Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man redux

So, I've blogged about each part of Portrait, but how does it stand as a whole?

I think the biggest thing I realized this time through is how disciplined the work is. Portrait always invites comparison to Ulysses, because it seems that Joyce is trying out the techniques that he will present to such great effect in the later work. Also, Stephen is our viewpoint at the beginning of Ulysses, so it seems like Ulysses is picking up where Portrait left off.

But I now think that this comparison is unfortunate and unfair to Portrait, which can stand strongly on its own. Ulysses is the flashier of the two, showing off Joyce's brilliance at every turn Every effect in Ulysses is on a large scale -- where Joyce wants to put some literary effects into a section, he puts in 57. Portrait is much more naturalistic as subtle in its effects. It's easy to read through and not notice the alliterations and other effects, or the change in the narrator's speech patterns, though Joyce clues you in on the first page.

Joyce is a subtle writer, but in Portrait not so fond of puzzles for their own sake, which may be why I found the footnotes here not terribly useful. We can trace the Dedalus family's descent into poverty without needing to know each address they move to -- mentions of twice-watered tea served in jam-pots instead of cups tell us all we need to know. Stephen himself is overly clever, but I think we're not necessarily supposed to understand each of his allusions -- he's just playing intellectual games for their empty sake. When he writes for himself alone (in the diary fragments at the end), he's generally straightforward, although of course fragmentary and cryptic to outsiders.

I suppose anyone writing about Portrait is tempted to think about how much is autobiographical. Stephen lives in many of the same places as Joyce, he has the same preoccupations about the Irish language, he has bad vision, and so on. I discussed in an earlier post the question about whether Stephen's artistic manifesto is really Joyce's -- is he giving us a way to evaluate his work within the work itself?

But on this reading, I've come to think that really it doesn't matter so much. More clearly than any manifesto could, Joyce's writing shows us how the artist transforms the world he sees as a through a glass darkly into glittering words. Of course there's some relationship between the raw material and the finished work, but the work stands on its own. Just as Stephen transforms his raw experience into art (as his namesake Daedalus does), so Joyce has transformed his raw experience into Portrait.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

With its seeming equation of virtue and beauty, The Picture of Dorian Gray looks like a fable. For the purposes of the story, everyone accepts that Dorian Gray must be good because he is beautiful, at least for a while. But I think that Wilde is really trying to puncture that attitude by a sort of reductio ad absurdum.

Lord Henry Wotton, who leads Dorian down the path to ruin, is an engaging character, and it seems that the narrator picks up Henry's manner. Most of the epigrams that we hear from this novel come from Henry's mouth. ("People nowadays know the price of everything and the value of nothing," "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it," etc). It's easy to be seduced by Henry's manner -- Basil Hallward, his foil, is a comparatively a bore.

But ultimately, Henry's path is barren. He believes in beauty only, with no connection to the value of the underlying object. One senses that he might even approve of Dorian's cruel acts, since Dorian has the picture to absorb their consequences. Wilde makes Henry so entertaining, because if we were instantly repelled by him, we would never think that his attitude could touch us, that we could be cruel like Dorian.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (part 5)

Portrait is a pretty short book, so I was able to polish off part 5 as well today.

In part 5, Stephen outlines his aesthetic theory, which he draws largely from Aquinas. There are some who conflate Stephen's theory with Joyce's, but I think that Joyce intends this section to be something of a joke on Stephen. Stephen spends a lot of time fretting about the fate of the Irish language, which he feels is symbolized by the word "tundish," a word that the English priest doesn't know. But Stephen later realizes that the word actually has English roots, and is not Irish at all. I think that this is a micro version of Stephen's macro struggles to define himself -- he's constantly getting lost in a labyrinth of his own making (like his namesake Daedelus).

He wants to establish an independent aesthetic theory, but ends up drawing on the very Catholic Aquinas (my Penguin edition says that he owes less to Aquinas than to the Duns Scotus, but I think the point is that Stephen thinks that he's drawing heavily from Aquinas, even as he wants to reject Catholicism). Stephen also sets himself up as Satan with his non serviam, but he is also bound by Jesuitical modes of thinking.

In the end, he flees Ireland, but it's hard not to see his ultimate failure that comes in Ulysses, where he returns after a very short stay in France, and to recall Buck Mulligan's claims that Stephen's refusal to take the Eucharist had killed his mother. Even though I think we're not supposed to take Buck seriously (he's Antinous to Stephen's Telemachus), I think that he's addressing a real fear of Stephen's -- that his break with religion has indeed pushed his mother over the edge.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (part 4)

I wanted to set down my thoughts on part 4 of Portrait before I forget them...

Stephen gives up the idea of the priesthood, realizing that it was never a realistic option for him. As soon as he does, we get a beautiful (but somewhat purple) passage:
The phrase and the day and the scene harmonized in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the grey-fringed fleece of clouds.
I think Joyce is showing us how overwhelmed Stephen suddenly is with the world, and how self-consciously he's poeticizing the world -- he can't even see all these things very well. The purpleness of the prose shows us that Stephen is still an adolescent, over-reacting to everything. From here, Joyce goes us on to throw a bunch of alliterations, compound words, and even 2 chiasmi at us, again showing us Stephen's sudden awakening, but also his immature over-reaction -- he wants to make a metaphor out of everything he sees, turning the girl wading in the sea into a bird, a tidepool into a silver ring, and so on.

Gawain and the Green Knight, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Over the weekend, I read Simon Armitage's translation of Gawain and the Green Knight. I have the Tolkien translation, but haven't read it yet, so I don't have anything to compare it against. Having said that, I really enjoyed his translation. Although Armitage took some liberties with the a a | a x alliterative scheme, it seems that the Gawain poet did as well, and Armitage mostly manages to work in three alliterations per line, even if they're not on the first three stresses.

My biggest complaint was the weakness of his bob-and-wheel translations. In these sections, the poet switches to a rhyme and meter prosody that should be ababa, but Armitage often loses one of the a's, and sometimes even two of them. He does keep the rhythm, though, and I liked the way that it feels like a contrast to the longer lines above.

Speaking of alliterative lines, I finished the third part of Portrait, and it seems that Joyce added alliteration to Stephen's arsenal. There are a lot of alliterations, and I think they reflect Stephen's growing sense of the sound of words will become important as he decides to become a poet. In part 4, at least as far as I've read, both the compound words and alliterations have declined, because Stephen is going through a much more plain portion of his life, having renounced worldly pleasures. It'll be interesting to see if they resume as he abandons the priestly life.

Also, a note on the Penguin edition footnotes: they're godawful. There's one on "From the door of Byron's publichouse to the gate of Clontarf Chapel... he had paced," that tells us that Clontarf Chapel is on Clontarf Road. What I want to know is how far that is from Byron's public house (because it might tells us something about Stephen's state of mind), or at least something about the neighborhood. (Or, if those things aren't particularly important, just don't have a footnote!)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Jar City

Jar City is probably the first novel I've read set in Iceland, and, surprisingly enough, it ends up being a story that could only believably take place in Iceland, so I've got to give Arnaldur Indridason props for that. More importantly, his main characters are interesting, particularly his lead detective Erlendur. Erlendur is pretty sympathetic, but Indridason also makes him well-rounded so that we can see his flaws, and see him reluctantly starting to address some of them. I'm interested enough in his character arc to read the next in the series.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I've just started re-reading Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and I wanted to jot down something I'm noticing in part 2. Maybe the significance of it will come clear to me later, so I don't want to forget it...

Part 2 uses a lot of "Homeric" compound words, for want of a better word. We have, in a short space, "hollowsounding", "freshfaced", and "suddenrisen". In part 1, there aren't any, so this is a pretty marked change in style -- is it supposed to mark Stephen's sophistication? He's not reading Homer at this point in his education (I think). Although, come to think of it, the beginning of part 1 talks about the "moocow", so maybe this is a pretty direct way to show how Stephen's conceptions are becoming more sophisticated.

Added a bit later: In part 3, there are more compound words, this time focused around Stephen's religious epiphany (judgementseat, lurkingplace, bloodred, etc). Is it now part of the way Stephen looks at the world? The end of the book has Stephen conflating a girl and a bird -- maybe this is a prefiguring of the way he combines disparate concepts. I'll have to see if these words appear much outside of the sermon in this section.

Various miscellany

Some further ruminations on books I posted about earlier...

Titus Groan: The opening of the novel is almost cinematic. Peake starts with the people outside Gormenghast Castle, the bright carvers. He moves to their carvings, which are stored inside the castle, and watched over by RottCodd. Flay comes in tell Rottcodd that a son has been born, and we then follow him through the kitchens up to Lord Sepulchrave. It's like a long tracking shot taking us through most of the personages who will be important in the novel to come, but completely unintrusive. It also tells us right away that Gormenghast is a place with many unvarying traditions, and introduces us to the rivalry of Swelter and Flay which will become critical as the novel proceeds.

Idylls of the King: This poem has an awful view of women! I try not to let politics of another time get in the way of my enjoyment of most books, but Idylls makes it very hard. Most of the women are horrible. Aside from characters like Vivien, who is always evil, I found the portrayal of Guinevere to be one of the most negative I've ever run across. The only female character who is presented in a positive light that I can remember off-hand is Enid, who smiles through what's essentially an abusive relationship. I've read that Tennyson's portrayals of women were very influential to the Victorians. I suppose we can't blame him for that, but it does explain why the Victorian attitude toward women was so negative.

The French Lieutenant's Woman: I see that I was incredibly terse about this novel in my first post, thinking I'd get back to it. And that's a pity, because in retrospect it was one of the more interesting novels I read this year. Fowles gives us a few conundrums in the novel, but I think the central one is what to make of the titular character. Fowles tells us she is his "protagonist," and yet she's never a point-of-view character, and isn't even present in most scenes. I think most people would call Charles the protagonist, so what is Fowles getting at?

This is a novel about people trapped in their time period. Fowles gives us many details about Victorian times not merely to set the scene, but to show us how all the characters are trapped by their current mores. Sarah is the one exception -- she chooses her place in society, even if it's a negative one. She lies about the lieutenant, even though it places her in a worse position; we may not understand why she does it, but it's a clear choice.

I think this ties in to the odd double/triple-ending. In one sense, the first ending is a red herring. Charles can never choose to return to his former life; it would be a complete betrayal of his character. However, the other two endings are both possible to Charles, and depend somewhat on how we (and Charles) see Sarah. In a sense, Charles has a chance for the first time to make a real choice; Sarah gives him that option.

Another game that Fowles plays with the two endings is by claiming that they're equivalent -- one is as likely as the other. However, he knows that we readers have to read the first ending first; this isn't a hyper-text novel where we can click a link and choose the order of the endings at random. So, does he intend one ending to be more important than the other? If so, is it the first, which is more emotionally satisfying, or the second, which seems somehow truer?

On another note, Fowles uses evolution as a metaphor for the Victorian age. (As does Byatt in Angels and Insects: it would probably be instructive to compare how they do so, but space doesn't permit here). Society as a whole is evolving in unforeseen ways (Marxism being just over the horizon is another major theme in the novel), and most of the characters have to change or die, so to speak. The aristocracy is fading into irrelevancy, and the self-made man is gaining in respectability, as Charles is dimly beginning to see.

I'd probably need to give the novel another go-through to address most of these issues...

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Cricus of Dr Lao, Blindsight, Ivanhoe, Iliad

I ran across Charles Finney's The Circus of Dr Lao when I was unpacking a crate of books recently, and so, remembering it as a bit of an odd book, I decided to re-read it. Odd it certainly is; it's hard to even imagine it getting published today -- it's a slim 150 pages, and it couldn't possibly be expanded or turned into a series. Instead, we're given a day in the life of Abalone, Missouri when Dr. Lao's odd circus comes into the town.

There are no central characters, and there isn't really a plot. In the first third of the book, the people of the town react to the news that a circus is in town, then we look at the sideshows for the next third, and then we watch the circus, followed by the very odd catalog of all the characters, creatures, foods (!), and a list of unanswered questions. Through the whole book, Finney seems to be presenting two contradictory ideas. On the one hand, the townspeople are painted as too dull to perceive the magic in the circus -- faced with a werewolf-woman, two men are bored because when she turns human she looks 80 years old rather than the young girl they were hoping for. On the other hand, the magic itself is presented as being dull -- a man is resurrected from the dead, and the first thing he does is look at his watch and announce that he's late for an appointment, whereupon he runs off, not to be seen again in the story (though he shows up in the catalog).

The catalog often drives home the message that plenty of strange things happen in our daily lives, but in a distinctly non-romantic way. More like "you just never know what's going to happen to you -- it could be really great or really terrible" (or just boring, as Mrs. Cassan finds when she goes to the fortune-teller who tells her that the rest of her life will be the same as the previous 10 years; nothing new will ever happen to her. In her case, though, I think that Finney's problem with her is that she's constantly waiting for some outside thing to happen to her -- the dark handsome man to come into her life, or to inherit an oil well -- rather than looking around at her children).

If the word that describes The Circus is odd, the word that describes Peter Watts' Blindsight is cold. We're given a narrator who's had the empathy centers surgically removed from his brain. He sees all human interactions as games of one sort or another. He, along with 5 team-mates, is sent to check out the first alien intelligence that humanity has found. This is a very ambitious novel, with speculations on the nature of intelligence and sentience, the interaction of biology and environment, and some really good thoughts about where humanity is heading. And so I wanted to like it more than I actually did -- but for me, the void at the center of the novel made it hard to care about what happened to anyone in the book. The society back on earth is completely decadent, the only likable character dies about halfway through, and there's no-one to really anchor yourself to. But I think it's not even that I found the characters unlikable -- Macbeth, for example, is an unlikable character but we still want to know what happens to him. It's more that it's hard to invest any emotion in characters who are in some ways so alien already.

Ivanhoe is, of course, the medieval romantic/historical fiction par excellence. It's not typically a genre that I'm interested in, but I thought it might be fun to listen to on audible. Plus, I figure that if I'm going to read one book in a genre, it might as well be one of the best... I'm now at the 2/3 mark and having a blast with it. Scott's characters are nuanced, even though they're larger than life.

His treatment of the Jews is particularly noteworthy. Isaac the Jew seems at first to be a stereotype of a Jew (grasping and servile), but Scott does 2 things. The first time we see Isaac, Scott tells us that he acts the way he does because the Christians of the day have forced it on him. He then makes Isaac act occasionally generous (and more so than the abbot of the local monastery), while maintaining his essential character. More importantly, Isaac's daughter Rebecca comes across as the true heroine of the novel. Although the lady Rowena would seem to be the heroine when she first appears, she's actually a very passive character. Rebecca can verbally joust with the Templars, can heal the sick Ivanhoe, and on top of it all maintains her Jewish faith in the face of romantic and monetary temptations.

Scott's portrayal of Robin Hood is also a lot of fun to watch, and Wamba the jester is a great character as well. All of the characters, Norman and Saxon, are much more well-rounded than I was expecting, and I can already see why Ivanhoe is a classic.

In my Iliad readings, I've just gotten to the section where Hephaestus makes a shield for Achilles. It's a commonplace to note that the mortals in the Iliad act out the heroic tragedy, while the gods give us the counterpoint of domestic life, and I think that the sequence where Thetis visits Hephaestus is one of the great examples. We get some 30 lines of pleasantries as he and his wife Charis invite Thetis to join them at their meal and entertain her, while she asks Hephaestus's help. It's a charming scene, and it's a welcome interlude between Achilles' mourning of Patroclus (with his concommitant decision to die in battle at Troy rather than return home to a long life in Greece) and the long description of the shield which is to come.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dr. No, The Fugitive Pigeon, Recalled to Life, Almost Dead

Audible was having a big sale, including lots of James Bond, so I bought Dr. No as a bit of a lark. The book was actually a surprise in a few ways. Probably the biggest one was the treatment of Bond's love interest, Honey Rider. He has moral qualms about possibly taking advantage of her (and never does so through the novel), she ends up escaping from her trap before he does. Bond himself is also portrayed a bit less cold-bloodedly than I remember.

On the negative side, Dr. No is not a very interesting villain. His plan is pretty pedestrian (interfere with US missile communications to have the missiles drop into the ocean), and it might as well not be there -- I think it's mentioned for one paragraph in a throw-away, and Bond never even goes to the trouble of shutting it down. Dr. No seems more interesting in torturing Bond for no particularly good reason. On the whole, it was a fun read; at 7 hours it's a very short book, and in these days of logorrhea, that's not a bad thing.

If amazon can be believed, The Fugitive Pigeon was Donald Westlake's first comic caper novel. These are stories where the hapless protagonist blunders into a situation and ends up having many people chasing him for their various nefarious reasons. The problem with many of these stories is that the whole plot is always based on some initial misunderstanding, and so the ending can be a letdown -- they journey's the thing, not the destination. The Fugitive Pigeon, though, manages to avoid this problem. By the end of the book, with the whole mob chasing after our hero, it turns out there wasn't a misunderstand; there was a deliberate frame that he was placed into. In all, if this was Westlake's first such novel (they'd later become one of his staples), it's a remarkable example of the genre.

I wasn't so enamored of the last couple of Dalziel & Pascoe novels I read (Bones and Silence and Underworld), but Recalled to Life is a return to form. There's the playfulness moving from the title, through the epigraphs from each chapter being obviously from A Tale of Two Cities to the cute "It was the best of crimes, it was the worst of crimes etc". More importantly, there's a nice balance between Pascoe's private life and the main story, as well as a nice balance between Dalziel and Pascoe.

On a side note, this novel also shows one of the positives of a series vis-a-vis a stand-alone novel. We can see the steady degradation of Pascoe's marriage over time in a way that would be difficult in a stand-alone novel. It's not really interesting enough to make the focus of a novel; if anything, it gains poignancy from the fact that there aren't any major dramatic moments. There are also enough fits and starts to make me hope that they work it out in the long run...

I pretty much swore off Charlie Huston after A Dangerous Man. It wasn't so much bad as just disappointing, and I just looked back and realized I never even blogged about it. I do see that in my post about Six Bad Things, I said "Huston doesn't break any new ground with this novel, but he does the same-old-same-old so well that I know I'll be reading the final book in the trilogy." Unfortunately, that same-old did start get old. But amazon was offering Almost Dead as a free download, and I figured that maybe a totally different sort of novel would reinvigorate my interest.

Almost Dead has an intriguing premise -- a hard-boiled vampire detective novel set in New York. Huston fleshes the setting out with 5 vampire clans competing for territory while trying to stay hidden from humans. The book was fun while it was lasted, but I have no particular desire to read more of the series. It's partly that vampire books don't really push my buttons, but also the book is too self-conscious about the various genres it's mixing -- Huston has a clan of kung-fu vampires, another drawn from mob stories, another that's a parody of socially-conscious movements, a biker gang, and so on. You can see the literary antecedents of each one, and Huston is just a little too over-the-top with each one.

It's funny -- it just occurs to me that I lauded Reginald Hill for doing something similar in Recalled to Life. I think the big difference is that the Tale of Two Cities references mostly lie there in the background, not really calling much attention to themselves. They add an extra resonance (or even just a moment of pleasure at the cleverness) if you recognize them, but Hill isn't constantly drawing on Dickens, or throwing in Darnay/Carter equivalents.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Name of the Wind, Patriot Acts, Dr Bloodmoney

Patrick Rothfuss's Name of the Wind came very highly recommended by some acquaintances, and it took me a while to get around to reading it. Now that I've read it, I must admit that I just don't get adulation. Not that it's a bad book. Rothfuss is a competent story-teller, and his word-smithing is good. But in a fantasy field that contains writers like Nix, Vandermeer, and other luminaries, I'm not sure why it was so seized-upon.

The story concerns Kvothe, a hero-in-the-making, and relates his time in university. Kvothe is a prodigy who can learn a language in a couple of days, and he enters the academy at the age of 14, earning the jealousy of many students and teachers. I suppose part of my problem comes from this premise -- I feel that if you're going to have a genius for a narrator, he shouldn't sound like the guy next door, but Kvothe too often does. Another problem I had was logorrhea -- the frame story alone probably takes 50 pages to get started. I have no problem with length per se (I loved The Brothers Karamazov), but the length should have a purpose, and I felt that too often Rothfuss was just noodling around without going anywhere.

Patriot Acts, by Greg Rucka, was another disappointment, although I should've been prepared to be disappointed, I suppose. It's the penultimate installment in his Atticus Kodiak series, which started with a really fresh idea -- Atticus Kodiak is a bodyguard, and the books were about his various guarding assignments. Unfortunately, Rucka upped the ante in a couple of the more recent novels, having Kodiak defend clients from two of the world's greatest assassins, leaving the carefully-established realism in the dust. In this novel, Kodiak joins forces with one of those assassins (now former assassin), and together they try to hunt down a man who has a contract on them. At this point, Rucka might as well be playing in fairy-land. It may be that these super-assassins exist (though I confess myself a skeptic), but I have a hard time believing that a 35 year old man can suddenly train to become one in the course of a few months.

Dr Bloodmoney is an altogether different kettle of fish. In some ways it's more audacious than the other two, and so it's a harder book to judge. Superficially, it's a post-WWIII story, following the fortunes of a small group of people in the Bay Area 8 years after a nuclear attack. But Dick invites a more allegorical reading from the first. Communications across the US are maintained through a satellite manned by Dangerfield, whose mission to Mars was screwed up when the nuclear attack happened. Everyone in the US tries to listen to the radio as Dangerfield's satellite flies overhead, and this is seen as a unifying effect across communities -- it's the one thing everyone does.

The two people trying to stop Dangerfield are Hoppy Harrington, a phocomelus with psychic powers, and Dr. Bluthgeld, the "Dr. Bloddmoney" of the title. Harrington wants to be the center of attention, and he wants to usurp Dangerfield's place, imitating Dangerfield's voice so that nobody would even know. Hoppy's nemesis is another kid with a birth defect, Bill Keller, who can channel real dead voices. So I think that Dick has set up a pretty clear opposition between the real and the counterfeit, as he does so often in his work. But I think that Bill Keller is a pretty scary figure as well -- it's not so obvious that Bill is any better than Hoppy, except that in the end he does the right thing and Hoppy doesn't.

Dr. Bluthgeld, on the other hand, is not so easy to classify. He's paranoid with delusions of grandeur, but he may actually have the ability to start a nuclear war. That uncertainty is par for the course with Dick, and didn't bother me. But I felt that (a) it's too much of a throw-away -- in the end, it barely matters if Bluthgeld could start WWIV or not, and (b) to the extent that Bluthgeld is responsible for Dangerfield's illness, there's no story reason given for it. I understand that on a symbolic level, Dangerfield represents community and Bluthgeld represents a destructive force inimical to that community, but within the story there's no really good reason.

On the whole, I felt that Dr Bloodmoney is not one of Dick's strongest books. It showcases a lot of his obsessions, and carries his kaleidoscopic style, but it doesn't really gel. It was worth reading, but if someone asked me for a book to get started on Dick with, it'd have to be something like The Man in the High Castle.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Death Masks, Dead I Well May Be, Shriek: An Afterword

This is what I get for putting off posting for so long -- a lot of new books, including a couple I'm skipping.

These are three pretty disparate books, and I think they show disparate approaches to style. Jim Butcher's Death Masks is almost anti-style -- the author will happily butcher the language (pun intended) as he tries to get his story across. The characters are all smart-alecky, he re-uses phrases (like the incessant "Hell's bells"), and, in short, can really grate on the ear. But, for all that, I enjoyed the book -- I can give Butcher a pass on the style, because the story's so entertaining, and he's playing with some clever ideas. It also helps that the novel is pretty short, because if a book like this starts to drag, you end up thinking about the writing instead of the plot, and that's the kiss of death in such a plot-driven book.

Adrian McKinty's Dead I Well May Be takes pretty much the opposite approach. It's a pretty standard revenge story about a man set up for a crime who escapes to seek revenge on the people who set him up. McKinty's style, though, rescues this book. Michael, the protagonist, has a beautifully expressive way of telling a story, and is very funny to boot. He complains that when he's fleeing the police (in handcuffs), nobody tries to stop him -- "have they no social responsibility?" I think he's also a great incarnation of a character who's very clever, but is ultimately feckless because he just can't get motivated. In the end, I was a bit sorry that the plot-line was so weak, but I certainly want to read more about Michael, so I'll tune in for the next installment and hope that McKinty brings his talents to bear on a worthier plot.

Jeff Vandermeer's Shriek:An Afterword is a perfect marriage of plot and style. The set-up at first seems rather precious: Janice Shriek, sister of Duncan Shriek, is writing an afterword to her brother's brief history of Ambergris. She thinks he is dead, and so her afterword turns into a memoir of her interactions with him. He, however, is not dead, and has scribbled his emendations into her text (though he is also an unreliable narrator). On top of all that, Janice is in a disturbed frame of mind, and she keeps backtracking on her story, even starting over a couple of times.

In practice, though, the artificiality of the device fades as we become wrapped up in the story. This is a story about an enigma -- what are the Gray Caps, and what do they want? At least so far, they're ultimately unknowable, and so this fractured view is the only way to tell this story. In a more straight-forward attempt to tell the story, we'd lose much of the mystery -- what did Duncan find underground? Is a sea-change actually happening in Ambergris, or is it just Janice's imagination?