Exposition is the enemy of all storytellers. Any story is a hostage to its framing narratives—the histories of its characters, situations, environments, and countless other factors, small and large, which contribute towards making a wider sense of the tale's contents. The problem with exposition, of course, is that whilst it is crucial to a story it is not in truth part of it: exposition holds up a narrative, slows it down, drags it out.
Stories set in worlds unlike our own are most at risk of turning exposition into a fetish. Science fiction and fantasy authors and critics have even created their own special word for it. "Worldbuilding" is a sly little term, a neologism which attempts to add lustre to the expository by making it sound not just constructive but separate. "Worldbuilding," of course, is exposition on a grand scale—the slow revelation of a whole world through the course of a narrative. But it is emphatically not an element of that narrative; it is merely the apparatus by which we come to understand the narrative. It is, in the most immediate of senses, extraneous to the story.
There is of course pleasure to be had in good worldbuilding (though most often it is a ponderous form of torture), but it is not so separate from traditional exposition as the attempt to reclaim it as a literary virtue might suggest: it is always, fundamentally, in the way. John Updike's 2004 novel, Villages, is an entire book of exposition, a series of flashbacks which seek to explain why its main character is who he is at the start of the story; it has a consequent treacly lack of momentum and not coincidentally shares each of its major characteristics with a genre book as obsessed with its background as Peter Watts's Blindsight. Readers want to be carried away by a story, not lectured by it. How, then, to ensure exposition does not obstruct that enjoyment?
"Stories," the saintly character of Sigrid explains in the course of Catherynne M. Valente's In the Night Garden, "are like prayers. It does not matter when you begin, or when you end, only that you bend a knee and say the words. [. . .] [W]e cannot close ourselves, even if the story must continue on another day" (p. 414). Valente's book treats stories in precisely this way—as fragments which can be scattered, reassembled, and ultimately retold in such a way that, though they remain fragments, they somehow also take on a resonance beyond themselves.
The book is the first volume in a duology, concluded later this year with In the Cities of Coin and Spice. It has already won the 2006 Tiptree Award (together with Shelley Jackson's Half Life), and its nomination for the World Fantasy Award is richly deserved. Inspired by story cycles of the past such as the Arabian Nights, the Canterbury Tales, and Boccaccio's Decameron, Valente's book is really something quite different—not just a collection of stories, but an examination of, and an experiment in, the telling of them. It is frequently beautiful in language and tone, constantly inventive in character and situation, and charmingly mischievous in thought and deed.
In the Night Garden is something close to two novels sharing a single metanarrative. Outside the palace of the sultan, in the rolling and expansive gardens, lives a mysterious young girl, turned feral by years of exile and neglect, but with dark rings around her eyes which contain a hundred stories from faraway lands. The sultan's rebellious young son happens upon the girl, and she begins to tell him her tales. He is enraptured.
He listens to two sets of tales, one collected in the Book of the Steppe, the other in the Book of Sea. Valente has said she originally saw the Orphan's Tales series as a four-volume sequence, and so the formal separateness of these books comes as no surprise. What gets to the heart of Valente's endeavour, however, is that they are connected narratively—not at first, and not directly, but characters and plots move in and out of both sets of stories in a way which does not feel contrived or obvious.
The organic feel of In the Night Garden is its most precious quality—though frequently radiant, the writing always seems to fit precisely the story being told. Perhaps this is thanks to Valente's particular talent for similes—creative and refreshing, they seem to work on a number of associative levels, conjuring crystal-clear pictures which echo deeper into the fabric of the tale: a drunken aristocrat's sleeping face as he unknowingly awaits the slaughter is "like a slab of meat on a white tablecloth" (p. 206); a woman about to make a terrible bargain with a young boy stares "like a wounded fawn at his pink cheeks" (p. 263). Valente's facility with language pulls each story towards its centre, making each feel whole and, for want of a better word, correct.
What does all this unity of narrative have to do with exposition, though? Of course, the quality and subtlety of a book's writing must bear a large part of the expository weight attached to any story. But Valente's real breakthrough—the true genius of In the Night Garden—is what she and it realize about the nature of exposition, or, given this is a work of fantasy and if we must, of "worldbuilding."
The book's stories are nested. That is, like ornate Russian dolls slipped into their place, they are shuffled into each other, fanning inwards and outwards as the wider narrative proceeds. Each of the volume's two Books has a variety of narrators—like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (2004), In the Night Garden leaves its individual stories hanging, resuming them later on. Unlike Cloud Atlas, each story is introduced in the preceding one—that is, a prince on a quest will meet a bartender with a tale, who will, in the course of his narrative, pass the baton on to a storyteller he himself met years ago. As each story ends, or is abruptly halted by the need of any one of the supranarrators to eat, sleep, or otherwise go on living, we are removed one or more levels to another story.
The reader is carried through this eddying stream of story, at first entirely disoriented but eventually with a sense of satisfied abandon. It is a procedure that can be compared to the pop-push stacks used in mathematics or computer programming, but what it achieves is a narrative rush of such storyable intensity that the reader begins to rethink where the boundaries between a story and the person telling it—or the person telling you about the person telling the story—may lie.
Valente's epiphany, of course, is that exposition is merely a collection of other stories. The idea of nested narrators is not precisely new—the aforementioned Boccaccio was doing it in the fourteenth century—but Valente has applied it in such a way that she has managed to create an entirely satisfying story world without once reverting to pedestrian "worldbuilding." As any one of her stories proceeds towards a point at which further background is needed, we simply switch to another story which provides it. The constant succession of beautifully drawn first person characters blinds the reader wholly to the trick, and we sit back to watch the doves fly from Valente's sleeve.
Joan Gordon, a judge of the 2006 Tiptree award, says it best: "On the surface it's a girl telling fairy tales a la One Thousand and One Nights, but the tales are influenced by worldwide story-telling traditions, and the roles of men, women, heroes, villains, animals, mythic beings, gods, etc., are constantly being subverted, upended, tweaked, so that gender and sexuality are more liquid than solid." Not the least of Valente's clever subversions of fantasy literature is her bravura eschewing of normal expository technique.
Nevertheless, the vibrant, entertaining stories themselves have delights beyond their functional brilliance. The overriding theme of In the Night Garden is that stories reclaim forgotten voices—the forgotten poor and the unfairly vilified, the powerfully victorious and the quiet failures are all given life in the course of these stories, granted three-dimensional lives which exist beyond the aphoristic bounds of the fairy tales to which their situations have been reduced. From the evil wizard to the shadowy sea captain, the characters inhabiting Valente's melange of folklore and fantasy question our assumptions and undermine our confidences. It is Sigrid, she of the stories like prayers, who makes us most aware of the book's agenda when she abandons the man who has quested all his life to find her, and whom she had thought she too was questing to find: "If I had gone to you then," she tells him, "[. . .] it would have been the end to my story, and so it would have seemed that I had done all I did only for a husband. It was not the end I wanted." (p. 464)
It was for this subversion of gender and all other roles that In the Night Garden became a deserving winner of the Tiptree Award. By introducing elegance, eloquence, and purpose to suffocated fantasy tropes, this oxygen rush of a book would also be a wholly deserving winner of the World Fantasy Award. Here's to it.
Dan Hartland has been doing this too long to think anyone cares who he is.