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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 1 (Fall 1995)
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In Pursuit of the Imagination:
An Overview of Nine Elusive Books

by Jeff VanderMeer
Copyright © 1995, Jeff VanderMeer

[The second half of this article will appear in our next Newsletter. (Now postponed to #3)--Ed.]

When I began to read in deadly earnest, it was always with the unknown in mind: Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Last Unicorn, James and the Giant Peach. Always, I see with the benefit of hindsight, I loved most those authors who most generously gave of their imagination, who let fly with the most outrageous, absurd, sublime characters and situations; they literally had devoured the world and remade it in their image.

Time has not changed this quality in me: I demand BIG imaginations from the novelists I read and I demand that quality of the bittersweet which permeates our world like the beautiful red blossoms that so tormented me with allergies when I was a child. And if I now also demand thematic resonance, perfect attention to detail, intellectual stimulation, and emotional depth, well, these are merely the accoutrements that life acquires in our gliding journey across its luminous, lacerated, smirking face.

What genre of books do I read? A genre without a king, without a country, without maps or roads, so that I am at once wandering through all of the strange lands of fiction and yet belong to none of them. And yet, if forced to apply a name, a label, what could better suit what I read than "literature of the fantastic''? All of the books I love change the way we view the world, and all have an element of the fantastical, the transcendent, the unknown.

Italo Calvino, that greatest of book lovers, once wrote a wonderful tome entitled If Upon A Winter's Night A Traveller, in which a reader buys a book only to find the first chapter doesn't match the rest of the text--that the rest of the book he wanted to read hasn't been printed inside the book he has bought. Thus begins a quixotic quest to find the rest of that original book, spanning a hilarious and strange continuum in which books hide and change before our eyes.

The books I recommend below are elusive books--out of print, only available overseas, or published in the mainstream and thus often lost to readers of the fantastic. Forgotten, under-appreciated, or only appreciated by a select group.

I give no clues on where to find these books--you will have to find them for yourself, after diligent search, until that moment, in the back room of a used bookstore on some neglected alley in Trafalgar Square or the French Quarter or somewhere more prosaic, when you experience that tell-tale double-thrill. First it is the thrill of discovery, followed quickly by a second, more permanent sensation: the knowledge that the real discovery still awaits you, between the covers of the book you hold in your hands.

1. The New York Trilogy (1985) by Paul Auster. Composed of three short novels-- The City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room -- The New York Trilogy marked the debut of one of the United States' most talented novelists, Paul Auster. Disguised as detective stories, the three novels actually turn the process of detection inward, until the detective investigates himself. Auster's approach is pleasurably post-modern, for the novels all preserve the page-turning narrative thrust of the detective novel while dealing with the most introspective of subjects: the loss of self, the search for self, the alienation from self. The reader is hooked from page one of the first novel, which begins: "It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone [Quinn] was not. Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance. But that was much later. In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences. Whether it might have turned out differently, or whether it was all predetermined with the first word that came from the stranger's mouth, is not the question. The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell."

Quinn, a writer of detective novels, has been mistaken for a detective and, rather than disillusion the caller, he takes the case. In so doing, he opens up a whole world of the surreal, including the pursuit of a man whose path of daily walks repeatedly spells out his name across entire city blocks. Among the great pleasures of The New York Trilogy are Auster's spare yet luminous prose, the sheer brilliance of his pacing, and the strangeness of his observations about the human condition. Auster adeptly fools the reader in the service of his story, and the first two books must be revisited in light of the revelations contained in the third book. 2. The Passion of New Eve (1977), by Angela Carter. The Passion of New Eve is a crude, ugly book, by measures erudite and pompous, angry and profane. The plot has a streamlined single-mindedness dedicated to feminist satirizing of the image of the United States promulgated by the United States through its movies: the most obvious and potent of the tactics employed by the agents of cultural/gender imperialism.

Evelyn, an Englishman who has been offered a job teaching at a U.S. university, arrives in New York City only to find that the country has gone belly up. Harlem is a walled fortress defended by black extremists, and tanks rumble down streets of broken glass, while radical feminists fight it out with the National Guard. Remember Watts? The level of breakdown described by Carter is only a few steps beyond the L.A. riots; it is, however, leavened by black humor, especially as regards the feminists: They blew up wedding shops and scoured the newspapers for marriage announcements so that they could send brides gifts of well-honed razors ... there were rumors of a kamikaze squad of syphilitic whores who donated spirochetal enlightenment for free to their customers out of dedication to the cause.

Evelyn soons finds that his university position has been liquidated and, penniless, takes up with a black woman whom he gets pregnant; when she almost dies from a botched abortion, Evelyn flees the scene of his own cruelty. In the deserts of the southwest, he is forceably given a sex-change operation by a tribe of lost Amazonians and then taught what it means to be a woman by a host of male stereotypes. By the time Eve/Evelyn reaches the West Coast, s/he has undergone more than a physical transformation.

Carter is not so much concerned with an accurate picture of the day-to-day reality of the United States' future as she is with symbolic, poetic, and cinematic truth. Only Carter could, by the tenacity of her imagination and drive, hold such a macrocosm of bastard throw-aways together so that the book becomes something more than the sum of its parts: a chemical, rather than physical, reaction. The mixture of mythologies together with the bleak and barren landscapes, the evocation of the Mother Goddess, inhabit a land where J.G. Ballard and Joanna Russ collide, and presages both the myth-science of Ian MacDonald's Out on Blue Six and the surreal America on display in Steve Erickson's visionary novels. Carter's less obscure works include the brilliant The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman and Nights At The Circus. 3. And the Ass Saw the Angel (1989), by Nick Cave. Nick Cave is better known as the front man for the raucous, avant-garde rock band "Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds,'' but with the publication of And the Ass Saw the Angel (a line taken from the Bible), he staked a legitimate claim to inclusion among the first or second rank of stylists in his native Australia.

And the Ass Saw the Angel tells the life story of Euchrid Eucrow, a poor mute with telepathic or imagined telepathic powers who has from birth had an awareness of his own existence. Or rather, Euchrid tells his own story--from a plot of marshy quicksand where he has been chased by vengeful, brutish townfolk: "Ah calculate thus: That by the time the moon comes shining over the top of yonder trees--that is to say, in approximately sixty minutes--mah soul will have departed from, and in no way will have remained in, this here world. And mah body which for some time has been and at present continues to be, even as ah speak, under repossession, will have departed from this world and deeply sunken will its flesh and bones be..."

There follows an absurd series of calculations concerning rate of sinkage that are composed of one-fourth pathos and three-fourths black humor: "Suffice it to say, though, and say not at all unhappily, after long and probing ruminations and having drawn no hasty conclusions, that ah, Euchrid Eucrow, have a snowball's chance in hell of seeing the sun come up tomorrow.'' One of the book's great strengths as it follows Euchrid's tragic life is this element of gallows humor which, expertly placed, relieves the intense gloom. Although the final two chapters collapse under the weight of the language (or, perhaps, it is the reader collapsing under the weight of the book), the book remains a triumph of "gothic noir,'' truly original and framed by a rough genius. 4. Arc D'X (1993), by Steve Erickson. Steven Erickson's Arc D'X may be the most important novel about America published in the last 10 years. The novel provides a fully-rounded view of Thomas Jefferson and his ambivalence toward slavery, an ambivalence documented in his righteous public stance versus his inability to free the slaves on his own plantation. The battle between Jefferson the upholder of liberty and Jefferson the man are set out early in the book when a slave woman is burned for killing her master: "... the squire's five-year-old son watched the smoke too. Into the night the little boy smelled it. He smelled it in his food and his bath. In the air outside his bedroom window that should have been ripe with the scent of spring rain, he smelled nothing but the burning body of the black female slave. He woke in the middle of the night vomiting; and lying in bed the next day, depleted and delirious, his five-year-old head was filled with excruciating visions: staring into the nothingness above him, he waited for the woman's ashes to fall from the sky, to clot the branches of the trees and hang from the rafters of the house like black snow.

In particular, Arc D'X explores Jefferson's treatment of his slave lover Sally. Jefferson's rape of Sally reverberates throughout the novel. Erickson's depiction of a Jefferson torn between ideals and his brute nature is magnificent: "It thrilled him, the possession of her. He only wished she was so black as to not have a face at all. ... It thrilled him, not to be a saint for once, not to be a champion. Not to bear, for once, the responsibility of something noble or good. Didn't he believe that one must pursue his happiness? Such a pursuit is as ruthless as any other." At the end of this crucial scene, Jefferson sees the ashes of the dead slave woman from his youth finally falling outside his Paris window.

History diverges at this point, the rogue history of Jefferson leading a slave revolt intertwined with various images of the future: a totalitarian regime and an apocalyptic Berlin in the year 1999. The culminating scenes of this extraordinary novel contain the tragedy not only of individuals but of history itself.

Erickson can be compared to Thomas Pynchon for his use of time and the surrealism of his writing, but Erickson is a more complete novelist and, while Pynchon's vision has apparently failed him (witness the tepid Vineland ), Erickson has forged his way into uncharted territory. The book plays such sophisticated and daring tricks with time that a simple summary cannot convey the sheer reckless beauty of Erickson's writing, nor the sadness, the elegance, and the complexity of the plot. More than any other book on this list, with the possible exception of The Seven Who Fled [Prokosch], Arc D'X is an experience that could never be duplicated by a medium other than the novel form. 5. The Jerusalem Quartet (1979--1986), by Edward Whittemore. The Jerusalem Quartet consists of four novels of unparalleled scope and invention: Sinai Tapestry, Jerusalem Poker, Nile Shadows, and Jericho Mosaic.

The novels are loosely related, in that several protagonists appear in all four, slipping in and out of the narrative as walk-on, secondary, and main characters. Inasmuch as The Jerusalem Quartet tells one story, it follows the tragic exploits of a man named Stern who, hoping to use his wealth to effect peace in the Middle East, winds up running guns to Arabs, Jews, and Christians, in an ever more desperate and self-defeating effort. That said, it also covers the years 1900 through 1975, weaving together different times and places for a thematic resonance that far exceeds anything Thomas Pynchon did in his excellent book V.

The most audacious and ambitious book, Jerusalem Poker, tells the story of a twelve-year (1921--1933) poker game for control of Jerusalem. The three main participants, Cairo Martyr, O'Sullivan Beare, and Munke Szondi, operate the Moslem, Christian, and Jewish quarters of the city. The poker game is played in the shop of Haj Harun, a man who may or may not be seven thousand years old. Along the way, the participants in the poker game discover a thirty-three volume study of Levantine sex and are challenged by the villain of the piece, Nubar Wallenstein, who sends hilariously disjointed missives to his agents in the field.

The novel has one of the great prologues in literature, opening atop the Great Pyramid, where the sun rises on a summer day in 1914. Cairo Martyr, at the time a male prostitute, has just helped a jaded, obese pair of Egyptian aristocrats achieve orgasm, when a triplane flies overhead: "Down, [Cairo] yelled. Down... But the delirious baron and baroness heard neither him nor the airplane. The great red ball on the horizon had hypnotized them with the heat it sent rushing through their aging bodies. Gaily the plane dipped its wings in salute to the most impressive monument ever reared by man, then gracefully rolled away and sped on south... Cairo Martyr got to his feet, not believing what he saw. The nearly invisible man and woman still stood on the summit with their arms outstretched, but now they were headless, cleanly decapitated by the slashing lowest wing of the triplane. The hulking bodies lingered a few seconds longer, then slowly toppled over and disappeared down the far side of the pyramid.

The four books which make up The Jerusalem Quartet are among the richest and most profound in imaginative literature... and also among the most obscure, out of print for more than ten years. Whittemore wrote one novel before The Jerusalem Quartet, Quin's Shanghai Circus, which, although less complex than the quartet, has much to recommend it. Of all the authors discussed in this article, Whittemore has been the most unfairly neglected and it can only be hoped that his star will rise again in another decade or so. Such a superlative body of work cannot be overlooked forever.

[Article to be continued in Newsletter issue #3 .--Ed.]


The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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