Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Friday, January 19, 2007

Short Takes: Thomas Tryon

Thomas Tryon was a fascinating writer, if only an intermittantly successful one.

Tryon was a closeted gay man, and for many years had a modest, but real, career as an actor . (He's probably best known nowaday for I Married a Monster From Outer Space.) These experiences -- particularly the acting experience, I think -- give his books interesting resonances.

The Other, for instance, is in large part of the fear of acting, the fear, more fundamentally, of make believe itself. A sensitive kid in a small town learns to empathize with and mimic the behavior of other creatures -- essentially he learns to act. Unfortunately he actually does the same thing with the "spirit" of his evil dead twin brother, who drowned in the well while he was strangling the cat. (Very nicely, it's left quite ambiguous what the kid's doing. Is the evil twin "alive" in reality? As an aspect of the "good" twin?) We learn this, and after the reveal the rest of the book is a really interesting meditation on the horrific consequences of acting, as the kid, in avoiding reality (communing with the dead?) loses himself (becomes possessed?).

I suspect one of the major influences here was Something Wicked This Way Comes, based partly on the nostalgic-small town-with-horror-within feel, and partly on the lush, occasionally poetic language. And indeed in spots it's rather beautifully written. But...well, I just don't think it works on a basic technical level.

I really admire The Other in a lot of ways, and I wish I could like it. But I just don't think it makes much sense as a crafted story. The pov is all over the place, and sometimes you can get away with that but when it's something like this, which mainly depends on it's effect by manipulating the pov, well you got issues. Sometimes we're attached to the kid. Sometimes the grandmother. Sometimes other characters. Sometimes it's omniscient. Sometimes it's wryly commenting on the action. Sometimes it's the kid, but later, supposedly telling us the story. And it just doesn't make sense, we can't believe that the kid looking back would tell the story in the same way that the story is actually told. This is almost a model of pov problems, a textbook of how things can go wrong.

Harvest Home is a longer, more conventional novel. A bourgeois NYC family moves to one of those strange small villages you're always reading about in these kind of books, this one in Connecticut. They soon discover that the women in town are flatout pagans who, among all sorts of other things, commit human sacrifice.

I think Harvest Home is a reasonably good book. Not a great book -- some structural weaknesses show up here and there. In order for the ending to work the circumstances have to be exactly right, and often it feels like Tryon is leaning a bit too hard on the contrivances here and there -- most notably, it takes forever for the narrator to catch on to the central reveal, even though it's been screaming itself hoarse in the reader's face for pages. (I do think the final surprise climax is quite well handled, though, and genuinely shocking if you're not prepared for it.)

I like the setting of the town, which I think is far better handled than the occasionally gloppy The Other. In fact, this strikes me as that relative rarity, a true picture of small town life, with all of it's glories and pains. There's more control here with the gothic imagery and especially the pov: Tryon seems to have learned the lessons of The Other, which is always gratifying. And while I don't really think it's a "good" thing, there's a very interesting misogynistic streak here. In Harvest Home all of the women are in on the plot, or at least are susceptible of being in on the plot, and all of the men, no matter what their pretensions, are ultimately their victims.

I haven't read other Tryons, but am curious if he continued to grow as a writer -- my guess is that he did to a point, although I wonder what he did once he exhausted his immediate inspirations: acting, small town life, etc.

Couldn't find much of anything on Tryon except for the wiki -- I"m getting tired of linking to these wiki pieces, go ahead and search for it yourself.

Go on, you can do it.

It's one of the better wikis, actually, fairly detailed. I rather suspect somebody who knew Tryon was involved with some of it -- how else can an interesting (albeit minor) writer get this level of coverage while Dashiell friggin' Hammett gets suchs a crappy wiki entry? Other than that, though, nothing. Although there was apparently another Thomas Tryon, a famous early proponent of vegetarianism in Britain. The things you learn online.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Short Takes: Richard Adams, WATERSHIP DOWN

Pity the man who writes one great work and never matches it again, for he will always be competing with some ever-fainter remembered moment of his past. Adams is still alive, I think, and no doubt is still plugging away on something somewhere, but nobody cares about Traveller or Maia. They care about Watership Down.

This was the fourth or fifth time through this for me. For those of you who don't know it, Watership Down is a modern fantasy classic, the story of a group of rabbits who flee their warren before it's decimated, and the adventures they have in establishing their new home on, well, Watership Down.

This time through a couple of things struck me. One is that it's really a classic adventure tale in the British mode, with Hazel as the epitome of a certain kind of British masculinity (there's a great bit late in the book where Hazel tries to parlay with the Efrafra warren -- he's seen as being very quiet and unassuming and seemingly nothing very special, another expression of the British ideal of the competent man who takes care of business in a quiet way); Bigwig as his loyal sergeant, all muscle but needed Hazel's firm leadership; Blackberry as the Idea Guy; Dandelion as the Artist; etc. You could imagine this squad of rabbits as a squad of soldiers in, say, Europe around World War 2 -- a lot of what they're doing is much like a classic British war film, with a squad in hostile territory executing missions, etc. I'm curious what Adams's experiences in World War 2 were, actually.

But there's a couple of other elements in here that really set this apart from the typical anthropomorphized animal tale. People often talk about how the rabbits are always discernably rabbits, and not, say, Commander Carruthers and his squad in fancy dress. They also talk about the world that Adams builds around his merry band, most notably in the really great folk-tales of El-Ahrairah, but also in the little details -- what they swear by, how they count, etc.

That's all true, and all worth noting. But the aspect I like best is the character of Fiver, definitely my favorite character in the book. This is a British war movie, essentially, except for Fiver, who feels dropped in from a completely different, much darker sort of story. Most of the fantasy elements in the story come from Fiver, and he has a kind of charisma, which in literary terms essentially means an intrinsic fascination. He suggests a darker, more complicated world lying just behind the events of the story, stranger unsaid possibilities. And it is that which is really what pushes Down into the fantasy realms.

My favorite chapter in the book is "Fiver Beyond", which is a straight-up mystical vision. Watership Down is generally very well written in that quiet assured kind of British way, but this chapter is something very special. Check it out. Oddly Fiver isn't discussed as much as other elements in the novel -- don't ask me why.

Unlike a lot of the authors I've been talking about here, Watership Down is talked about a lot on the web. There's even a roleplaying game out there called "Burrows and Bunnies", believe it or not. I am a fluffy bunny rabbit! My primary skill is lettuce chewing! My secondary skill is being eaten! I have +5 eyes of cuteness!

Here's the wiki, most interesting for it's shot of a first edition of Watership:


Here's a standard, but good, take on the novel, from some rpg site:


Here somebody has tracked down a bunch of links, so I don't have to. Warning: a lame spelling of "cool" contained therein:


And here's an interesting page talking about variations in the edtions. Scholars love crap like this:


That's enough for me, though there's more out there, including a Yahoo discussion group.