Do not name these things

by Miriam Elizabeth Burstein on May 14, 2013

Mash-ups are everywhere these days: zombies keep finding their way into historical novels, and softcore porn into Jane Eyre. Making genres and modes collide is hardly a new thing; what is Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, after all, but dear rational Sherlock Holmes startled to find himself set loose in Bronte-esque Gothic? But Holmes vanquishes his Gothic surroundings, so that we are all back on familiar, if not entirely comforting (poor Sir Henry Baskerville…) formula territory at the end. By contrast, the vogue for zombified historical novels, vampirized Austen, and sexed-up Dickens doesn’t resolve the conflicts between genres and modes so much as play them up for all their worth: yes, ladies and gentlemen, honest Abe hunted vampires.

Felix Gilman’s duology The Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City does indeed mash things up, but to more original and serious effect. Here, the mashing involves both wildly disparate literary kinds and just as wildly disparate literary allusions and plots. The Half-Made World is…a Western, with gunslingers toting gods for guns (or, rather, Guns)? A dystopia akin to 1984—with occasional nods to Brave New World tossed in—with permanently grey-faced men and women serving diabolical Engines? How about a vampire novel set in a hospital with a name right out of Spenser (House Dolorous) that has become briefly confused with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Or a straight-up fantasy with inscrutable faeries? Allusions to nineteenth-century literature and culture surface at the oddest of moments: Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help resurrects itself as the vapid religion of the Smilers; Liv Alverhuysen drops her copy of an academic journal as she rides away in a coach, in a moment reminiscent of Becky Sharp tossing Johnson’s Dictionary out the window in Vanity Fair. And the Bible is not immune, despite the fact that it doesn’t appear to exist in this world. The residents of New Design, last remnants of the Republic, are suspiciously akin to the Jews wandering in search of a home. “How do you lead a whole chosen people into the wilderness, in secret?” asks President Hobart, remembering the dangers of their journey. John Creedmoor, whose initials at first seem like a coincidence, nevertheless walks murderously through the battle of New Design, shouting “Tell ’em, should the Republic survive into future generations, that John Creedmoor saved it! And make sure to note that he did it of his own free will!” (HMW 442) (Christ, or anti-Christ?) The Rise of Ransom City, while no means quite so wild in its combinations, nevertheless continues the theme: the suspiciously P. T. Barnum-esque narrator, tripping and falling from one stop to the next in his picaresque plot, is on a quest that looks, also suspiciously, like it has been borrowed from The Wizard of Oz—that is, if The Wizard of Oz also featured a love interest distinctly resembling Lord Byron’s daughter, the mathematician Ada Lovelace, and wound up gesturing towards utopia.

Both unsettled and unsettling, the freewheeling allusiveness of Gilman’s two novels offers the reader an experience something like that of his characters encountering the as-yet unmade West. In this pliable world, men inadvertently call the gods into being out of their own desires. “ I have heard it said that we ourselves made them,” writes Harry Ransom, “that something in those forms spoke to us and to our nightmares and obsessions and that is how the world changed, because of us” (RRC 143). Line and Gun, along with the other spirits that appear, are fictions in the original sense of the term, created things—but this is creation without intentionality and without control. The half-made West sounds like Eden at times, but it’s an Eden where man needs to refrain from naming things, and yet perhaps cannot help doing so. When Creedmoor encounters one of the mysterious Hillfolk, she warns him, “Do not look on this place, do not name these things, do not make them into things they are not” (HMW 316). Here, the danger of giving and knowing names—a trope of longstanding duration, and not only in high fantasy—up-ends Genesis 2:19: “And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” In Gilman’s novels, to name is all too often to name wrongly, to induce chaos in the paradoxical attempt to create order and familiarity. His Adams and Eves are already fallen, and what they make bears the marks of their fall. Although the environmentally-destructive effects of the Engines certainly invokes our own anxieties, the men of Gilman’s world threaten to wreck it in a fit of an absence of mind; it’s no accident that Creedmoor, dealing death through New Design, announces that he does it “of his own free will,” since that commodity remains in short supply, especially in the first novel. Inchoate passions call all-too-definite deadly forces into being, and those forces demand absolute control over the minds that gave them birth. (Perhaps I should have listed Frankenstein in my catalog of allusions running rife. Or Zeus giving birth to Athena…) Line and Gun are not formed out of some deliberate plot or conspiracy–it’s not clear that there is anything that could have been done to stop them from emerging, and the miracle weapon that apparently manages to kill them, somewhere in the interstices of Ransom’s fragmentary narrative, is not of man at all, but the understandably unfriendly Hillfolk.

It’s not surprising, then, that when Harry Ransom encounters a lawyer ultimately under the control of the Line, the lawyer leans hard on the singular meanings of words:

“All of this is over, Mr. Ransom. That is the meaning of the word injunction, which you will see here, and again here, on this order. Only a word, all of it only words, but words of great power. I think you understand about words, Mr. Ransom. Why, what else is there? Now in this instance the power of this word is the power to set the world back on its proper course, to put an end to these shenanigans and japes and nonsense and to say who’s who and what’s what and who owns what. This is a word that commands you to be silent.” (244-45)

The malleability of the West stands in stark contrast to this vision of language, in which words classify, categorize, order, and fix. Here is absolute clarity, which also turns out to be implicitly an act of violence: the ultra-rational world of Line, in which words ought to be surgically attached to their singular meanings, deforms human and other energies as much as does the freewheeling, dime-novel vision of Gun, whose Agents kill anyone and anything under the threat of the agonizing Goad. Whatever ends the mutual antagonism of Line and Gun turns out to be something that the duology does not directly represent, as if to suggest that whatever truly “set[s] the world back on its proper course” is a force beyond the constraints imposed by human naming. Which brings me back to the novels and their refusal to settle into any one genre, or to reconcile their clashing literary and historical references. Our world is not half-made, but the duology keeps escaping classification, whether by academics or by booksellers (is this SF? Adventure? A Western? Horror? What?). It is quite cheerfully partial, unwilling to adopt any one conveniently recognizable form.

{ 9 comments }

1

Rich Puchalsky 05.14.13 at 4:04 pm

A good review, although there’s a strange amount of strong emphasis.

2

Miriam 05.14.13 at 4:16 pm

For some reason, my italics have mysteriously morphed into bold. (Under)Line at work, perhaps?

3

Henry 05.14.13 at 4:33 pm

Sorry – some Markdown weirdness and inconsistency in how our plugin codes stuff.

4

Henry 05.14.13 at 4:40 pm

Or, more accurately as I have just discovered, some inconsistency in how our editor (me) has remembered or not remembered to activate aforementioned plugin.

5

jake the snake 05.14.13 at 6:59 pm

It is a shame that John Carpenter’s timing was so bad. Big Trouble in Little China was years ahead of its time. 10 years later, that ghost/kung fu/action/comedy mashup would have hit at the right time. The jokes could have been funnier, but Kurt Russell did an hilarious spoof of himself.

6

Doctor Slack 05.14.13 at 10:51 pm

Haven’t read the book, but New Design sounds kinda like a call-out to Mormonism and Brigham Young, maybe?

7

rm 05.15.13 at 1:29 am

Another name for the unpigeonholeable polygeneric work is . . . literature, he said dramatically. Like a lot of literature, this fiction is largely about itself and other literature, and the reader is missing half the point if s/he only asks what it says, or what it means, or what relation it has to reality.

As I said in one of the other threads, these novels are like Modernist classics in that they teach the reader how they want to be read. One theory of what makes some books better than others is that the really, really good ones create their own systems of meaning, while the less good ones follow established patters which the reader can more or less predict.

So, yes, the unformed chaos of the West is like the narrative itself, and the process of settling the land — just realized what a pun that is — is like the reader’s process of making sense of the narrative. And just as Ku Koyrik warns Creedmore not to name and settle the unformed realities around him, the book challenges us not to name and settle the events of the narrative. But we can’t help doing it, like the settlers can’t help reducing the chaos to some form.

Both F and SF have a metafictional level even when they aren’t particularly sophisticated, because on some level what makes it a genre story is a change in the setting or in the fundamental assumptions of characterization. Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak is metafictionally just a trick of point-of-view: it allows a character to observe a scene without participating. Alien races in SF are usually a what-if scenario about human nature, so they are in a way a trick of characterization: in The Left Hand of Darkness the trick is “can I write a compelling story about genderless human societies?”

And these novels are very sophisticated. The setting itself is a wild alternative world which we struggle to learn the rules of — and then the rules change as the characters go West. At the most extreme we have characters interacting in a landscape without form or differences. This is a trick of narrative scene-setting in a way — “can I write a story that happens Nowhere?”

————————————————————————————

Just as an unrelated aside, I have to mention that there are particular references to our reality slash Pynchonesque bad jokes in these novels. My favorite is about a town Ransom passes through: “Ford was also haunted by a Spirit that resembled ball-lightning and darted up and down Main Street at dusk, causing strange moods in women.”

Re-reading a little to find that quotation, I notice that Ransom comments on slavery more extensively than I remember.

8

Harald K 05.15.13 at 7:53 am

This review was radically different from the previous one of the same book, I got to say.

But is this like the book events you did for Red Plenty and Debt, or was it just chance that you decided to write about them both at the same time?

9

William Timberman 05.15.13 at 2:16 pm

rm gets it in the first sentence, but as the rest of the comment (more or less) says, that’s only half the fun. Telling everybody else what you’ve discovered and seeing if they boo, cheer, or blink is the other half. And if the author is also listening in, so much the better.

I was never much for book clubs; I actually liked the idea that literature was a solitary pleasure, and that I could hear echoes of what other people had read in their discourse without having to listen to their opinions about particular works, which I was afraid might wound my intimate relationships with these vicarious experiences that I loved not wisely, but much too well. A childish attitude, I now realize, one which the glorious Internet has pretty much beaten out of me. I actually can’t wait now to hear what other readers think, although I’m still nostalgic about the guilty pleasures of my childhood.

Francis Spufford’s response to CT’s Red Plenty event was both gracious and richly textured, much like the book itself. I imagine-in-advance that Felix Gilman’s response to the Half-Made/Rise of event is also likely to be just as magical as his books — assuming, of course, that he isn’t shy about being observed in the act of creation. These are delicate matters, after all.

For his readers, though, there remains that tantalizing possibility of cheap thrills in the offing — not cheap in the sense of quality, but cheap in the sense of getting something wonderful that we aren’t being asked to pay for. Where else could we hope to find such a bargain?

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