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The Complete Poems, John Crowe Ransom

December 9, 2019

Several of my most intelligent and industrious friends have been actively looking for employment over the past year and have gotten only a few interviews and no offers. It’s a hard way to spend a year. One of these friends, still in her twenties, said last week that her most recent job application—for a human resources data analysis position–asked her to write an original poem about her current employment. (As she’s unemployed, this was difficult, but she did come up with a clever limerick.) What’s next? A job application that asks applicants to “paint in watercolors an image of the magnitude of your yearning to analyze data” or “compose one movement of a symphony expressing the lofty joys of serving as a successful human resource”?

I do like the assumption that anyone can and should write a poem in circumstances we don’t usually associate with poetry. It’s not something many of us do when faced with myriad everyday demands.

Last week Ron brought home a brand-new volume of poetry that he had checked out from the Kenyon College library because he knew I’d want to read it. Edited by the professor at Hendrix who first made me want to learn to write, Ashby Bland Crowder, it is The Complete Poems of John Crowe Ransom and has a foreward by the sister of one of the people who first welcomed me to Kenyon, Robb Forman Dew.

Ransom is known for having written most of his poetry early in his life. Dr. Crowder says that “after 1927 he wrote only six new poems, the last in 1963.” Like many other people I know at Kenyon, he got too busy: “his editing, critical writing, teaching, reading, and other prose commitments piled up, and he was never able to find the path back to poetry.”

Ransom’s poems have a complicated publication history. He allowed a more experienced poet to revise and even re-title the poems in his first volume (Grace After Meat, 1924). He revised his own poems throughout his life; Dr. Crowder says that “he fiddled…with poems he had already written, thinking that he was improving them. He even wrote essays explaining how his revisions had improved the originals.” And so The Complete Poems is a large volume, containing poems that the most patient teacher and editor I have ever known thinks are the best version.

My ideas about Ransom were formed by Dr. Crowder, who never lost interest in the first poet he saw in person, and so I thought of Ransom’s most famous poems as “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” and “The Equilibrists.” There are others that are quite famous however; like “Janet Waking,” “Blue Girls,” “Necrological,” “Captain Carpenter,” “Piazza Piece,” and “Dead Boy.” My favorite has always been “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” with its memory of a child in a “brown study,” which, as I learned at the age of 18, is an archaic phrase meaning absorbed or abstracted. Here is the best version of it:

There was such speed in her little body,
And such lightness in her footfall,
It is no wonder her brown study
Astonishes us all.

Her wars were bruited in our high window.
We looked among orchard trees and beyond,
Where she took arms against her shadow,
Or harried unto the pond

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,

For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!

But now go the bells, and we are ready;
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.

“Vexed.” Isn’t that just the right word in the right place? And the way the first stanza introduces the “brown study” and then the final stanza puts it in context recapitulates the way we plunge into remembering things a dead person has done and then come up over and over again against the shore of our realization that the person will do these things no more.

Reading my favorites among all the other poems gave me more appreciation for the way they rise above their time. Some of the others, like “Husband Betrayed,” do not:

And so he called her Pigeon,
Saying to himself, “She flutters walking
And in sweet monotone she twitters talking.”
Nothing was said of her religion.

There was wood-wildness in her—say a dove.
For doves are pigeons not domesticated
And whoso catches one is soon frustrated,
Expecting quick return of love.

At all events she had a snowy bosom
And trod so mincingly that you would say
She only wanted wings to fly away,
Easy and light and lissome.

She pecked her food with ravished cries,
She sunned her bosom by the wall in the morning,
Preening prettily in the sun and turning
In her birdwise.

But there was heavy dudgeon
When he that should have married him a woman
To sit and drudge and serve him as was common
Discovered he had wived a pigeon.

The words “heavy dudgeon” are brilliant, summing up the humor and the perspective of the poem. I’ll argue that the perspective is dated, although it’s not dated enough, as a viewing of the tv shows Gilmore Girls and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel will attest. Can’t you almost see three of the lines of this poem as a summary of Lorelei Gilmore’s daily activities? “She pecked her food with ravished cries,/She sunned her bosom by the wall in the morning,/Preening prettily.”

Because I was thinking about a connection between a person I knew at Hendrix College, in the warm and sunny south, and a person I met at Kenyon College, in the cold and gloomy north, I discovered a new Ransom poem that I will take to heart, “Winter Remembered.”

Two evils, monstrous either one apart,
Possessed me, and were long and loath at going:
A cry of Absence, Absence, in the heart,
And in the wood the furious winter blowing.

Think not, when fire was bright upon my bricks
And past the tight boards hardly a wind could enter,
I glowed like them, the simple burning sticks,
Far from my cause, my proper heat, my center.

Better to walk forth in the murderous air
And wash my wound in the snows; that would be healing,
Because my heart would throb less painful there,
Being caked with cold, and past the smart of feeling.

Which would you choose, and for what boot in gold,
The absence, or the absence and the cold?”

I feel the absence of Dr. Crowder more keenly now, with this posthumously-published edited collection, and of Helen Ransom Forman, the poet’s daughter who used to play croquet with us and her daughter Liz on the court where her parents had played, in a short summer on a northern campus where almost everyone gets too busy for poetry, eventually.

Fat Girl on a Plane

December 5, 2019

One more thing to worry about—I didn’t know that anyone on the flight crew could take a look at someone approaching the gate and decide they’re “too fat to fly.” Did you?

That’s what happens to the protagonist of Kelly Devos’ novel Fat Girl on a Plane. Her name is Cookie and yes, of course she gets teased about it. The plane incident is a dividing moment in her life. There’s the time before 17-year-old Cookie is told she has to spend $650 on a second seat and then on board is told she doesn’t need the second one because “you can fit into one seat….mostly” and called a name I had to look up (“Cankles”). And then there’s the time after, when she loses weight and achieves some of her dreams.

Like many contemporary readers, I’m not often a fan of the divided timeline narrative technique. It’s overdone, and usually it doesn’t add anything. But in this novel, it is used well, to show how Cookie thought her life would be different if she were thin and how it actually is different as she works at becoming smaller.

The comments meant to diminish, of course, never help anyone become smaller, and Cookie’s story has a representative sample, including a “loud conversation that carries over ours” about a woman whose boss thinks she needs to “get rid of that candy dish on your desk. Hit the StairMaster once in a while. Then come back and talk to me about a promotion.” Because that’s how easy it is, you know.

The plot of the novel involves Cookie’s work as a college intern in the fashion industry, and her continued interest in creating a plus-size collection even after she has fought her way down to a size six. She creates a blog for her designs and calls it “Roundish” with this initial post:
“There’s a certain very famous designer who’s been quoted as saying ‘No one wants to see roundish women.’ For this guy, fashion is a world of dreams and illusions where only certain people are welcome.
Of course, it’s true that fashion mocks and humiliates fat people relentlessly. But the real deal is that we’ve all been Roundish at one time or another. We’ve all been made to think we’re less than we ought to be. We’ve all faced superficial shaming about our sizes, shapes, skin tones, hair or age and have been led to believe that our value is based only on what we see in the mirror.
Yet this designer is totally wrong about fashion. He’s completely missed the point. It’s not an illusion or a dream. It’s a tool that should help people feel good about themselves and achieve their dreams.”
I would say that it should at least be possible for a woman my size to buy a red dress, and yet it is not. The meager handful of dresses available in my size (and price range) are mostly black or gray.

I learned something from reading this novel. Cookie points out that “most fashion brands—the Pradas, Ralph Laurens and D&Gs of this world—make less than 25 percent of their money from actually selling clothes. So where does the rest come from? Generally, from accessories (bags, shoes, jewelry, etc.) and licensed goods (fashion brands slap their logos on everything from bedsheets to vodka). And designers have a special place in their hearts for things like fragrances and eyewear….But who is buying all of this stuff?….It’s plus-size women who are buying the lion’s share of these handbags and home goods. And we need to stop doing it.”

The divided timeline comes together interestingly at the end of the novel. Each previous chapter has been labeled “fat” or “thin,” with the number of days before or after joining a weight-loss program. Two of the final chapters provide a perspective on the division, with “Fat: Day 737” immediately preceding “Skinny: Day 866.” And the last chapter has a new label, with a reminder that “yo-yo dieting shortens your lifespan more than fat does.”

It’s too late for me to worry about years of yo-yo dieting, but I’m glad that there’s a novel like this for young girls who are just starting to struggle with their weight today.

 

Starfish

November 28, 2019

One from the east coast, one from the west coast–both my kids flew home for Thanksgiving this year. We played games, discussed books, drank wine, and made cornbread dressing. After dinner, with the pie, I read this poem by Eleanor Lerman out loud.

Starfish

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who say, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

The Starless Sea

November 25, 2019

It’s pretty, but is it art? Erin Morgenstern’s new novel The Starless Sea is filled with precious descriptions of beautiful places that a person must risk all to view (hands and tongues are lost in the process) but in the end, like its sea made of honey, the sweetness turns cloying. This is not to say that I didn’t like it; I enjoyed swanning around this underground fairyland with characters whose adventures never occur far from a comfortable bedchamber with a well-stocked pantry and laundry service.

Dreamy, like her first novel The Night Circus, this one is built out of scraps of stories that overlap, combine, and reference each other. Early on, the main character, Zachary (almost always referred to by all three of his names: Zachary Ezra Rawlins) finds a book that has a story about him in it:
“He keeps wondering who wrote it. Who saw him in that alleyway with the door and why they wrote it down. The opening pages imply that the first stories are nested: the pirate telling the story about the acolyte, the acolyte seeing the story about the boy. Him.
But if he’s in a story within a story who is telling it? Someone must have typeset it and bound it in a book.
Someone somewhere knows this story.”
In fact, we all know this story. It has Narnia in it, and Brakebills. It has Shakespeare quotations and Arthurian legends, including a legendary king who will arise when the time is right. It has, no doubt, someone who tells it all to the bees. At one point
“Zachary waits for her to tell him that the Starless Sea is a bedtime story for children or that the Starless Sea is a state of mind or that there is no Starless Sea at all and there never was but she doesn’t.”

Zachary’s adventure begins in a promising way, with a trip to New York City to the Algonquin Hotel Annual Literary Masquerade, an event that seems so attractive I wonder why it doesn’t exist outside of this novel:
“there are scarlet letters and dictionary-page fairy wings and an Edgar Allan Poe with a fake raven on his shoulder. A picture-perfect Daisy Buchanan sips a martini at the bar. A woman in a little black dress has Emily Dickinson poems printed on her stockings. A man in a suit has a towel draped over his shoulder.”
The lovely details of the party are like the underground world Zachary is about to explore except that the party is more densely inhabited:
“He orders one of the literary cocktail creations at the bar, a Drowning Ophelia made with gin and lemon and fennel syrup, served with a spring [sic] of rosemary and a napkin with an appropriate Hamlet quote printed on it. Other guests sip Hemingway Daiquiris and Vespers garnished with complicated curls of lemon. Flutes of sparkling wine are served with ribbons that read “Drink Me” wrapped around their stems.
Bowls on tables are filled with escaped typewriter keys. Candles illuminate glass holders wrapped in book pages. One hallway is festooned with writing implements (fountain pens, pencils, quills) hanging from the ceiling at various heights.
A woman in a beaded gown and matching mask sits in a corner at a typewriter, tapping out tiny stories on scraps of paper and giving them to guests that pass by. The one she hands to Zachary reads like a long-form fortune cookie:
He wanders alone but safe in his loneliness.
Confused by comforted by his confusion.
A blanket of bewilderment to hide himself under.”
You can see why any reader will enjoy this world; she had me at the reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The main technique of the novel is immersion. If I were to come up for air, I might object to the liberation of those “escaped” typewriter keys and the ripping of pages from books to wrap the candle holders.

The underground world is a library, but with all the comforts of home. The training for the people who choose to work there ranges from unnecessarily harsh to nonsensical. The ones called “keepers” have to choose a story by someone else and
“study their story for a year. They must learn it by memory. By more than memory, they must learn it by heart. Not so that they can simply recite the words but so that they feel them, the shape of the story as it changes and lifts and falls and rushes or meanders toward its climax. So that they can recall and relate the story as intimately as if they have lived it themselves and as objectively as if they have played every role within.”
Sounds boring to me, to pore over the same story for a year. Why should it be necessary, unless one lives in a Fahrenheit 451 world where it’s essential for a person to “be” a book? But this is a magical world, and as one of the magical creatures in it says: “Do you want to know the secret to surviving once you’ve gone down the rabbit hole?…Be a rabbit.”

Occasionally I got irritated when one story was interrupted by another at a cliffhanger moment. And sometimes the preciousness was too much, especially when it concerned tearing the pages out of books: “She does this with books as well, removing the pages she does not care for and sending them off into the shadows where they belong.” I was also fairly impatient with the reverence towards fortunetelling, including an assertion about tarot cards: “they’re basically stories in pieces that can be rearranged.” After a while even the beautiful and whimsical details can start to seem like too much, maybe at the second party where “a man passes by with a tray full of small cakes, frosted with poems.” I have to agree with Zachary when he criticizes how another character, Mirabel, talks:
“Sorry it’s so poetry today.”
“So what?” Zachary asks, not certain he heard her correctly.
“Poetry.” Mirabel repeats. “The weather. It’s like a poem. Where each word is more than one thing at once and everything’s a metaphor. The meaning condensed into rhythm and sound and the spaces between sentences. It’s all intense and sharp, like the cold and the wind.”
“You could just say it’s cold out.”

It seems that when everything’s a metaphor, words fail. Still, it’s impossible not to love the descriptions of “books that felt truer than people.” It’s almost enough to get me past the preciousness of lines like “we are all stardust and stories” to find out what’s behind a few of the many doors in this novel. And to hear someone else voice my–perhaps every reader’s–deepest fear: “That none of it is important. That who he is, or who he thinks he is, is just a collection of references to other people’s art.”

Is this art or just entertainment? Should Zachary be “so focused on story and meaning and structure”? Is it important to sum up the effect of the way the stories in this novel come together and to catalog all the references to other stories, or is it enough to take delight in the details and forget most of them upon waking?

I dreamed last night that I was in a car with a magical being or as one—impossible to tell which–and Nathan Fillion was driving us and singing, and I woke up hearing the song. I woke up singing.

 

No Small Gift

November 21, 2019

A book of poems arrived in the mail last week. It was No Small Gift by Jennifer Franklin, from my friend Carrie, of Care’s Books and Pie. She also told me about Love’s Executive Order, where you can find a weekly poem on the state of the nation under the current president. Franklin’s prose poem “May” was featured there earlier this year. “May” is not from No Small Gift, although its poems are not without political implications.

The beginning of the poem entitled “Days When We Fear the Meaninglessness of Existence” is a little bit necromancy-adjacent:

When you told me that you do not feel
the dead, I did not believe you. They

are here, ringing in the new year, dancing
with the children and the drunks, holding

up the walls. I hear their voices and know
what they would say. This is not a comfort.

My favorite poem from this volume is very short. Entitled “New Parents Over A Stroller,” it’s about that feeling that causes parents to say “enjoy it; it goes so fast” to the exhausted parents of newborns:

I want to tell them to memorize
not just the shape of their baby’s
sleeping face but the feeling

they hold, now, for each other.
They believe this is just
the beginning of happiness.

I force myself to walk past
wondering if God feels this sad
looking down at the world.

The advice in my other favorite poem from this volume, “How To Ride the Subway Without Getting Hurt,” seems to me to apply in almost any situation when a person is out in public:

Don’t get into the first or last car on the off chance there’s a crash.
Snag a seat.
Don’t look at mothers holding babies.
While standing, hold the pole.
Don’t stare at fathers who wear their babies in Bjorns,
tenderly patting their backs.
Don’t eavesdrop.
Look at your boots, your phone, your watch, your short nails.
Don’t make eye contact.
Stop loving everyone as Whitman did.
Stop thinking of all the men you tried to save.
Don’t list what every child can do that your daughter will never master.
Master yourself.
Don’t imagine back-stories for your fellow passengers that led them to
this city.
Or recite Cavafy’s “The City,” even to yourself.
When you eavesdrop, don’t ingratiate yourself to strangers.
Or flash videos of cats to the boy next to you to distract him
from his angry father.
Don’t drop anything and if you do, don’t pick it up. Consider it a gift to
the universe.
Don’t look at the blank faces of the passengers who ignore the woman
sleeping under the bench.
Don’t think of your college course when you read Nietzsche and had hope.
Never think of college.
Don’t believe ads for quick divorces, online degrees, cheap medical care.
Or doctors when they say there’s nothing wrong.
Don’t read the news or sing under your breath.
Avoid eye contact.
Hope nothing incites the police.
Avoid headlines.
Forbid yourself to think about the way you felt the last time you were kissed.
Don’t think about what you’re doing.
Don’t think.
Mind the gap.
Pretend you can forget about the rats scavenging beneath you.
Pretend you can forget.

Don’t you like the warning to not do something, and then the advice about how to act when you inevitably do that thing anyway? I especially love the admonitions to “stop loving everyone as Whitman did” and “master yourself.” That seems particularly good advice for the world we live in, with longing for human connection just something else for a scam artist to take advantage of.

On the other hand, my friends sometimes send me books of poetry in the mail, and isn’t that lovely?

 

Olive, Again

November 15, 2019

Last weekend I spent most of my time sitting and reading, after getting a shingles vaccine that gave me a big red welt on the arm and a fever for 24 hours. On Sunday, we came home in the late afternoon after seeing the movie Midway, which was pretty much what we expected–a movie that if you’re going to see it, you should see it on the big screen—and I found that a book had been delivered to our door, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again. I was delighted and sat down to read it. Finishing it before I went to bed, I was surprised at my reaction to this sequel to her first novel, Olive Kitteridge, because as Olive and I have aged, I relate to her more on a personal level than as someone who acts like my mother.

Maybe it’s because since I read the first novel my mother has died. Maybe it’s that I’m getting more like my mother as I age. Probably it’s because Olive is such a fully-realized character, and because her thoughts and feelings are so well-described. Although I’m a cheerleader for writing about the personal and a habitual writer of personal essays, I find myself thinking that my reactions to some of Olive’s thoughts are too personal to describe. So I will select a few, and describe my personal reactions briefly as a way of opening these moments up to you and maybe hearing about some of your personal reactions.

Although I don’t identify with Olive’s feelings about her first husband, I think any strong, independent woman who has been married for more than thirty years might feel some of the way she does about the “kind of hard-heartedness” she felt towards him as they got older, a feeling described as:
“something she had seemed unable to help, as though the stone wall that had rambled along between them during the course of their long marriage—a stone wall that separated them but also provided unexpected dips of moss-covered warm spots where sunshine would flicker between them in a sudden laugh of understanding—had become tall and unyielding, and not providing flowers in its crannies but some ice storm frozen along it instead. In other words, something had come between them that seemed insurmountable.”

Certainly as a mother with one child living on the east coast and the other on the west coast, I identify with Olive’s pain when she hears her friend say that “when a child moves that far away they’re really trying to get away from something.”

I see some of the way my father used to talk to my mother about her unyielding expectations when Jack, who becomes Olive’s second husband, talks to her about why she hasn’t seen her son, who lives in New York City while Olive lives in a small town on the coast of Maine. Jack asks why Olive has never met her grandson and she says “Because I haven’t been invited. I told you how badly things went when I went to New York before.” Jack says “yes, you did. Have you invited them to come see you?” And Olive says “no….I’m sure they couldn’t make the trip.” Jack persists, saying “maybe not. But I think it would be nice for you to invite them” to which Olive responds by saying “they don’t need to be invited, they can just come.” This is the part where Jack literally leans in, “his elbows on his knees,” to say “Olive, sometimes people like to be invited.” He then tells her how hard it was for him to get in touch with her and how much he wanted to, and her icy reserve melts away, which is what always happened with my mother, too. Sometimes a person doesn’t like to ask too often, to feel too needy, in such a big way that it turns into an inability to ask or even to open up a conversation at all.

It’s not only Olive the readers identify with, of course. I found it nothing short of amazing when I found myself identifying with a man who had been called by an ethnic nickname in his youth and is thinking about that as he takes a walk in the small town where he grew up. As he wonders what it means now that he accepted the nickname then without much thought, he
“approached the river, and could see in the moonlight how the river was moving quickly, he felt as though his life had been a piece of bark on that river, just going along, not thinking at all. Headed toward the waterfall.”
And later in the walk, when he has been thinking about a girl who envied his big, close-knit family saying “I bet your house isn’t quiet,” I think anyone whose kids have left home will relate to his disconcerting realization:
“And suddenly it came to Denny: His house was quiet now. It had been getting quieter for years. After the kids got married and moved away, then, gradually, his house became quiet. Marie, who had worked as an ed tech at the local school, had retired a few years ago, and she no longer had as much to say about her days. And then he had retired from the store, and he didn’t have that much to say either.”
The house getting quieter when the kids move away reminds me of Pearl Tull, in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, thinking about the light moving away from her door as her kids grew up and no longer needed nightlights.

Many of Strout’s readers are probably old enough to identify with Jack when he says, of his new car, “’well it’s the last car I will ever buy,’ which was a thought he had when he had bought the car.” I keep having those kinds of thoughts.

How can I identify with Olive when she talks about a person being “just as fat as can be” and worries so over the size of another woman’s “hind end”? Those things make me think of my paternal grandmother, the one who reproached me for my “avoirdupois,” in that they seem to indicate a sort of old-fashioned attitude about how far a person can be allowed to go until they are too different to understand. But Olive is described as a “large” woman, and she worries about her own “hind end” too, even sewing a long jacket to cover it. Maybe I identify with Olive finding out how strict physical control can break down as you get older. Olive lives to be old enough that it’s no longer possible for her to keep everything under control. Because she feels helpless and alone, she becomes more conscious of the way she used to underestimate the effect of her strong emotions on others, and she has regrets.

How can I not identify with Olive when she says (in a conversation with a person who will later exploit what Olive has said for her own purposes):
“’You go through life and you think you’re something. Not in a good way, and not in a bad way. But you think you are something. And then you see’—and Olive shrugged in the direction of the girl who had served the coffee—‘that you no longer are anything. To a waitress with a huge hind end, you’ve become invisible.’”
I used to think that there would eventually be some kind of “collected works” of my life–not that I thought I would get famous, exactly, but that there would be someone who would come along and put together all the things I’ve written and make some kind of sense out of them. Why I thought that anyone, even the God of my childhood who was said to watch over each sparrow, would ever be that interested is a mystery. Like the Madwoman of Chaillot, I thought that if I wore them long enough, my fake pearls would become real–I’d eventually make a difference on campus or say something important in writing, at least cumulatively. I believed that The Madwoman of Chaillot offered a unique perspective, when it turns out she was just another crazy old lady.

So Olive’s big moment, when she assures a “deplorable” that her life matters, seems a little over the top. Or else it’s just what an old woman says when she longs for someone—anyone—to talk to her, to alleviate some of the loneliness that accumulates as a person ages.

Olive, Again is good company, for a while.

Gideon the Ninth

November 11, 2019

IMG_3442

Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir, is another novel about necromancy. This one has gotten a lot of publicity and came out in a strange hardback edition with the ends of the pages dyed black.

I liked reading Gideon the Ninth okay, but didn’t find the world-building to be particularly well done, or the characters especially well drawn. The plot takes a long time to get going, throwing out red herrings in all directions for the first eighty pages until we finally land on the planet where the main action is to take place—whereupon we’re met with another red herring. We’ve finally found our way through all the stuff about Gideon’s “house,” which is the ninth, and her “necromancer,” a girl she grew up with, and we’re about to find out how all the “necromancers” and their “cavaliers” are going to learn to be “lyctors.” They’ve all been brought together and are being addressed by “Teacher,” who has promised to tell them how the competition will work and what they’ll have to learn. Gideon is not excited at the prospect:
“Everybody was poised in readiness for the outlined syllabus, and scholarship made her want to die. There would be some litany of how breakfast would take place every morning at this time, and then there’d be study with the priests for an hour, and then Skeleton Analysis, and History of Some Blood, and Tomb Studies, and, like lunchtime, and finally Double Bones with Doctor Skelebone. The most she could hope for was Swords, Swords II, and maybe Swords III.”
Instead of outlining a syllabus, though, Teacher simply tells them not to open a locked door without permission. Then they spend the rest of the novel exploring what seems to be a centuries-old laboratory complex full of dangers and directions for learning what an old culture knew about necromancy. The pleasure of reading all this is not because of the plot, the characters, or the world-building. The pleasure is mostly in the dialogue.

When someone gives Gideon a dirty look, it’s way more than that:
“It was not the first time she had received that look. Sister Lachrimorta had looked at her that way almost exclusively, and Sister Lachrimorta was blind. The only difference in the way that Crux had looked at her was that Crux had managed also to encapsulate a complete lack of surprise, as though she already had managed to disappoint his lowest expectations. And a very long time ago—painfully folded in the back of her amygdala—the Reverend Mother and the Reverend Father had also looked at her like that, though in their case, their diffidence had been cut through with a phobic flinch: the way you’d look at an unexpected maggot.”

Gideon has been forced into becoming a “cavalier” by her necromancer, Harrow, and in the beginning of the novel it seems they hate each other: “they clashed so consistently that they were with each other most of the time. They fought each other bloody, for which Harrow was not punished and Gideon ways. They set elaborate traps, sieges, and assaults, and grew up in each other’s pockets, even if it was generally while trying to grievously injure the other one.”

But through the steps of their shared task, Gideon and Harrow learn to respect and then love each other. Again, the pleasure is in the snark, not in their course of true love:
“’Harrow,’ said Gideon, finding her tongue, ‘don’t say these things to me. I still have a million reasons to be made at you. It’s hard to do that and worry that you got brain injured.’
‘I’m merely saying you’re an incredible swordswoman,’ said the necromancer briskly. ‘You’re still a dreadful human being.’
‘Okay, cool, thanks,’ said Gideon. Damage done though.’”

Because this is an inside-out universe, with a ruler who is called the “Necromancer Prime; the Resurrection; the God of the Nine Houses; the Emperor Undying,” the people in it have a skewed perspective on life and death. They are used to skeletons as servitors and dead bodies as easy sources of information. So when one of the necromancers expresses her point of view on life and death, the reader may take it as a bit of world-building, although it turns out to be one of the keys to the mystery of the novel:
“Life is a tragedy….Left behind by those who pass away, not able to change anything at all. It’s the total lack of control…Once somebody dies, their spirit’s free forever, even if we snatch at it or try to stopper it or use the energy it creates. Oh, I know sometimes they come back…or we can call them…but even that exception to the rule shows their mastery of us. They only come when we beg. Once someone dies, we can’t grasp at them anymore.”

An inventive first novel, Gideon the Ninth is the first of a planned series. If you read this one, you will probably join me in the hope that the second one, Harrow the Ninth, will run on more than snark and sarcasm.

 

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