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LORIEN LOST by Michael King
Lorien Lost, despite being the kind of Victorian romp
I usually enjoy, is very much a lost tale--full of lost dramatic
possibility, lost focus, lost verbiage. A certain talent for detail and
one interesting situation save this first novel by Michael King from
oblivion, but only just.
The plot sounds better on the front cover flap than on the
page, where the disjointed structure leaves it without form: In 1870s
London timid Milton Radcliffe visits the lovely Lorien in the
fantastical Larking Land by entering the paintings of Lorien's artist
husband, Jonathan Larking. When a fire destroys Radcliffe's only Larking
painting, he must discover the whereabouts of a life-size statue of
Lorien. Radcliffe embarks on an expedition to find the statue and is
helped on his quest by an opera singer named Heather who knew Larking.
To this story, King has tied three or four subplots and a number of
However, any attempt at complexity is doomed by King's reliance
on Radcliffe as his main character. Radcliffe--passive, lacking a past
and a future--is the single most uninteresting character I have ever had
the misfortune to encounter in a book. Although Radcliffe inhabits most
of the scenes, he might as well be absent from many of them since his
tongue is silent and his thoughts unexpressed for whole pages while
others prance and prattle on like paper dolls.
Radcliffe's ability to mimic a black hole, a nothing, the center
of a donut, forces the minor characters to carry equal narrative weight
and thus Lorien Lost collapses, too short to absorb so many
different voices without fragmenting into a series of choppy scenes
which exist for their own sake rather than at the service of the novel's
unity. This search for unity need not mean sacrificing subplots or the
unique voices of individual characters--Charles Finney's The Circus
of Doctor Lao, with its many set pieces revolving around the circus,
provides ample proof of that. Here, disaster: the fantasy has no
internal logic (we are asked to believe in Larking Land and then in
phantasmagoria which do not seem to occupy the same universe) and the
supporting cast has as much integrity as Colonel Mustard and Professor
Plum in the board game Clue.
What should provide form and structure for Lorien
Lost--Radcliffe's quest for the statue--is substantially diluted by
numerous false starts to that quest, Radcliffe's thoroughly revolting
passivity throughout, and structural defects in the novel. Worse,
whether as a function of the novel's weak characters or of King's fickle
flitting from character to character, Lorien Lost is all
surface--a shallow pond rather than a deep lake. A stone thrown into
that pond would not skip, but simply slide. At times I felt I was
reading a children's story, the text is so devoid of sensuality,
physicality, and any other normal human muss and fuss. (And also devoid
of substitute pleasures--the pleasures of Borges' metafictions, the
pleasures of Eco's vast puzzles.) I couldn't help but wonder as I read
along what exactly Radcliffe would do when he found Lorien. Would
he take her in his arms and profess his love? Would he hug her and tell
her how much he missed his best friend? Would he gaze upon her in
wonder, overcome by his emotions? Would he--could he?--do anything
recognizable as human?
King's inability to imagine the sensual world is linked to a
surface infatuation with detail about objects rather than people, with
the idea of emotions rather than emotions themselves. I cannot help but
be reminded by contrast of Brook Stevens' The Circus of the Earth and
the Air, in which the quest for the beloved managed to retain a dark
fairytale tone without sacrificing its immediacy and intensity.
And yet, King's sense of detail, even applied to objects,
saves Lorien Lost from simple mediocrity. Although King clearly
has only a hazy conception of England, and a crippling, cliched vision
of the 1870s--the Dover clip art scattered throughout the book is there,
I suppose, so that hopefully we will overlook King's dazzlingly
arrogantvagueness about the time period--he obviously loves to
write, and if he often sheds images like heat lightning and veers off
track to deliver some interesting but irrelevant description, then at
least he cares enough to give us such detail.
Another redeeming quality concerns the tale of Mr. Hartshorne and his elaborate indoor wooden forest, which he must chop up one cold winter (here described by Heather):
"Have you ever felt a room to be as big as the whole world? Well, that was the effect of Hartshorne's Enchanted Forest. The walls seemed to dissolve away, and soon the woodland was everywhere, and you could smell the decayed leaves beneath your feet and hear the cool murmur of a brook somewhere, and the scamper of squirrels above you in the boughs...Sometimes I would catch [Hartshorne]: in the midst of company, he appeared to slip away for a moment into his own personal forest, until the distant voice of a guest would call him back."
I rarely chide an author for the book s/he didn't write,
and yet I must say here that King should have jettisoned all the rest of
the novel's sound and fury--even the cutsey trappings of Larking Land
itself--for love of this single moment of truth: the mystery inherent in
Hartshorne and "his own personal forest." Unfortunately, King
traps Hartshorne within the hollow, empty, airless center of Radcliffe's
Fantasy cannot exist on images of its own beauty. Fantasy cannot exist without its own illogical logic. Fantasy cannot exist without its whimsy firmly anchored to something, whether it be a compelling character or a mythic resonance. Once Michael King learns the difference between what stories need to be told and what stories should never reach the page--and once he puts his often marvelous gift for detail to the service of people and emotion--he will be a valuable addition to the fantasy field. For now, he suggests untapped talent, even possible brilliance, but not its fulfillment.
|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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