The Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City are both rich books, full of pleasures for the reader; but the pair of them are also, to an unusual degree, in the business of being deliberately frustrating, of withholding from readers a set of expected pleasures that seemed to have been virtually promised us. I mean pleasures that are usual to fantasy – pleasures, even, that are usual to the implicit contract a plot makes between writer and reader. And it’s this I want to concentrate on a little, because it seems to me that what Felix Gilman holds back, what he refuses to deliver, is essential to the power of the effect he does create. (Spoiler alert, by the way. I can’t talk about what Gilman doesn’t do, in plot terms, without sometimes revealing what he does.)
There’s a sense, of course, in which refusing to provide the expected is absolutely basic, phrase by phrase, word by word, to all writing which aspires to be adequate at all: to fulfill Operation A of any newly-made row of words, which is to convince us that is new, or at any rate new enough to persuade us that it has some particular effort of communication behind it. A cliché by definition is a lump of expected language. All writers of narrative prose who wish their stories to live – at least, to twitch from time to time on the slab – must therefore be engaged in a ceaseless low-level effort to keep refreshing the unpredictability of the surface of language. Even just at the level of gesture. As Gore Vidal (I think) pointed out, while crapping from a height on some bestseller of the day, it doesn’t do much to write ‘by crook or by hook’ instead of ‘by hook or by crook’ – but it at least shows willing. Since Felix Gilman writes taut, witty, lexically-adventurous prose in a variety of voices and registers, he is necessarily signed up to denying expectation in this minimal sense.
His characteristic and individual refusals, though, start to come into view when you look at his attitude to describing the central inventions of the invented world of the two books. At what he will say, and what he won’t, about the mythological linchpins of his own creation. Gilman’s world is demon-haunted. Beyond the mountains that stand in for the Atlantic in dividing old settled kingdoms from new territories, in a west where colonisation literally fixes the terrain out of the primal murk, two sets of dark powers rule, literalising the anarchic violence of American expansion as the demons of the Gun, and the devouring order of industrial mass society as those of the Line. Far more than merely metaphors, these beings are central to the books’ translation of history into fantasy, to the imaginative reconfiguration of qualities and consequences of human history into its independent drivers. Causation has been upended. From being merely epiphenomena of unpoliced spaces full of firearms, now massacre and mayhem have become the point, the goal, the chief delight of Marmion and Belphagor and the other spirits of the Gun, muttering in their blood-warm Lodge somewhere between the stars. From being merely side-effects of the industrial revolution, now noise and sickness and ugliness and uniformity have become the positive vision, the plan for the world, of the thirty-eight unkillable Engines who travel the network of the Line. Humanity’s relations with these rival lords of destruction are fully Faustian, and where they and their human followers collide, catastrophe spreads. Reading The Half-Made World, we hear quite a lot of the voice of the particular Gun that speaks in the mind of John Creedmoor, one of the novel’s three protagonists; and we see (since hearing would destroy human ears) the telegraphed orders of the Engines, as they drive onwards their representative in the plot, the matchstick man Lowry and his army of lurching, coughing, bullying, agoraphobic little grey-clad men. But it’s all consequences, it’s all secondary. Of the Guns and the Engines themselves, we get only the most minute and occasional glimpses. Their motives and modes of existence are said to be beyond human understanding, not as the preliminary build-up to some full-on evocation, ripe with paradox, but as the plain warrant for the book not including them: there they aren’t.
The nearest thing in either book to a visual description of an Engine is this, significantly enough given us indirectly, through a character’s journal entry:
What did the Engine look like? I saw it on the Concourse, but only in shadow, and besides the memory fades. I cannot quite express it in words. I might try to sketch its machinery, as I have sketched in these pages the neuron, the cerebellum, the pituitary gland – but to do so, I think, would miss its essence. I can say that it was long, very long; it was four, five men tall. It was jet-black and it smoked. It was plated with extrusions and grilles and thorns of iron that might have been armour, and might have been machinery, but which in any case made it rough, uneven, asymmetrical, and hideous. It reminded me somewhat of the inkblot tests devised by Professor Kohler. It reminded me also somewhat of storm-clouds. From the complex cowling at the very front of the engine two lights shone through the gloom and the smoke of the Concourse. The light was the grey of moths’ wings or dirty old ice.
Liv Alverhuysen, doctor from the East, voice of civilised neurosis and of mercy in the books, has passed the Engine at a run a few pages before, ‘and perhaps that was fortunate, too’. Now, in an icy black compartment within the beast’s mile-long body, she struggles to remember it. The first-person filter is a favourite device of Gilman’s – he is going to use it continuously, on the grand scale, in The Rise of Ransom City, where the world of the book is passed to us exclusively through the unreliable voices of Harry Ransom and his editor – and there is certainly an element of pure gameplay to his preference. He likes the tricky and the partial for their own sake, just as (as in the passage above, and in all the oblique descriptions of the ‘half-made’ chaos of the west) he is interested for their own sake in things of uncertain shape. But we can see that his objection to reliable description isn’t a reservation about vividness, perhaps a sign of a non-visual sensibility at work. Far from it. Vividness, he likes: the dirty ice eye-beams here, the comparison soon after of the train racing across salt flats to a line of ink running across clean paper, are brilliant, if carefully minimal. He doesn’t mind allowing himself the occasional wild pulp ululation, either. ‘Their boiling black blood, their breath!’ the novel suddenly cries out, Lovecraftianishly, as the Engine’s smoke billows back at Liv.
No; the objection is surely to definiteness. Take it away, Edmund Burke, theorising the sublime in 1757:
But let it be considered that hardly anything can strike the mind with its greatness, which does not make some sort of approach towards infinity; which nothing can do whilst we are able to perceive its bounds; but to see an object distinctly, and to perceive its bounds, is one and the same thing. A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea. There is a passage in the book of Job amazingly sublime, and this sublimity is principally due to the terrible uncertainty of the thing described: ‘In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, fear came upon me and trembling, which made all my bones to shake. Then a spirit passed before my face. The hair of my flesh stood up. It stood still, but I could not discern the form thereof; an image was before mine eyes; there was silence; and I heard a voice — Shall mortal man be more just than God?’ We are first prepared with the utmost solemnity for the vision; we are first terrified, before we are let even into the obscure cause of our emotion: but when this grand cause of terror makes its appearance, what is it? Is it not wrapt up in the shades of its own incomprehensible darkness, more awful, more striking, more terrible, than the liveliest description, than the clearest painting, could possibly represent it?
‘Terror’ for Burke was a pleasure to be found here and there in literature as the Book of Job, or Milton, pushed particular pyschological buttons for particular momentary effect. But it was about to start being produced deliberately, generically, in bulk, in the emerging gothic; and the whole cluster of 20th century popular literatures of the fantastic, fantasy/SF/horror, are among other things deliberate factories of grandly indefinite Burkean terror; to an extent therefore routinising the sublime, making it over itself into a predictable clause of the writer-reader contract of expectations. And there are certainly aspects of Gilman’s use of sublimity which might seem to come under this kind of good-management heading, to be routine and (as it were) tactical. For a start, Gilman has a strong negative motive for not letting us know too much or see too much about the Engines. As Burke goes on to point out, both literal pictures and writing that is too pictorial tip over easily into ‘the ludicrous’ if they try for terror. The danger of bathos yawns very nearby, in The Half-Made World. Gilman is writing villains (as he’s said himself) who are ‘Giant Evil Trains’: he really, really needs to avoid specifying himself down into writing a kind of satanic Reverend W Awdry adventure, featuring Belial the Bad Engine.
But I would argue that he belongs in the much rarer category of fantasists for whom the Burkean sublime still retains its original expectation-confuting power, and with it its power to shock and confuse. He is interested in it for the sake of its disruptive potential, not for its efficiencies as a recipe. If there is, so to speak, a ‘normal’ sublime lodged in fantasy now, it comes with a promise that what is withheld in one way will be restored in another. If writers have learned from Lovecraft how to milk the terror of the not-quite-seen, of monstrosity asserted to be unimaginable yet equipped with a few delicately phobia-inducing qualities of texture – then the implication is that a compensating resolution will be supplied in plot terms. We won’t ever quite see Cthulhu, but we’ll be led through a narrative catastrophe which is very clear, very definite, very distinct. Resolution will not be withheld.
In Gilman’s case, though, the pulp energy and violence are there (the body count of the two books is enormous) but the delicate non-resolution of the sublime descriptions – the way in which stormcloud, Rorschach blot, hint of a crown of mechanical thorns, all become visually active without settling into visual coherence – is, instead, matched on the scale of narrative by a particular kind of non-resolution there, too. The monsters you can’t quite see are, if anything, metonyms for plots you can’t quite declare finished.
Gilman rules one plot closure out in THMW before he even begins. The war of Line with Gun is the Matter of America, transmogrified, but the consoling, canonical reconciliation of America’s violences and America’s masses within America’s civil religion has been pre-sabotaged. The Red River Republic has already risen, failed, and vanished from the scene. The remnant of it in the wilderness that Liv and Creedmoor stumble on is a repellent, simple-minded little Sparta. Then in The Rise of Ransom City, Gilman brings the Republic back, but casually, almost dismissively, without ever letting it occupy the focus of the book. I don’t know which is more successfully shocking: the original abolition, or the Republic’s return on terms which make it clear that Gilman cares far more about not providing a conventional sequel, in which we might have seen the double possession of the land by Line and Gun exorcised within our view. He’s willing to reverse the political withholding of the first book, but only because it has been trumped by another opportunity for withholding resolution that he cares about more.
For meanwhile, he has lured us with the Macguffin of a secret weapon possessed by the land’s indigenes, and led us out into the wilderness while Liv and Creedmoor develop a relationship of considerable conflicted intensity, but no conventional romantic form; and then stopped, at the moment when we’re told the search for the weapon against the demons is just beginning; only to resume again in the second book through the eyes of a minor character who seems to be coming along on the search, but then doesn’t, and follows a destiny of his own irresolvably suspended between innocence and con-artistry, with the consequence that we never find out what the Macguffin was, or how Creedmor and Liv ended, or how, with the maximum ironic tidiness, the world of the books seems finally to be converging with, secularising and dwindling into, one much more like our own. Boxes that won’t close are his specialty; beautiful discords; inventions that, having taken the license of fantasy to curve away from our world, then refuse to curve reassuringly back again.
One possible analogy that strikes me is with David Foster Wallace’s explicit promise, in Infinite Jest, that the parallel lines of his two plots would eventually meet, only for the novel to end with them still as separate as ever. But that, I take it, was a high-modernist point being made about the real, and about its unrepresentability except by means that included the mimetic sensations of not-fitting, not-solving, not-ending. Whereas this is —
[I had a beautiful formulation of what this is, but alas there is not room for it in this margin]