The Buried Giant (Vintage International)

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Our Politics, Ourselves: The Millions Interviews James Sturm

Americans, young and old, of every race and gender, saw their lives upended in 2016. I’m referring to the at least 800,000 marriages that ended in divorce that year. Many of these divorces were amicable, and in time, everyone involved was better off for them. Others left behind emotional carnage from which no one involved—husbands, wives, and children—would ever recover. The election of a fascist to the most powerful position in the world was the least of these newly broken families’ problems.

But no one can ever completely ignore their political moment. James Sturm’s Off Season, set against the 2016 election, is a portrait of a middle-aged man—presented like all the book’s characters as an anthropomorphized dog—who sees his world shattered when his wife leaves him, forcing him to face his inadequacies as a lover, a father, and a contributor to the great U.S. economy. It’s not so much an American tragedy as it is an elegy for the myth of the Great American Male.

Off Season originally appeared in serial form in Slate. Drawn and Quarterly has released an expanded version of the story as a graphic novel. Sturm answered questions by email about his oeuvre, as well as the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, where he sits as director.

The Millions: You’ve written and drawn books set in the past: Market Day, The Golem’s Mighty Swing, and Unstable Molecules. How do your strategies differ when you write and draw a story set in the contemporary moment?

James Sturm: With historical fiction there is more of an element of excavation to the undertaking. Switching gears to contemporary fiction, I enjoyed being more attentive to the current moment and my immediate environment, especially because the story was set in a place similar to where I live. There were times while writing Off Season that it felt like I was working on a documentary.

TM: What do you mean by documentary? Do you see similarities between the methods you employ in Off Season and those employed by non-fiction comics creators?

JS: After working on the book a year, my characters felt real to me. With characters set in another era you have a sense of the history they are moving through. When I decided to set this book during the election season, I didn’t know what was going to happen, I had to let things unfold and record my character’s response.

TM: You began your career making books about non-Jewish themes, but you are best known for exploring Jewish culture. Referring to the books mentioned in the previous question, you have studied life in the “old country,” as well as Jewish-American life in the Midwest in the 1920s and in New York in the late 1950s. Why did you write a book about life during the 2016 election about non-Jews?

JS: I chose certain times and places for my stories that I thought would lend themselves to the themes I wanted to explore. I never saw the themes in those stories as being uniquely Jewish.

I started Off Season to help me process a rough stretch in my own life and I was working on the book a year before the 2016 election. There was no political dimension to it but as real-world events unfolded, given who my characters were, it would have been too great of an omission not to include the election.

TM: If you pay attention to politics—and not everyone does—it invariably becomes personal. Sometimes an angry disagreement about a major event simply illuminates what long lay underneath a troubled relationship. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of not wanting to associate with someone whose values are so repugnant you can’t stomach their company. I think Off Season explores this ambiguity.

JS: I’m glad to hear you say that. This is certainly something the book gets into. Our politics are often a projection of our deepest selves and this is also why it is rare that anyone’s political allegiances change even after they are given factual evidence to the contrary.

TM: You employ very few tricks in your composition of Off Season. The panels are the same size. The movements of the characters are expressed with relative subtlety. LSD plays a role in the narrative, but you don’t indulge any stereotypes of what “being on a trip” might look or feel like. Why the restraint?

JS: Off Season’s narrator, Mark, is all about restraint—he’s trying to hold it all together. I tried to make storytelling choices that seemed appropriate to the character. I trust the material and strived to present it without artifice or pretense. Regarding LSD, it’s such an intensely personal experience that for me trying to depict it literally would only cheapen it. I much prefer to create the space that the reader can fill in.

TM: Your sense of landscape in Off Season feels claustrophobic. I don’t want to live in this Vermont. Is this a function of your protagonist’s consciousness or a function of your city boy’s sense of your current home?

JS: I don’t think I ever state the book takes place in Vermont. It could also be New Hampshire or even Maine. But your question is well taken. I find New England winters incredibly beautiful. After the fall colors go away, what’s left is something bare and primal. They possess this haunting feel that I tried to capture. I love living in Vermont, winter and all.

TM: Why dogs?

JS: I’ve often drawn these type of dog/humans as a way to get me going in my sketchbook, it invites a certain playfulness. My intention was to turn everyone into a human but at some point during the project, the dog heads seemed to make sense. Maybe it was the idea that the even the strangest things can quickly become normal. Or this idea of doggedness as the essential quality that’s needed if we have any hope to cross the divides that separate us.

TM: Have there been any works of fiction—graphic novels, prose novels, or films—made in the last couple of years that have also overlapped with your work? Are there any that resonate with you in particular?

JS: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro really resonated with me. This older couple, following the death of King Arthur, take this mythic journey and their love is tested. It’s a meditation on trauma and memory and casts quite the spell. Though not recent, one of my all-time favorite movies is Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind. That too shows an estranged couple trying to find their way back to each other.

TM: As the founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, you potentially have a lot of influence on the future of comics art. If you decide that your students read and study Jules Feiffer’s work from the 1950s and ’60s, for example, Feiffer’s work may end up serving as the model for future cartoonists. There has long been a complaint that MFA fiction programs are designed to produce a very specific idea of fiction.  

JS: This is an issue that the entire CCS faculty engages with. What comics should emerging cartoonists be familiar with? Works like Krazy Kat, Fun Home, Maus, Love and Rockets, and One! Hundred! Demons! seem canonical. That said, each generation should challenge the previous generation’s canon. You see that happening now with artists like R. Crumb for example. This conversation is essential to keeping the medium vibrant.

A central part of the school’s historical survey class are students sharing their formative influences and what they are currently reading so a broader reading list is put forth from the ground up. The history of comics has traditionally been viewed from a patriarchal, industry-driven lens. That needs to change, and CCS is working to that end.

TM: A canon is never truly static. Are there any neglected comics creators you would want in a comics canon? Are there any that need to be kicked out? Which canonical artists do your students dislike the most?

JS: I’m much more interested in recognizing neglected cartoonists than trying to establish canons. There are so many truly amazing cartoonists who haven’t been given their due. I’d also like to see a broadening of our definition of cartoonists. I’d like to see Native American Ledgerbook artists, who began making graphic novels at least as far back as the 1860s, be recognized. Or Charlotte Salomon, who created a painted autobiographical graphic novel in the early 1940s that’s a masterpiece.

Slaying Monsters in Fiction

The artist, author, and illustrator Shaun Tan has several images of gigantic monstrous beasts in his work, but my favorite is in his picture book The Red Tree, where a little girl with red hair–the story’s protagonist–walks down the street while over her looms a dour grayskinned trout the size of an ocean liner, its mouth agape in what I always imagine to be an extended, engulfing, loathsome moan.  

The creature in the scene is a kind of weather, a ceiling on the world, inescapable and impressive in its vastness. By its mere presence, it changes the whole scale of the picture, dwarfs the apparent subject (and the viewer). It acts by being, a character and a setting in one, and it throws anyone who confronts it into sudden definition: do they flee? Fight? Or, like the pictured girl, are they brought under the creature’s influence, their moods and chemistries pulled, like the tides, by the gravity of a distant body, alien and unknowable perhaps, but impossible to ignore?  

We see ourselves in the big things of this world–look for faces in clouds and cliffsides, give our human-shaped gods chariots to carry the sun and tridents to style the waves. We picture the arms of great trees throwing apples or raised in a midnight dance. If a monster truly came, some of us would worship it. Others would identify with it to the point of psychic death. 

Monstrous beasts exert the same level of influence on the stories that contain them as they do on the fellow inhabitants of those stories and the settings where they occur. If Chekhov demands that the gun on the mantel be fired, then Melville demands that Moby Dick be catalogued, the whole of whaledom surveyed like a country being mapped. When a story’s monster isn’t captured in a net of verbiage, then that absence informs what remains, a shadow cast on the pages from above. No matter what, we will not allow a monstrous beast to roam through narrative unscathed. Symbolism will fly at it from all directions, yet the creature will refuse to collapse into a single explanation. It will acquire meanings, yet remain (somehow) stubbornly itself. When a monstrous beast appears in a story, then it becomes, at least in part, what that story is about. 

Two recent novels contain, and are shaped by, monstrous beasts: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro and Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. Set in immediately post-Arthurian England and a dystopic future hellscape, respectively, they might not have much in common if they didn’t feature behemoths endowed with unearthly powers. But it is only those behemoths that make these novels possible at all. 

One might be fooled into thinking that The Buried Giant isn’t about a dragon. The novel, when it begins, is the story of a marriage. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, love each other dearly, but tragedy haunts their past. Perhaps they once had a son and lost him? Their dearth of memory sends them on an ill-conceived quest to find their way to his village. The stakes are high, but limited in scope–personal, not global. 

That is, until we discover the dragon at the heart of all this. Instead of smashing huts and castles, the she-dragon Querig has seeped her way through every barricade, insidiously polluting the atmosphere inside of people’s heads. Querig’s special ability is to breathe a Mist of Forgetfulness, fogging minds of the characters, erasing the past–yet strangely, allowing the previously warring Briton and Saxon tribes to live alongside each other in peace. Late in the novel, we learn that Querig’s presence is inextricably tied to King Arthur’s legacy of peace. The dragon was deliberately enchanted by Merlin in order to perform her ordained task, so “the bones [of war would] lie sheltered under a pleasant green carpet… long enough for old wounds to heal forever and an eternal peace to hold.” So long as Querig has “breath left, she does her duty.” 

Is the Mist a curse or a blessing? It is a force, and to stop it requires the slaying of a god. 

Sir Gawain, Querig’s supposed challenger, has been living a lie for decades. Though he claims that he and his horse Horace “have bided their time,” “have laid careful plans to lure [Querig] out and…seek no assistance,” nothing could be further from the truth. Arthur himself appointed Gawain as Querig’s protector, and Gawain will die before he sees her slain. When a new challenger, this time a real one, arises in the form of the warrior Wistan, Wistan’s persistent doubts and suspicions about Arthur’s peaceful legacy bring the matter to light. 

Spoiler: this doesn’t end well for Gawain, or for Querig. But the violence that unfolds takes on the qualities of the creature at its center. In a virtuosic description, Ishiguro renders Querig “emaciated,” “worm-like,” and “dehydrating,” “the remnants of her wings…sagging folds of skin that a careless glance might have taken for dead leaves.” Querig is the forgotten thing at the center of the forgetting she herself generates: impotent, absent, hardly recognizable as a dragon. Beatrice wonders aloud, “Can this really be her, Axl? […] This poor creature no more than a fleshy thread?” There is nothing assertive or combative in Querig. The mechanism of her power is to just keep breathing. She is nothing but a lung: as fragile, as essential. So when death comes to this book, it is without catharsis. It is a mere stopping of that breath. 

Sir Gawain falls first. An aged knight, he asks permission to unsheathe his sword before the duel with Wistan commences, to avoid humiliation (Wistan graciously allows it). The clash is brief, and when Gawain succumbs, he “struggle[s] for a moment, like a man in his sleep trying to make himself more comfortable,” then finally seems “content.” Wistan may hate everything Querig stands for, but the killing blow he inflicts resembles her Mist, wiping away all pain and strife and replacing it with an unconsciousness that leaves the affected soothed and stilled. 

When Querig dies, it is anticlimax upon anticlimax; she puts up less of a fight than Gawain. Motionless but for her rhythmic breathing and the steady blinking of her eye–“hooded in the manner of a turtle’s”–she lies on the floor of her pit while Wistain walks up to her and with “a swift, low arc in passing,” effortlessly decapitates her. 

At the time of The Buried Giant’s publication, Ursula K. Le Guin responded to a comment Ishiguro made about the book (“Are they going to say this is fantasy?”) by writing, “It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, ‘Are they going to say I’m a tight-rope walker?’ ” Genre squabbling aside, Le Guin’s statement has lingered with me because of what it perhaps unintentionally captures about the peculiar nature of this book. Because, in a sense, Ishiguro does create a scenario like the one Le Guin proposes. He sets the stage for spectacle at dazzling heights, then presents us with players too ancient, too confused, to perform their chosen roles–to do anything but hand themselves over to merciless gravity and time. A man plummeting to his death, no longer certain about who he once was or how he’ll be remembered, is a man fallen victim to Querig…a man not unlike Querig herself.  

Just as Querig’s age and forgetfulness infuse the whole of The Buried Giant, the exact opposite qualities–youth, curiosity, hunger, and enthusiasm–underscore so much of Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. It’s no coincidence these are the very qualities possessed by the titular character.  

Borne begins life “dark purple and about the size of [a] fist…like a half-closed stranded sea anemone,” but under the tutelage of Rachel, a scavenging human who adopts him, this shapeshifting organism learns and grows rapidly. Like some strange hybrid of all that lives, he is eager to take nourishment of any kind – compost worms, pebbles, scraps of wood– into his gelatinous core. But he is unique among living beings in that nothing comes out of him: no waste, no emissions.  

This literally all-consuming tendency would be terrifying if he weren’t just so cute. The first time Borne does something violent, it is to eat a team of young home-invaders who have been torturing his mom. Using the voice of one of these ingested assailants, he says, “I am Borne. I talking talking talking.” He also tells Rachel not to be afraid.  

As he continues to get bigger, his hunger for multi-celled lifeforms shrinks in comparison to his hunger for knowledge, which gets played out in whimsical, absurdist dialogues with his ersatz parent. “Borne didn’t know what serious was,” Rachel observes. Even when he ultimately begins ingesting other humans, Borne explains that he tries “to only kill evil people,” but more importantly, he doesn’t concede Rachel’s version of events: “I killed them but they’re not dead…I don’t think they will ever die.”  

Borne is alien, unknowable, but the very limits of his knowability exclude the possibility of human guile. He operates like nature unspoiled, a pristine wilderness incarnate in the form of a creature: a walking, talking web of life in which much is gained but nothing is lost. The result is a novel that feels weirdly innocent–weirdly being the key word. Because there is true darkness in this book too, and it comes from the novel’s other monstrous beast: the flying bear Mord. 

Mord is a destructive flying bear the size of a zeppelin. Foul-breathed, encrusted with refuse, he is beyond reason: madness has overcome the “toxic waste dump of his mind.” This is his punishment and his curse; once “curious about so many things,” he compromised himself irrevocably by working for the Company, a menacing entity that churned out irresponsible biotech, leading inevitably to the ruined state of the novel’s world. Now he has proxies that look like him and obey the commands of his blinding, incoherent rage. He is corrupted, contaminated, and though pitiable, he cannot be saved. 

As a result, the book’s final showdown between Borne and Mord functions like a battle between nature and pollution, creation and destruction. “There comes a moment when you witness events so epic you don’t know how to place them in the cosmos,” Rachel comments, and she’s not overselling the drama. Towering over the burning city, the creatures clash, until, like the compost worms Borne himself once consumed, Borne at last engulfs Mord, swallowing the beast entire–and causing both of them to vanish spontaneously. 

Because Borne is a child, the story that contains him takes on childlike qualities. It’s simple, brightly colored, a fable that could be performed brilliantly with stop-motion toys or puppets. I say that not as criticism but as high praise. Iconic, but also breathtakingly, astoundingly, bizarrely new, Borne is a rare book that delivers the surprise of true wonder that’s at the heart of seeing the world with fresh eyes. In fact, it’s no coincidence that one vaguely human feature the shapeshifting Borne decides to adopt is a ring of eyes, which encircle his body like a belt–“blue, black, brown, green pupils, and some were animal eyes, but he could see through all of them.” Though the Mad Hatter claims that “I see what I eat” isn’t the same as “I eat what I see,” the two kinds of voraciousness–abstract curiosity and physical hunger – feed on each other in Borne until he at last outgrows the story he’s in. 

By conjuring monstrous beasts in the pages their novels, Ishiguro and VanderMeer endow their stories with vast scope. Each creature also gives its story’s world an aesthetic center around which other elements can orbit. Though the two novels couldn’t be more different, they’re united in this… and also in the humility that comes with placing the lives of human characters in perspective against larger forces. Like the little girl in The Red Tree, these novels’ human characters walk in the shadow of the incomprehensible–as do we all.

Image: Wikimedia

Brimming with Curiosity: On Philip Pullman’s ‘La Belle Sauvage’

1.
It was my then-girlfriend (now wife), G, who spotted the unassuming flyer by the door of the Church of St Mary the Virgin, just a few steps away from the elegant dome of the Radcliffe Camera. There was something about Philip Pullman giving a talk, and it was the next day, and there wasn’t anything about an admission price. We had to go.

G and I were studying abroad in the U.K. that year and visiting Oxford for the first time. G would later go on to study at Oxford, which was a longtime dream. We’re part of the generation that grew up with great fantasy series: the Harry Potter books came out when we were Harry’s age, and we both read The Lord of the Rings voraciously as children, snubbing those who only saw the movies (which we also loved). Oxford, as the home of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and the filming location for many scenes in the Harry Potter movies, held a special magic for us. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, with its reimagined version of Oxford, was also part of that magic.

What we should’ve realized about Philip Pullman’s talk that morning in Oxford, and the fact that he was giving it in a church on a Sunday morning, was that it was in fact a sermon. Which meant we had to sit through mass in order to hear him speak. The place was packed, and we heard some local ladies mention that they noticed many young new faces in the pews. I’d never attended an Anglican mass before, and I was glad to find out that much of it consisted of listening to beautiful singing.

Pullman is an outspoken agnostic, so it’s a credit to the Church of England and to this church in particular that he was invited to give the sermon. He climbed up the pulpit in his trailing black robe, wisps of white hair framing his round head, rimless glasses around his eyes. Philip Pullman has said that if he had a daemon—a kind of animal companion the characters in his books have, a physical manifestation of their souls—it would be a raven. He certainly looked like one that day. Instead of talking about God or analyzing a quote from The Bible, Pullman used his mellow storyteller’s voice to talk to us about the motivating force in his own life: intellectual curiosity.

2.
Pullman has been promising his readers a sequel to His Dark Materials for a long time. We’ve even known the title for several years: The Book of Dust. The Dust in question is a mysterious substance, conscious matter that clusters around human ingenuity, that is a driving force behind the plot of the original trilogy. Pullman, as if to help us wait for his new opus, has published two short stories and an audio story in the intervening years, but these amounted to pleasant collectibles that excited briefly but could not fully satisfy.

Now, finally, with the publication of the new trilogy’s first volume, La Belle Sauvage, Pullman’s readers are seeing the fruits of his work these last 17 years, and I’m happy to say that the wait has been worth it.

Authors do well to limit the scope of the first book of a trilogy. With the exception of a few short scenes, The Golden Compass sticks to the point of view of Lyra, a scrappy orphan with a knack for lying, as she travels north from her home in Oxford, in search of her kidnapped friend, Roger. She befriends witches, armored bears, and a Texan aeronaut along the way, and, of course, learns who her real parents are. At the end of The Golden Compass, Lyra crosses into another world, using a bridge in the sky opened by her father in a horrific scene in which he sacrifices Roger, tapping into the energy that connects Roger to his daemon to wrench open the heavens. In the second book, The Subtle Knife, Pullman puts his omniscient third person narrator to greater use by expanding the cast of characters and the setting. That book begins by following Will Parry, a young man from our own world, as he runs away from home. The change in perspective is so stark that I remember wondering if I was really reading the sequel to The Golden Compass when I first opened it or if there had been some kind of printing error. Eventually Will meets Lyra and they become close friends. As The Subtle Knife progresses and leads to The Amber Spyglass, the action gets bigger and madder, introducing a defrocked nun physicist, angels split into two warring factions, tiny knights who ride dragonflies, creatures from another world who get around on wheels made of large seeds. All the action drives towards a cosmic conflict, a moment of redemption, and a heart-wrenching scene between our two protagonists.

Pullman has certainly kept things (relatively) intimate for the first volume of The Book of Dust, which takes place exclusively in Lyra’s world, and largely in and around its alternate version of Oxford. La Belle Sauvage recounts the (mis)adventures of Malcolm Polstead, about a decade before the events of The Golden Compass, with Lyra present as a baby. Malcolm is a capable boy, quiet, sensitive, serious, and crafty. He’s equally at ease talking to adults, repairing broken windows, or canoeing out onto the river to watch birds. He’s the perfect young hero, very much in the mold of Will Parry, although Will had an inner darkness because he grew up without a father and had to take care of his mentally ill mother, whereas Malcolm lives with loving parents. The darkness in La Belle Sauvage comes from Malcolm’s unexpected ally Alice, a withdrawn girl who’s capable of defending herself when necessary, and who, because she’s older than Malcolm, is also more aware of what the adults are up to. Tellingly, though, her daemon hasn’t fixed into its final form yet, which suggests that she still hasn’t quite figured out who she is.

The villain, once again, is organized religion, which takes the form of a powerful, dogmatic, and politically implicated Catholic Church and its tentacular agencies, such as the ominously named Constitorial Court of Discipline. In Pullman fashion, everyone who’s associated with the church is automatically suspicious, with the exception of a few good nuns across the river. Yet the one character who actually stalks our heroes and endangers their lives isn’t an agent of the Church: he’s a psychopathic, manipulative, relentless French scientist called Bonneville, and he’s out for revenge. Bonneville’s daemon is a horrendous, maimed hyena that symbolizes his violent impulses, and it’s telling that he’s often in conflict with her, at one point even striking her. I was reminded of a scene Pullman wrote for the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, in which the character of Mrs. Coulter hits her golden monkey daemon. As the characters keep saying in La Belle Sauvage, only the very deranged would hurt their own daemon.

3.
After a pleasant but slow-moving first half, La Belle Sauvage climaxes with a dramatic flood, not of biblical proportions—although several characters refer to its scriptural precedent—but rather of biblical implications, since it unexpectedly carries away Malcolm and Alice, along with baby Lyra, and we know that Lyra’s survival will lead to the world-changing events of His Dark Materials.

Journeys are an essential element of Pullman’s original trilogy: to the north, between worlds, even to the land of the dead. But whereas the travels in those books took their mythological underpinnings from the Old Testament, along with a smattering of Nordic imagery and a sheen of science fiction, here the fantasy elements are decidedly folkloric. The journey itself is less epic in scale, and even a little rushed as Malcolm, Alice, and Lyra paddle from island to island in a changed landscape. The flood strips away the veneer of modernity and unleashes the magic of old Albion. Malcolm becomes an Odysseus-cum-gallant knight who encounters, in quick succession, vicious nuns in their fortress-like priory, fairies that must be tricked like Rumpelstiltskin, enchanted riverbanks where a thick fog causes adults to forget their past, and a pagan river god who guards his tributary of the Thames. Finally, we reach a “quiet rode” inspired by Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, a figurative place of rest that is both a pause in the journey and a break in the story. In these dreamy, feverish scenes, Philip Pullman is tilling the same creative soil at Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. It’s the soil of English myth, and of English country folklore. So less high fantasy, and more of what Neil Gaiman would call English fantasy.

In earlier chapters the novel flirts with other genres, especially thanks to the character of Dr. Hannah Relf, an Oxford scholar who works with the Bodleian’s alethiometer, a mysterious truth-telling device that Lyra will eventually use herself. Careful readers will recognize Dr. Relf from short scenes in the original trilogy when she enquires about Lyra’s education early in The Golden Compass, and then offers her a place at a boarding school and the chance to study with her to read the alethiometer at the very end of The Amber Spyglass. In La Belle Sauvage, Dr. Relf works for a secret service agency that protects democracy against the agents of the Church, who are bent on stifling free speech and personal freedom. We’re plunged into a light spy novel: there are secret levels of government at war with each other, tradecraft, double-dealings, spy masters ready to do the very worst to bring about good—right out of the pages of the world’s most famous spy novelist, another Oxford-educated writer, who happened to study at a college on the same street as Lyra’s beloved Jordan.

There’s also a more sinister undercurrent, whiffs of an Orwellian brand of dystopia. In dispiriting early chapters, one of the Church’s organizations called the League of Saint Alexander takes over schools in the Oxford area, with the aim of having children snitch on parents and teachers who don’t follow the church’s dictates. Pullman was inspired by the kind of tactics used in Soviet Russia; I was reminded of the terrifying children in 1984 who are trained to spy on their parents and report them as bad party members. Pullman, who worked as a middle school teacher before writing full time, has an excellent ear for schoolyard arguments.

4.
The prerogative of the curious protagonist of a YA novel is to observe and half understand the world of adults. Think of the number of scenes in which Harry Potter overhears an interesting conversation from underneath his cloak of invisibility. In La Belle Sauvage, Malcolm is rather conveniently always at the right place and time to witness important events and talk to the right people. That convenience could be explained on the one hand by the fact that he lives and works in a pub his family owns, The Trout, and so gets to meet and talk to many adults who frequent it, and on the other by the fact that greater powers—Dust, perhaps—bind him to the task of protecting Lyra, just as Lyra herself will one day be nudged into action by the alethiometer and the prophecy that foretells her role in replaying humankind’s fall.

Yet I was somewhat bothered by the role Pullman has Malcolm play within the larger story. Although Malcolm is the protagonist of this book—his precious canoe even gives the volume its title—we know that his place is inevitably at the fringe of the greater drama of Lyra’s story. Lyra’s parents, Marisa Coulter and Lord Asriel, who both have arresting cameos in La Belle Sauvage, are powerful, charismatic individuals. They’re also beautiful and noble. So it seems almost inevitable that their daughter will grow up to become someone important. Similarly, Will Parry’s father, unbeknownst to Will, is a world-crossing scientist and shaman. Will’s story is entangled with Lyra’s, but as the bearer of the subtle knife and, later, as the figure of Adam, he takes his place as Lyra’s equal.

What about poor Malcolm? Well, he’s a publican’s son, and for all his craftiness and courage, and the fact that Dust appears to play some role in guiding his actions, he will always be subservient to Lyra. When he meets baby Lyra for the first time, his immediate thought is that he will be “her servant for life.” Before the end of the book, he will have risked much to make sure that she’s alive to fulfill her destiny in a decade’s time. I can only hope that Malcolm will return in the next volumes of The Book of Dust to get some credit for everything he’s gone through, and that he’ll grow up to be more than a servant. He deserves a story of his own.

It’s only with the publication of the second and third volumes of The Book of Dust that we’ll be able to recognize the figure in the carpet, and to see if Pullman has been able to create a story that holds together in his new trilogy. From the information Pullman and his publishers have made public, I assume that it will be a baggier series than His Dark Materials because it has to cover a longer time period. The second volume, The Secret Commonwealth, will apparently be set 20 years after the action of La Belle Sauvage, with Lyra as an undergraduate student. Pullman has the opportunity to correct some of the mistakes he made in The Amber Spyglass, whose plot, though enthralling, hung together only with an added dose of suspended disbelief.

At least with La Belle Sauvage Pullman has avoided the biggest pitfall: by expanding his cast of characters and nodding to his past books while keeping this novel different in tone, he’s avoided sounding as if he was writing his own fan-fiction. Pullman’s novels communicate big ideas, and some have criticized him for the relentless dogmatism with which he pursues them, but for all the god-killing and evil priests, Pullman is first and foremost an extremely skillful storyteller—the warmest, fuzziest kind that takes readers by the hand and guides them with sharp prose and a fast moving plot. There was some violence and some fairly dramatic moments in His Dark Materials, yet I found La Belle Sauvage more mature because it explores psychological darkness as well. There are whispers of pedophilia and sex crimes at the fringes of the story, which heightens the sense of danger, and underscores the theme of innocence and experience, which plays an essential role in Pullman’s books.

The Amber Spyglass ends with Lyra declaring that she will build “the Republic of Heaven” on earth, in a celebration of the physical world and its joys. That’s exactly what Pullman is doing with the universe he’s expanding with each new book, except he’s building his republic with words, with stories, with human characters brimming with curiosity.

Kazuo Ishiguro Wins the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature and its 9m Swedish krona purse ($1,095,939.52) was awarded to Kazuo Ishiguro in a ceremony broadcast live online. The British author has written seven novels, most recently The Buried Giant, and in 1989 he won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for The Remains of the Day. As of this morning’s standings on popular British betting site Ladbrokes, Ishiguro was not in the top-three most likely Nobel laureates, and so his victory comes as a surprise – albeit a much more mild one than last year’s left field selection of Bob Dylan.

Ishiguro’s novels have long been favorites of Millions readers. His name has popped up in many of our Year in Reading entries, and his sixth novel, Never Let Me Go, earned a spot on our 2009 “Best of the Millennium” series. “They say that most novelists end up writing the same book over and over again: a truth which manifests itself differently in the work of different novelists,” wrote Elif Batuman. “In the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro, it takes the form of an incredibly elegant formal unity.”

His work also takes the form of surprise, as noted by Millions editor Lydia Kiesling:
It is a great thing to be surprised by a novelist.  …  The surprise in a large part of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work is that he changes the very quality of the world in some subtle but deeply alarming way; suddenly the sky is a gray shade, your own voice vibrates at a slightly different frequency, and an atonal humming sound wafts on the breeze.

The bar for participating in post-Nobel activities was set unbelievably low last year, when surprise winner Bob Dylan went two months before even acknowledging his honor. It’s doubtful this year’s winner will continue that trend.

Surprise Me!

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