Wednesday, May 15, 2013

K.J. Bishop, The Etched City (2003)

This book is about two characters, Raule and Gwynn. Previously, they were both part of a failed revolution in (apparently) a Western-ish type region. Now, they're living disparate lives in this city of Ashamoil. She's a doctor working in a slum; he's a mercenary/enforcer/assassin for a slaver's corrupt business empire. And...that's about the shape of it. I know that sounds kind of sketchy, but this is not a plot-heavy novel.

Let me describe my successive impressions of this book. For the first third, or maybe half, I was thinking, okay, this is a reasonably entertaining read, but what's the deal with all these rapturous pull-quote declaring it to be “fantasy as high literature” and comparing it to Borges and Calvino? But things start to ramp up some way into the narrative, and at a certain point I was really a believer: yes, there are some amazing sequences reminiscent of both those writers, and yes, Bishop really does, frequently, write ecstatically (an' if we've learned anything from the cover copy of Nabokov novels, it's that, per John Updike, that's the only way prose should be written). The hype is to be believed, thought I. This is a hell of a thing. But...dammit, then I finished it, and I realized, for all that it does right, this book is still very flawed in some very obvious ways. It's not that I want to modulate my praise—but I am left with little choice.

I'm afraid this review is going to seem far more negative than I mean it to, simply because it's easier to criticize than to praise—and in any case, a lot of the cool things in this book deserve to be experienced first-hand without being spoiled by lame reviewers. So let there be absolutely no doubt: Bishop is a very talented writer, and this, her first and thusfar only novel, very much deserves to be read. It's frequently exciting and mysterious, and it has moments of real grace—though, as noted above, it takes a while to become really amazing. The city of Ashamoil isn't quite as vivid as those in some of the other urban fantasy thingies I've been reading lately are, but it's still well-drawn. If New Crobuzon is roughly equivalent to London, this would be located somewhere on a river at the border between the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa. It's sadly unusual to find fantasy not set in a majority-white setting, so I liked that. If there is a central plotline in the book, it concerns the romance between Gwynn and an artist named Beth (from whence the “etched” in the title). Their relationship (which explores the relationship between life and art) becomes more unstable and surreal by degrees, and it was at its climactic scene—which is, to repeat myself, amazing—that I was prepared to declare the book THE BEST THING EVAH.  But...

The central problem is that Bishop simply does not handle her characters well. Firstly, it should be noted that, in spite of putatively being a story about two characters, this is really Gwynn's novel; Raule's part is decidedly minor. It seems like Bishop doesn't have a clear idea what to do with her: there's an implied character arc involving her inability, picked up at some point during the war, to viscerally feel the moral judgments that she makes (her “phantom conscience,” she calls it), but it goes nowhere (and, as much as I hate to be That Guy, isn't it a bit much that, in a majority-black setting, the black woman's story is marginalized in favor of the white man's? Come on, now).

As for Gwynn...well, I think the central problem with Gwynn is that Bishop is altogether too fond of the character. The fact is, Gwynn is a bad person. He aids and abets slavers, and he inflicts horrible violence on people who don't remotely deserve it with absolutely no tinge of conscience. I'm not saying that it is therefore “wrong” for him to be presented as largely likeable, nor that he needs to Get His in the end—but Bishop lets him off scot-free, and it's not just that there's no moral reckoning; it's that you don't sense that the novel is even aware that a moral reckoning is a thing that could happen. He has these philosophical conversations with a dissipated priest who wants him to Repent, but those lack any real moral force, and certainly we are never given any sense that he could ever actually change in any way as a result of them.  It's actually sort of bizarre: Bishop doesn't shy away from depicting him doing awful things, but then she doesn't make these things mean anything in the larger context of his character. 

The other, perhaps lesser, problem is that we are really set up to believe that Raule and Gwynn as characters will play off each other in some way, which they then very much don't. There's an in-retrospect pointless opening interlude before they reach the city where they're wandering around the desert trying to figure out where to go or what to do, but then they get to Ashamoil, and that's about it. There's this implicit promise that their stories will merge, but then they just don't. The back-cover copy, which may or may not have been written by someone who did not read the novel, claims that “two very different people in search of new lives find their paths crossing—and their realities merging—again and again.” One can only assume that this is aspirational rather than descriptive. It certainly doesn't describe the book I read.

It's not the only lost thread in the book (if you had read the novel, you'd have recognized that “lost thread” bit as a double meaning), either. The back cover further claims that “art infects life, dream and waking fuse, and splendid and frightening miracles begin to bloom.” This is actually accurate, as far as it goes, but the problem is that, when you finish the book, you realize that none of the signs and wonders therein actually mean anything. Obviously, I'm not suggesting that there should be “explanations” for this stuff, but I am suggesting that it should build to something. But none of it does. Instead, the novel ends with a rushed epilogue where our protagonists leave the city and Bishop sort of tries to resolve at the last minute their non-existent character arcs. All those “frightening miracles?” Never anything more than window dressing. Most vexing.

As I kinda knew would happen, the above makes it sound like I hated this novel. But I didn't. There's a lot to say for it, and you can't expect every writer's first novel to be perfect. Flaws and all, look what a huge advance Perdido Street Station is from King Rat. There is, if nothing else, a huge amount of potential in The Etched City, and I very much hope that Bishop graces us with another novel sooner rather than later.


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