Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Fiction | A Noun Of Nouns

(Spoilers. As ever)

In this rather sweet, in-depth interview with an Israeli newspaper, Salman Rushdie talks at length about that fatwa (you know the one I mean), his writing, religious influence in modern society – and the state of television, which is where he offers one of the most hilariously transparent self-justifications for lying on the sofa binging through fourteen hours of Prison Break I think I’ve ever seen:

"I watched all that because if I am going to work in this field, I need to know what it is going on. I have been making myself have whole-series marathons to get the point of how it goes."

I have this wonderful image of Rushdie, clutching an extra-large bag of Minstrels, pressing ‘next episode’ for the umpteenth time on the Dexter DVD menu, and telling himself, ‘This is an artistic exercise. I’m forcing myself to do this for the sake of my noble craft.’ Anyway, in the same breath Rushdie also politely demeaned HBO’s The Wire, claiming it was ‘just a police series’; naturally, this latest act of blasphemy caused a moderate internet hoo-hah, and he’s since agreed on Twitter that he’ll ‘watch another series’ of the show to see if he was wrong about it. (So you didn't watch it all the way through? Clearly not that committed to the artform, then, eh, Salman, you posturing dilettante?)

Yo, I know people be saying Midnight's Children is a multi-faceted analysis of India's awakening of independence through the medium of magical realism, but in the end, that shit is just a fucking superhero book.

Rushdie also said,

“There was a series called 'Game of Thrones' which was very popular here in the United States, a post-Tolkien kind of thing. It was garbage, yet very addictive garbage - because there's lots of violence, all the women take their clothes off all the time, and it's kind of fun. In the end, it's well-produced trash, but there's room for that, too.”

Once again, the award-winning author sounds like he’s desperately trying to explain why he Tivoed the entire thing, though frankly, ‘I’m watching it for the violence and the nudity and because it's sort of cool’, isn’t quite as defensible as ‘I have to watch it for work’. But, of course, he’s quite right on both counts, and I can feel comfortable saying that, as I have myself now worked my way through both the HBO series and two-and-a-bit of George R.R. Martin’s exceptionally long books. A Song Of Ice And Fire, as the entire series is known, is at times quite exceptionally trashy, no matter how many Guardian articles appear claiming that the fantasy genre has "grown up" by including moral shades of grey for the first time, like, ever.

That’s not to be hard on the series. As a matter of fact, I think it contains several of the fantasy literature elements that China Mieville found so lacking in Tolkein in this famous Socialist Review article; it largely refuses to deal in moral abstracts, it replicates the cruelties and uncertainties of reality rather than meandering away into escapism, and it’s been crafted with that marvellous conviction and lunatic obsessiveness to detail that old JRR also had, that enables a world to feel not simply vivid, but possessed of a past, a present, and a future.

One of its real problems comes with the world itself, which steers mostly clear of supernatural elements (which is a perfectly fine idea) in favour of a variety of faux-medieval locales and civilisations pillaged from Planet Earth, occasionally down to the most pointlessly copycat details (desert dwellers in the east ride camels; a flamboyant, foreign fencing instructor talks like Inigo Montoya). And when Martin does venture into high fantasy, it’s consistently with the most worn-out and over-familiar tropes and creatures. Dragons, giants, faithful wolves, broadswords called ‘Ice’ and ‘Longclaw’…to be fair, there’s also something called a grumkin, but it’s never actually described, and is, woozel-esque, deemed to be a fairy story. Most frustratingly of all, Martin tries to keep us interested in monstrous ‘Others’ lurking in the wilds beyond civilisation, long after he’s already played his big reveal; and it's turned out, disappointingly, that the Others are undead zombies. With blue eyes. And they want to kill the living, because of something something darkness.

However, it's the style of the books that's the series' biggest stumbling-block, tending towards the sombre, the stilted and the flowery with the occasional bizarre bit of American slang or anachronism thrown in; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't at all, but more often than it should, it results in action sequences that have no real sense of weight, movement or space. It does improve, admittedly, as the series goes on (the first book has a lumpen, linebreakphobic attitude towards its paragraphs and contains three separate uses of the phrase ‘there was a sickening crunch’) but even then, for every pleasant sentence, like one about an army spreading out over hills like ‘an iron rose’, we get a,

“Tyrion could not have been more astonished if Aegon the Conqueror himself had burst into the room, riding a dragon and juggling lemon pies.”

-a sentence that couldn’t have been worse if an unknown quantity had ridden in on a cliché, hurling a bad attempt at comedy into the middle of a serious scene instead of just expressing a simple and recognisable sensation, that of astonishment.

But – and here comes the other side of the coin – it is, indeed, quietly addictive. Some of the main heroes and villains are thoroughly enjoyable company - though in such a large cast, it’s inevitable that others suffer by comparison (a lot of secondary and tertiary male characters are just Ser Glowering The One-Dimensional, quite a few of the female characters are 1) sexually-liberated shagpots 2) power-hungry villainesses 3) heroic tomboys yearning to prove themselves on the field of battle, there’s at least one too many callow youth, and the children all have to have a ‘young’ voice to differentiate them from the adult characters, which results in some awful R.L. Stine-esque passages like, ‘”You STUPID STUPID STUPID,’ she thought”). The storytelling element itself, weaving multiple plot strands and motivations together, is generally beyond reproach (though there’s some business in the first book with the ownership of a dagger that never really makes sense). And Martin looks like a genuinely nice fellow, a sort of scraggly, filled-out version of Doc from Snow White.

In fact, he probably only comes second to Jack Vance in the 'cuddliest-looking fantasy author' stakes.

I don’t know if I’ll read any more of the series, for now, at least – another colossal, multi-part tome is calling, and its name is 1Q84. But one final concern strikes me; since the very beginning of the very first book, A Game Of Thrones, the author has been playing up the idea of a fast-approaching threat to the entire world, a ‘winter’ that brings with it the evil Others. Five books of the planned septet have been written, and nothing seems to have moved on that front; instead, the world has expanded and expanded, creating more factions and plot elements that have yet to be resolved. ‘Winter is coming’, characters keep insisting; fifteen years and 4839 pages later, it still hasn’t bloody turned up.

Perhaps Martin will never actually follow up on that Chekhov’s Gun, but it’s so central, and it’s been so heavily built-up, that I couldn’t see that being anything other than an appalling anti-climax. But if he does send his undead beasties out on their prophesised rampage – then guess what? A Song Of Ice And Fire becomes just another story of various kingdoms and wandering heroes putting aside their differences and standing together against an abstract evil that rises out of a terrifying wilderness. Which wouldn't sit well with the idea of fantasy 'growing up' at all.