Gilbert Norrell's paranoia. Norrell has made a deal with "the thistle-haired gentleman", a supernatural swindler who hails from the land of Faerie and beyond. It's a deal that will have consequence for Norrell, Strange and England itself.

While the title characters certainly occupy the center of the narrative, the twists in the heart of Clarke's magical alternate history are her elegant and shrewd faeries. Represented mainly by "the thistle-haired gentleman", Clarke's faeries allow the author to inject a beautifully realized dollop of the surreal into her already unreal story. These faeries aren't winged bathing beauties. They're nasty, sneaky supernatural con-men with powers that become more clearly defined as the narrative progresses and they are revealed to the two protagonists. Reminiscent of those found in the work of the great English writer Arthur Machen, these faeries have their own agenda, and suck several characters into a soul-draining netherworld. But they're incredibly entertaining to read about and fascinating foils for the nascent magicians Norrell and Strange.

Though the novel is quite large, the cast of characters here is admirably restrained. One might expect that a novel which so precisely evokes the feel of Victorian literature would need a page to list the cast of characters, there's none to be found here simply because none it needed. This is not to say that the characters are all enjoyable. Norrell, for all that he's in the title, is particularly annoying. It's a deliberate annoyance on the author's part, so much so that readers might wish the man himself were about so they could slap him and knock some sense into his silly head. Strange is a much more dashing figure, rushing off to war to practice magic in scenes that are quite inventive when Clarke allows them to play out in front of the reader. In the best tradition, a number of secondary characters manage to acquire three dimensions in the pages of this novel.

In a novel this large, where immersion is the name of the game, plot is something of a second-tier literary device. And, as such, it's rather fitful, popping up here for a sequence of war scenes, there for some scenes of supernatural seduction and rushing in at the end with everyone and everything. Readers expecting a series of escalating magical duels with spells substituting for guns will be disappointed. Instead, Clarke allows the more subtle threat of the surreal invasion from the world of Faerie to elude the notice of almost everybody within the narrative. For readers who enjoy being submerged in a world where the boundaries between the real and the unreal have been demolished, it's a great delight.

Clarke allows the scholarship required to create this novel show through in numerous and highly enjoyable pieces of metafictional invention, a sort of prose equivalent to spells that she calls "epitomes", that is small sub-spells that are embedded in a larger spell to make it more potent. That is precisely what she does with her many footnotes and asides. These footnotes are remarkably enjoyable, not only as stories and examples of fairy tales as precursors to the urban legend, but also as glimpses of the wider world behind this novel. They hint at histories untold and stories to be told. They effectively cement the edges of this novel and allow it to be a hermetic whole, unbreeched and unbreechable.

'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' is such a large novel, so complex and so powerfully conceived, that it will be years before we can know the final effect. Sure, it may only take a week or two to read, but readers will be unpacking the world Clarke creates within their minds for years to come, and even have a series of handy footnotes to refer to should their memories of the novel start to fail. Frankly, that's quite unlikely. 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' is certainly vivid and memorable enough to last the unfortunate span of time that will stretch until Ms. Clarke offers us her next invention.

06-11-12: Richard Ford Enters 'Canada'

Crime and Consequence

We are formed in the forge of a fire we do not know surrounds us. The events that mark us deeply are dimly understood, and only in retrospect. If we do manage to look back on our lives, the crimes that have been committed in our names, in our lives, may or may not seem criminal. Richard Ford's 'Canada' immerses us in lives, then crime, then consequence, with prose that carves up our memory, line by line. Remembering is a tricky business. We can remember who we were; it's a little harder to forget who we are. Ford knows how to tread that fine line and produce a tense, beautiful novel of crimes and lives, past and present that will haunt the reader as if they were a life lived and never forgotten.

Dell Parsons, the fifteen year-old protagonist, is up front about what's going to happen; robbery and murder. His family is the human equivalent of a classic American four-door sedan. His father, Bev, is an easygoing, shallow ex-Air force bombardier, his mother, a tense, withdrawn Jewish schoolteacher. Dell has a twin sister, Berner, older than he by six minutes and wiser by virtue of a more forceful personality. Bev's fast-talking shenanigans lead inexorably to a bad decision, and worse consequences. Dell ends up in Canada in the care of men with few morals, and lives to see things worse than his parents in prison.

Narration is the key to Ford's engaging novel. Ford infuses the limited vision of his adolescent protagonist with the language but not the wisdom of the man telling the story. The result is a constant tension, as Dell observes events he does not comprehend, but that we as readers understand all too well. Ford's prose is polished and solid but never slick; in every page you'll find portions of the narrative that you'll want to read aloud, to hear Ford's words ring in the air. He writes with an undercurrent of almost savage comprehension, but there's a hint of sweetness and nostalgia as well. Dell may have been through some hard times, but he's no more damaged goods than most of us.

'Canada' is a spectacular example of crime fiction, from plot to perspective and beyond. Ford ratchets back on the angst and the action, leaving much of what happens offstage and playing down everything else. Against the huge empty backdrop of the northwest and the Canadian plains, these troubled and often troubling characters act casually no matter how dark the consequences. Ford uses Dell's limited perspective to squeeze in much more than Dell describes, leaving the reader to unpack the raw terror of exactly what has happened. Ford deals in deep dread and the penny-ante with equal ease. There's a naturalistic anarchy to the plot that is appropriately startling. This is life; anything can happen, mostly bad stuff.

The structure of the novel is an admirable aspect of the reading experience, with two almost self-contained major portions followed by a coda. There's a musical feel about the book, in the prose, the characters, the lovely descriptions. It has the feel of a prairie opera, mournful, observant and joyous. Ford keeps everything utterly realistic, no matter how hard the consequences may be.

But while 'Canada' deals with harsh reality, it's not ultimately a harsh vision. Make no mistake; Ford does not offer easy redemption. He offers clarity and complexity, a tough, agreeable acceptance that times will be hard — and survivable, perhaps even with a bit of grace. 'Canada' takes the reader on a journey that only a great novel can achieve. It's deceptively easy to read and very difficult to put down. It's even harder to forget. It is a fire that will forge new memories for readers, some grim, some good, but all, ultimately, real. It is a novel with a horizon, and that which lies beyond any horizon, the unknown.

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