-- archive --

Reviews by Elizabeth Hand


Web of Wonders; A modern myth master blends the real and the unreal, gods and tricksters, 09/25/2005

ANANSI BOYS, By Neil Gaiman, Morrow. 336 pp. $26.95

With Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman's delightful, funny and affecting new novel, the bestselling author has scored the literary equivalent of a hole in one, employing the kind of self-assured storytelling that makes it all look so easy. One can imagine Gaiman's legion of fans putting down the book and rushing en masse to pen their own riffs on traditional folklore and contemporary pop culture. But it's hard to imagine anyone topping Anansi Boys, if only because it's a tall tale to end all tall tales, inspired by the trickiest of all trickster gods, Anansi the Spider, whose origins lie in Ghana.

Tales of the West African deity traveled with slaves to North America, where the clever spider became the anthropomorphic figure known as Aunt Nancy, Anancy, or Bre'r Ananse (a counterpart to Bre'r Rabbit, another African American trickster). In Gaiman's last full-length novel, American Gods, Anansi made an appearance as the (mostly) human Mr. Nancy. In Anansi Boys, Mr. Nancy cedes center stage to his sons, Fat Charlie and Spider. As the novel's catchphrase puts it, "God is dead. Meet the kids."

Only Anansi isn't exactly God; he's a god, sort of the god next door: "In the old stories, Anansi lives just like you do or I do, in his house. He is greedy, of course, and lustful, and tricky, and full of lies. And he is good-hearted, and lucky, and sometimes even honest. Sometimes he is good, sometimes he is bad. He is never evil. Mostly, you are on Anansi's side. This is because Anansi owns all the stories." Anansi isn't exactly dead, either, though it's true that Fat Charlie's troubles begin when he attends his estranged father's burial. Fat Charlie "was only ever fat for a handful of years. . . . But the name Fat Charlie clung to him, like chewing gum to the sole of a tennis shoe." He grew up in Florida but now lives in London, where he is engaged to a nice girl named Rosie, who won't sleep with him until after they're married. He works for the loathsome, weaselly Grahame Coats, a talent agent who for years has been fleecing his clients, including the delectable Maeve Livingstone, widow of Morris Livingstone, "once the most famous short Yorkshire comedian in Britain."

Fat Charlie's pre-marital and career woes work in tandem with his chronic insecurity and a constant, slow-burning sense of embarrassment, guaranteeing that nothing very exciting will ever happen to him -- until, that is, he goes to Florida for Mr. Nancy's funeral.

Afterwards, Charlie visits some family friends, four little old ladies who just happen to be witches. The most formidable of these is Mrs. Dunwiddy: "As a boy, Fat Charlie had imagined Mrs. Dunwiddy in Equatorial Africa, peering disapprovingly through her thick spectacles at the newly-erect hominids. 'Keep out of my front yard,' she would tell a recently evolved and rather nervous specimen of Homo habilis, 'or I going to belt you around your ear-hole, I tell you.' "

There's also Mrs. Higgler, who tells Fat Charlie that his father was a god.

" 'He was not a god. He was my dad.'

" 'You can be both,' she said. 'It happens.' "

And Mrs. Higgler informs Fat Charlie that, if he wants to see the brother he never knew he had, all he has to do is tell a spider. Charlie, who obviously never learned that it is extremely unwise to scoff at witchy old ladies, returns to London and rescues a spider from his bathtub. Perhaps it was the devil in him. Probably it was the alcohol. " 'If you see my brother,' said Fat Charlie to the spider, 'tell him he ought to come by and say hello.' " And of course, his brother -- nicknamed Spider -- does just that.

Spider is everything Charlie is not: lucky, debonair, smoothly confident, possessed of their father's silver tongue and gift for wooing women. Before you can say ouch, Spider has stolen his brother's job, his fiancee, the best room in Fat Charlie's house. Rosie doesn't just tumble into Spider's arms: She tumbles into bed with him and shows few signs of ever getting out again. Worse, the awful Grahame Coats frames Fat Charlie for embezzlement and has him thrown in jail.

Now, you might think that none of this could possibly be Fat Charlie's fault. But you would be wrong. He summoned Spider; now he realizes he has to get rid of him. Fat Charlie returns to Florida and the four old ladies, who concoct a ritual that gains him entry to the spirit world where totemic animal-gods dwell.

And that's when things get really interesting.

Gaiman first came to prominence in the late 1980s with The Sandman, the brilliant series that helped reinvent comics and put graphic novels on the map as Literature with a capital L. His previous full-length books, while wildly popular, are hit-or-miss, hobbled by epic ambitions that can occasionally seem pretentious and clever conceits that overpower other concerns such as characterization and pacing.

In Anansi Boys, he gets it all right: Here, Gaiman's storytelling instincts are as remarkable and assured as Anansi's own. As Fat Charlie frantically attempts to undo the damage he's caused and save his brother Spider, and the world, from the forces he's unwittingly loosed, Anansi Boys becomes darker, richer, wiser than any of Gaiman's earlier works.

Here's old Mr. Nancy, in his ghostly guise: " 'Now, Anansi stories, they have wit and trickery and wisdom. Now, all over the world, all of the people they aren't just thinking of hunting and being hunted any more. Now they're starting to think their way out of problems -- sometimes thinking their way into worse problems. They still need to keep their bellies full, but now they're trying to figure out how to do it without working -- and that's the point where people start using their heads. . . . That's when they start to make the world.' "

Lewis Hyde titled his noted study of the trickster mythos Trickster Makes This World. With Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman has made it his own world, too, and given readers a first-class ticket for the journey there. *

Elizabeth Hand recently completed her eighth novel, "Generation Loss."

House of Horrors; Bret Easton Ellis, the author of "American Psycho," rips into his most frightening subject yet -- himself. 08/21/2005

LUNAR PARK, By Bret Easton Ellis, Knopf. 308 pp. $24.95

As autumn approaches, it's open season on Big New Books, and here is one of the biggest, in terms of hype if not heft. Killer toys and slavering monsters outside the bedroom door; imperiled children, eldritch ghosts and a psycho-killer on the loose; a drug-addled writer haunted by his own literary creation: Yep, it's Stephen King's newest novel. But surely there were legal issues in naming his protagonist Bret Easton Ellis?

My mistake: This is Bret Easton Ellis's own new novel, featuring a protagonist named for himself. Bret is the narrator of Ellis's ambitious, entertaining, shambolic Lunar Park, which begins by quoting the opening sentences of Less Than Zero, The Rules Of Attraction, American Psycho and Glamorama, the author's previous novels. It's an amusing conceit, if not an original one -- a Philip Roth character appears in several of Roth's novels, including Zuckerman Unbound -- and the remainder of the book purports to record Bret's descent into Hell as he confronts various ghosts from his past, real and imagined.

There's an undeniable, prurient pleasure in Lunar Park's first few chapters, which mock Ellis's drug binges and priapic, bisexual escapades while teasing readers with literary namedropping: Binky Urban! Jay McInerney! Tama Janowitz! Paul Bogaards! Gary Fisketjon! Sonny Mehta! (The last three form the crack publicity/editorial team at Alfred A. Knopf, Ellis's publisher; Lunar Park is the novel as product placement.) The evocation of 1980s and '90s names and reference points goes on and on -- Cerruti suits, ICM, David Duchovny, Balthazar -- but it all has a slightly musty, lavender-scented cumulative effect, like perusing the guest list from one of Noel Coward's parties at Firefly Hill. Who were these people, future readers will wonder, and why did they wear those silly clothes?

So it takes a while for Lunar Park's story to begin, as we dutifully trail Bret on his late-century Rake's Progress through bars, bookstores, bedrooms and rehab, until we finally find ourselves in the suburb where he has retreated, hoping to claim some semblance of a normal life. In Bret's case, this involves taking a job as a creative-writing instructor at a prestigious college and marrying a former girlfriend, a model turned actress named Jayne Dennis. Jayne is the mother of Robby, the 11-year-old son Bret has never really acknowledged, and of Sarah, Robby's younger half-sister. Unlike much of the supporting cast of Lunar Park, they are fictional characters. The latter part of the novel, despite its metafictional trappings and ambitions, is pretty much a generic horror story, a kind of literary-celebrity smackdown with Bret holed up in his McMansion, attempting to defend his new family against the forces of darkness.

Ellis has an obvious familiarity with and a real affection for the standard tropes of supernatural fiction. He's admitted that as a boy he read Stephen King's Salem's Lot at least a dozen times. No shame there, and if Ellis had stuck to a single supernatural trope, he might have written a genuinely scary book. Instead, he tosses together so many hoary genre elements that the novel begins to resemble a middle-aged yuppie rehash of a Hammer Horror film, less The Turn of the Screw than "Heart of Dorkness." There's the ghost of Bret's monstrous, violent father, whom Ellis claimed was the inspiration for the serial-killer protagonist of American Psycho. There are little Sarah's evil toy (the Yerby), a post-Halloween haunting of Bret and Jayne's house at 307 Elsinore Lane, croaking ravens, disemboweled pets, mysterious computer messages, things clawing at the bedroom door, child abductions, a hardboiled detective and even a psychic investigator.

One of the novel's more promising strands involves the appearance of fictional characters from Ellis's previous work, but this haunting of an author by his own creations was handled more elegantly by Peter Straub in his recent In The Night Room and more frighteningly by Stephen King in The Dark Half. More successful is Bret's awkward, sad attempt to connect with Robby, whose cohort of glaze-eyed, Ritalin-addled boys is disappearing, one by one.

Lunar Park is often very funny, particularly when detailing Bret's latest self-referential, misogynist writing project, the title of which I can't quote in a family newspaper. "Our hero, who calls himself the Sexpert, dates only models," Ellis writes. "Women keep pleading with him to be more open and emotional, and they indignantly throw out lines like 'I am not a slut!' and 'You never want to talk about anything!' and 'We should have gotten a room!' and 'That was rude!' and 'No -- I will not have sex with that homeless man while you watch!' as well as my own two favorites: 'You tricked me!' and 'I'm calling the police!' "

Ellis also evokes with nightmarish clarity a certain kind of upper-middle-class life, where all the children are Ritalin-dependent and even the family golden retriever is on Prozac. These scenes, the book's strongest, suggest the chilly horror of J.G. Ballard's best work. But the abrupt shifts in tone -- from satire to supernatural to sentimental to scary to schlock -- are jarring and ultimately exhausting. Still, that probably won't deter buyers. Lunar Park has a big promotional budget -- surely Yerby dolls are already in production -- as well a slick Web site where you can look at images of Jayne Dennis and Keanu Reaves, if that's your idea of spooky fun. If not, there's always Salem's Lot. *

Elizabeth Hand's eighth novel, "Generation Loss," is forthcoming.

The Madwoman in the Attic, 03/20/2005

PINKERTON'S SISTER, By Peter Rushforth. MacAdam/Cage. 729 pp. $26

Elvis Costello once remarked, more or less, that you get 19 years to make your first album and 12 months to make your second. The same holds true for publishing, where successful first-time novelists are expected to crank out sophomore efforts within a year. (If Book No. 2 tanks, you generally can take the rest of your life writing No. 3.) Pinkerton's Sister, the second novel by the English writer Peter Rushforth, arrives a cool 25 years after his acclaimed debut, Kindergarten. That first book was a slender volume -- less than 200 pages -- a controlled, harrowing take on "Hansel and Gretel," filtered through an account of Holocaust survivors and late-20th-century terrorism.

At first glance, Pinkerton's Sister, which clocks in at 729 pages, 235,000 words and 2.4 pounds, seems to have little in common with its trim older sibling. But like Kindergarten -- whose protagonist is an illustrator of children's books, and which is filled with references to children's literature and fairy tales -- the new work is a book filled with other books.

Rushforth's novel, the first of a projected quartet, has a clever conceit -- the Pinkerton of the title is Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, called Ben, who grows up to be "Madame Butterfly's" callow young Lt. B.F. Pinkerton. Ben is recalled as a child for most of Rushforth's novel, which takes place in 1903, during the course of a single day in the life of Pinkerton's 34-year-old sister Alice, who is contemplating a return visit to the Webster Nervine Asylum in Poughkeepsie, upriver from the childhood home in New York City in which she still lives.

Alice is "the madwoman in the attic" -- though she wryly notes, "It should rightly have been called the nursery . . . but she had started to call it the schoolroom when she was a girl, after reading . . . about lonely governesses and grand houses . . . . it was the image that remained: the picture of a young woman going out into the world to make her way alone, sitting in a chair made for someone the size of a child, surrounded by the possessions of others, writing letters home." Like Jane Eyre's, Alice's "home was memory and imagination, her search for someone to love, and these she carried about within her." But Alice has never set out into the world to make her way alone. Her life has been circumscribed by her house and the surrounding (fictional) neighborhood of Longfellow Park. Mostly, however, Alice's life has been defined by reading, and books are what shape the baggy, often brilliant but overlong and overwritten Pinkerton's Sister -- I counted 17 literary references in the first eight pages alone, ranging from Jane Eyre to The Princess and the Goblin.

Alice is one of three daughters named for the sisters in Longfellow's "The Children's Hour," but her own childhood was anything but idyllic. She is the victim of abuses that may or may not have been precisely sexual in nature but were certainly fetishistic, and the unhappy witness to her father's sexual exploitation of the household's servant, Annie, whom she adores. Not surprisingly, Alice is haunted by notions of revenge, obsessive, brooding, impelled by violent impulses that she (mostly) doesn't act upon. Enamored of things both Grimm and grim, she is a bibliophile in the same way that the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" is an oenophile. She imagines violent acts involving cutlery, hammers nails into her dolls' heads until they splinter, and pictures herself as "the guest denied access to all homes, a woman beyond the pale of decent society, and everyone shrank from her defiling presence."

Fortunately, she is not completely denied access to the outside world. One of the book's best set pieces involves Alice's experience as a model for a statue illustrating "The Children's Hour," wherein she is slowly, eerily encased in plaster -- a masterful evocation of the entombment of an intelligent woman's mind and body. There are also hilarious accounts of the loopily philistine culture-vulture manquee Mrs. Albert Comstock, and the awful alienist Dr. Wolcott Ascharm Webster, who subjects Alice to every form of medical torment at his disposal, from hydrotherapy to hypnotism to crude treatments involving the interpretation of clouds and dreams.

Yet even these are digressions in a maddeningly digressive narrative.

The fictional consciousness that streams through Pinkerton's Sister is compelling but often tedious and not very likable -- less the madwoman in the attic than the smarty-pants in the classroom. Amiability, of course, is not the best measure of a memorable fictional character: More than anyone else, the young Alice is reminiscent of another prickly, precocious know-it-all girl -- Louie, the protagonist of Christina Stead's masterpiece The Man Who Loved Children.

Still, the narrative heart of Pinkerton's Sister is what befalls Alice and Annie at the hands of Alice's father and the frightening figure known only as "Papa's 'friend.' " This story, with its sinister echoes of the gothic tales that Alice loves, and a nightmarish, beautifully written denouement set during a blizzard, should have been freed from some of the wads of paper that surround it. Pinkerton's Sister is a very fine novel, at once sprawling and intimate, and blessed with long gorgeous passages worthy of Henry James; but one senses always the greater book imprisoned inside it, like poor mad Alice trapped within her plaster shroud. *

Elizabeth Hand's most recent novel is "Mortal Love.

The Hunger Artists, 05/29/2005

HAUNTED: A Novel of Stories, By Chuck Palahniuk. Doubleday. 404 pp. $24.95

This guy Chuck Palahniuk, he wrote Fight Club and Choke and Lullaby and some other good books. Fight Club, that was really good, and it was a great movie, too. It was dark, that kind of dark you get when you have a really clever idea, a surprising plot twist, some scary disturbed characters. But this writer, Palahniuk, he makes them feel real to you, like you might not want to sit next to these people on a bus but if you met them in another situation -- like a 12-step meeting or summer camp or the fight club in Fight Club -- under those circumstances, you might think, "These are people I could relate to, these are people I'd like to know more about, maybe, as long as I could get away from them if I had to."

Just so you understand, this guy Palahniuk, he's written some good books. But not this one.

You might pick this one up and read the premise on the back of the dust jacket: "WRITER'S RETREAT: ABANDON YOUR LIFE FOR THREE MONTHS. Just disappear. Leave behind everything that keeps you from creating your masterpiece. Your job and family and home, all those obligations and distractions -- put them on hold for three months. Live with like-minded people in a setting that supports total immersion in your work. Food and lodging free for those who qualify. . . . Before it's too late, live the life you dream about. Spaces very limited."

You'd think that sounds like an ideal scenario for Palahniuk -- a chance to skewer our notions of fiction, of reality, of our culture's obsession with fame and the notion that writing is just another route to celebrity; that anybody, just anybody, can write a book. Because he gets this group of people together, people with silly cartoony made-up names, and they all want to be writers, or at least they all want to be famous. And they all get on a bus and go to this place that they think is going to be great.

Only it's not. It turns out to be an old movie theater, and once they're inside, they can't get out, like they're locked in for three months; and the food is all freeze-dried, not gourmet at all, and everything is pretty disgusting and shabby and meaningless and depressing and disgusting. Did I say that twice? I forget, because this book, it's kind of repetitive, and it's also really, really gross.

Each character in the book tells a short story. Each also tells a poem, which is not such a good idea, as the poems aren't very good. In Lullaby, Palahniuk's really creepy novel from 2003, there's a poem that kills people who hear it, but I don't think anyone's going to die reading stuff like this: "The film: a shadow of a reflection of an image of an illusion."

In between the stories, there's a narrative about the people locked up in the movie theater. This isn't a very good idea either, as the people mostly complain about each other, and the freeze-dried food. They also talk a lot about celebrity and reality shows, without really saying anything new about them. After a while they start cutting off their fingers and toes, I guess because they're hungry. Some of them die. They start eating each other. Which isn't in itself a terrible idea, because some people like to read about stuff like that, as in the Hannibal Lecter books, and Marianne Wiggins's John Dollar, and even stories about the Donner Party. But in Haunted, even the cannibalism is kind of boring.

But some of the stories are good. Maybe you've heard about this story, "Guts," which is the one story everyone's heard about, because Palahniuk, when he read it at bookstores and readings and places, people who heard him read it, they threw up, or fainted, or something.

But that story, "Guts," it's pretty funny, in a totally gross-out way, and I laughed at it, and I didn't throw up. But only a few of the other stories are as good as that first one. "Foot Work," the hippie Mother Nature's story, is funny in a satirical way; it's about foot reflexologists and people like that who become assassins. And "Obsolete," the last story in the book, is excellent; kind of like a George Saunders story, or an episode of the old "Twilight Zone" TV series gone berserk. But that's only two stories out of 23. And don't forget the poems, and the linking narrative. So not a lot of bang for your book.

The stories in Haunted reminded me a little bit of stuff by Roald Dahl; not his kids' books, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or The Witches, but his stories for adults, the ones in Someone Like You and Switch Bitch and Kiss Kiss. Only the stories in Haunted have a lot more explicit sex in them. But it's not much like real sex. It's more like the kind of sex you imagine if maybe you're a 13-year-old boy who doesn't really know anything about it and likes jokes about bodily fluids and really bad smells. Sort of Garbage Pail Kids sex. Only, like I said, kind of boring.

"To become a household word," says Chef Assassin, "all you need is a rifle." Or maybe just a movie and a big book contract.

Because, by the end of this book, I was wondering if maybe Chuck Palahniuk got his idea from real life. Like, I was wondering if maybe his publishers locked him in a room for three months and told him he had to write a book really fast, and they'd pay him a lot of money if he did. That happens to writers when they become celebrities. They think maybe it's a good idea, because it's a lot of money, and their fans -- the people who buy their books no matter what -- well, they're going to buy this one too.

But you know, if something like that happened, not in a story I mean, but in real life, to a cult writer as talented and cutting-edge and interesting and popular as Chuck Palahniuk -- well, that would be really scary. *

Elizabeth Hand's eighth novel (now in progress) is titled "Generation Loss."


Ho! Ho! . . . Oh! There's No Light Without the Dark, 12/19/2004

Parents dying horribly, orphaned siblings tormented by malevolent relatives, catastrophes that, we are assured, won't turn into anything like a happy ending -- this is a Christmas movie? In a holiday season where the hyped "Polar Express" crashed and the dreary "Christmas With the Kranks" is declared a classic by the "700 Club," the film adaptation of Lemony Snicket's best-selling "Series of Unfortunate Events" gleams promisingly -- for some of us, anyway.

Holiday moviegoing has become a modern ritual that all Americans can indulge in, no matter our age or race or religious belief. For the last three years, I've gone with a group of 20-odd friends and our children to attend opening night of each "Lord of the Rings" film, an event marked by hours of waiting in the frigid Maine cold (and, once, a genuine blizzard) outside a little Depression-era theater, as we take turns running to the pub next door for various forms of sustenance.

This year, the Lemony Snicket movie will stand in for Peter Jackson's opus. In lieu of battlr-ax wielding orcs, slavering wolves and spectral Ringwraiths, we'll have the ghastly Count Olaf and various hench-people. My family and friends are delighted: For us, much of the appeal of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy onscreen came from being scared for Christmas. We're promised more of the same, but different, this year, too.

This isn't a cynical, postmodern take. Raising gooseflesh as the solstice nears is a tradition that goes back hundreds, even thousands, of years, with winter festivals that arose around killing time in Europe (November, Blod-monath, blood-month) with the annual slaughter of livestock to prepare for the harsh months ahead. Modern yuletide's rampant secularization and commercialization has brought about, instead, the seasonal tyranny of goodwill and sugarplum shock that is so feebly satirized in "Christmas With the Kranks." Something powerful has been lost in the process, though: the knowledge that the Christmas season is a temporary triumph over the darkness of winter, rather than a surrender to false bonhomie or commerce.

The result is a reversal of C.S. Lewis's "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," where the evil White Witch casts a terrible spell so that it is "Always winter and never Christmas." For Americans, once September arrives we're subjected to months and months where it's always Christmas and never winter, despite the fact that the days are short and frequently dark, the weather often terrible, and the pressure of pretending that this is the-most-wonderful-time-of-the-year relentless. Is it any wonder that living through the season exhausts, not to mention depresses, so many people? What's the point of raging against the dying of the light when we refuse to acknowledge that the light does sometimes go out?

Our ancestors understood this need to face down the darkness at the turning of the year. By the Middle Ages, improved agricultural practices made it possible to provide fodder and thus keep stall-bound animals alive, but the ancient feasts held on into the Christian era, with their pagan subtext of misrule and masked revelry, storytelling and revenants still intact.

The English Puritans outlawed Christmas revels, declaring the day an occasion for fasting and humiliation. On Christmas Day, 1644, Mr. Edmund Calamy preached before the House of Lords, "And truly I think that the superstition and profanation of this day is so rooted into it, as that there is no way to reform it, but by dealing with it as Hezekiah did with the brazen serpent. This year God, by his Providence, has buried this Feast in a Fast, and I hope it will never rise again."

It was not until the early 19th century that Sir Walter Scott and Washington Irving popularized a vision of an idealized medieval English Christmas, full of charming merriment; the fact that such a scene may never have existed was beside the point. Inadvertently, their vision of "Old Christmas" gave people a chance to look back to earlier rituals that were dying out due to the rapid industrialization of a rural countryside. They included the ancient Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, whose silent dancers bear reindeer antlers as they weave back and forth amongst strangely costumed figures; or the Welsh rites involving the Mari Lywd, where masked mummers carry a horse's skull that snaps its jaw at unwary revelers.

The sense of mystery has survived in other parts of Europe, too. In Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands, St. Nicholas would visit households on his feast day, accompanied by the demonic figure known as Krampus (or Black Peter or Knecht Ruprecht). Krampus carried a whip and stuffed naughty children into his sack. As recently as the 1940s, Belsnickel -- a pelt-wearing variant of St. Nick -- would make the rounds of German American communities in the United States, bearing sticks for beating bad children and a book into which their names would be recorded. Krampus and his kin are still alive in parts of Austria and Switzerland, but it's doubtful that they'll ever catch on again here.

Americans seem to have lost their stomach for the darker aspects of Christmas. We'd rather gorge on manufactured sweets than experience the bittersweet -- even bitter -- cold bite that may be the season's greatest gift.

Still, the ancient, darker impulses remain in literature, film, theater and the visual arts. By now your ears are probably ringing from a thousand Muzak renditions of "The Nutcracker"; but Carroll Ballard filmed a slightly sinister version of the ballet, with Maurice Sendak's fabulous design, that restores the grand gothic glory of E.T.A. Hoffmann's original tale. The theatrical adaptation of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials," a fantasy inspired in part by "Paradise Lost," was a hit last Christmas at London's National Theater and is being revived again this season.

One of the most familiar phrases of the season, Tennyson's "Ring out, wild bells . . . Ring out the old, ring in the new," is excerpted from his beautiful, heartbreaking poem "In Memoriam A.H.H.," written for a beloved friend who died young. This long poem provides a moving evocation of a man who eventually overcomes terrible grief and loss. In so doing, Tennyson unforgettably celebrates both his friend and the Christmas season.

Just as Tennyson's words have grown banal through overuse, Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (about to appear at a TV screen near you) is now often trivialized as sentimental mush. But strip away the angel in a nightshirt and the crowd singing "Auld Lang Syne" at the end, and you're left with a husband and father in despair, preparing to kill himself on Christmas Eve.

Likewise Dickens's Ebenezer Scrooge, the good man of business who's become sanctified as a twinkling-eyed philanthropist, a secular saint. Yet his redemption comes only when, despite his pleas, he's forced to confront his own mortality and the terrifying, existential reality of his own future, which is death. It's something we all have to face, of course -- but why at Christmas?

Why not acknowledge the darkness? At the bleakest time of the year we're told to find solace in our religious beliefs, our family, our friends. But faith can falter, and loved ones can be far away or estranged from us or dead.

We're not very good at conceding these realities in our culture, especially not now, not when it's always Christmas and never winter. Instead we pretend that all good children are rewarded, and do our best to reward ourselves, as well, at least for as long as our credit holds out. We bloat ourselves spiritually with false cheer, just as we've bloated ourselves physically with fast food and lack of exercise. No wonder we feel sick.

That's why it's sometimes good to take a break from all the merriment.

To walk outside, alone, in the middle of a frigid, black, seemingly endless night and contemplate that solitary darkness, if for no other reason than to experience all the more the joy and warmth and light that welcomes you when you go back inside; to mitigate the blazing warmth of a fire or woodstove by reading something that brings a faint chill, like "A Christmas Carol" or Lemony Snicket's "The Hostile Hospital" or Robert Southwell's strange, visionary Christmas poem, "The Burning Babe."

If you can't bear the thought of Tiny Tim in any form, Dickens penned other odes to the holiday, including the meditative "What Christmas Is as We Grow Older":

On this day we shut out Nothing!

"Pause," says a low voice. "Nothing? Think!"

"On Christmas Day, we will shut out from our fireside, Nothing."

"Not the shadow of a vast City where the withered leaves are lying deep?" the voice replies. "Not the shadow that darkens the whole globe? Not the shadow of the City of the Dead?"

Not even that . . .

This Christmas, I'll do what I usually do -- decorate the tree, buy too many presents, sing off-key with my neighbors in our little village church, debate the merits of Alistair Sim's Scrooge over George C. Scott's, read "The Night Before Christmas" and eat too much.

But I'll also join my friends to make our now-traditional pilgrimage to that old movie palace up in Belfast, Maine. We'll stand in line and complain about the cold and the fleeting daylight; then we'll sit in the theater with our children and watch a movie. I hope we'll all be just a little bit scared in the dark, and thankful for it.

Elizabeth Hand's most recent novel is "Mortal Love" (Morrow).

The Lost Boys, 12/12/2004

HAWKES HARBOR, By S.E. Hinton. Tor. 251 pp. $21.95

Is there an American teenager who hasn't read at least one of S.E. Hinton's books? Ponyboy, Rusty-James, Motorcycle Boy, Tex -- for a lot of us, these names are as evocative of adolescent despair and yearning as Holden Caulfield's. With the 1967 publication of her first novel, The Outsiders (written when she was only 16), Hinton pretty much invented YA (Young Adult) literature as both genre and marketing category. Her best and best-known works -- The Outsiders; That Was Then, This Is Now; Rumble Fish; and Tex -- are all straightforward first-person narratives charting the unstable, if now all-too-familiar, terrain of Teenage Angst Lit: boy trouble, girl trouble, drug trouble, parent truancy, warring high school cliques, abandonment, betrayal, loss, all played out against a working-class background of decaying American heartland towns and farms. They're gritty stories, leavened with a grain of hope and a stoic moralism that have earned them a coveted spot on many middle and high school reading lists, even as the microscopic view of teenage mores has also sometimes gotten them banned from same.

Hinton's career has been in something of a hiatus since 1979, when her last YA novel, Taming the Star Runner, appeared. Since then she's written two books for younger children. Her new book, Hawkes Harbor, her first major novel in more than 20 years, is being trumpeted (and marketed) as her first "adult" novel.

I'm one of those people who grew up with Hinton's books, and I wish I could say that Hawkes Harbor is a triumphant return by a much-beloved writer, but frankly, it's a shambles. The author's cast-iron reputation is probably safe from being damaged by its publication -- I hope, so, anyway -- but it's hard to imagine any first-time readers, adult or otherwise, being captivated by this rambling, episodic mess.

Jamie Sommers, the novel's protagonist, is in many ways a typical Hinton character brought to rather shaky maturity: feckless and lacking direction, essentially goodhearted but easily led astray. Jamie is an orphan, raised by cruel nuns in the Bronx; he attends high school, then has a three-year stint in the Navy. A life on the ocean waves appeals to young Jamie, and after his service he takes up with Kellen Quinn, a silver-tongued Irish gunrunner, smuggler and general ne'er-do-well who is by far the novel's best-drawn character. Kell and Jamie's long-term, intense and intensely competitive relationship has homoerotic tensionstamped on it in shining gold letters; but Hinton, alas, is too timid to pursue it.

Or perhaps she's simply unaware. There's an odd, naive time-capsule quality to Hawkes Harbor; most of the action takes place between the early 1960s and 1978, and the story reads as though it were cobbled together from B-movies made during that period. There are pirates, an insane asylum, a shark attack, soft-core sex with a mean rich girl on a yacht, soft-core sex with two nubile young women on a cruise ship, a haunted house, a ghost and, god help me, a vampire. All of this is recounted in earnest, unintentionally hilarious prose that sprays cliches the way an assault rifle sprays bullets. If Hawkes Harbor were a movie, it would be giddily dissected by the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" crew, and might well become a camp classic, a la "The Catalina Caper" or "Santa Claus Versus the Martians."

Unfortunately, Hawkes Harbor is a book. The first third is likable enough, with Jamie and Kell having adventures on the high seas -- pirates, jewel smuggling, narrow escapes, sharks. But even these engagingly old-fashioned escapades lack narrative drive, since Hinton inexplicably breaks the novel's momentum with an endless and confusing series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, all framed by a series of interviews Jamie undergoes at the Terrace View Asylum, where he is being treated for depression and amnesia.

The vampire angle is tossed into the novel nearly halfway through, though it's hinted at earlier. Again, Hinton seems sadly out of touch. However one feels about the Children of the Night and their eldritch kin, the last 30 years have seen an efflorescence -- or is that effungusence? -- of vampire literature from the likes of Stephen King, Anne Rice, Brian Lumley, Suzy McKee Charnas, Laurel Hamilton and Lucius Shepard, among dozens of others.

Hinton seems not to have read any of these. Her vampire, Grenville Hawkes, is the least convincing member of the undead since Ed Woods's chiropractor put on poor dead Bela Lugosi's cape in "Plan 9 From Outer Space." Once Grenville is mistakenly disinterred by Jamie, who's looking for treasure in an old graveyard, he and the plot lurch from one wildly unconvincing scene to the next, all strung together with as much logic or coherence as, well, an Ed Wood movie. In the book's most bizarre twist, old Kell Quinn reappears out of nowhere. Grenville sucks Kell's blood, Jamie drives a stake through Kell's heart; not long afterward, Grenville appears somehow to have been cured of vampirism and, in his new gruff-but-lovable avuncular role, takes Jamie on a cruise ship, where the young man meets those two cuties mentioned earlier and has the kind of "Penthouse Letters" experience that young men do not have in The Outsiders.

It's sad, and depressing, to read a bad book by a writer one respects.

On her Web site, Hinton states that "I have to become my narrator when I'm writing." One can only assume that in order to write an "adult" novel, she felt it necessary to abandon her great strength -- the first-person voice inside her head that gave us some of the most influential YA books ever written. A novel about the grownup Ponyboy or Tex could have been brilliant; so could a book featuring an entirely new cast of kids adrift in a new century. Sadly, that's not the novel Hinton has written in Hawkes Harbor. *

Elizabeth Hand's most recent novel is "Mortal Love."

The Magic Touch; A celebrated writer and his influential muse, 04/11/2004

JOHN FOWLES, A Life in Two Worlds, By Eileen Warburton. Viking. 510 pp. $34.95.

"Perhaps it is that I am hunting the woman archetype," the novelist John Fowles wrote in his diary in 1954, several years before he began work on The Collector, the book that brought him worldwide fame when it was published 41 years ago. Indeed, John Fowles's entire career seems aimed at giving chase to this elusive figure, as he did in his other best-known novels (The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman), his later works (Daniel Martin, Mantissa, A Maggot) and the stories collected in The Ebony Tower. Fowles himself has remained even more difficult to pin down. Now Eileen Warburton has brought him to ground in her exhilarating, exhaustive and entertaining biography John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds.

Reams of criticism and a library's worth of doctoral dissertations have been devoted to Fowles's oeuvre, but Warburton's biography is the first, and it was written with Fowles's full cooperation. "There's only one way that you could do it," he told her. "Tell the truth. Tell the truth."

To that end, he gave Warburton access to all of his papers, published and unpublished; cleared the way for interviews with friends, family members and colleagues, and allowed her to read the surviving letters of his great muse, his late wife Elizabeth. Warburton has in particular drawn heavily from Fowles's journals -- Volume 1 (which I have read in the UK edition) will be published in a revised edition in the United States later this year. The resulting portrait is not necessarily a pretty one, but the narrative Warburton makes of this prickly author's life is riveting and, in its final depiction of a literary lion in winter -- the 78-year-old Fowles continues to live in Lyme Regis, the setting for The French Lieutenant's Woman -- very moving.

Fowles was born in 1926, to middle-class parents. A fine athlete and a good student, the reserved young man was most absorbed by long solitary rambles in the countryside, recording what he saw in a series of journals. According to Warburton, "He began to feel that he had a special 'touch' with wild things. 'The secret [Fowles wrote] is . . . the cultivation of an intuitive sense. . . . Not just at odd times, but always.' He returned over and over to the same places, exulting in 'the pleasure of knowing a place intimately,' and listed, among other pleasures and details, 'the places to hide.' " This "nearly mystical identification" with the natural world grew over time into his fictional obsession with what Warburton describes as "an inexplicable conversion experience, a moment of transformation and emotional comprehension of the possibilities of all life. Some sort of similar mystical, deeply irrational, highly personal confrontation with the mystery of the universe became an experience common to many of Fowles's protagonists." Yet even while Fowles was observing wood pigeons and chipping sparrows, the moths and dragonflies he so loved, he was also hunting them: putting butterflies in a killing jar with cyanide, holding a wounded curlew under a stream to "dispassionately" watch it drown. In light of Fowles's later writerly concerns, this seems less the hunter's detached cruelty than an eerie distillation of one artist's creative process: the ceaseless effort to capture a moment of transcendence, or the being who embodies its mystery, then to relentlessly observe and absorb it and finally transform it into fiction.

In 1944, at 18, Fowles left school for an officers' training program, finishing his training just weeks after the war in Europe ended. In 1947, after debating whether to pursue a regular officer's commission or a university degree, he chose the latter. At Oxford he read Modern Languages, specializing in French. As an undergrad, he enjoyed several rapturous sojourns in France, falling in love with various women as well as with the French existentialists whose works were to inform so much of his own writing.

After receiving his degree, in 1950 he took a position at the University of Poitiers. He seems to have been a lackluster teacher, but he wrote furiously -- plays, filmscripts, short stories, dozens of poems, in addition to the voluminous journals (he calls them "disjoints") he kept for most of his life. He was not asked to return to the University after the spring term, but by the end of 1951 he was already on his way to a new position, as English master at a boys' school on the island of Spetsai, Greece.

At this point real life begins to dovetail with fiction, specifically the imaginary Greek island of The Magus, where the callow young Nicholas Urfe meets a Prospero-like figure whose complex "godgames" interweave strands of Mythos and Eros involving Nicholas's various romantic entanglements. Fowles was enchanted by Spetsai's natural history and its inhabitants. And in 1953 he met its Circe -- Elizabeth Christy (nee Betty Whitton), the 28-year-old wife of Roy Christy, a published writer who arrived on Spetsai to take a position at the same school where Fowles taught. The three almost immediately fell into a pattern of drinking and traveling together, with Fowles usually picking up the tab for the impecunious Roy, a feckless husband and alcoholic. Within a few months, Fowles and Elizabeth were involved in a passionate relationship that scandalized the islanders, even as Elizabeth galvanized Fowles's imagination. She became his once and future muse, and would continue to be so until her death, 37 years later. He did not so much write about her, as through her: She was the prism that refracted his longings for transcendence, the erotic and transformative mystery that was at the center of his work. She was also often his best reader and editor -- it was Elizabeth who pointed out the weaknesses in the original final chapter of The French Lieutenant's Woman, and her insight seems to have inspired the now-famous double endings to that novel.

Warburton's account of the couple's early years together itself reads like a novel -- the loss of the island paradise followed by Dickensian poverty in gray London, the years of waiting for the Christys' divorce to become final. Most heartbreaking is the sad figure of Elizabeth's tiny daughter, Anna, whom Fowles referred to as "it," "an abstract something to be pushed aside." Shuttled among her parents, grandparents, various convent schools and caregivers, the child was a haunting presence -- Anna was 9 or 10 before she knew that the pretty lady who visited her was in fact her mother. Elizabeth remained anguished and guilt-ridden until, as years passed, Fowles grudgingly, then with growing affection, welcomed the girl into the household.

Somehow, within this romantic and domestic maelstrom, Fowles wrote the bestselling, mostly well-received books that in many ways became templates for so much late-century fiction. The deranged, obsessed narrator of The Collector kidnaps and imprisons a young woman in his basement, prefiguring more serial-killer protagonists than one can count. The interplay of myth, sex, faux-magic and conspiracy in The Magus laid the groundwork for books as varied as Donna Tartt's The Secret History, John Crowley's Aegypt sequence, and Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's The Illuminatus! Trilogy, among numerous others. The French Lieutenant's Woman, with its twinned endings and sly postmodern take on Victorian sexual mores, begat A.S. Byatt's Possession and launched a thousand graduate careers in English Lit. Mantissa puts us inside a bedridden writer's head, a la Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective, and A Maggot can be read as a subtle first-alien-contact novel, like Karen Joy Fowler's Sarah Canary. Do all of Fowles's books stand the test of time? Probably not, but The Collector and The French Lieutenant's Woman remain enthralling and rewarding even now, and the essays collected in Wormholes are marvelous.

Fowles survived his early success. He and Elizabeth moved to the West Country, where he became increasingly involved in preserving Lyme Regis's museum and history, even as Elizabeth fell prey to crippling seasonal depression exacerbated by loneliness and isolation from their London friends. In addition to his fiction, essays and translations of French drama, Fowles wrote a number of unpublished and unpublishable works; it's to Warburton's (and Fowles's) credit that she doesn't whitewash these displays of bad will and bad writing, which include a vituperative and sometimes anti-Semitic rant against the United States, inexplicable in light of Fowles's many Jewish and American friends and colleagues.

In 1988, Fowles suffered a stroke. He made a partial recovery but believed it destroyed his ability to write imaginative fiction. Early in 1990 Elizabeth was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Nine days later she was dead.

Fowles never wrote another novel. He developed a December-May relationship with an Oxford undergraduate who sounds like a nasty bit of work; but this muse manque generated no fiction, only 600 pages of obsessive writing in Fowles's journals. In 1998 he married a longtime friend and neighbor, Sarah Smith. The final image in Warburton's book is of Fowles and Anna Christy, Elizabeth's daughter, scattering Elizabeth's ashes over the garden in Lyme Regis, 10 years after her death. It's an elegiac ending to a biography that treats a writer's muse with as much honesty and intelligence as it does the writer himself. *

Elizabeth Hand's seventh novel is "Mortal Love," forthcoming this summer.

Kid Stuff; A very young writer attempts fantasy for very young readers, 04/04/2004

THE PROPHECY OF THE STONES, By Flavia Bujor-Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale -Miramax. 386 pp. $16.95

A few weeks ago, multiple Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson uttered the f-word -- fantasy -- in front of a television audience of nearly 44 million viewers. For many of us, it was further validation that we're living in a new Golden Age of Fantasy. Not that much more validation is needed, what with the phenomenal cinematic success of Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings," or the children's crusade led by Harry Potter and his league of extraordinary middle-school students, or teen tyro Christopher Paolini's charge up the bestseller lists with Eragon, or the sold-out West End run of an adaptation of Phillip Pullman's brilliant novel sequence His Dark Materials. One need only turn an ear toward the publishing canyons of New York and their Hollywood counterparts to hear the joyous shouts of producers and CEOs: There's fairy gold in them thar hills!

Sadly, The Prophecy of the Stones, a first fantasy novel by a very young writer and a bestseller in France and Germany, is fool's gold. Flavia Bujor was only 13 when she wrote it. As a parent of young adolescent children, and as someone who has taught creative writing to children and teenagers, I have a great deal of sympathy toward a tweeny novelist being exposed to the long knives of literary critics. But as a writer, I must confess that this is perhaps the worst book I have ever reviewed.

Jack Zipes, the renowned scholar of children's literature, famously critiqued J.K. Rowling in Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children's Literature From Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter, observing that "the Harry Potter books . . . will certainly help children become functionally literate." The Prophecy of the Stones makes the Harry Potter books appear positively Nabokovian. Bujor's writing is fatuous and cliche-ridden, her narrative and characters seemingly skimmed from Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, "Star Wars" and the Sweet Valley High series. Young readers seeking the pleasures afforded by the aforementioned works will be bored by The Prophecy of the Stones, which more than anything resembles one of those cheesy Saturday-morning cartoons designed to promote cheap, breakable toys to children too young to recognize how badly made and uninteresting these things really are, and parents too exhausted to Just Say No to crud.

Bujor, a daughter of Romanian immigrants, was schooled in France, and credits Tolkien's work as her inspiration. The Prophecy of the Stones more closely resembles the classic Harvard Lampoon parody Bored of the Rings, filtered through a mediocre episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Its heroines are a trio of teenage girls, mostly distinguishable by their hair.

There's haughty Jade, putative daughter of the Duke of Divulyon, whose hair is long and black; "she was constantly brushing back a few rebellious stray locks." There's the peasant Amber, whose hair "was like red gold and gleamed like the sun, framing her lovely face." And there's middle-class Opal, with "the face of a china doll. . . . Her hair was blond, each strand seemingly of a different shade: flaxen, honey-colored, ash-blond." Each girl learns on her 14th birthday that she is not who she thought she was, that she has a magical Stone -- Amber, Opal, Jade, get it? -- and that she and her Stone are part of a Prophecy. The Prophecy concerns the Council of Twelve (bad), the Chosen One (good), the Nameless One (wants to be good), the Army of Darkness (bad), the Sorcerer of Darkness (really, really bad), the Army of Light (you figure it out) and Death, who has gone on strike -- nobody likes her, plus she's put on a little weight.

There are also the barbaric Ghibduls, Bumblinks and a magical country where the girls, with their Stones, must journey amid much tossing of locks, rebellious and otherwise: "Not many travelers can cross the magnetic field that surrounds this territory. To cross, you must believe in the beauty of every individual being, in creativity, in freedom. You must believe in a better world, in the magic of each instant, and in fantastic dreams. You must be able to imagine the unimaginable. Only then can you enter this land. . . . It's called Fairytale. Magic creatures and warmhearted people live there."

This is the kind of writing that gives fantasy a bad name, and there's no reason for me to quote any more if it, especially given the tender age of its author. The Prophecy of the Stones is a crass, cynical attempt to cash in on a writer's youth (and her photogenic qualities -- press material for Prophecy consists largely of an attractive color photograph of Bujor and a list of all the foreign markets where rights to the book have been sold) and the vogue for fantasy fueled by J.K. Rowling's success. The publisher has obviously mustered its marketing forces to push the book; Flavia Bujor might have been better served by editorial guidance. Naming a character Theoden (the name of a central figure in The Lord of the Rings), for instance, is a gaffe a child might make, but one an editor should have corrected.

There are dozens of fine fantasy writers, new and established, young and old -- household names like Tolkien and Pullman, Rowling and Lemony Snicket, as well as Joan Aiken, Nancy Farmer, Ursula Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, Tamora Pierce, Tony Diterlizzi and Holly Black, Katherine Langrish, Diana Hendry, Jane Yolen, Tim Kennemore. Discerning readers of all ages should seek out books by them, and others. The f-word that comes to mind with the shameless effort to promote this novel is flimflam. *

Elizabeth Hand is the author of "Bibliomancy: Four Novellas" and the forthcoming novel "Mortal Love."


Queen of Hearts; A rousing fictional account of the ancient monarch's life and loves, 12/21/2003
CLEOPATRA DISMOUNTS, By Carmen Boullosa. Translated from the Spanish by Geoff Hargreave, Grove. 224 pp. $22

Pity the great Cleopatra! Last of Egypt's pharaohs, the "enchanting queen" styled by Shakespeare as "cunning past men's thought" has in these latter days been reduced to a vague cinematic memory of Elizabeth Taylor in too much eye makeup and bad Theda Bara headgear. In her phantasmagoric new novel, Cleopatra Dismounts, the Mexican writer Carmen Boullosa attempts to reclaim for modern readers the Ptolemaic ruler who claimed descent from Alexander the Great. (Cleopatra was not, in fact, Egyptian by blood, but Macedonian.)

Boullosa draws liberally from diverse classical sources -- Cicero, Sophocles, Theocritus, to name a few -- and takes her title from Virgil: "At a bound the queen slips from the saddle. All her company does the same. They glide to the ground, abandoning their mounts." But the heroine of Boullosa's antic work bears more resemblance to Xena, Warrior Princess, than she does to the woman maligned by many of her male contemporaries or to the clever stage vixen immortalized by Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw.

Boullosa backgrounds the dizzyingly complex politics of Rome in the first century C.E., keeping her focus on Cleopatra the lover and adventurer. She weaves three narrative strands, each dictated by the queen to her scribe, Diomedes.

The first, and least successful, tale is of Cleopatra's affair with Mark Antony, triumvir of Rome and, in Boullosa's account, the queen's greatest love. Mark Antony -- god manque, Dionysus to Cleopatra's Isis, "a successful general but an ineffectual king" -- has been abandoned by his troops and humiliated by his rival, Octavius (Caesar Augustus). Returning in disgrace to his lover, he misreads a letter from her and fears she has killed herself -- understandably, as the missive begins "I am dead, my king." In despair, Mark Antony stabs himself in the stomach, just moments before Cleopatra summons him to her mausoleum in the Temple of Isis. Diomedes then bears the general, bleeding to death, to join his queen.

What follows is Cleopatra's extended aria of grief and longing for her lover, though her grief has not blinded her to the disastrous consequences of their affair. Whatever the historical Mark Antony might have been like, in Boullosa's account he comes across as a colossal jerk: weak, capricious, prone to rages. Or, as Cleopatra puts it, "Antony, you were riddled with rottenness. As rotten as a woman who was once queen but today is forced to share a bed with the friends of her master. Rotten with the rottenness of a man who fails his city in time of war." Lest the reader not get the point, the queen's roster of rottenness goes on for an entire page, followed by her admission that "Only when love was satisfied, reciprocated, and rendered happy, could I feel complete." Cue Oprah.

Fortunately, in the second strand of the tale, the dying Cleopatra quickly moves on to recalling an earlier, happier self, the ambitious and canny 12-year-old who flees Rome with a band of cheerfully accommodating gladiators. The future queen journeys along the Appian Way in an ox-cart then boards a ship, which is soon overtaken by pirates. Dressed as Isis, the plucky princess charms and amazes the marauders, who bring her to their ruler, the governor of Tarsus. "I arrived at a court where there was not a single woman . . . composed of adventurers and desperadoes from all nations. . . . I should never have left that place."

Here Cleopatra's tale shifts for the third and last time, to an exhilarating and lubricious account of her sojourn among the Amazons. Up until this point, Boullosa's incantatory prose seems to struggle against the bonds of historical necessity; but in this final section she leaves behind more mundane matters and finds a subject worthy of her lyric style.

Cleopatra, now a young woman, is visiting the port of Pelisium when, like Europa before her, she is kidnapped by a divine bull. The supernatural beast carries her into the sea, invoking the Nereids as it does so; the sea-nymphs emerge, along with Neptune and numerous Tritons, all of whom proceed to act out some of the more adult-themed rites of the ancient world.

The bull then deposits her upon the shores of an eerie country where the sun hangs, unmoving, upon the horizon. In this sunset land Cleopatra is greeted by the Amazons, led by their queen, Hippolyta. She witnesses more arcane rituals, reminiscent of those detailed by Apuelius at the end of The Golden Ass and here rendered powerfully in Boullosa's hallucinatory prose, then at last ventures on to Alexandria, where she will have her fateful meeting with Caesar, after being smuggled into his chambers in a carpet.

Boullosa's epic, while uneven, is still wildly entertaining, as befits its subject -- one of history's "inimitable party-goers," as Boullosa styles her. Our last glimpse of the great queen is of a half-mad woman robed in her lover's blood, mourning a lost world that "beat to the rhythm of the souls of various gods who were something more than statues and paintings!" It's a tribute to Carmen Boullosa's gifts that she leaves her reader feeling that loss as well, and yearning for more of this talented author's work. *

Elizabeth Hand is the author of "Bibliomancy: Four Novellas," just published, and the forthcoming novel "Mortal Love."


For The Love Of the Dark, 10/26/2003 Story Type:

A few years ago, I was walking home to where I used to live on Capitol Hill. It was late afternoon, a week before Halloween, one of those chilly golden days when cracked asphalt and broken bottles are hidden beneath oak leaves and horse chestnuts, and you can taste the air like Armagnac in the back of your mouth.

Suddenly a strange noise stopped me in my tracks. I looked around, saw no one, then turned and peered through a hedge to glimpse a very small boy, maybe 4 years old, standing all alone on top of a rock in a leaf-strewn yard. He was wearing a Dracula cape and fangs. As I watched, he lifted his arms, timidly, and began, in a very, very tentative voice to croon, "Booooo. . . . Booooo. . . . " I observed him at vampire practice for a while, long enough to note that as the shadows grew longer, and night descended, that shaky little voice grew louder and more confident, until he was shouting, "BOO!" at the top of his lungs.

I think of that little boy every year at this time. Part of it is recalling the intensity I felt as a child (and an adult) while in costume, the sheer exhilaration of being inside another's skin -- so this is what it's like to be Dracula! Catwoman! Marilyn Monroe! -- but also an accompanying terror: What if I can't get out of here? What if I can't get back to myself? There was also, though, something more primal -- the sense that night was falling, and maybe not night but Night, when something might say, "Boo!" back to me. And did I really want to be out there facing that alone?

Halloween is one of my two favorite holidays. Like Christmas, it has always been a season for me, and not a mere day. But not a season measured by sales of candy and decorations, Wal-Mart and Martha Stewart notwithstanding. For me and everyone else in the Northern Hemisphere, the Halloween season is signaled by the dying of the light. This is what spurred the ancient Irish to mark the day as Samhain, when the veil between our world and the other -- Faerie, the Land of the Dead -- grows thin enough that a mortal might pass through to the other side. Once there you could become trapped: A single night might pass, but when -- if -- you returned to our world, hundreds of years would have gone by; your home would have become unrecognizable, your loved ones would be dead, the face that met you in a mirror a skeletal vestige of your own. "Rip Van Winkle" is the most familiar American version of this tale, but its roots are deep and buried in the dark matter of myth.

The ancients believed this traffic between the worlds moved both ways, and not just at night. On Samhain, the entire day was fraught with danger. The dead walked, faerie women snatched human men as lovers; one could look through a hedge and see the past, toss nuts into a fire and in their burned husks read the future. Oh, and you could dress up and go door-to-door, begging for sweet soul-cakes to eat, though this, too, was asking for trouble. As Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warned some 1,300 years ago of another winter revel, "To those who go about at the Kalends of January garbed as a stag or an old woman, taking the form of beasts . . . three years penance, for the thing is devilish."

But Halloween isn't about Evil; it's about the Dark, about disguising ourselves and our most secret impulses so that, if we do succeed in momentarily passing through that veil to the Other Side, we won't be recognized or held accountable for what we do there. And I think that most of us do want to have a glimpse of what's down there in the dark; in spite of, or because of, our fears.

I've always loved costume parties: When I was 16, I talked my parents into letting me have a Black and White Ball, modeled after Truman Capote's notorious 1966 masquerade. My party was fabulous -- even if sitting around in the rec room in the dark listening to Jethro Tull's "Thick as a Brick" probably wasn't how Tru and Diana Vreeland and Andy Warhol had spent their evening. But it wasn't the Halloween party of my dreams. The veil was still there; the wall between our world and the mysterious otherworld remained way too thick, though not thick enough to keep my mother from bursting in and turning the lights back on.

This is what today's schlock-and-goremeisters don't get: that down there in the basement, in the dark, there is a mystery, and not just hormonal teenagers and a puddle of fake blood. The English historian Ronald Hutton is a great debunker of Celtic mysteries -- ley lines, Wiccan ceremonies, Druidic sacrifices, the provenance of many so-called ancient rituals that in fact are only a few hundred years old. But Hutton is surprisingly sympathetic to the neopagans themselves, and to the impulse that drives their belief -- the impulse to lay claim to an ancient part of our psyche and acknowledge that, whether or not there is actually a veil between the worlds, it seems important for us to have a symbol of one. It's important to draw a line to separate the everyday from the mysterious, while still sanctioning our need to engage with the latter, whether by dressing up, rereading "The Monkey's Paw" for the hundredth time, or just staring into a candle flame until things start to move at the corners of our eyes.

The ancient Roman Lucretius said: "It is in autumn that the starlit dome of heaven throughout its breadth and the whole earth are most often rocked by thunderbolts, and again when the flowery season of spring is waxing. . . . These then are the year's crises." Crisis: literally, a turning point. Halloween is our annual crisis of fear. Late autumn is when the earth tilts toward the dark and, seasonal creatures that we are, we feel it shift beneath our feet. Whether or not we like it -- whether we're even aware of it while we're buying candy at the mall and worrying about our kids being out alone as night falls -- our world moves in a circle, and we're part of the cycle.

This is the time of year to remember that; to go outside, all by yourself as the shadows are falling, and very, very quietly practice saying, "Boo."

Elizabeth Hand is a novelist living on the coast of Maine whose favorite ghost story for Halloween is the classic 1911 tale "The Beckoning Fair One," by British Gothic writer Oliver Onions.

The Secret History; A mercurial, sometimes brutal novel of learning and levity, 10/12/2003

QUICKSILVER, Volume One of the Baroque Cycle By Neal Stephenson. Morrow. 927 pp. $27.95

We have in our lap a Booke or Book, more particularly a Tome; viz., the first Volume of a Vast Undertaking that its author, Neal Stephenson, has named the Baroque Cycle. Said Author will be best-known for his earlier tales, Snow Crash, The Diamond Age and most especially Cryptonomicon, which earned him readers earnest and many; though these same readers would be advised that the present work is not a Scientific Romance nor yet a Thriller but a Phant'sy, though one with deep roots in the History of Science.

A book of immense ambition, learning and scope, Quicksilver is often brilliant and occasionally astonishing in its evocation of a remarkable time and place -- Europe in the age of Newton, Pepys and Locke, to name just a few of the myriad characters who flock across its pages. But it is also the latest novel to succumb to the obesity epidemic that, of late, afflicts much of America's literature as well as its populace.

Stephenson, whose Cryptonomicon became a touchstone of the Internet era, has admitted great admiration for David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest; and Quicksilver, while spinning a tale around the origins of the Modern Age, exhibits many of the now-familiar tics of the post-post-modern novel: footnotes, playlets, doggerel, seemingly infinite lists. There is much beauty and insight in Stephenson's novel, but there are also more than 900 pages. To paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, a contemporary of Quicksilver's many protagonists, the book is often nasty, brutal and long.

It begins with one Enoch Root visiting the colony of Massachusetts in 1713, in search of a man named Daniel Waterhouse. Fans of Cryptonomicon will recognize both these names, though it's Waterhouse's descendants who people that book; Enoch himself is immortal, or at least extremely long-lived.

Daniel, in his sixties and a fellow of the Royal Society of London, is attempting to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal Arts, but at Enoch's insistence he agrees to return to his native England. This first section of the book functions as a framing device -- most of Quicksilver takes place between 1661 and 1689 -- but it also gives us the first of innumerable cameo appearances by historical figures when Enoch encounters a very young Benjamin Franklin. These cameos sometimes give the novel the feel of an extremely extended and gross Classics Comic -- Samuel Pepys repeatedly pops up, showing everyone the kidney stone he keeps in his pocket -- but they also give the book much of its charm. They do not, alas, give it much in the way of momentum. Cryptonomicon was also a long book, but there Stephenson employed a propulsive narrative that is absent in his new novel.

Quicksilver's first section deals primarily with the younger Daniel Waterhouse and his circle. This includes Isaac Newton, Daniel's roommate at Trinity College; the mathematician Gottfried Leibniz; the cryptographer John Wilkins, founder of what became the Royal Society (and author of a proto SF work, The Discovery of a World in the Moone [1638]), whose Philosophical Language and Universal Character attempts to quantify all known information in stacks of cards; and, most memorably, the polymath anatomist Robert Hooke. These men form a veritable alembic of 17th-century intellectual life, indeed the crucible in which modern science, commerce and mathematics first took shape. Stephenson's intent appears to be to distill all of these things -- along with the development of the stock exchange, birth control, surgery, weaponry, modern politics and religion, and so on and so forth -- into the literary equivalent of the Alchemist's Stone, or at least a roaring good read.

Stephenson is not the first to use this rich material as the background for a novel. Peter Ackroyd, John Crowley, Iain Pears and Iain Sinclair, to name a few, have all been there before him. But the truly prodigious research that went into writing Quicksilver ultimately sinks it.

Every time the narrative starts to move -- and I mean page by page and sometimes even sentence by sentence -- Stephenson shackles it to a disquisition on coinage or sailing ships or the dizzyingly complex webs spun by rival political factions in 17th-century Europe. Some of this is fascinating -- lovely descriptions of Newton and his breakthroughs flash in and out of Quicksilver like the metal that gives the book its title -- but ultimately the narrative thread dissipates in a slurry of facts and those interminable lists. Stephenson also makes ample use of sly winks, nudges, kicks to and throttles of the reader, and employs far too many self-conscious anachronisms -- Venetian "Canal Rage" is only one of them.

Then Book One abruptly ends. Book Two is essentially a 300-page picaresque, presumably intended as a parody of same, with edifying information about commerce and manufacturing sprinkled here and there like pixie dust. The protagonists of this section are Jack Shaftoe the Vagabond King and his leman, the saucy, mathematically clever Eliza (who becomes a broker, natch). Shaftoe is another name that turns up in Cryptonomicon; his purpose here is mostly to provide comic relief and to suffer a few of the physical torments that Stephenson takes an undue pleasure in describing throughout the book. These include torture, surgery, vivisection, childbirth and, surprisingly, sex, which like much else in Quicksilver is reduced to its baser elements without ever becoming refined enough to stir the heart. But there are also remarkably funny, insightful discourses on 17th-century mores and fashion, which gave me hope that Stephenson might one day turn his talents to a secret history of women's couture: Manolo Blahnikonomicon.

Quicksilver's most intriguing elements remain the enigmatic Enoch Root, who carries a faint whiff of brimstone whenever he appears, and Leibniz's Arithmetickal Engine, described at one point as a "digital computer," which will "translate all human knowledge into a new philosophical language, consisting of numbers. To write it down in a vast Encyclopedia that will be a sort of machine, not only for finding old knowledge but for making new, by carrying out certain logical operations on those numbers -- and to employ all of this in a great project of bringing religious conflict to an end. . . . " Book Three attempts to dovetail the preceding storylines and characters, with mixed results. I read its final page with a combination of relief and great frustration because Quicksilver has wit, ambition and, despite its considerable longueurs, moments of real genius. Perhaps now that Stephenson has prepared the crowded stage of his monumental epic, the play proper can begin. *

Elizabeth Hand is the author of "Bibliomancy: Four Novellas," just published, and the forthcoming novel "Mortal Love."

The Word Made Flesh, 06/01/2003

TESTAMENT, By Nino Ricci, Houghton Mifflin. 456 pp. $25

"Christ is God clothed with human nature," wrote the 18th-century Cambridge Platonist Benjamin Whichcote. In Testament, Nino Ricci's intriguing though uneven new book, all sense of Christ's twofold nature is stripped away, so that only Christ's human fabric remains to be woven into a tapestry of historical accounts of the man here known as Yeshua.

Materialist versions of the life of Christ are not new; Jim Crace's Quarantine and Paul Park's The Gospel of Corax are just two recent examples. The problem is that if most of us know how it all turns out, then how do we wrest something novel from The Greatest Story Ever Told, Over and Over and Over Again?

Ricci, author of the award-winning The Book of Saints, takes the "Rashomon" approach. In Testament, Yeshua's life is recounted by four narrators, three of them easily recognizable from Gospel accounts. Yihuda (Judas), is a member of an underground movement striving to overthrow the Romans. Miryam of Migdal (Mary Magdalene) is a very young, very plain girl drawn by Yeshua's matter-of-fact inclusion of women in his circle of followers. Yeshua's mother, also named Miryam, was raped by a Roman soldier when she was only 14, and has seen her entire life overshadowed by Yeshua's illegitimacy. Finally, there is Simon of Gergesa, a high-spirited Syrian shepherd who is Ricci's own creation and Testament's most compelling character.

Ricci's command of his historical material is first-rate. He shows the shifting allegiances and constant undercurrents of intrigue among the various political, ethnic and religious groups -- Jews, Samaritans, Pagans, Romans, Greeks -- who compose both Yeshua's followers and his enemies. Throughout, Testament's prose is marked by an elegant understatement, which gives dignity and restraint to Ricci's tale. But it also makes for slow going; the narrative voices, except for Simon's, sound remarkably alike and affectless. Yeshua, either despite or because of his sheer mundaneness, remains a rather soft-focus central character. As Miryam of Migdal describes him, he "talked to me in such a way as no man had ever spoken to me before, as if every subject was permitted; and though I could hardly recall afterward what it was that we had discussed, still it seemed to me that he had reached inside me with his words to touch the inmost part of me."

Only Yeshua's mother is gradually distinguished, by a simmering rage and despair that give her account a power and drive lacking in those of Yihuda and Miryam of Migdal. "There was something between us like a grief we had shared or a secret that had not quite been spoken, and I remembered how it had been with us when he was small, the weight I had felt settle over me in his presence. It was the weight of his own single-mindedness, it seemed to me now -- I did not know what he intended for himself, or what the Lord intended for him, except that he saw that thing always visible before him like a distant point he must reach." In her narrative, Yeshua is seen as a brilliant, precocious prodigal son who takes to the streets of Alexandria, where he is educated by itinerant scholars and becomes embroiled in the riots that erupt among the city's myriad religious factions.

Long before Yeshua reaches adulthood, he finds himself estranged from his mother and his half-siblings, thanks to his intellectual curiosity and angry hauteur. He becomes a wandering holy man, speaking to small groups of followers who, like young Miryam of Migdal, are attracted to his plain-spokenness and eagerness to engage with those who don't agree with him. Yeshua is also a gifted healer and unafraid to visit the leper colony at Arbela, where he is accompanied by Yihuda. An educated man and Yeshua's sole intellectual equal, Yihuda is viewed with suspicion by the fishermen, masons, farmers and women who accompany Yeshua on his travels. Through one of Testament's neater twists, we see how the gossip and mistrust rampant among Yeshua's own camp cause the innocent Yihuda to become the now-familiar betrayer Judas.

It's in the final strand of Ricci's narrative that Testament truly comes alive.That's when Simon, a young Syrian shepherd, takes over the tale, along with his traveling companion Jerubal. A thief and general mischief-maker, Jerubal accompanies Simon to Jerusalem to take part in the Passover festival. Their encounters with Yeshua and his entourage take on a sly, "Life of Brian"-style edge, as Jerubal unwittingly contributes to Yeshua's legend through a series of pranks and deceptions. But once they enter Jerusalem, the two young men become witnesses to Yeshua's last rites and ultimately participants in his arrest and execution.

Here Nino Ricci pulls off a genuine tour-de-force. Testament's last 50 pages are grisly, wrenching and utterly absorbing -- Yeshua's all-too-human suffering and death have a real and terrible power, unrelieved by lightning flashes of divinity or miraculous interventions. *

Elizabeth Hand is the author of the forthcoming "Bibliomancy: Four Novellas" and "Mortal Love," a novel.

A Beautiful Mind, 02/02/2003

THE SPEED OF DARK, By Elizabeth Moon, Ballantine. 340 pp. $23.95

"Sometimes I wonder how normal normal people are," muses Lou Arrendale, the protagonist of Elizabeth Moon's splendid and graceful new novel, The Speed of Dark. Lou is not what most people would call "normal." He is autistic, and the heart of this ambitious, beautifully crafted book is his conflict over whether to engage in an experimental medical procedure that will make him normal -- i.e., like "most people," people like Lou's psychiatrist.

"When she . . . looks at me," Lou says, "her face has that look. I don't know what most people would call it, but I call it the I AM REAL look. It means she is real and she has answers and I am someone less, not completely real."

In Moon's very-near-future America, gene therapy has made it possible to cure neurological defects that cause the vast spectrum of autistic syndromes during infancy. Lou was born a few years too late for such a procedure, though early-intervention education and treatments have made it possible for him to live comfortably in mainstream society. Now in his late thirties, he has a job, an apartment, a car, friends who are, like himself, autistic, and friends who are not.

He works at a multinational pharmaceutical company, where he is one of a small number of autistic employees. His job is to scan a computer monitor, identifying patterns in the lines of symbols and numbers scrolling past so that the results can be used to develop new synthesized drugs.

Then Gene Crenshaw arrives as new division manager. Crenshaw's first order of business is to get rid of the autistic workers, whose specialized working conditions -- individual offices, their own enhanced gymnasium -- strike him as wasteful. He views their work with equal parts incomprehension and scorn. He threatens the autistic workers with dismissal unless they volunteer for a human-trials research protocol, a combination of drugs and nanotechnology that has been used successfully in animal trials but never on human subjects.

At first, Lou and his co-workers are angry, frightened and intimidated; fortunately, they have a sympathetic boss who immediately starts scrambling to obtain legal and medical assistance for them. But, of course, the volunteer trial is not just a threat: It's also a promise. If it's successful, Lou and his friends will finally have the opportunity for a normal life -- but what exactly would that mean?

Inevitably, The Speed of Dark has been compared to Daniel Keyes' classic and tragic Flowers for Algernon, in which a mentally disabled young man is medically enhanced to become a genius. The Speed of Dark may be an even greater book. True, Moon's plot deployment is rather clunky -- Crenshaw is such a model of rabid political incorrectness that it's hard to imagine him ever climbing the corporate ladder. But her novel isn't exactly intended to be a thriller; it is, rather, a subtle, eerily nuanced character portrait of a man who is both unforgettable and unlike anyone else in fiction.

Lou's obsessive attention to pattern details is what makes him brilliant at his work. His sensorium is so exquisitely attuned to them that, upon entering a room, he immediately notices the number of squares in a rug, their colors, the manner in which they are replicated. He sees, and hears, intricate patterns everywhere: in music, real and imagined; in cars lined up in a parking lot; in the fencing maneuvers his friends practice; in the stars overhead; and in the seemingly random movement of the pinwheel mobiles hanging in his office.

Yet he has difficulty following group conversations and identifying the emotions behind a sarcastic remark, or understanding what might impel a "normal" friend to harm him. As Lou begins to research the possible side effects of Crenshaw's experiment, as well as its moral and ethical dimensions, he also begins to weigh what he stands to lose -- the intense friendships he has made with a group of amateur fencers; his relationship with Marjory, a young woman he is in love with; his autistic friends, who may very well become unknowable to him after medical intervention; most of all, the self-knowledge and confidence that he posseses.

"I glance around my apartment and think of my own reactions, my need for regularity, my fascination with repeating phenomena, with series and patterns," he reflects. "Everyone needs some regularity; everyone enjoys series and patterns to some degree. I have known that for years, but now I understand it better. We autistics are on one end of an arc of human behavior and preference, but we are connected."

,p>In popular media, those with mental or behavioral disabilities are often portrayed as liminal beings, magical creatures whose disorderly lives redeem them or (even better) redeem us "real people." Think of the saintly savants in the films "Rain Man" and "Being There," the winsome lunatics of Phillipe de Broca's "King of Hearts," the martyred Randall McMurphy in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Too often, such characters are cardboard pasteups who represent an author's or filmmaker's agenda, not real people tethered to jobs and families and daily routines.

Moon, the parent of an autistic teenager, very quietly explodes all those stereotypes: The disorder can be heart-wrenching, frightening, isolating, challenging for people born with the syndrome and those close to them. Lou is an extremely high-functioning autistic, but he makes his way very carefully through a confusing world that, despite his career and that nice gym, makes few concessions to him or his co-workers. That it is "important not to scare people" is something he has learned through experience and observation; but even under close scrutiny, ordinary human interaction baffles him. Unsure whether Marjory likes him, Lou notes that normal people "know when someone likes someone and how much. They do not have to wonder. It is like their other mind reading, knowing when someone is joking and when someone is serious, knowing when a word is used correctly and when it is used in a joking way."

The end of The Speed of Dark is not unexpected, but it is marvelous all the same, and exceptionally moving in its balance of loss and wonder. "The edge is what I have," Theodore Roethke wrote in his most famous poem, "In a Dark Time"; what Lou Arrendale gradually realizes, what he ultimately gambles on, is that the edge is not all he has. It is a measure of Elizabeth Moon's genius that she enables a reader to thoroughly experience the world through Lou's tangled but exhilarating neurology, and wonder what we "normal" people are missing when we don't acknowledge our connection to those who seem so different from us. A lot of novels promise to change the way a reader sees the world; The Speed of Dark actually does. *

Elizabeth Hand is the author of the forthcoming "Bibliomancy: Four Novellas" and "Mortal Love," a novel.


Pages on Life's Way, 10/20/2002
THE CONQUEST, By Yxta Maya Murray HarperCollins. 288 pp. $24.95

Books provide a lush backdrop for Sara Rosario Gonzales, the protagonist of Yxta Maya Murray's hypnotic new novel, The Conquest. Sara is a rare book restorer at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. A more complete job description would note her tenure as Scheherazade to her on-again/off-again boyfriend and former high school sweetheart, Karl, a U.S. Marine who dreams of becoming an astronaut. For 16 years, Sara has been unable to commit to Karl, but her storytelling ability, combined with her sexual expertise, has kept the poor guy on tenterhooks.

Now, however, her hunky Marine is getting married to someone else. And not even Sara's extravagant bedside accounts of her latest discovery, a 16th-century manuscript attributed to a Hieronymite monk named Miguel Santiago de Pasamonte, can bind Karl to her. Or can they?

The Getty's entry for de Pasamonte's untitled folio reads, "A fanciful novel set in the era of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V." The folio tells the story of the daughter of an Aztec prince, a young woman "destined to become one of Montezuma's thousand wives." Yet her ambitions are loftier still: She wishes to become a juggler as great as Maxixa, who not only could spin a hundred silver balls in the air but in a command performance for Montezuma summons a greater globe, the moon.

Alas, only men are permitted to learn such artistry, but when the terrible Corte{acute}s arrives to slaughter her people, the young girl disguises herself as a juggler. In her masculine garb, she is captured by Corte{acute}s and brought to Italy as a gift for Pope Clement VII. After she has arrived safely in Rome, her female identity is revealed -- but not her true name, which she keeps secret. She also conceals her real objective, which is to kill the Emperor Charles to avenge the destruction of Tenochtitlan and its inhabitants. The Europeans, oblivious to anything save her beauty, call her Helen.

Sara, reading of Helen's exploits, determines that this manuscript and others attributed to de Pasamonte are actually the work of the Aztec woman herself. Sara titles the manuscript "The Conquest," and Yxta Maya Murray's account of Helen's adventures alternates with Sara's efforts to establish a provenance for the document, even as she attempts her own romantic conquest of Karl.

Helen's journeys across Europe are picaresque in the best sense of the word, evoking both Cervantes (among the characters in Don Quixote is an author named de Pasamonte) and Jan Potocki's The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Helen's desire for revenge vies with her search for her true love, a learned and lovely nun named Caterina. This quest takes Helen from Rome to Venice, where she nearly blinds Titian with her beauty; to a Spanish galleon, where she becomes the royal saucier; to a stronghold in the Ottoman Empire; and, at last, to the abbey where the Emperor Charles lies dying.

Meanwhile, back in present-day California, Sara stages one last siege upon Karl's beleaguered heart. The scenes featuring this pair, unfortunately, are the weakest parts of The Conquest. The earnest Karl, while sympathetically drawn, seems spectacularly ill-matched for the feisty, sexy bibliophile Sara, who seems most at home in the Getty's marvelously described galleries and archives. Murray's secondary characters are far more compelling. There is Sara's father, Reynaldo, a successful businessman who long ago left Chihuahua to build skyscrapers in Long Beach; and her mother, Beatrice, who during the course of a museum visit with the 9-year-old Sara stole a leaf from an ancient Mesoamerican manuscript, firing her daughter's heart and mind with tales of their Aztec heritage.

"Why'd I take it?" Beatrice asks her daughter. "Because it didn't belong to them, that's why . . . those people, their eyes have no idea what they're looking at when they see the pretty pictures. They are looking at me, and they don't know it. They are looking at you."

Most memorable is Teresa Shaughnessey, Sara's boss at the Getty. Teresa, a former lecturer at Harvard, is a recipient of a Guggenheim and a MacArthur grant. But a bout with cancer has caused her to re-examine her values in a big way -- she starts hosting clandestine parties in the Getty at night, inviting her fellow "scholars, curators, artists, and restorers" to "drink white wine from ciboria made of Roman glass and paw each other on eighteenth-century fainting couches." Security at Dumbarton Oaks, take note.

As The Conquest draws to a close, Sara and the fictional Helen struggle to find a place in worlds that do not immediately welcome them, as women, as lovers, or as artists. Yet in the end both do triumph, romantically and otherwise. Some readers may wish that the willful, passionate Sara had chosen the more unconventional route followed by her 16th-century counterpart, but few readers will be disappointed in Murray's clever and spellbinding account of their journeys. *

Elizabeth Hand's seventh novel is the forthcoming "Mortal Love."


Cast Away, 05/19/2002

THE LETO BUNDLE, By Marina Warner, Farrar Straus Giroux. 407 pp. $26

Marina Warner's expansive and entertaining explorations of folklore, sexuality, storytelling and pop culture have given her bestseller status in the somewhat rarefied world of cultural historians, along with writers such as Carlo Ginzburg, Angela Carter, Camille Paglia and Bruno Bettelheim. Warner's best-known works -- From the Beast to the Blonde, No Go the Bogeyman, Alone of All Her Sex -- are feminist exegeses of fairy tales, popular and classical myths, and religious icons, couched in a lyrical prose that makes genre-defying leaps among topics as disparate as Hesiod's Theogeny, the brutally hilarious excesses of Struwwelpeter, Nintendo games and The Odyssey.

But Warner is also a very fine fiction writer, with five novels to her credit. Her newest, The Leto Bundle, blends classical scholarship with more recent history -- the ongoing misery of the Bosnian conflict -- to create a powerful contemporary myth of refugees, statelessness and the most primal legend of all, that of the Divine Mother and her children.

Most contemporary fabulists plunder the Greek pantheon for its heroic or picaresque values. With The Leto Bundle, Marina Warner has taken on a more challenging task, that of reinvigorating a lesser-known myth and making it both her own and timeless.

In the classical tale, the Titan Leto coupled with Zeus, who promised to protect her and her twin children when they were born. Dismayed by his wife's wrath when she discovered his infidelity, Zeus abandoned his pregnant lover. Fearful of Hera's revenge, even the very earth rejected her.

Poor Leto -- who is about 14 in Warner's retelling -- is driven from one place to the next. She finally finds sanctuary on the desolate isle of Delos, where her twins, Apollo and Artemis, are born. A wolf, herself a mother, is the only creature who aids the hapless little family as they are beaten and driven out of hiding by those who hate the very sight of powerless outsiders with no man to protect them.

Thousands of years later, Leto's story is rediscovered by a museum curator, Hortense Fernly, "the deputy keeper of Classical Antiquities at the National Museum of Albion." Fernly is in charge of an ancient bit of flotsam recently put on display: "Cartonnage, gilded and painted, high relief, glass eyes and braided wig. Mummified body inside wrapped in coffering style of weave. Linen, papyrus, horsehair, glass, human remains. Found in sarcophagus . . . lid with scene of Bacchic frenzy? Nativity scene."

Within days of its appearance in the museum, this bundle of oddments begins to draw attention, not just from serious museum goers or curatorial staff but from the less desirable human flotsam -- homeless people, students and schoolchildren, assorted eccentrics -- who also make museums their homes, especially on rainy afternoons. It is these folks who start leaving notes and offerings to the mummified figure later known as Leto. One of them, an idealistic schoolteacher named Kim McQuy, becomes increasingly obsessed with the archaeological remains. Kim has visions of Leto talking to him; he wants to incorporate her into his Web site, History Starts With Us, as a symbol of the refugee's plight in modern Europe.

Kim begins corresponding with Dr. Fernly, who arranges for him to read the translations of the papyrus scrolls found with the Leto bundle. The scrolls, and the journal kept by their 19th-century plunderer, tell tales that intersect across time and place, from ancient Greece through the 12th century and into the Victorian era. Yet all the stories feature the same central character, known variously as Laetitia, Lettice, Nellie -- a very young unmarried woman with twin children, a boy and a girl, all three gaunt and near starvation, all three forever seeking refuge, forever cast back into a maelstrom of unceasing violence between religious and ethnic factions that continues down through the centuries.

Warner's depiction of the childish Leto is heartbreaking. Uneducated, still bound by filaments of desire and affection for the men who use and then abandon her, Leto feeds and comforts her children as a wild thing does, nursing them until they're 5 or 6 years old, seeking always to find a better life for them, though without hope for one herself. Only a small miracle concerning the twins gives them any standing at all: Neither possesses a navel; this symbolizes their divine origin.

When Leto's wanderings bring her to Tirzah, a place very like present-day Bosnia, the story takes on even more ominous overtones, for Leto and for Kim McQuy. Because Kim himself is a displaced person: As a toddler in Tirzah, he was sold by his mother to a middle-class English couple. The adult Kim has almost no memory of his mother, now called Ella or Ellie; but she has not forgotten him, and neither has Kim's twin sister, Phoebe. Years later Ella and Phoebe make their way to England (called Albion by Warner), where their lives and Kim's once more intersect.

The Leto Bundle is strongest in this portrayal of a woman who, through all her desperate incarnations, remains a recognizable and sympathetic figure, not just a pathetic symbol of the dispossessed. Leto's sojourn as a menial hotel worker in contemporary Tirzah is extremely powerful. Less successful are the assorted plotlines woven through the modern sections of the story, especially those involving a self-absorbed folk singer named Gramercy Poule.

Marina Warner understands that myths, unlike movies or novels, never truly come to an end. And so in its closing pages The Leto Bundle circles back upon itself. Its haunting final image, that of a homeless woman wandering alone across 21st-century Europe, is redeemed by the small hope generated by the fragile web of human contacts Leto/Ella has left behind in Albion. Perhaps, this time, someone will come after her, and she will at last find a home. *

Elizabeth Hand is at work on her seventh novel, "Mortal Love."


Pox Americana 09/16/2001, AFTER THE PLAGUE * And Other Stories By T.C. Boyle
Viking. 303 pp. $25.95

T.C. Boyle was at the University of Iowa in the mid-1970s. In those days giants still roamed the earth, and he studied with the likes of Frederick Exley, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, John Irving and Vance Bourjaily, Boyle's mentor in the Iowa Writers Workshop. By the early 1980s Boyle was already earning awards for his novels and short fiction, a track that he has followed steadily since then, garnering a handful of O. Henry Awards, Guggenheim and NEA Fellowships and the PEN/Faulkner Award, among many others.

Boyle's later novels tend to meander, as in the rather shambolic grotesqueries of The Road to Wellville and Riven Rock, but his short fiction remains among the very best published in the last few decades. T.C. Boyle Stories (1988) collected 68 of these; After the Plague adds 16 more, including two O. Henry Award winners, "The Love of My Life" and "The Underground Gardens." The first of these deals with a pair of teenage lovers, Ivy League-bound, whose lives are derailed by the girl's pregnancy and the couple's subsequent abandonment of their newborn daughter. Readers expecting remorse or tenderness on the part of the guilty parties, however, are unfamiliar with Boyle's trademark sense of irony and detachment: "Even if it was alive, and it was, he knew in his heart that it was . . . it didn't matter, or shouldn't have mattered. . . . When he really thought about it, thought it through on its merits and dissected all his mother's pathetic arguments about where he'd be today if she'd felt as he did when she was pregnant herself, he hardened like a rock, like sand turning to stone under all the pressure the planet can bring to bear. Another unwanted child in an overpopulated world? They should have given him a medal."

Other stories take their cues from yesterday's headlines. The narrator of "Killing Babies" is a former crack addict taken in by his brother, a doctor whose abortion clinic is under siege by chanting protesters. Here the lines blur between moral rightness and delusional self-righteousness, and the tale ends in a scene of nightmarish confrontation right out of The Day of the Locust. "Captured by the Indians" charts a similar decline into violence and despair. A woman avoids telling her oafish partner of her pregnancy, all the while haunted by two disparate, horrific events: an 1862 massacre of women and children by rampaging Sioux and the present-day threat of a serial murderer known as the train killer. The story's final sentence contains more genuine horror and menace than this entire summer's worth of scary movies.

Sometimes, though, Boyle's technical facility subverts the power of his work. "Termination Dust," "She Wasn't Soft," "Mexico" and "Death of the Cool" rely too heavily on similar tone and elements -- alcoholic, feckless guys, grimly determined women, surprise endings that don't quite surprise. The attempt at surreal comedy in "The Black and White Sisters" simply falls flat. More successful are those stories where Boyle extends his range, as in the sweetly resigned tone of "Achates McNeil," whose pseudonymous (and miserable) narrator is the college-age son of an Incredibly Famous Countercultural Writer, a J.D. Salinger/Hunter Thompson/Jack Kerouac/Thomas Pynchon kind of guy who sounds a teensy bit like Boyle himself -- "A skinny man in his late forties with kinky hair and a goatee who dressed like he was twenty-five and had a dead black morbid outlook on life and twisted everything into the kind of joke that made you squirm." (Another nice touch is the name of the narrator's girlfriend, Victoria Roethke.) And the mordant, very funny "Friendly Skies" is an inspiration to frequent fliers everywhere: the account of one woman's very, very bad air day, and a stellar example of how to make Travellers' Rage work for you.

Boyle has acknowledged the influence of absurdist playwrights such as Eugene Ionesco; but at their best his most recent stories bring to mind the surreal juxtapositions of another American writer, the F. Scott Fitzgerald of "A Diamond as Big as the Ritz" and "The Ice Palace." The lonely protagonist of "Peep Hall" discovers that the ordinary-seeming house where a lovely neighbor lives is, in fact, peephall.com, where cameras are trained round-the-clock on its nubile inhabitants. The tale, evocative of Yasunari Kawabata's House of the Sleeping Beauties, ends on an uncharacteristically wistful note. "Going Down" cuts between a man alone in his house during a snowstorm and scenes from the science fiction novel he reads while waiting for his wife to return from her ill-timed shopping expedition. "The Underground Gardens" follows the tragicomic career of a Sicilian immigrant in California during the early years of the last century; when his 70 acres of hardscrabble turn out to be incapable of sustaining anything green, he starts digging and never stops.

After the Plague's title story is best and most improbable of all: a tale of apocalypse with a happy ending. If (as seems likely) the world is going to hell in a handbasket, it would be a very good idea to pack Boyle's latest book, so you'll have something to read on the way. *

Elizabeth Hand is the author of seven novels, including the forthcoming "Walking in Flames."

Nights in the Tropics, 06/10/2001

MY GRANDMOTHER'S EROTIC FOLKTALES, By Robert Antoni Grove. 201 pp. $24

Imagine listening to a bawdy, laughing Scheherezade whose off-color tales lilt to a calypso beat. That's the voice of Maria Rosa de la Plancha Domingo, narrator of Robert Antoni's My Grandmother's Erotic Folktales, a collection of linked stories as surprising and luminous as a hidden tropical waterfall.

Antoni's two novels, Divina Trace (winner of the Commonwealth Writers prize) and Blessed Is the Fruit, showcased his gift for combining a ripe Caribbean patois with an elegantly stylized island mythos. My Grandmother's Erotic Folktales is a sort of West Indian Nights: tales within tales within tales, told to a grandson by the 97-year-old Maria (known as Skippy or Skip) as she recalls her youth on the bustling island of Corpus Christi during World War II. This is when the American troops appeared, seizing the young widow's cocoa estate and turning it into a naval base: "Let me tell you every whorewoman in Corpus Christi descended straight away on that place . . . because it's true what they say that the Yankees would pay any amount of money because they don't have no sex in America, and that is why the Americans only like to fight wars."

Like Scheherazade, Skip spins her tales to protect the honor of her daughters and young countrywomen: She runs a respectable boarding house, satisfying her Yankee soldiers with cerveza, spicy food and "The Story of General Monagas' Pearlhandled Pistol and the Tiger that Liked to Eat Cheese" and "The Tail of the Boy Who Was Born a Monkey."

Like any heroine worth her salt, Grandmother and her beautiful female charges are beset by unwanted suitors. The framing stories in this collection feature two nefarious con men, the Kentucky Colonel and the King of Chacachacari. Their absurd efforts to bilk the widow of her money include a search for buried treasure and having her invest in Skippy's Pizza Parlor. The Colonel also starts a radio station, announcing he will henceforth be called Wolfman Jack; this last doesn't fool the canny widow, since "everyone with sense knows he won't be appearing on the radio with he big caveman beard for another twenty years!"

Amusing as they are, the misadventures of the King and the Colonel

seem labored, their mix of Caribbean folklore and American pop culture like one of those fusion recipes that never quite come together in the cookpot. More captivating are Antoni's versions of classic folktales. "The Tale of How Crab-o Lost His Head" is an island version of Rumpelstiltskin, wherein a young orphan girl must guess the real name of the most beautiful woman in the village of Blanchisseuse or else go to bed hungry each night, never tasting the island's wealth -- "a pawpaw, or a ripe mammy-sapote fruit. A hand of sweet-plaintains, or little sicreyea-bananas, or soft silk-figs. A few portugals, dillies, julie-mangoes or eden or doudou. Sugarapples, guavas, caimets, or whatever else was in season. . . ."

Antoni's island dialect begs to be spoken aloud, and one sometimes has the delightful sense of reading a distinctively adult Dr. Seuss -- "nobody had never given her no flowers before, not even the blossoms of a stinking-toe bush." But the narrator's voice can grow wearying; its rich patois and relentlessly earthy humor make one yearn occasionally for the acidic bite of real life or even tragedy. Despite their title, My Grandmother's Erotic Folktales are less silkily erotic than belly-laugh ribald, often scatological, with humor reminiscent of a Farrelly Brothers movie (and not quotable here).

And then the storyteller gives us "The Tale of How Iguana Got Her Wrinkles," a lush, sensual account of forbidden love that truly does achieve the timeless quality of myth and folklore for which Antoni obviously strives. By the end of this book, one can believe in almost anything, including Skippy's instrumental part in the Normandy invasion. Like her Yankee friends, one leaves these tales feeling replete, grateful and slightly dazed by the magic worked by a nonagenarian storyteller who has "remained young and sweet sweet forever!" *

Elizabeth Hand is the author of seven novels, including the forthcoming "Walking in Flames."

Test-Tube Genius, 05/27/2001

THE SONG OF THE EARTH, Written and Illustrated by Hugh Nissenson, Algonquin. 244 pp. $24.95

It's not often that one encounters a compulsively readable, brilliantly conceived novel about Big Ideas, so readers take note: Hugh Nissenson's The Song of the Earth is the Real Thing. The biography of a fictional 21st-century artist named John Firth Baker, The Song of the Earth draws on letters, journal entries, original art and interviews, a form popularized almost 20 years ago by George Plimpton and Jean Stein in Edie.

Imaginary biography has been done before, of course -- think of Steven Millhauser's Edwin Mullhouse or, more recently, Brook Hansen and Nick Davis's Boone, which has a template similar to that of The Song of the Earth. And Nissenson's previous novel, The Tree of Life, was the fictional journal of a 19th-century minister; it was nominated for both the PEN/Faulker and National Book awards.

This time Nissenson looks forward, not back. The Song of the Earth is couched as the book that accompanies a retrospective show commemorating the 10th anniversary of the murder of artist John Firth Baker. Born in 2038, Baker is identified as the world's first genetically engineered artist. In fact, he is one of three "arsogenic metamorphs" whose birth mothers engage in a risky (and, in the United States, illegal) experiment, agreeing to be artificially inseminated by Frederick Rust Plowman, an American scientist working in Japan. Plowman has isolated the genes that govern creative tendencies, but his research indicates that DNA isn't enough. He believes that the withholding of maternal affection may also be a crucial ingredient in producing a great artist, composer, writer, musician. Two of the women involved in his undertaking agree to a horrific, if short-term, experiment; one of them is Jeanette Baker, John Firth Baker's lesbian mother, who deliberately stops taking her antidepressant medication for the six months following his birth.

All three nascent artists -- John Baker, a Japanese boy named Yukio Tanaka, and a Russian, Nadia Kammerovska -- are precocious children, growing up in a world ravaged by global warming and the fault lines left by decades of gender- and religious-inspired terrorism. And they are not the only genetically engineered people making their way through this bleak yet exhilarating landscape. Among others, there are Alex Thomas, a young composer, and Ishtar Teratol (her name makes punning use of the Latin teratogen, monster), who has been designed at great expense by the World Humin Chess Grandmaster's Association "with but one aim: to someday regain for the human race the world chess championship, which has been held by IBM's chess maven since 2009." Along with John Baker, these young people endure the hatred and envy of "naturally gifted artists." The depiction of these myriad cults and factions at war with each other -- Gaian, gynarchic, phallocentric -- is hilarious, witty and depressingly believable.

Nissenson dives into deep waters with his novel -- not just into the relationships between Science and Art, maleness and femaleness, but into the often dangerous confluence of creativity, sexual desire, obsession, and religious and political zealotry. When John Firth Baker is a child, his artistic talents are wholeheartedly encouraged by his mother. But John is also gay, and in adolescence he becomes fixated on the leader of a neo-pagan cult, a transgendered Gaian guru named Billy Lee Mookerjee. This obsession leads John to undergo sexual surgery himself and to become a member of the Gaian cult, decisions that estrange him from Jeannette and have a lasting impact upon his art and its cultural legacy.

The Song of the Earth evokes earlier sf novels about the risks of artistic obsession; Thomas M. Disch's haunting On Wings of Song and Samuel R. Delany's classic Dhalgren and Triton come immediately to mind. John Firth Baker himself is reminiscent of the true-life archetypes embodied by people such as Basquiat and Rimbaud, though Nissenson more deliberately invokes Charlotte Salomon, the Holocaust victim who cast her autobiography as art in the groundbreaking multimedia work "Life? or Theater?" Re-creating the flavor of "real" art is itself risky business, and Nissenson's book is weakest when it presents poems and images meant to hold iconic significance for their 21st-century audience.

Still, the ambitions of The Song of the Earth, like those of John Firth Baker, are seemingly endless and ultimately commendable. The brief arc of Baker's life ends violently when he is 19, yet even in this Nissenson pushes the envelope: Baker's work is posthumously appropriated by the Gaian cult the young man eventually abandoned to pursue his art. In life and death, Hugh Nissenson's protagonist leaves burning contrails across his near-future America. This novel seems likely to have a similar impact upon contemporary fiction. *

Elizabeth Hand is working on a novel about artistic obsession, "Walking in Flames."

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