Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Poland Won, Bad Points Nil

So what was Poland like? I hear you ask. Wow, is all I can say. Well, actually that's not all I can say, not by any means; I can say that Warsaw and Krakow are each fascinating cities in their own way, that the people are lovely, that the food is superb, that my publisher had organised a ton of stuff for me -- so much that at times it was a heady whirl of interview, interview, interview -- and yet somehow also magically managed to fit in time for me to see the sights. I could say all that and more but it would feel inadequate and formulaic. Cause, yeah, we always talk about the people being friendly, the food being great, and so on, and so forth. Feh! I'm a writer. I should bloody well be able to do better than that.

So let's start at the beginning.

Tuesday morning, I was carrying out one quick last double-check of the luggage when the taxi arrived and I scurried downstairs for the ride to Glasgow Airport through a mist thick as soup, a mist which, I discovered at check-in, had delayed my flight to London Gatwick. No matter, I thought. The flight to Warsaw was actually leaving from Heathrow and with an over-large transfer time in between even allowing for the journey between airports; so I'd just have all the more time to have a few fags, check if the W.H. Smiths had me book (it did, hoorah!), and suchlike.

As it was though, it actually worked out even better, as the lovely check-in person at the British Airways desk offered me a transfer to a direct flight to Heathrow, cutting out the whole round-London journey entirely, and meaning my luggage was checked all the way to Warsaw. We don't normally do this, says she, but with the delays and all... and seats available on the Heathrow flight... well, we can slip you in. So the god of travel was smiling upon me. (Mercury, me old mucker, I tip my hat to you, and kiss yer dinky wee winged sandals!) I had a fly fag before heading through to the departure lounge and settling down to start on Johana Sinisalo's NOT BEFORE SUNRISE, my selected reading for the journey.

The book is every bit as good as people have been saying, by the way. I hadn't realised it was told in an interwoven structure of sections, some straight fiction, some fake factive -- excerpts from encyclopaedias and such -- so it was a pleasant surprise to find it doing the sort of things I particularly like, even apart from the groovily weird but sensitively treated perversity of the subject matter. The way Sinisalo paints the troll as a graceful and gracile creature -- none of the coarse ugly brutishness of the stock fantasy troll; here the troll is a beautiful wild thing, lithe and limber, and there's one scene in particular, a photoshoot, where Sinisalo captures this brilliantly -- is so deeply right and so deeply compelling, it strips those great contemporary taboos of paedophilia and bestiality of their sensationalist haze, and explores them -- I think anyway -- as a matter of projected self. This is maybe my own theories at work here more than Sinisalo's intent, but the protagonist's troll seems to me like Hook's Pan, Gilgamesh's Enkidu, a suppression of desire-to-be, perverted by denial into a desire-to-possess. When the protagonist first sets eyes upon it he knows nothing except that he has to have it. Why? Because it's the very image of the beautiful, angelic-yet-demonic creauture that he is, he knows, to others. It's no accident he's known as Mikhael, Angel and Michalengelo, that he has golden hair, cherubic lips, that his attitude is one of irresponsibility, immaturity. Pessi the troll is, in many ways, I think, a sort of symbol of his arrested development.

I devoured NOT BEFORE SUNRISE pretty quickly, finished it while waiting in Heathrow for the Warsaw flight, and with time to kill I naturally had to wander through the bookshops checking for VELLUM. Yes, I know it's sad. So sue me. It was there and I was happy. Given the themes of Sinisalo's book, I couldn't help but also notice and be tempted by Geraldine McCaughrean's PETER PAN IN SCARLET, the official sequel to Barrie's novel. The original being so steeped in such themes of adulthood denied (and with all the undercurrents of psychosexual tension that these generate), I figured, well, what better book to follow the Sinisalo with? There's been some positive sounds about it on review programs, and all the proceeds go to Great Ormond Street anyway, so even if it's terrible it's for a worthy cause.

And it certainly got me thinking.

The animal totem, the eternal youth -- this is the sleek and powerful simplicity of the Jungian Self, idealised, fetishised, projected outwards, I think. As anyone who's read my story, "The Disappearance of James H" or my plans for FUR might well understand, I think the Self pops up throughout myth and history as the wild boy, the fey sprite -- from Enkidu up through Pan and Dionysius, through Shakespeare's Puck and Ariel, through Kaspar Hauser and Rousseau's Victoire, right up to Barrie's PETER PAN, Mann's DEATH IN VENICE and, of course, Sinisalo's and McCaughrean's books. As a core component of the psyche, a symbol of the vital spirit -- libidinous and thanatotic, a deadly sexy killer queer -- the Self leads us to walk a fine line between individuation and narcissism, existing to be integrated as a healthily adolescent wastrel, a denier of dull care. Infantilise it as the "Inner Child" of the self-help charlatans though, idealise it in a sexually-retarded prepubescence, project that unreturnable infancy onto an unattainable other, and you're asking for the trouble that comes to Barrie's Pan or Sinisalo's Angel.

Let it loose to be the horny little fucker that Pan really is, or you're on the path that ends up in the obsessed Angel or the thwarted Hook. What's Hook, after all, but a man with a hand that wants to touch, to take, so as to take upon one's self the unattainable qualities of the free spirit, a hand cut-off (a desire repressed) and so transformed into cold penetrating curve of steel? Or maybe hidden in the white kidskin glove of one rather well-known real-world victim of the Peter Pan complex, one who clearly doesn't realise that with his long black curls and powdered face, his dandyish tunics and fear-filled denial of the tick-tick-ticking clock of his mortality, of that saltwater serpent crocodile of adult sexuality, he is not the hero of his Neverland, but rather its villain. Pan is a child, in Barries's novel, to my mind, only because the adulthood of Hook is schismed from him, just as the troll in Sinisalo's novel is an infant because, in my reading of it at least, Angel is caught in an extended adolescence. If your image of the Self is an eternal child, I'd say, you got issues.

The real Pan has hairs upon his balls, an ithyphallic god.

In McCaughrean's sequel, I'd have to say, there's little of this subtext that makes Barrie's book a bit disturbing when you look more closely at what's going on. It's healthier, I think, and a little less fascinating for that, but I'd have to say it's still a great wee book, full of wit and wonder, adventure and cleverness, and honest joy and sorrow, perfectly balanced for both children and adults to enjoy. The story begins with "old boys" all over London -- bankers, judges and the like -- dreaming of Neverland and finding swords and guns under their pillows when they wake, bits of Neverland escaping into the real world. It's set after the Great War, and that catastrophe seeps into the book, into Neverland itself, in a way that feels both subtle and relevant. It works as pure adventure, has some glorious flights of fancy, and achieves a depth, an intelligence, that makes it truly rich, a worthy sequel.

Where Barrie's book is driven by an essentially fucked-up yearning to have never grown-up, never had to deal with the whole mess of sexuality, McCaughrean's rather takes that all in its stride. It reminds us of that same rejection of adulthood but isn't caught by it, compelled by the fantasy of escape by a deep discomfort with reality. In fact, it seems to me to offer many bridges back and forth, a Neverland where time is not stalled, where one might live for a while, free and wild, but move on naturally to the wilds of puberty and beyond. And there's some great wee touches that make it very much a book of now, even a neat, sly hint of feminism in a twist which sees one of the Lost Boys distinctly... well, transformed by the procedure necessary for the return to Neverland. All in all, I like the tack that McCaughrean has taken here. It's a delightful book that lives up to the honour of its official sanction.

I finished my flight through reality, then, with a quick dip into the start of Graham Joyce's THE LIMITS OF ENCHANTMENT, a book that's got one of the best openings I've read in a while and by no means goes downhill from there. I'm not going to gush about it because we all know Graham Joyce is an evil man who eats puppies (I saw him and Gaiman at it together at Fantasycon; honest, I did; I'm not fibbing) and therefore doesn't deserve to win the World Fantasy Award that he's nominated for. I mean, it's a great wee book, yes, and it definitely deserves the nomination, but I can think of works much more qualified to actually win the award (though I wouldn't like to embarrass the author by mentioning him by name).

I mean, where's the exploding airships, Mr Joyce? Sure, you have a stunning command of the narrative voice, an immersive vision of time and place, and a story that slips effortlessly between light wit and deep melancholy, all the time pulling the reader along through a tale as earthy and rich as the setting it so perfectly captures... but what about the airships going BOOM? I mean, I wish I could say that I'd be totally happy to lose to this book in a week or so (eek!), but that fatal flaw, that lack of exploding airships -- surely an intrinsic part of any great work of literature -- renders this book not quite complete, to my entirely unbiased mind.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, since I'd only just started the book when I arrived at Warsaw, mostly keeping it for late nights in the hotel bar, sipping a Żwiec at the bar, smoking a cigarette along with it (oh, the bliss!) and unwinding from a wild day's work and play. I had to tear myself away from it almost right at the start, to gather my stuff and head out into the airport, where I was met outside the baggage reclaim by Kasia Rodek, my wonderful and tireless promoter, female half of the husband-and-wife team at the heart of MAG, with Jacek Rodek being the giant under it all, a writer and publisher whose history goes back to the earliest days of Polish SF and who has all manner of notches on his belt, strings to his fiddle, and general Achievements To Be Proud Of. I realised pretty quickly that MAG is a labour of love for Jacek and Kasia (much as the magazine he founded way back when, Terra Fantastyka, was back in the day).

I'll get to all that though, to just how much heart and soul and elbow grease they've put into not just my book, but SF in general in Poland. For now I'm just going to leave you with an image of the Polish edition, Kasia gave me in the car on the way from the airport to the hotel, and a wee link to their site, with banner and all

Tomorrow I'll carry on with my first day(s) in Warsaw, with TV interviews, indomitable translators, and the delights of żurek!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy birthday. Enjoy

6:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Welcome back, don Loco. You forgot me, didn't you? You forgot to read it, didn't you? I knew it! Bah! Humbug.

Sean Wright

7:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

beers name is "Żywiec" not "Żwiec"

12:11 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Saffron: Cheers!

Sean: mumble mumble laptop no power mumble mumble books go in pocket mumble mumble.

iontius: Dziekuje. I was that busy looking for the "Ż", I missed the "y". Is "żurek" right or is it "zurek"?

12:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was that busy looking for the "Ż", I missed the "y". Is "żurek" right or is it "zurek"?

It's "żurek", you spelled it correctly.

1:47 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for visiting our convention - I hope you'll write about some impressions from your (short) visit there as well :).

2:46 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Absolutely, I will! Just posted about Warsaw. Krakow coming up tomorrow.

5:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I knew that someone who mentions about beer so often couldn't forget that name :)
Greetings from Kielce (yes. Poland)

11:57 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Happy belated birthday!

2:23 am  
Blogger paul f cockburn said...

How come, when I type in "exploding airships" on google, your blog is the first to come up? How much are you paying them?!


2:07 pm  

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