For a story of stories about stories which contains within its pages nearly a hundred other stories, short and long, Mistification, the latest from one of Australia's most daring voices both within and without the boundaries of genre literature, sure could do with a story to call its own. Recalling the work of postmodernist Paul Auster and the genderless fantasist known only as K. J. Parker in its canny absorption of myth and mystery, Kaaren Warren's most ambitious novel to date is in the final summation neither particularly great nor at all small. In the mode of so many intertextual tales, which appear to occupy a space of outermost margins quite bereft of the middle ground between these extremes, stories about stories frequently undermine themselves, working—if they work at all—as systematic deconstructions of narrative at the conclusion of which only isolated aspects of the greater whole remain. Mistification is very far from a failure in such terms, though I dare say Warren’s indomitable efforts to impress upon the entire some sense of gravity cannot entirely overcome its essential weightlessness. This is only Marvo's story, after all—though his is a tale told in a polyvocal voice, by way of the stories of others, through whom Marvo finds his own story.
In the beginning, as in the end, Marvo is a magician. Raised in a hidden room "in a house like a hotel" (p.11) where "men dressed in green like the lino, carrying guns" (p.12) prowl the corridors, evidently executing all those folks whose secret spots they discover, Marvo has his grandmother alone for company, and misfortune upon misfortune, she seems to be disappearing. A "poor old thing using the last of her strength to make him safe," (ibid) Marvo's grandmother talks to him, and he to her, in a perpetual whisper, and even then, her only words are stories. Lessons of a sort—or not.
Little wonder, then, that this neglected child retreats into the arms of fantasy, fleeing from a life of lies and truths as yet untold towards a dream of magic born of a scavenged book, which Marvo obsesses over for three long years, playing and playing "his tricks until the movements were as natural as scratching an itch" (p.24). Shrewd from the start, Marvo understands that these feats are mere sleights of hand, illusions with none of the mist of true magic—a power which his grandmother assures him he will come into, in time—yet much as he commits to memory all his grandmother’s mad yarns, before Marvo emerges from the room he has mastered a repertoire of such two-bit tricks. After all, "what else was there [for him] to do but remember?" (p.13).
When the day finally comes for him to take to the wilds of the world outside, with his grandmother withered away to almost nothing and the murder squad which had them in hiding gone mysteriously to seed, Marvo ekes out an existence swapping tricks for stories from anyone and everyone he encounters; stories which stand in "for his education. He learnt something from every story he heard" (p.80). Then, finding his recollection of his own early years fragmented at best, he resolves to "seek throughout his life for other stories of strange births" (p.37). Marvo goes on to seek stories for a myriad other reasons than as substitutes for his perceived lack of education, or to explain the odd circumstances of his birth: he seeks them to better understand himself, and the world around him, and the people who turn it—yarns of violence and industry, magic and religion, life and love and death. Ultimately, whether they be tall tales or true—it matters not to Marvo—he seeks stories simply to seek stories, for they are the lens through which he sees everything. "He needed stories; stories and stories and stories. He practiced his magic all day but he listened all night" (p.269).
There are no less than 98 such stories in Mistification, nestled one within the other like a collection of Russian dolls locked in Pandora's Box, and they run the gamut from flash fiction to short stories proper, by way of poems, riddles and recipes. Practically every species of narrative has a place in Warren's latest. Often these interludes come without warning; frequently they leave one wanting. Many stand in their own right as sterling examples of the form, yet only occasionally do the stories Marvo dedicates his oddball existence to feed back into the larger framing narrative—and in truth, to call it large is to overestimate the substance of this tale of the rise and fall of The Magnificent Marvo Mee, of which, alas, there is little.
An exhaustive, and at times exhausting novel, so too does Mistification come complete with five separate appendixes, including sections on the various recipes alluded to, "Ten Good/Dramatic/Distracting Things That Really Happened," and a tangential essay on lemmings and suicide, in addition to some forty footnotes explicating on certain disparate references. All of which work to make Mistification feel a considerably longer novel than it is, drawing out the narrative thread at its center well beyond its recommended tolerance.
Introducing a deleted scene of sorts on the Angry Robot Books blog, Warren recalled that "The working title for Mistification was A Rationale of Stories, which is one meaning of the word mythology.” In order that she might set forth this rationale of stories, however, Warren must first outline a rationale for them—after all, characters cannot be seen to simply present the reader with narratives willy nilly, like the inhabitants of Professor Layton's Curious Village, who each demand the player solve such and such a puzzle in exchange for some meaningless titbit of information. This is an obstacle Warren initially overcomes, in large part thanks to the power of Mistification's first 50 pages, which give the reader no quarter. In that claustrophobic first phase, we are trapped in the same narrow double cupboard as Marvo is, and we become as dependent on his miserly grandmother’s occasional tales as he: as the walls close in, falling closer and closer to the foot of the tattered old mattress which is our only personal space with every passing day, they come to represent the reader's only means of escape from this hellish space.
Thus it makes a twisted sort of sense that in later life Marvo finds himself so attracted—addicted, even—to stories, and the eternal search for them. Yet a great deal of time passes over the course of Mistification, and beginning with the realization that the world outside the room of Marvo's youth is other than that which we were led to believe, and continuing as he finds a place in society for himself as The Magnificent Marvo Mee, and meets the love of his life, it seems an increasingly contrary thing that Marvo clings so tightly to his quest, at the expense of all else. Much the same could be asserted of Warren's determination to make of Mistification a mythology, per her own terminology: as the halfway mark comes and goes, Mistification seems more intellectual exercise than narrative. The aforementioned rationale for this rationale of stories is, if not entirely undone, then certainly beginning to unravel, yet Marvo only dives deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, whipping the narrative away with him.
Nevertheless, Mistification begins marvelously, austere and mysterious, and it ends on a truly grand conjuration laden with emotional resonance. Warren saves her best trick for the encore performance, and it sounds out a note of such tremendous follow-through, finally, that judged only on its first and last acts, Mistification could be among the year's most powerful dark fantasies. The trouble is in the between-times, which only ever feel like between-times. Warren is single mindedly set on spinning all these yarns, precious few of which have any actual bearing on Marvo and the tale in totality, and her third novel, after the dark spark of Slights and the wistful wonders of Walking the Tree, is in this fashion overburdened: more an indiscriminate compendium of flash fiction with a frail intertexual framework around it than any sort of story in its own right. Somewhere amongst this interminable diaspora of narratives there is a splendid novel, I am sure of it, not to speak of almost a hundred shorter stories, but so many of the multitude are interrupted, or otherwise obfuscated, that as it stands, Mistification proves rather . . . mystifying.
Niall Alexander (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes about speculative fiction of all shapes and sizes from a dank and none too mysterious hidey-hole somewhere in the central belt of Scotland, where no one can hear his screams. Neither coincidentally nor particularly imaginatively, he blogs his days away at The Speculative Scotsman.