07 January 2005

The Newish Kinda Weird

Recently, I've been thinking a bit about a book for which I am not the ideal reader, a book that I found neither painful to read nor, on the whole, the sort of thing I would recommend to friends. I thought about letting it pass by me without a mention, because that seems to be a merciful and fair way to deal with books that don't fall to one pole or another on the axis of enthusiasm. It's also a first novel, and I think such endeavors deserve as much acknowledgement and praise as is reasonable.

But.

While I read Steve Cash's The Meq, I couldn't help thinking about its possible and intended audience. Much more than the book itself, the audience interested me. I hoped the book would find an audience to appreciate it, but I couldn't figure out what that audience might be. And, for once, I'm not willing to put the audience for fantasy novels fully at blame.

First, some information. The Meq is coming home to America, having first been published in the U.K. in 2002, but I don't know how well it sold. It must have sold well enough to interest the good people at Del Rey in taking a risk that the book would find enough of an audience in the U.S. to make back whatever investment they put into it.

I don't think Del Rey is nuts for acquiring the book. The Meq is a generally enjoyable story, occasionally even an intriguing one; solidly written, ambitious of scope, sometimes amusing, sometimes clever, but never much more than that. Hundreds of worse books are published each year, dozens of better. As a tool for whittling hours into yesterdays, The Meq does just fine.

I realize the above paragraph is a Hoover Dam of faint praise, but it's hard to get excited one way or the other about competence, and The Meq is a perfectly competent book. Cash is a capable writer who may, with each new book, become either more wonderful or more terrible. (Of course, the same could be said of any writer.)

The premise of the series is intriguing: an immortal race, the eponymous Meq, have forgotten their origins, though they have lived alongside humans throughout history. They look like humans, but their physical development stops at age twelve. The novel tells the story of Zianno (called Z), who was born toward the end of the nineteenth century. Just as he turns twelve, his parents are killed in a train wreck, he is taken in by a benevolent merchant, eventually he meets other Meq, and people he loves are killed by a rogue Meq called the Fleur-du-Mal. Z travels all across the world, encounters various historical personages in cameo roles, enjoys baseball, gets out of some tough scrapes, and leaves plenty of room for a sequel.

Fiction is, by its nature, contrived -- somebody made it up and arranged the pieces in a particular order for a particular reason -- but The Meq is contrived in the worst sense of the word: every event happens for an obvious narrative reason, often with the help of a coincidence or deus ex machina, as if the Author God needed help winding up a creaky old story-machine. Even when everything seems hopeless there's little sense of actual jeopardy -- we trust the characters to get out of scrapes, because they do so with clockwork regularity and nary a bead of sweat. By a hundred pages into the story, The Meq feels like an epic on Prozac, functional and free of passion.

On the whole, it's just too nice. Steve Cash is probably a very nice guy, and he seems to like his characters, letting them overcome obstacles without conveying any sense of pain. He treats the characters as he might a dog, making them do tricks and jump through hoops, giving them a treat before they chew up the couch. Now and then something truly bad happens -- murder, kidnapping -- and it hurts a little bit, but it all gets worked out in the end. Moments that deserve Francis Bacon get painted instead by Thomas Kinkade.

There's a kind of nostalgia to novels like this, a wistfulness for a Golden Age before the Fall that was World War II or Vietnam or whatever other arbitrary moment ruined The Good Life. Toward the end of The Meq our nice heroes realize that technology is changing and they will not be able to keep living the way they have, that greater dangers than rogue Baudelairians lurk on the horizon. As if the nineteenth century were not a century of genocide in North America and Africa, as if Asia were just a place of mysterious monks until Pearl Harbor or the Tet Offensive. The Meq tries to be a novel that roams the world, but the world it roams has no more depth than a dime novel.

But.

This could be the future of fantasy fiction. We've been lucky so far -- if you wanted to avoid total junk, you knew you should be skeptical of anything with comparisons to Tolkien on the cover. The Meq is an example of a new genre -- the Newish Kinda Weird. A few interesting concepts thrown in (regardless of logic or plausibility), a little bit of historical reference (making sure, though, that the characters talk and behave primarily like contemporary, middle-class Americans), a reference or two to ancient and mysterious forces, a variety of "exotic" locales that aren't exotic enough to be alienating, likeable characters that draw in the reader's sympathy and concern, though preferably some of the likeable characters are from the margins of society in one way or another: a clean and virtuous prostitute, a gentle-hearted thief, an American Indian who has buried great wisdom beneath a veneer of modernity, a reluctant warrior, a sad alcoholic with a tragic life story, etc. (but be careful -- only certain types are allowed: our prostitutes are never gay men, our warriors are never so reluctant as to be pacifists, our thieves aren't anarchists shouting at the barricades of capital).

Some of those types appear in The Meq, but not all, because it is a representative but not definitive example of this soggy little genre, and it's probably one of the better books in its class. I tend not to finish reading such books, but this one held my interest throughout most of its course (I skimmed Chapter 8 -- too much tedious exposition and backstory -- and began skimming again toward the end, when I mostly just wanted to know how it all ended), and the fact that I kept reading and wanted to finish does say something for its merits. I might even read, or at least skim, the second volume. Cash seems to be talented, and I'm curious to see if he's better able to utilize his talents in the next book.

But this isn't about Cash. This is about genre fantasy novels, because there's now a new dead end off of Main Street.

I'm not entirely interested in fantasy as a genre -- I prefer it as a style, a mode, an inclination, a flourish. Genres have boundaries and yes/no answers. The Meq is a genre novel that appears to grow out of a desire not to subvert the fantasy genre or smash its iconography, but rather to do some interior redesign. Take some of the basic elements of the most routine genre fantasy novel, mix in some tendencies watered down from non-genre fantasy novels (anything from Jonathan Carroll to Carol Emshwiller to Tim Powers to Nalo Hopkinson, writers for whom fantasy is usually more a tool than a template), turn it into a trilogy, and all of a sudden one of the most ennervated, routine literatures has gotten a facelift. It's entertaining enough in small doses, and certainly preferable to Tolkien Lite or I Dream Of Fairies or My Celtic Grandmother Beat Up Your Norse God or some other fourteenth-generation reiteration of an imitation of a second-hand idea.

The real question, though, is why bother? I finished reading The Meq and thought, "Okay, that was pleasant enough. But there are a lot of great books I haven't had time to read." Obviously, I'm not the right reader for this novel, but then I wondered who would be? Somebody who reads five books a day?

That's when it hit me: this is the perfect book for people who like formula fantasies but are tired of the standard formula, because the standard formula no longer works for them. The high has gotten too low. Standard formulas work because the reader at some point read something that moved them or interested them or excited them, and they want to be reminded of that experience. Too much similarity after a certain period of time, though, becomes numbing, as the thousandth copy of an original bleaches into the epitome of bland. The remedy is to find superficial change. Expectations should not be subverted, words mustn't warp and woof, ideas should be easy to comprehend but perhaps clever, because the reader must not, at any cost, be allowed to feel stupid. Such readers want to be pulled immediately into a narrative dream and have a good enough time that they don't wake up before they want to, and when they do wake up, they should be able to pick up their life -- both their real life and their imaginary life -- exactly where they left off.

This is neither shameful nor uncommon. The number of readers who want books that do the opposite of what I described is small, and such readers may be a bit off-kilter, a bit odd, because why would a well-balanced person want to be continuously challenged, their assumptions shattered, their intellect overwhelmed, their emotions jabbed and jiggled and tickled and stabbed? What sort of masochist yearns for the dizziness of chronic subversion?

But.

It's an extremely rare -- perhaps impossible -- book that is truly capable of challenging, shattering, overwhelming, jabbing, jiggling, tickling, stabblng, and subverting a reader. (I played that type in stereo, just to see what sound came out.)

We are willing participants in what we read, and we read it as carefully or superficially as we choose. Books can change our minds and overturn the ground we stand on, but such things tend to happen when we're ready for them, when we desire them, because otherwise we either don't notice or don't continue reading.

When discussing fiction, I find myself coming back again and again to form, structure, and language, rather than other properties. A form that is not a formula interests me. A structure that is subtle or surprising in its movement and juxtapositions will catch my eye faster than a scaffold that could be placed in front of any building in a generic city. Language that finds turns in its straightest ways makes for a thrilling ride.

And so despite some good moments and interesting touches, The Meq, like so many other books, drifts quickly out of my mind. In their earnest desire to please, such books end up dissipating, like a memory of memories, a fog that aspired to the acridity of smoke.

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