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August 6th, 2008 - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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August 6th, 2008


12:06 pm - Unlikable Protagonists and Unreliable Narrators? Unbelievable!
When you're on a family vacation, you need some escapist literature.

First up: Galveston, by Sean Stewart, recommended to me by evilstmars, although I had been meaning to read some Sean Stewart since The Beast. I hadn't realized that the book takes place in the same universe as his previous books Resurrection Man and Night Watch, which I hadn't read. The books are about different characters in different places at different times, but they all deal with the same central conceit: magic in the real world. For Galveston, the key event is the Flood of 2004, when magic suddenly seeped into the world entire. In the resulting cataclysm, Galveston Island was cut off from a civilization now bereft of technology. And now, there are two Galvestons: the real Galveston and—superimposed on top of it—the magic Galveston, which is in perpetual Mardi Gras and ruled by the god Momus. A couple members of the community work to keep the two worlds separate.

Now, this all sounds very fanciful, but Stewart treats it as normal, which is very cool and interesting and somewhat disorienting. Especially because he never comes out and explains all the rules, so you have to sort of learn them in context, but even then, something weird will happen and you just have to go with it even though you never would have expected it based on what you thought you knew about how the magic worked in this book. This allows his imagination to run wild, basically.

The magic is not the point, though. I don't know why I have to keep coming to this realization, but it still continues to take me by surprise. The magic is just a vehicle, just a setting. The real story is about the characters and the community. Some of the reviews mention the "unlikable" protagonists of Josh Cane and Sloane Gardner, one a poor apothecary and the other a rich girl. And it's not so much that they're unlikable. It's that Stewart doesn't sugarcoat them in any way. He lets their flaws be just that: flaws. And it's sort of uncomfortable to read because they're very human flaws, and you see them in yourself. But the honest representation of these characters makes you even more invested in their growth, which is what the book is really about, the way they grow and learn about themselves and their place in the community. The plot—the events, the things that happen—doesn't follow a clear, defined arc, so you never really know where the story is going, but you care about how the events affect Josh and Sloane. And Ham, Josh's best/only friend. Stewart surprised me by avoiding clichés and instead treating his characters like real people with complicated emotions. Like I said, flawed characters. Flawed like we all are.

As a bonus, you get some tips on poker strategy (poker is used as a plot device and a metaphor throughout the book) and survival medicine (Josh has to make do with what he has now that the real medicine has run out). It's a really good book, and I think it's probably quite different from most fantasy novels.

Then came The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips, given to me by latropita (and a signed copy, at that!). Now, I heart unreliable narrators, and this book is full of 'em. Set in 1922, it tells the tale of Ralph Trilipush's quest to find the tomb of an apocryphal king/erotic poet named Atum-hadu (which translates to Atum-Is-Aroused). Amusingly, his expedition is concurrent with Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of King Tut.

The story is mostly in the form of Ralph's journal, which he is specifically writing to document his findings to be published as a book. He also adds in loving messages to his fiancée in Boston, to whom he has sent his journal—we discover in the beginning—in case of his untimely demise. Meanwhile, thirty years in the future, Harold Ferrell, an Australian detective, is documenting for posterity a case that eventually involves Ralph, a case he can only describe as one that "started as an odd-duck inheritance case, then it was a missing-person case with a dozen different clients, then a double murder, a prenuptial background investigation, then a debt-collection case, and suddenly quite a different double murder." Finally, there are a few other letters to round out the story.

Now, Josh Cane and Sloane Gardener are nothing compared to Ralph Trilipush, who basically has no redeeming qualities. He's self-absorbed, self-congratulatory, and self-deluding, but what he is not is self-aware. Which is good for us because he is also a lying sack of shit (Dude! You're not allowed to lie to your own diary! A— Are you?). Talk about your unreliable narrators, holy Jesus Christ. You get a taste of this when, early on, he writes his biography for the book and includes things that haven't happened yet. It's hilarious. You quickly learn that you shouldn't take everything he says at face value, but the problem is you don't know what you can! Because he's so convincing, and you want to believe him, even when you're sure he's not being entirely truthful. You welcome other perspectives with corroborating evidence.

But Ferrell isn't a shimmering fountain of veracity either. Although you can trust him more than Trilipush, he, too, has his mind set on publishing his story, so he gets a little creative with the details sometimes. Like, say, putting people in his tale that hadn't even been born yet. For flavor. It's hilarious. Unlike Ralph, though, he's at least interested in other people, so we learn a lot more about the characters and who's involved through his investigation, even though we wonder how much of his conclusions are sound.

But this book is more than just an exercise in narrative gymnastics. Yes, it forces the reader to work for the real story, to read between the lines and filter out the truth from the lies, but that is the point. The narrative is so multilayered and the lies so complex that the lie of the BOOK is exactly the way to tell this story. Because the major plot is about an Egyptian king the academic world knows very little about. The only way we know anything about the Egyptian kings is through what they left behind, and the only way we know anything about Ralph Trilipush is through what he and others left behind. It's a story about primary documents told in primary documents. A story that, through its very nature, calls into question the very use of primary documents and what you can learn from them. In addition, the book discusses man's desire for immortality. Like the Egyptian kings, we want to be remembered centuries later, just as Trilipush and Ferrell want to be preserved in book form. It's a very funny book with lots of laugh-out-loud moments, but it's also very sad because as much of a dick as he is, you can't help but feel for Ralph Trilipush's desire to be remembered because it's so real and human.

It's a truly fantastic book, and Phillips's ability to capture so many different voices is admirable. Ironically, the major flaw of the book is that he's too good at being Ralph Trilipush, and his voice becomes tiresome and irritating after a while. You find yourself welcoming the voice of the more down-to-earth Ferrell. But the intertwining (unreliable) narratives make the story incredibly engaging: as People put it, "Readers will be crazed to get to the next page—not only to find out what happens next, but to find out if what just happened really happened."

Plus, you learn a bit about Egyptology! I don't think Ralph made up the part where Egypt is a real country...
Current Mood: uncomfortableuncomfortable
Current Music: Matchbook Romance - What a Sight

(41 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")


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