the advantages of 15 year olds

I love that this has been included:

This is the sort of question characters are usually too wise to ask aloud, in Guy Gavriel Kay’s books. This isn’t a bad thing. Those young enough to think of it, in his books, are wise enough to keep the thought to themselves, and I appreciate that. Not all young people are blind to the pitfalls that honesty opens up beneath them. Nor do the very, very young ask such questions, in some gooey pastiche of innocence. Using kid characters as such shills for earnestness is hokey and a little self-righteous, and is thankfully beneath GGK.

But Ned, here, at 15, under duress, bothers to ask. Immediately regrets it, but bothers to ask. And I like that he was allowed to do so. He avoids both seeming like a stupid adult or like a poster-child of innocence — because he’s wedged in that miserable space between the two. Being a teenager is absolutely wretched. But it allows you, in fiction if not in life, to be ephemerally honest, with yourself and with others. And the ephemeral nature of that honesty only serves to heighten its power, and draw attention to its fragility.

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stories, not whelks

thorntonviaduct

I’m reading Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth, again stemming from that CBC article where Guy Gavriel Kay listed his favorite books, and it’s a pleasant reversal of perspective on the kinds of books I filled my childhood with. From Stephen R. Lawhead’s Byzantium to Morgan Llylwellyn’s Bard and Druids, I was very much enamored of a Celtic history I (and for that matter historians) barely understood. To the point where I, for the first time I remember, openly argued against the content we were being fed in fifth grade–a slideshow accompanied by a cassette tape painting the druid of Britain as deranged heretics, and the Romans as good Christians and proto-Americans. For a kid who loved school and dreaded getting in trouble or challenging a beloved teacher on content, that was terrifying. But I was furious on the behalf of the heroes I read about in every free moment.

Well, Sutcliff roots us in the opposite camp, but she does it very gently. Marcus Flavius Aquila had dreams, once, and the camaraderie of a Roman legion, but these are shattered by an injury sustained fighting the Picts, and the whole first third of the book is him coming to terms with this, laying aside his bitterness (or trying to) and altogether growing as a person. There are so many moments she could have made him lesser — lusting after the neighbor girl, for example, or resenting his uncle for surviving into old age when his father did not. But she doesn’t do that. He is much wiser and gentler than his 20-something years should render him.

(With a publication date of 1954, I wonder if this was a legacy of the war, and the different way trainees were made, or unmade, then. I know my fair share of veterans now, and they don’t tend to weather so well the unmaking of their military selves, after their service. You get taken apart and rebuilt as a part of a group, all the while being told this is the best and only thing worth doing…and then you’re released with two weeks of, essentially, resume and cover letter-writing advice, with absolutely no effort to address the loss of your selfhood beyond “don’t beat your wife” and “try not to drink too much.” Whereas, coming out of WW2, my grandfather was a much quieter and, I gather, wiser, more inwardly-turned person, but that’s conceivably because he lost his entire team during an event right at war’s end, and lied to everyone about where he was for decades because he couldn’t bear the telling of it.)

Anyway, Marcus goes north across Hadrian’s Wall during the beginning of Rome’s long decline. And that’s always an attraction, too — writing about some much-heralded people or point in history as it is already retreating from its epoch. This colors Marcus’s own humility. He accepts his lame leg as he accepts the abandoned forts and empty garrisons strung out across what is now Scotland: with pain, but the realization that there is nothing he can do to bring it back. The most he can hope for is the restoration of his father’s legacy. And because of the historical tidbits given to us in the foreword to the book, we have hope that even this might be revealed to him as an…empty goal? Or a misplaced one. He has grown up in a culture that gathers this image of father-as-hero to its breast and values it above all else. But it may be that he lets the object of his quest go, handing it off to those who can glean from it far more comfort than he can. Because the eagle won’t bring his father back. Which is, I think, what he really wants. He has almost figured that out.

Quite often when I sing the praises of these books, I am asked by those who prefer historical nonfiction, epic treatises on past days, why I don’t just read their kinds of books. And I mean…this is why. Above and beyond the past being a malleable thing, at the mercy of those with the money and means to document it (and erase those documents that displease them), there is the fact that learning what came or might have come before isn’t enough, for me. There have to be people learning to be people, too. Better people, maybe.

The fact that such changes tend to be relegated to the realm of fiction is hardly a knock on me. It’s a knock on, uh. Either people who guarded their inner selves too closely, failing to reveal in their memoirs or interviews the magic that most moved them in their lives…or it’s a knock on those same people, for never having been moved. History doesn’t have to be a dry record of events. The people that set those events in motion were, one assumes, impassioned and moved on some level by love. Of country, of people, hell even of self. But if you cannot bring yourself to show that in your historical record, through shyness or pride or simple lack of source material…then I am not going to have a great deal of interest in your historical record. Because that’s all it is: the shell of what might have been, empty and echoing with the people who inhabited that past, who made it.

I’d rather read a ‘might have been’ animated by real, changeable, impassioned people, than a ‘definitely was’ built on shipping logs and battle reports. Because while each are arguably fiction, only the one is populated by actual characters.

 

Thirty years ago, when Valentia was a Roman province in more than name, before Agricola’s work had all been undone by meddling from the Senate, Trinomontium had been a busy fort. A double Cohort had drilled in the wide forum and slept in the barrack rows; there had been many horses in the stables, cavalry manoeuvres on the gentle southern slope below the ramparts, with the riders crested with tossing yellow plumes, the usual baths and wine-shops and the turf bothies of the women’s quarters; and over all, the crested sentries marching to and fro. But now the wild had flowed in again; grass covered the cobbles of the streets, the timber roofs had fallen in, and the red sandstone walls stood gaunt and empty to the sky. The wells were choked with the debris of thirty autumns, and an elder-tree had taken root in one corner of the roofless shrine where once had stood the Cohort’s Standard and its gods, and had thrust a jagged gap in the wall to make room for itself. In all that desolation the only living creature that Marcus and Esca found as they wandered through it in the heavy stillness of the summer evening was a lizard basking on a fallen block of stone, which darted off like a whip-lash at their approach. Looking down at the stone, Marcus saw roughly carved on it the charging boar of the Twentieth Legion. Somehow the sight of it brought the desolation home to him very sharply.

“If ever the Legions come north again, they will have a fine building job on their hands,” he said.”

eld update

Oh my god, we are made to feel everything I just said about selfhood outright, and the text is as horrified by it as we are. I don’t even have to tug at it to make it so.

And surprise surprise, it is a man acting out of cowardice and lust who is doing this to her. “Perhaps he has some pity left in him, but a man afraid in the core of his mind has little room left for compassion.”

May her vengeance claw him to pieces in exactly the way mine will never shred the sticky strands of brain plaque that take the women in my family from me and from themselves.

May he lie in ribbons.

names

I’m reading The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld, because Guy Gavriel Kay recommended it on Twitter, and because its sample ran through my mind the way I imagine it is when people read you stories when you are very ill — like how my father described his mother in her eulogy, her voice rising and falling and carrying him through the tides of scarlet fever. There isn’t enough detail for it to be an escape — not like a big fantasy epic (book or game) into which you retreat. More like a song. And I only forgive the lack of detail, its corresponding failure to remove us completely from this world, when what we are given instead is lyrical enough to stay with us, as a feeling, long after we’ve shut the cover on the words themselves, coloring our actions in this world which we are forced to view anew. And The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld does that.

GGK’s own books do that, as did C.S. Lewis’ Till We Had Faces. Fantasy stories told, not with a profundity of detail — lavish descriptions of cambrics and quarters and mountains — but with sparse, quick-moving words that fill your veins like an IV drip, attacking what is wrong there and attempting to restore, if not order, at least the possibility of it. These are not books from which teachers create vocabulary lists. Nor, I suppose, do they attract vast fandoms online, for their characters speak not as much to each other as to us. It might be easier to create a fandom around characters onto which we project our fears and desires — characters that stand apart from us — rather than around characters who mirror us so closely in some passages that we are too keenly interested in their welfare, too hurt when they get what they deserve, to feel as though we can hold them and a distance and write our own stories about them. For me, at least, stories like this change the source of…knowing? such that meeting the author of such stories would make me terribly shy, because it would feel like meeting someone who knew more about you than you ever meant to give away.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is playing with names and the knowing of them in the way lots of fantasy authors have done — Patrick Rothfuss, for example, in the relevantly named The Name of the Wind and all the books that follow. Rothfuss is kind and (in an insightful way) fragile, and especially given what he said about reading negative reviews in a recent Twitch talk he did on self-care, I hesitate to even mention him here. I wouldn’t, if I thought there was a snowball’s chance in hell he’d encounter these words. But I am well-acquainted with my own usage statistics, and think it is safe to discuss him in the echoing silence of my tiny internet chamber.

There are plenty of similarities between the ways names and their power are used in Eld and The Kingkiller Chronicle, but the horror invoked in me by the passage I took a picture of above speaks a little to why McKillip rings so much deeper in me than does Rothfuss. (And if this is too-recurring a theme from me, I trust you will understand why.) Names in Rothfuss’ books impart the ability to control. For McKillip, here, they don’t just impart the ability to control, but the ability to make you forget. To un-know. That insistent demand, that calling to you in your “ground mind,” blots out all your other knowledge — of your friends, your lovers, even yourself.

And that, for obvious reasons, horrifies me.

Men tell stories about control. I’m sure there are plenty of people who point this out. It is the loss of control, for many men, that throws them into the worst disarray. (I have known plenty of women with control issues too, of course, but on the whole there still seem to be more men with those kind of hang-ups, at least among the incredibly subjective group of people I know.) I have, on some level, tried to make myself comfortable with the ebbing of my physical capabilities over time (happens to everyone), the sunsetting of my creativity (write while you can), even the decay of my dignity, which I know will come with the dementia that is mine to await. But the loss of knowing people…places…the loss of the ability to love, because the capacity to know the object of your affection has been obliterated…that is horrific. That is the stuff of nightmares.

The way names are operating in Eld invites that panic. That passage above made me so uncomfortable, a guy passing with his dog paused to ask if I was okay. When I speak of the horror of my mother’s disease (and, though you wouldn’t know it to read this blog, I do try to do so less and less often, because I am sure it becomes tiresome, something I “should just get over,” for those who haven’t had it shatter them firsthand), I mention the incontinence, the collapse of hygiene, the bodily miseries because they are things people don’t think about (partly because of sterilized images of dementia strewn about by popular media), and because they are so basic a level of dissonance that even the most callous people flinch. But these aren’t the things that fill me with despair. It’s the undoing of all the threads of devotion you’ve woven so carefully to make up the tapestry of your life. Just the wanton hacking of the whole thing to pieces. And there’s not even enough of you left to clutch the frayed ends to your chest and sob. You don’t even know enough to be sad, in the end.

That’s hideous.

Some Amazon description of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld framed the book specifically as a fantastical portrait of being a woman in the loss of her power. That sounds suspiciously like control, I know, and up to this point in the book, it somewhat was. She keeps the animals, after all, through her knowledge of their names. But it isn’t their removal of themselves from her life that shrieks on the page — it’s the removal of her memories, her love of them from her mind.

I have no interest in dubbing “women’s power” to be love, or anything so mawkishly gendered. But when it is self-knowledge, and the ability to know and love others as a result, that is being destroyed, that is a loss far greater to me than any fading muscular or mystical strength. Because I’ve seen it, and I hate it, and I can’t escape it. If that was what Kvothe lost — not a girl he thought was hot, but the ability even to know her when he passed her on the street — I would mourn and fear for him far more than I do.

And if a word, a name, could prevent that loss, I would spend every last breath trying to put it between my lips.

always the wrong reaction

What am I supposed to do with the ending of Gilead?

Because whatever it is, I’m pretty sure I’m not doing it.

Ames gave the fuck up. I’m sorry, but he gave up. He didn’t say a damn word to Boughton, didn’t ask even himself if young Boughton’s plan would have worked out in this town. He didn’t say a word. And that’s…it’s giving up. I don’t care if he’s dying. I don’t care if he’s tired. He doesn’t even ask himself. If he did, he’d say it in this, his last text before his death. And he doesn’t even ask himself. How disingenuous. How disloyal. To young Boughton, sure, but more relevantly, to his cause, and to himself.

I’ve been thinking about this for days. I kept returning to pages I had marked, trying to make something of them:

img_5183

–because, yeah, I loved Ames, and identified (narcissistically at times, grossly indulgently so, I know, I get it) the hell out of myself, with him. But that doesn’t say a whole lot of good about me, now, does it, when at the end all you’ve got is a bunch of pretty ruminations but no action taken — one of the few powers left to the old man, and he takes no action. He says not a word. How could he do nothing? He and we spend the whole second half of the book in a sneaking, sinking dread of how he is about to be hurt worse, at the very last. A life spent mostly in mourning and then the brilliance of love and now that will be dimmed and dulled and taken from him, we think. He tries to prepare himself for this. We (I) beseech him not to. To say any damn thing, instead of just sitting there in his chair writing about how terrible it will all be.

But he’s wrong! And we’re wrong! And it’s something else entirely that drives that asshat young Boughton to his doorstep day after day! It’s something Ames has the power, if not to fix, at least to pave the way forward for. Say a word. To the community (which holds him in esteem!), to old Boughton. Say something. Is his silence his lack of forgiveness? He said he never could forgive young Boughton for the fatherhood he squandered the first time. Is this that grudge still held? Because I get the sense that we are supposed to look at Ames’ last words, and his sorry-ass farewell and blessing (right, because that helps anyone but himself) and think “ah well, he tried, and now he’ll say some pretty things and go off and die peacefully now,” and well, no. The hell will I clap you on the back for doing exactly nothing, buddy. You bothered to pursue the issue far enough to figure out what it was, now at least make an effort to help this guy. Not because he deserves it, necessarily, because he’s kind of an ass. But is your grudge against this man going to damn his family too? If yes, is this supposed to be our lesson here? “The people who could fix things in America won’t, so we’re all fucked forever, amen.” Great. Awesome. Thanks.

If I wanted to hear that I’d, you know, be living my life in the world, not reading a damn book.

This is what that ending could have said: both Ames and young Boughton grew up in the shadows of great men, men lauded by their communities. Ames had his grandfather, whose unrelenting vision of divine justice both built him into the towering figure he was, and destroyed him when the world failed to follow him into the flames. Boughton had his dad, who people keep calling a saint so, okay, I guess he must be a good guy, though we don’t see much of his tenderness the way we see Ames’. (Except maybe when he trots the name of the child out, surprising Ames. Maybe there.) But Ames was able to deal with growing up in that shadow because, maybe, he saw what it cost the generation between them to reject it. He saw how it wrecked his father to see how much he had harmed his grandfather. Boughton doesn’t have that space, sure — it’s only him and then his dad, and it’s the son doing the wrecking — but Ames could have helped. He’s seen all sides of this; he could have helped. Tried to. Said something.

Here is another thing that ending could have said: Ames held the power he did, both in his community and, via word of mouth, as far away as Memphis, because of his grandfather. His grandfather who, while clear of mind in his younger days, descended, visibly (and so infuriatingly to me, upon encountering it) into a kind of feverish religious dementia that nevertheless strengthened his image and fed into it the kind of reverence that made the Ames name recognizable as a bulwark of the abolitionist movement, years after its end. What I’m saying is that the very disease that made me fling the book down in frustration is what enabled the youngest Ames to occupy the spot in the world he did. The last gift, of sorts, of his grandfather.

And he wastes it. You don’t waste that, fuckwit. You loved him. He’s dead. He gave you his name and, thanks to him, your name means something to people you’ve never even met. And you wasted that gift.

And now, then, what is the point of my marking all those beautiful passages of his, of mourning him, when he just kind of shrugged and rolled over and died in the end? You had one job. And you could have laid it aside but no, no, you insisted on continuing to do your work, to try and lead people toward something like a better understanding of the world and their place in it. But when, admittedly, an asshole comes to you in his hour of need, you mumble about not knowing, and then, without even asking yourself if it would have worked out, you let him go. Send him off into misery. Congrats! That one job you had? You blew it.

I don’t think I’m supposed to be having this reaction. I think we are supposed to consider Ames as having made the best of a bad situation. But that’s settling. This is all he said:

“But I can’t give you any assurances about this, one way or the other. I’d hate to be wrong. You’ll have to let me reflect on it.”

and

“He said, “You have influence here.”

I said that might be true, but I couldn’t promise to live long enough to make much use of it. I mentioned my heart.

Oh come on. You could have at least tried.

Then, while preaching, Ames finds himself thinking:

The fact was, standing there, I wished there were grounds for my old dread. That amazed me. I felt as if I’d have bequeathed him wife and child if I could to supply the loss of his own.

This too-late regret is not enough. It does nothing. It helps no one, not even Ames. And he doesn’t writhe in it long enough for poetic justice, either, since shortly thereafter he goes home and dies. This guy, then, whom we (I) have been brought to love over some 200 pages, throws in the towel and goes back on every beautiful thing he said. What a waste.

If we were meant to over-identify with him, and then to feel slapped in the face by his impotence and thus moved to be move active in the world in precisely the way he was not, that would be one thing. But I kind of feel like that’s just me. That I willfully smudged the lines between myself and this guy because it felt good and eloquent, and like I could imagine being able to say things I won’t be able to, when I’m old. But that most people won’t have had cause to slam the book down in fury when dementia raises its head within its pages, or to feel chastened by the tenderness Ames brings to the observation of his grandfather that was, perhaps, lacking in the reader.

You might wonder about my pastoral discretion, writing all this out. Well, on one hand it is the way I have of considering things. On the other hand, he is a man about whom you may never hear one good word, and I just don’t know another way to let you see the beauty there is in him.

That’s about Young Boughton. But it’s not enough. Sure, huzzah, it turns out Young Boughton is still a jackass but was not, in fact, trying to replace you as husband and father. But you calling him beautiful, in thought or in deed, is not enough. When would it ever be enough? You acknowledging to yourself to this person you’ve disliked his entire life — “that is not my child!” — is not in fact all bad, is not enough.

And I think we’re supposed to feel like it is. Or like “welp, the world didn’t allow interracial marriage back then so, tough luck, I guess it was out of his hands.” Fuck that. He didn’t say one damn word. He knew he was respected enough for his words to matter and he said nothing. That’s not beautiful, or grand. That’s cowardice. Not even that — he was too secure in his position even to have cause for fear. He was just plain lazy.

How are we supposed to applaud that? Or not look at everything we applauded earlier, and bookmarked and underlined, and think “well, fuck?”

justice

How will you ever find justice if you won’t get off your ass and look for it?

And is he saying he outlasted his sense of grievance? Because if he is, he’s lying. If he really forgave that boy he would have done something. Anything. And he didn’t. Not one thing.

Edit: Yes, I am aware of the hypocrisy in lambasting a guy for doing nothing when more or less implying that the whole reason I was sitting reading this book was to look away from the ugliness of the world for a minute (versus, say, trying to fix anything). And that someone’s well-meant “yes but you’re allowed that” is no less applicable to Ames.

And also that apparently Jack Boughton is an alcoholic? Which is written in the advertisement for Home on that last page, which advertisement I never read despite noting all those page numbers around it. So, okay, if that’s true then maybe that’s why Ames didn’t do anything to help him? Because Della and their son would be better off without him? But if that was Ames’ thinking, shouldn’t he have noted as much in this letter to his own son? Because without clarifying that it still just looks like he didn’t bother helping because, like he said in a passage I took a picture of a few posts back, he can’t imagine how he’d ever forgive young Boughton. And that’s so frustrating, because as baleful as I am when wronged, I blurred the lines between myself and this character because I thought he was better than me, and he’s being just as selfish here as I would be, and that sucks.

Be better, dammit.

double-take

Holy shit, he trips up onto the source of his anger so effortlessly. It’s like when I realized why I became so instantly furious when ever someone starts whining about their mom calling or texting or being, you know, cognizant and alive. In retrospect it’s as obvious to me now as it is to Ames here. But it’s such a parochial kind of fury, the kind that belongs in character backstories and not in life, that you don’t always expect it. I am more sensible than that, you think.

But you aren’t.