Max Frei, the narrator (as well as putative author) of The Stranger, is a loser; he doesn't fit in with the world because he can't sleep at night or stay up during the day, and he finds his dreams often more vivid and meaningful than reality. He'd live on cigarettes and coffee if he could (not that that makes him odd). But if it seems like The Stranger might be some kind of hip, disaffectedly dark-toned, grunge-slacker fantasy—and the cover suggests it is (to paraphrase Mark Twain, there are lies, damn lies, statistics, and book covers)—in fact, it's a hyper-cheerful, East-European flavored, episodic "boy's adventure" book. Its "elevator pitch" might be "a combination of Harry Dresden and Joe Hardy, played by Borat, solves crimes in Oz." And—but?—for most of its great length and many adventures, it manages to be charming, even mildly addictive, fun.
In Max's dreams, he often visits a favorite café, The Glutton Bunba (a name the reader may find maddeningly catchy for the duration of the book). There he makes the acquaintance of an older gentleman who, on one particular occasion, tells him to remember the dream. (As the author and main character share a name, from here on the author will be "Frei" and the character "Max"). Before long, he's in Echo, the city he'd dreamed about, in the flesh. He's a highly valued employee—the "Nocturnal Representative"—of his acquaintance, Sir Juffin Hully, the Most Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force, an elite police squad.
A person who feels himself an outsider and loser and never fits in until he finds he's gifted and actually belongs in a world of magical adventure, where he's highly valued. Hmmm, seems familiar, somehow . . .
Yes, it's the classic outsider/slacker/unpreposessing youth (Beowulf, Luke Skywalker, Taran, Harry . . . ) who discovers a world that not only suits him, but is an exciting fantasy world come to life, where his particular talents (which in Max's case, include staying up all night) are valued, where he is lucky, intuitive, powerful, successful, and highly praised—or at least, important. Juffin Hully makes Max an officer almost immediately, and he sets in solving necromantic crimes and mysteries that involve the use or misuse of magic, along with an assortment of powerful, fun-loving chums.
Max is very chipper for a slacker, in a way that's not Anglo-American and that can seem cutesy or charming or annoying, depending on its degree and the reader's temperament. There's lots of a kind of bumptious Eastern European enthusiasm, ingenuousness, and goofiness, reminiscent, even more than Borat, of Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd's Czech Brothers, Georg and Yortuk Festrunk, aka the "Wild and Crazy Guys." It involves a lot of exclamation points!
Max has come to Echo one hundred fifteen years after a time of magical chaos and internecine warfare, "the ancient rivalry between the innumerable Orders of Magicians" which "ended in the triumph of the Order of the Seven-Leaf Clover and King Gurig VII" (p. 11). To achieve and keep harmony and peace, all but the lowest orders of magic have been forbidden. The people of Echo are constantly tempted to break the rules, not so much in the way of adults tempted by the dark and dangerous forbidden as children tempted to, say, gorge on all the desserts to the point of illness before anyone else can taste them. This is almost literally true: some of the best cooking can no longer be done because it involves forbidden levels of magic, and some citizens of Echo are haunted by the memory of old recipes.
Part of Echo's exotic—and somewhat jocose—feel derives from the characters' farcical names, like something out of an East European or Central Asian Charlie and Chocolate Factory. Besides Max and Sir Juffin, the members of the Minor Secret Investigative Force are Sir Melifaro, Sir Kofa Yox, Sir Shurf Lonli-Lokli, Lady Melamori Blimm, and Sir Lookfi Pence (the titles seem to correspond to "Mr." and "Ms.," not to indicate an aristocracy; think of the literal meanings of "Monsieur" and "Madame").
Max makes the connection between Echo and fantasy explicit:
It's good to be new in someone else's world: the evening papers are as enthralling as a fantasy novel. The only difference is that you can open the door at any moment you please and go for a walk in this imaginary world. (p. 104)
Echo is a kind of heaven, at least for Max. People can live, essentially, forever, without population pressures or other issues arising; the ordinary lifespan is 300 years "and greater longevity is a matter of personal stamina" (p. 33). Even the climate is temperate.
But peculiar to the dream-like nature of Echo, even among fantasy fictions, is a lack of convincing threat, suffering, or even consequence, as well as the nearly relentless cheeriness. Anton of the Russian films Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006), drawn into a supernatural world to join a sort of law enforcement team, suffers a lot of pain, anxiety for his son, and real danger. Max is an Anton to whom nothing very bad happens. This feels less like "fantasy" and more like "make-believe." Echo is almost as cheery and devoid of real threat as Oz, or even Johnny Gruelle's sappy and nigh-unreadable Raggedy Ann and Andy stories.
We never really worry about Max or his compatriots. Max himself says: "Somehow I had become certain that nothing bad would ever happen to me. Not here, nor in any other place. Never. Bravery verging on lunacy" (p. 165). Except that it's true. At one point, a criminal who intends to poison Max simply forgets to, though Max threatens both his life and his criminal enterprise. At another, he expects a fistfight, but—hey!—it just never happens. Meanwhile, Max becomes more and more formidable, someone who can kill almost at will, whose simple wish and word can make things real, and who has the power to turn his dreams into independently existing worlds.
While there are plotlines that run through several episodes, mostly serving to develop the characters and their relationships, there's no overarching plot. Even a development that threatens to bring Max mature and serious emotional responsibilities works out to keep him free and childlike.
This all sounds as if it would be puerile and insipid, and determinedly serious readers should, indeed, avoid this book like the chips and dip at a party in the Swine Flu ward. But readers not so serious in their tastes may easily be won over by Frei's odd imagination, fertile power of invention, and unflagging sense of fun.
Because this world, while inconsequent, is fun, if only because it eliminates anything that isn't fun. Giving it some backbone, and some flesh to go on it, is Frei's power of invention, which is fertile and robust, and the mysteries that provide narrative form and draw the reader along. Max is, after all, part of a force investigating magical crimes. He deals with, among other hazards, a demon-haunted, vampiric mirror; a spirit summoned from another world that has consumed its master and haunts Max in his dreams; attacks by gangs of tiny, thieving automatons; the mystery of King Banjee Paté, a dish made in a particularly horrible way by forbidden magic; and the mysterious, part-time disappearance of the city of Kettari, among others.
Frei's pacing is good. The book's episodes range from short story to long novelette in length, with a final episode reaching to a novella. But it's not so much plot elements or fantasy elements we recall, as much as the novel's peculiar—I use the word in all its senses—and inimitable tone, deriving partly from its cheerful foreign skewedness and partly from its bubble-headed inconsequentiality. It's hard, without quoting twenty to fifty pages at a time, to give a sense of the book's idiosyncratic style. And without being able to read Russian, impossible to say how much of that is original and how much Polly Gannon's translation. Or, if its idiosyncrasies are being carried over from the Russian, if they're simply translated or are given an English equivalent. Or an American equivalent, as Ms. Gannon seems to be American, and so seem some of the odder usages, among them: doggone, spring chicken, before you could say Jack Robinson, no great shakes, how do you like them Apples?, hold your horses, I'll be a monkey's Uncle, a load of baloney, for crying out loud, and okey-dokey. Is this the equivalent of Russian usages that are also hokey, clichéd, and out-of-date, or does the translator need to brush up on current idioms?
Besides usages that seem to have come from someone's rural great-grandfather, the language is bumptious, comically extroverted, and slightly unidiomatic, like a translation of a sunny-natured Dostoevsky or uncynical Good Soldier Svejk. There's an admixture of roughly contemporary (back to, say, mid 20th century) cultural references, many of which seem clunky or odd. Eating and drinking with his boon companions after an adventure, Max says:
"I was loved! Darn, it's worth a lot if in some World or other there's a place where you're loved by at least five people . . . .
"'Hey gang, you know what?' I shouted when we had started in on the next jug of kamra [like coffee, cocoa, and hot punch rolled into one] from the Glutton Bunba (we had polished off so many I had lost count.) 'I'm happy.'
"Why in the World were they roaring with laughter? They couldn't possibly have seen the Droopy Dog cartoons. (p. 538)
One has to wonder: could a Russian novel really have made this reference? If not, what reference did it make, that this is the "translation" of? And if it's a translation, how many people did the translator think would get this reference to an American cartoon from the 1940s and 50s, in which a sad-faced, sad-voiced character would turn to the camera and make the same statement?
But Max finds fun in Echo and so can the reader who surrenders to it, who isn't put off by the oddities and silliness, the exclamation points and the outmoded expressions, and the mostly episodic structure. Like the pastries served by The Glutton Bunba, this is a tasty confection.
But such a surrender suggests an interesting parallel between Max and the reader who shares his adventures: both have left the real world to spend time in a fantasy world—the same fantasy world. Should I be wary of that? Should I disapprove? Might this frothy escapism, without even the real-life touchstone of plausible threat, be pernicious to me? Is the book cozening me into some kind of narcissistic stupor that unfits me for life? In an August 14 Strange Horizons review of Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold, Niall Harrison (disclosure: my Strange Horizons editor) quoted with approval some February 1979 Fantasy & Science Fiction columns by Joanna Russ in which she first complained of having to review not books, but "guided daydreams," and then in a response to complaints, asserted a problem with the seductiveness of fantasy, and the supplanting of the illumination (and pleasure, perhaps) provided by art with an analgesic.
Heavens! Isn't that exactly what The Stranger does? Where's the edification? Where's the illumination? Where's the truth?
But I don't want to put too much emphasis on Ms. Russ as a promoter of a particular position; I haven't read the original essays Harrison quotes from. The stated positions are clear enough and common enough that we can detach them from any particular person and consider them on their own.
If you vicariously identify with Max—and if you can't, don't read the book—the whole thing is a virtual ego-stroke, one fun, non-threatening adventure after the next, like a perpetual series of Disney rides, in which you (Max) always come out on top, and along the way, you eat and drink a lot, and everybody thinks you're great.
There can be a moral dimension to reading. For instance, C.S. Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism, suggests (my take on his position) that we can read to justify and reinforce our own beliefs, prop up our own egos, and gratify our baser or more infantile desires, an essentially narcissistic pursuit; or we can read to open ourselves up to the experience of others, to learning, to broadening and challenging ourselves.
And there is a moral imperative to put our time and abilities—including our ability to read—to the best use possible. Every bad book read represents a good book unread.
But it makes all the difference if you decide these things for yourself, or if someone prescribes them to you. There's some sort of Puritan holdover in the objection to "analgesic" reading, the idea that we want or need illumination, that we can and should be making ourselves better, improving ourselves while we, in the old phrase, "improve the time."
One of the best responses to this sort of thing was made not in criticism, but in film. Promoters of the edifying might sit down for a viewing of Sullivan's Travels (1941), Preston Sturges's fable about a very serious director who wants to make an edifying film about Depression-era poverty, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (yes, that's where the title of the 2000 Coen Brothers film comes from) and learns, when he himself is down-and-out, the value of simple—even analgesic—entertainment.
And while there is a certain truth that can be found in fiction, it's not quite clear how profitable any kind of reading is, compared to real life. If we are to work out our salvation with diligence, we're probably not going to do it by reading. Sorry!
But to get back to the text—is 540 pages of "feel-good" entertainment too much of a good thing? I did start to tire a bit about four-fifths of the way through, at the point where, at the end of an involved episode in which a dire villain is tracked down with difficulty, he's finally dispatched in a line or so, and off-stage. That was a bit too much an avoidance of tension and conflict. Fortunately, a final episode, the "Journey to Kettari," arrived to save the day. A long (and literal) excursus to Juffin Hully's homeland, the Journey ends up being one of the most interesting sections of the book and one in which Frei, perhaps in spite of himself, transcends his material, reaching toward something approaching significance.
To say too much would spoil it, but we can say that there's a problem with Kettari, in that some people report that it's much as it ever was, and some cannot find it at all, where it used to be. Max gets to the bottom of that, but in the course of his work, goes beyond Kettari and enters a city he has, literally, only dreamed of. Echo, to take the book's claims at face value, has an independent existence, though he first discovered it in dreaming. The status of Kettari, like "the land of fairy tales" (p. 467), bears investigation. But the city beyond Kettari is one Max literally dreamt up, a place that suits him perfectly, though without any of the ego-stroking he finds in Echo. He encounters it with a mind-boggling sense of wonder, not narcissistic gratification. Even though it's his dream, there's a sense of him going beyond himself, of touching on something too profound to be comfortable, and he doesn't—perhaps isn't able to—stay. We come to something like transcendence of the limits of self through moving deeply within the self.
I think the power in this episode-within-an-episode derives from what Tolkien called subcreation. In his long essay, "On Fairy-Stories," Tolkien tells us that dream stories are not, properly speaking, Fairy Stories, but says:
It is true that Dream is not unconnected with Faerie. In dreams, strange powers of the mind may be unlocked. In some of them a man may for a space wield the power of Faerie, that power which, even as it conceives the story, causes it to take living form and colour before his eyes. (The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, p. 116. All Tolkien citations are from this book.)
"An essential power of Faërie," he notes, "is . . . the power of making immediately effective by will the visions of 'fantasy'" (p. 122). In going beyond Kettari, Max manifests something like "Faërian Drama," which "can produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism . . . . To experience directly a Secondary World: the potion is too strong, and you give to it Primary Belief" (p. 142; emphasis Tolkien's). Tolkien continues: "The central desire and aspiration of human Fantasy" is the unrealizable desire" for "a living, realised subcreative art" (p. 143). But Max transcends Enchantment and realizes the unrealizable; he fully realizes the subcreator role of man, who is made in the image of a Maker, as Tolkien tells us.
Frei makes no explicit point; this is not a treatise. But it's as if the text (leaving the author's possible, but unknown, intentions to one side) suddenly opens up to a new level to reveal not its intellectual but its spiritual or even ontological grounding. It presents a rather naked and extreme act of subcreation within a lesser, more frivolous subcreation, as if saying, "This is the power that lies behind the story; this is where the fantasy world comes from, ultimately." We are shown the subcreation of a new physical reality, a sudden touch of something numinous underlying a surface triviality.
This raises unanswered—and possibly unanswerable—questions not only about subcreation but about what is subcreated.
What The Stranger achieves here reminds me of the story of a Zen master who, after years, even decades, of ascetic self-dedication to pursuing satori, despaired and gave up. He left the monastery and gave himself over to every base, sinful pleasure. In the midst of a drunken debauch, he attained the enlightenment he had sought so long. One of the things I like about The Stranger is that this ego-stroking, vicariously gratifying book, which makes absolutely clear that it is an indulgence in a daydream-like fantasy, goes beyond mere analgesic or gratification by moving past narcissism to narcissism squared, a sort of dream within the dream, to touch on a numinous experience of the power of fantasy in the creation of a world that resembles, even more than Echo, a kind of heaven—so much so that Max, in his current state, cannot remain there.
Though the The Stranger does not take place in any kind of afterlife, to my mind it belongs to the sub-(or sub-sub)genre of post-life fantasies, especially something like Richard Matheson's What Dreams May Come (1978), where in "Summerland" one finds or even generates a heaven that fits oneself, and to a lesser extent, M. Scott Peck's In Heaven as on Earth (1997) and C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce (1945). In all of them, the dead are to some extent responsible for the world they find themselves in, where the outer reflects the inner more clearly and more immediately than it does in life.
What The Stranger manages to achieve—and let's be honest, putting the book under a microscope like this naturally makes the achievement seem bigger than it is—by embracing the narcissistic, even solipsistic, flies right in the face (just where I would like it to fly) of the Puritanical and bourgeois need for self-improvement ("every day in every way, I am getting better and better"), and the condemnation of pleasure in the realization of one's dreams or even just the entertainment of one's fantasies. By depicting, amidst the fantasy, the production of a reality, it mocks the condemnation of fantasy as an escape from reality, a narcissistic trap, a shameful pursuit that lies somewhere between obsessive masturbation and the incessant pressing of the treadle that activates the pleasure center by rats who, never pressing the treadle that brings food, starve themselves to death in lab experiments.
Sure, you can use fantasy for that. You can use reality TV for that. You can use body-building for that, or ballroom dancing. As Tolkien notes, "Abusus non tollit usum" (p. 144).
This discussion lays a heavy weight of explication on what I've been calling, essentially, a children's book, and not a deep or improving children's book, either. I want to give this book room to be its silly self. The Stranger's raison d'etre is pleasure.
And there seems to be more of it to come. The Wikipedia article on The Stranger says that The Labyrinths of Echo series consists of ten volumes, but The Stranger may include the first two (judging by the descriptions of the five volumes now on sale at Amazon Deutschland). It also reveals that the pseudonymous author is Svetlana Martynchik, who has a blog, for anyone who reads Russian. Meanwhile, a second volume of the size of The Stranger is in the offing in English.
See you at the Glutton Bunba!
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984, pp. 109-161.
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published twenty-two short stories, with more forthcoming, and over 250 nonfiction pieces, including reviews in Publishers Weekly. He currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book-export business.
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