So here are two books, similarly costly in trees, that read like one book, except for everything that counts: which is in each case the endgame. They both reward any reader who manages to get there. Each of them—American Elsewhere, Robert Jackson Bennett's horror-in-SF tale about a bruise in the texture of the world that allows alien beings to emigrate into the heart of toytown America, which they assiduously wish to preserve, and featuring a protagonist uniquely attuned to the bruise; and The Emperor of All Things, Paul Witcover's steampunkish down-to-the-last-detail first-volume-of-trilogy in which a deadly portal in the texture of the world of eighteenth-century London allows the lords of what might be called Faerie to pluck the strings of time, and featuring a protagonist uniquely attuned to the portal—has a stronger story to tell than implied by a snapshot synopsis, which any moderately experienced reader will have sussed out almost from the get-go. But in each case that reader must initially wrestle through a veritable athetosis of prelims, a continuous slow involuntary wobbling of diversionary tropes and riffs, like seaweed in a slow tide. Or, to change the metaphor (hey, there has to be a first time): these books are like mother killdeer who, in order to defend their young, drag fake broken wings across the sightlines of the tale to keep us from eating the frail hatchling. Or like mother plovers (Witcover is a plover cover lover) who under similar circumstances do what is called false brooding: which is to sit on a false nest murmurously, with furrowed brow.
The question, one supposes, is why. Why do two hale authors with good stories to tell—once we get past the parts we have recognized in advance—work so hard to pretend they are really really into delaying them as much as possible. Though not a single page of either novel can be faulted for localized writerly sins, they cannot either of them truly believe that this sort of gist avoidance can give huge pleasure to readers who know as much as they do about the tricks being played (it is always dangerous to underestimate a reader: because good readers are in the business of getting what they're told). But what's going on here is absolutely not the result of incompetence (see below), nor is it really a question of attempting to turn the suspense screw. Admittedly, Bennett's book is full of disposable utterands (disaster tales are full of characters who are not up on the story, and who die to light the way that others may see better), each of whom, facing certain death, walks straight into it; but after a dozen or so redshirts bite the dust in American Elsewhere, little suspense remains, no matter how deftly they are led into their moment of radiance. And Witcover's constant recourse to bait-and-flashback puts off the true start of his tale until something like page 321. So why?
I can think of a couple of answers. In the apparent absence of cogent editorial input, neither author may have been asked (as William Faulkner apocryphally told some beginning writer) to "Kill all your darlings", which is to say all the bits you worked over for hours and now love best. Both of these novels are full of darlings. Neither Bennett nor Witcover are exactly beginners, and some of the best writing qua writing in both novels appears in some of the most detachable sequences of each; but on the evidence neither seems to have taken heed of the underlying burden of Faulkner's admonition: that you have to kill all your darlings not because they are bad but because they are good. It's their goodness that blinds the writer to the damage they do, not their incompetence. Examples of good writing in the wrong place are drugs. They're addictive. The writer feels the need to do more and more to gain less. That's why they're darlings. The other answer that comes to mind is that Bennett and Witcover simply knew to write long, because the market wants long.
Whatever. End of complaint session. American Elsewhere is set more or less now, in Wink, a small New Mexico town hidden in the eastern foothills of the Rockies. Mona Bright, now about forty but very young-seeming, has been living hard for years. Her father dies, willing her a home in Wink, which is not on the map. Somehow she finds her way there. Though Mona denies the truth (which is to say Bennett doesn't allow her to use her wits, except when he needs her to), it will be almost immediately clear to most readers that Wink, with its 1950s nuclear families and its bland visibly rehearsed niceness, is close cousin to the godgame zoos featured in Pleasantville and The Truman Show. Terrible things begin to happen, invariably transacted in Affect Horror terms, with redshirts beginning to die whenever they walk too far, or disobey unwritten rules. We seem to be in conventional country, except for hints—which I for one fastened onto like a terrier—that there was more to the tale than the feelings it was meant to evoke, which is to say that American Elsewhere was meant by its author to be readable more than once (which, with some suitable skipping of demises, I think it is). Those hints were enough for this reader: either the book was about the emigration of beings from parallel universes, a transition made possible by quantum bruising at the points where these universes bump together like bubbles in a vat, or it was nothing more than a horror story in which a succession of redshirts lead the protagonist to an awful creature with tentacles who sucks the life outta us or what. This is not to say that each of the horror riffs was not very well done indeed. Bennett knows all the moves. He hardly writes a bad sentence. But knowing how to make all the right moves is not the same as knowing how often to make the right moves. Oops: sententia time again. Onward.
In the end, an SF rationale (even if thinnish at points) underpins the cascade of sensations. Wink has been created as a kind of anchor for members of a vast dysfunctional family of quasi-demi-gods from the other universe(s) to fasten surface bits of themselves to, like the tips of icebergs, so that they can hold on here, while awaiting (or fearing the arrival) of their Mother, the primal being who had carried them in her wings across the bruise, seeming to die into anguished fragments from the effort. (A fable told at the beginning of the novel describes this exactly. No false brooding here. Any reader who senses that stories within stories are normally truer than what surrounds them will know what is going to happen in American Elsewhere. Skipping permitted.) Mona herself is somehow an avatar, or a daughter, or a bubble of earth of the Mother; only she can seal up the gap between the worlds, when it becomes clear that a kind of reincarnation of the Mother, locked into the bathos of Wink, may attempt to create "utopia" on Earth. There is a genuine melancholy here, a sense that what Bennett really wanted to write was a tale of terror: the terror that might justly radiate through a tale in which the tentacles slough off to expose a radiant staring eye, the eye of Progress. The Eye, as we well know, of Sauron.
We begin The Emperor of All Things, a Time Opera whose ambitions only slowly become evident, in a cage of tropes learnedly and calmly deployed. A masked thief known as Grimalkin, an apparent male we immediately think of as a Temporal Adventuress, steals a mysterious watch from the workshop of Lord Wichcote, but is surprised by the lord himself. Banter and fustian, in a mode somewhere between The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Princess Bride, are decorously exchanged, and swordplay out of Zorro. Grimalkin escapes with the watch, only to be felled at a blow from behind by the protagonist of the tale, Daniel Quare, a journeyman (and secret Regulator) in the Clockmakers Guild that seems to dominate eighteenth century London, during a period when war threatens and precise control of time-keeping, by making guns more accurate, is of great importance (Witcover does not spend much time on this explanation, nor should he). Quare returns to the Guild, reporting both to its head, the fat and villainous Grandmaster Wolfe, and to his own master, Theophilus Magnus. He tells them each a slightly different tale; in each case a flashback is required to fill things in for the reader, who will assume from these retro moves not only that Witcover is too fond of them (bait and flashback became overused almost as soon as the device was invented) but that nothing told for the first time in The Emperor of All Things is likely to be true; that the first version of any event in the novel is a mask to whipped off, that no one can be trusted to be one person only.
There are parlays and escapes—via cabinets that move up and down and sideways through labyrinthine structures like the guild hall, and once by balloon—and revelations. The stolen watch, which is a hunter, turns out to a denser-than-real weapon or releaser or key to the kingdoms of the universe. "Time," we learn early, "is the mind of god in motion." The mechanical time that marchs humans on this planet in the one direction of death is not only a parody of the realms of ocean of the universe as a whole, but a marker of the hypnotic allure of mortal humans, who accrete time to them like honey through their bondage to a single string of passage. To whom they are irresistable does not exactly come clear in this first volume, where strange mutable godlings, who sometimes manifest as creatures out of Faerie, seem to be attempting to put some sort of genie back into some sort of bottle inconceivable by mortals. That genie is of course the hunter, which is described late in this first volume as neither a clock nor a weapon but a "Dragon's Egg" (I've used the term Serpent's Egg to describe something similar to what is meant here): a kind of aleph through which the future can be seen and potentiated. The danger to all the universes lies in the fact that it can be commanded. As with so many twenty-first century narratives of recognition, an honourable company this novel joins, one great terror that any Serpent's Egg holds in potentia is Utopia. Which is to say Zoo.
To say this much (even slantingly) about what Witcover spends a lot of time getting to might be seen as spoiling the tale. Whatever the merits of any argument against spoilers in general, I think in this case one's apprehension of The Emperor of All Things can only be strengthened by the knowledge that indeed in its last hundred pages it engages formidably with topoi and concerns far more relevant to present-day readers, and is far more enjoyable, than its early pages readily hint at in their teasing bait-and-flashback trod. The heart of this book is what it comes to. Along the way there are pleasures—the homage to Michael Moorcock in the London underground sequences is fun—but there are loosenesses in Witcover's rather sketchy take on the great city, and the biggest flashback of all comes near to stalling the tale before its teeth are bared. Lord Wichcote tells Quare the story of the early days of his search for the hunter. This flashback tale is set in a Wink-like village in the Swiss Alps as the snow begins to fall and does not stop, and the inns and beds of Marchen become a heated tapestry that encloses Wichcote's body and extracts his holy sperm. The tale is well conceived; at points it grips the imagination; bits of it have chthonic echoes of something half-remembered, from deep in the hibernaculum of Story. It lasts 120 pages. In terms of the flow of revelation that necessarily governs, like a hunter, the box-within-box structure of a tale like Emperor, this insert could have done its job in twenty, and needed to have. Which, I guess, to be fair, is a lot of Darling to kill.
But every good book, like any living garden, is a murder. (Instead of murder, I first wrote "miserere." I love a good miserere. But I killed that Darling.)
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