When I was being interviewed for a place at university (by a disappointingly institutional cliché of beard, tweed, and stutter), I decided to rail against all the pre-facto advice I had been given to stay on-topic with the canon, and instead I talked about the writers I really loved. I waxed garrulous (if not quite poetic) about Michael Moorcock, Iain Banks, Edwin Morgan, Gene Wolfe, M. John Harrison, Philip K. Dick – you know, the truly outré, weird, unashamedly intellectual side of fantasy, sci-fi and speculative fiction – and how one day this kind of writing would become the Literature that most pushed boundaries and meant something to readers (call me naive if you like – I was an idealist!). Given my interviewer’s moth-eaten demeanour, I perhaps shouldn’t have been so surprised when he promptly told me to abandon this line of discussion and talk instead about “proper books”. Begrudgingly I acquiesced, and jumped through the hoops of canonical lit crit with some improvisational, boring and hackneyed comparison of the landscapes of Wuthering Heights with the seascapes of Moby Dick – but hey! this seemed to please him (I passed, afterall).
What really stuck with me afterwards was his phrase “proper books”, and the way this casual dismissive swept-aside everything I was passionate about with simultaneous contempt and institutional disregard, while demonstrating a repulsive literary snobbishness and elitism. His accusation wasn’t so much that the books I liked were ‘improper’; rather, that they were frivolous, non-literary, of no consequence. The blunders of his argument are many, but significant among them are: 1) He’d never read the novels he was so caustically dismissing, and 2) he’s never going to read them: all modern attempts at Fantasy writing being, in his mind, a shallow caricature of Tolkien-esque clichés (or at least an attempt to ventriloquise them) and so of no literary merit.
There’s a larger issue here (which I’ll save for another day) about the institutional disregard of speculative fiction (I’m also looking at you, Man Booker Prize) and the over-praise lavished upon the heavily commercialised literary-lite novels that dominate the arts pages of the Guardian and the like; books which are both critically lauded and bestselling, but which never strive for anything beyond the middle-brow (McEwan, Amis, Faulks et al). My over-laboured point being: Fantasy and Sci-fi really are becoming the new home of the literary avant-garde, and I wish, wish, wish I’d been able to read Michael Cisco’s The Narrator ten years ago (it was published last year) – because not only is it just, like, totally awesome; it also would have stood as a great illustration of my point.
The Narrator is really weird stuff. Through a strange and comically baffling bureaucratic misunderstanding, Low Loom Column is drafted into the army and sent to the city of Tref, where his designs on desertion are ruined after he is seen by an ‘Edek’: paradoxically blind, tall, effeminate beings whose powers are never fully explained. The book is predominantly constructed in the first-person present tense, with Low as the narrator; but he is also a “Narrator”: ostensibly a convergence of historian with biographer – a Narrator’s ultimate vocation being to become a chronicler of their experiences in the creation of what will, eventually, become state-sanctioned and approved truths. When Low’s brilliantly realised, insane and murderous jingoist of a commanding officer, General Makemin, discovers this, he immediately grants Low special treatment; not out of any due respect for the Narrators’ office, but out of a self-serving narcissism which hopes that Low will become the conduit of Makemin’s own heroic mythology. That Makemin is raving mad and kills his own men as indiscriminately as he does his enemies doesn’t function as any kind of obstruction to this: self-deluded as he is.
Presumably the novel itself, The Narrator, is the end-product of Low’s endeavours, the book which, as a “Narrator”, he has produced. This inter-textual placing of The Narrator as a novel within itself is where Cisco really shines, as the standard tropes of novelistic story telling are bent and blurred and twisted and malformed until what results is a book that’s at once compellingly original yet frustratingly difficult to know. I’ve never encountered an unreliable narrator quite like Low Loom Column before. On a superficial level, the book is riddled with grammar errors: deliberately misapplied commas and hyphens are the first clues that, enigmatically, our ‘narrator’ isn’t to be trusted – surely a ‘Narrator’ by profession shouldn’t make such faux pas? Frequently Low makes the (admittedly minor) grammar mistake of ending sentences with a preposition, only to immediately correct himself in the subsequent sentence:
A rough trunk of parched wind will strike and suck at me a moment, raking in my nose and throat the glittering dust it’s laced with. With which it is laced.
I suppose to be eaten or perhaps simply fondled and torn and toyed with. With which to be toyed.
Low’s correction of his own grammar acts as a covert communication to the reader that nothing in The Narrator is entirely trustworthy or to be taken at face-value (why else would he include his own mistakes?); it’s a style characterised by fluidity and uncertainty; the fundamental structure of language is being fucked with, and this extends outwards to colour every aspect of the novel. The Narrator is a dark and gothic dreamscape of the undefined, full of contradictory axioms: “as a follower you are always the first to arrive” and obscure sentence construction: “Hear the companion writing their reciprocal dreams made.”.
Compounding this, I think, is an incredible tension between the literal and the figurative: so much so that when Low describes a man as having “a rabbit mouth” or “falcon face”, I was never quite sure whether such language is a flamboyant and impressionistic description of physicality, or an entirely literal one (this is a Fantasy after all (although the genre-label on the back cover knowingly describes it as ‘experimental/other’)). While some chapters are bewildering simply because they are formally difficult (stream of consciousness/dream sequences/mass hallucinations), others are ungraspable not because of any lack of specificity – quite the opposite – but because they’re so adjectively dense that they give James Joyce a run for his money on the what-the-crap-is-going-on scale. Ironically, Cisco uses an over-abundance of adjectives to obstruct clarity: perverting language’s most descriptive sign by stripping it of its expressive power: cloying it up with ambiguity.
But The Narrator is much more than an exercise in tone and gothic ambience. Low’s narrative agenda is decidedly anti-war. The whole book functions as analogy for the destructive capacity of war: death and suffering bleed through the pages of this novel, to the extent that (as shown) even the narration itself is unstable and self-destructive. There are long passages in which you really can’t tell whether events are actually happening or merely delegate of something else entirely. Bookcases bleed ink and the leather hinges of bindings become mouths, even Low splits himself into a double: Narrator and character, fetishising the very material of the book in your hands:
I’ve remembered this moment so many times since out of black and white I swam together and became a “character” –
Metaphors become realities in The Narrator, such is the ferocious yet ambiguous power of Low’s narratology: he dreams of a giant, black ship (Bonant), the inescapability of which is a clear metaphor for the coming war – but no sooner does he set sail than this ship becomes a literal threat, chasing his army across the ocean.
Unsurprisingly then, horror (notably the phantasmagoric) plays an important role in the book. There are too many set-piece battles that are confusing and deliberately vague (a rare flaw: if Cisco is trying to capture the repetitive tedium of skirmish warfare, he over-shoots the mark, and could have made the same point without quite so much repetition), but the slower inter-skirmish sequences are characterised by disturbing events, frequently redolent of Lovecraftian grotesque: a cannibal queen, a disgusting séance of some kind, and a vagrant group dubbed the ‘vomiters’: disfigured, emaciated people who’re perpetually throwing-up. That such horrors are conceived in the same beautiful and entrancing language as the rest of the book only adds to their power to disturb.
So how do I end this? I’ve not spoken much about the plot because even that is slippery and difficult to pin-down. From obscure and unexplained “magics” like the construction of ‘alphabets’, to long, drawn-out military campaigns: even the most basic events of this book are infinitely interpretable. The Narrator is incredibly literate Fantasy; a text perpetually attempting to tear itself apart from the inside with its own conflicts and ambiguities. War subverts not only life, but language and even truth. I’m still not sure what that university lecturer meant by “proper books” – but if only The Narrator had existed back then, and if only I’d had the confidence in my tastes that I have now – I’d have stood up for myself much more than I did, with this book as my prime example of the literary legitimacy of modern Fantasy.