Thursday, March 18, 2004

Am I Missing Something?

Have you ever read a book because you heard from several different people that it was really good? And then, after you read the book did think, well that was okay but I don't see what the fuss is all about? And then, did you go on your way, secure in your judgment until you run into something that makes you think, wow, did I miss something? Well I just had one of those moments. A couple of years ago after hearing several co-workers rave about The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, I decided I'd read it. I love fantasy and science fiction, always have (I remember the days when the scifi/fantasy section of my local bookstore was two bookcases. The good old days when you could get a mass market paperback book for $.75). I enjoyed the book but I didn't think it was anything earth shattering as my raving co-workers did. So I never bothered to continue on in the His Dark Materials series. I didn't feel like I was missing anything. Until now. Michael Chabon, author most recently of Summerland, wrote a lengthy review of Pullman's series in the New York Review of Books. It is a wonderful review in which he talks a bit about fantasy fiction in general as well as the conflict between fantasy fiction and "realistic" fiction:

Like a house on the borderlands, epic fantasy is haunted: by a sense of lost purity and grandeur, deep wisdom that has been forgotten, Arcadia spoilt, the debased or diminished stature of modern humankind; by a sense that the world, to borrow a term from John Clute, the Canadian-born British critic of fantasy and science fiction, has "thinned." This sense of thinning—of there having passed a Golden Age, a Dreamtime, when animals spoke, magic worked, children honored their parents, and fish leapt filleted into the skillet—has haunted the telling of stories from the beginning. The words "Once upon a time" are in part a kind of magic formula for invoking the ache of this primordial nostalgia. But serious literature, so called, regularly traffics in the same wistful stuff. One encounters the unassuageable ache of the imagined past, for example, at a more or less implicit level, in American writers from Cooper and Hawthorne through Faulkner and Chandler, right down to Steven Millhauser and Jonathan Franzen. Epic fantasy distills and abstracts the idea of thinning—maps it, so to speak; but at its best the genre is no less serious or literary than any other. Yet epic fantasies, whether explicitly written for children or not, tend to get sequestered in their own section of the bookstore or library, clearly labeled to protect the unsuspecting reader of naturalistic fiction from making an awkward mistake. Thus do we consign to the borderlands our most audacious retellings of what is arguably one of the two or three primal human stories: the narrative of Innocence, Experience, and, straddling the margin between them, the Fall.
He goes on to suggest that John Milton's Paradise Lost is a work of epic fantasy. I never thought of it that way, but he is right, it is an epic fantasy adventure about the struggle between God and Lucifer, Heaven and Hell, good and evil. I haven't read it in it's entirety, but in college I read a goodly portion of it. And I, like many before me, felt much empathy for Lucifer. Interestingly, most of our ideas about God and the Devil and his being cast out of heaven and what hell looks like actually come from Paradise Lost and not the Bible. Chabon casts Pullman's series in the tradition of Paradise Lost (rather than the Norse and Celtic fantasy tradition of Tolkein). He offers up much thoughtful analysis and explanation. That analysis is what got me wondering if I missed something. Now I'm sitting here doubting my initial response to reading The Golden Compass and wonder if I should read it again. If I read it again will I be enlightened? Or will I just be angry at Chabon for getting me to read for a second time a book I found just okay? So now I am in a conundrum. Do I doubt my reading and fall for the wow factor of Chabon's review which poignantly ends:
In its depiction of Lyra's breathtaking liberty to roam the streets, fields, and catacombs of Oxford, free from adult supervision, and of Will's Harriet-the-Spy-like ability to pass, unnoticed and seeing everything, through the worlds of adults, a freedom and a facility that were once, but are no longer, within the reach of ordinary children; in simply taking the classic form of a novel that tells the story of children who adventure, on their own, far beyond the help or hindrance of grown-ups, His Dark Materials ends not as a riposte to Lewis or a crushing indictment of authoritarian dogma but as an invocation of the glory, and a lamentation for the loss, which I fear is irrevocable, of the idea of childhood as an adventure, a strange zone of liberty, walled, perhaps, but with plenty of holes for snakes to get in.
Or do I harden my heart against the sentimentality and nostalgia for childhood and lost innocence and get one with my life?