I love this book so much I'm writing a whole fresh review of it on reread. I finally got my own copy, and I spent one whole wonderful day going down iI love this book so much I'm writing a whole fresh review of it on reread. I finally got my own copy, and I spent one whole wonderful day going down into the depths.
The first time, a couple years ago, I had no clue what I was getting into, at all. I had never heard of this book in my entire life. Now, my sister and I love it so much, I feel like we should keep our copies in our nightstands like Gideon Bibles. Or, more truly to its nature, go around placing them in other people's nightstands.
This is a desert-island book, for me, because just for example I could sit and read the opening lines of it over and over for hours. I really could.
"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead."
If that narrator doesn't make your eyeballs bug right out of your face for a minute… maybe I might not want to talk to you any more? Really?
And then next, immediately after that, it's the library books. They've been on the shelf for five months! Maybe she should have chosen differently, if she'd known they were the last. Then her trips to town, twice a week, and not being too scared to order the coffee, then leaving when someone else comes in, but "without seeming hurried." Which side of the street to walk on. Everyone in the grocery staring. And wait, you said you never opened those library books? This was five months ago?
And then you're on page nine. And it keeps coming. The moon. The song. It's one of the best first chapters of anything.
The whole thing is like this. This goddamned bewitchingly fastidious way of talking and something just is wrong. Reading the book feels like being out in a field in early March after it's rained and it's still real cold, the ground is kind of soggy and it's too dark, probably it's going to rain again, but you're looking at the grass and the rocks and it's nice and there's these couple of white daffodils over here, don't they know it's not quite spring? What time is it, anyway? When I read it, I am so happy but I am worried the whole time for when it's going to break. I feel like there's a draft and I need to put on a sweater.
Since it would be ridiculous to complete an actual line-by-line review of a whole novel, I will just make a list of things I love the second time through, and didn't mention the first time.
* I am on the moon. I am living in a house on the moon. Merricat has so many ways of dissociating her way out of a situation that disturbs her, and they are all so much more disturbing than where she starts. You get it right away, in the grocery, the visualizing: they are crying with pain and dying. I am walking on their bodies. Just to get through shopping, to cope with coffee. It's the first layer upon layer of things that carry us through the book, inside her head.
* Practically the entire narrative thread is simply floating along the stream of Merricat's magical thinking. As the plot unfolds, she keeps herself so busy dealing with it, thinking these thoughts, planning these charms (a book nailed to a tree; so many buried things), watching for signs and making protections against them. Filling the world with symbols: small bits of paper will remind her to be kinder to Uncle Julian; long, thin things will remind her to be kinder to Uncle Julian. Making the rules. Undoubtedly the best part of a reread: watching her make rules. I am not allowed.
* She wears her mother's shoes? Everything is so old. So ordered. But they've slipped from something staid and nice, like preserving their family's objects and habits, into these wacko superstitions and routines. Just the fact that teatime is the great terror. All of Merricat's routines have this very scary edge to them (and also panicked, phobic, that it could all end), and all of Constance's are tender and tearable like tissue paper. Together they've devolved into this over-adapted Grey Gardens type of crazy isolation from real life. But their world is so sweet, inside. Constance, always cooking. Merricat, adoring. Completely, really, the sweetest.
* It isn't enough to throw a question mark into the backstory, but Uncle Julian's weird mistaken persistence about Mary Katherine was so striking. He's old and senile and dying and confused, and so he misremembers the history, and even when she is there in the room, he is sure that Mary Katherine died, during that time in the orphanage that we know so tantalizingly little about. Except, all Uncle Julian does is pore over the history. So why does he wrongly insist on this? The way that it's all arranged, he only ever interacts with Constance… and we know who makes the rules. Right? This part just kind of hooks into me and hangs there on its own and I like it.
* Also: "They quarrelled hatefully that last night," he says. But about what. About who.
This is a story with a small twist of a sort, which is why half my original review is in spoiler tags and it's hard to get into specifics about. More of a perspective-shifter, a confirmation rather than a surprise. But so matter-of-fact it is just spooky, and changes everything.
I love it so much. And like. You could read it in one sitting, if you really wanted to. How is it possible. How does it exist. "I am so happy."...more
This is what I think I'd call an "accomplishment read." On its own, Titus Alone doesn't work at all. I read it, though, as a completist, so that I couThis is what I think I'd call an "accomplishment read." On its own, Titus Alone doesn't work at all. I read it, though, as a completist, so that I could know about it for myself. However, the book's fate is made even sadder by the fact this third book in the Gormenghast trilogy doesn't work as part of its series, either.
This is pretty well-covered knowledge: Book One and Book Two take place in the same setting, with the same rules and people and purpose. At the end of Book Two, our hero Titus takes off for adventure, and thus Book Three is destined to be different. This isn't necessarily bad news for the series, as a new setting by itself isn't what makes the book fail.
The setting, though, is pretty surprising. Titus, somehow, has wandered and become lost in something rather closely approximating our own world. He doesn't know how to get home (if he wanted to) and nobody's ever heard of Gormenghast. Within the first couple of pages, someone drives up to Titus in a car, and you are like "Wait holy shit is that a car!!??" and then suddenly, there with Titus, you've got cars, and airplanes, and cities and factories and houses. (Previously, I've described Gormenghast's setting as quasi-Victorian, not that I'm a historian — but you've got candelabras, horses, etc. and the social order is some strange blend of pre-Industrial Revolution aristocracy and serfdom.) It is a culture shock, then, to end up here — although strangely, evidently not as much a shock to Titus as it is to us.
That's generally the irksome nature of this book. Questions you expect characters to ask, things you expect would surprise them, don't. They don't react to anything at all, and the book therefore can't make any sense of itself. It starts out strange, then, and just devolves further into strangeness of a comic proportion. It's incoherent and inconsistent, and hard to describe how odd and sudden the developments are — someone will show up and say, "I have been watching you, devoted to you for many years, hidden in your forest," and the lady will say, "Okay, let's go then!" and then they do and then he's just a guy who's with them, no big deal, for absolutely no reason. It almost, almost is convincing as an absurdist story, but it really doesn't work out.
Similarly, it is kind of playing with the building blocks of a good old bildungsroman, but the blocks are sort of dumb. Titus (who is roughly aged at around 20, here), in his exploration of this new world, meets a nice lady and gets a nice sexual awakening. But pretty much the only momentum of the story comes in the form of Titus's restlessness, and so, on he must wander, sowing oats. And so the primary plot points of his arc in this book pretty much = becoming entangled with a woman + soon he must leave her.
When we do get something resembling a real plot, near the end, it is because he has pissed off a girl he's rejected in this way. And unfortunately, I couldn't really read around how weird and screwed up Peake wrote Titus's put-downs of the girl, Cheeta (?! that's her name ok), whom Titus finds deplorable except that he wants to sleep with her. She's kinda rightfully insulted by his attitude. Then — because she is our villain? — in her fury she decides to crush him. We spend a while tensely anticipating the performance of her great scheme, a secret plan to ruin him, a colossally big event that welcomely feels similar to Steerpike's (much more fabulous) schemes in the previous novels. She decides (view spoiler)[to put together an enormous replica of Gormenghast including life-size effigies of all Titus's family and friends, living and dead, in an effort to drive him mad. (Conveniently, she spent a long while nursing him out of a delirious fever in which he apparently described everyone and everything in accurate and coherent detail.) (hide spoiler)] — but I SWEAR TO GOD, I thought she was gonna try and marry him. That's the kind of story it is like. In the end, (view spoiler)[Titus abandons his friends again after they've rescued him from this horrid event (and one of them has died saving him) and he ends up back at Gormenghast… only to turn around again, and wander off a different way, as if he didn't return at all. (hide spoiler)] And that's the end of our trilogy.
Why three stars, then, if I consider the book a failure? Partly sentiment, yes, and a pitying respect, and context. Mostly, though: even though nothing in this book makes much sense at all, Mervyn Peake's writing remains glorious. And this is an eminently respectable accomplishment as Peake, famously, continued writing and plotting this series while his health was degraded by Parkinson's-related dementia (the first cited symptom of which is an "inability to plan"). This book was more or less his last writing. The author clearly suffered from cognitive failures that, undoubtedly, were far deeper and more painful than can be represented by a novel failing to make sense. I forgive him.
What's shocking to me is that even as Peake's mind degenerated, his language here is astonishingly weird and wonderful and deep and I needed a dictionary, just like the previous books. There are some passages of immense beauty — fewer, but they're here, and that makes the book invaluable. It couldn't be clearer that the author's skill is not to blame for this particular book's weakness as a novel. I expected that this would read as though it were a different mind entirely that had written it, but it wasn't. I recognize it, and it's the part of the experience of reading through Gormenghast that means the most. These books are a treasure in English, no matter what else.
I expect I have some final feelings about the whole shebang still to come, but as far as Book Three goes, I don't know what else to say. I'm sorry that it had to end this way, but still. Still, indeed.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This book. I didn't think I loved it too much. But I have noticed that it placed some things inside me that have stayed. They're me now. I'm very gratThis book. I didn't think I loved it too much. But I have noticed that it placed some things inside me that have stayed. They're me now. I'm very grateful for the places I get my ideas and knowledge from, and this was a great book for that. I will always round up for that. That makes it a keeper.
I think, for me, this book is more important in chunks. As a whole, it felt puzzling — it's a book of raw materials. It took a while to reach me. And this was confusing, because there is a lot of feeling at the surface level, here. We have dual narratives, Ruth the author (actual Ruth the author) and Nao the diarist, and in the novel, both of them are in crisis. Nao, in particular, is experiencing some real horrors in the chapters of hers we share, and declares herself on the brink of suicide. Ruth, having found this diary, weaves its contents into all the painful and confusing questions of her own life and identity that she is experiencing. These are some pretty good feelings, in a book, but they didn't come to me easily.
And it's really because of the stuff. They are burdened with it. The dual narratives are themselves about so, so many things, and each thing grows its own space, subdivided and subdivided until the feelings that you expect you're reading about become ideas instead. That's what my experience was. But the ideas are not small, or even digestible at all; they are lifelong, and I feel the awe of gratitude to this book for getting me to think (and feel) them.
So I don't think I'm using this review space to try and explain what happens and why. That's not what was interesting for me, or what I connected to, so instead we're gonna talk about ideas.
Nao's story ends up mining far into her past, and some of my favorite elements here were about things one and two generations older than her. We learn about the literature of feminism that came out of Japan's brief democratic period in the early 20th century. The text name-checks the work of several women writers: Kanno Sugako, who wrote Reflections on the Way to the Gallows after conspiring to assassinate the emperor with a bomb; Fumiko Enchi, a novelist and playwright; Akiko Yosano, a poet and social reformer. (The bibliography also points me to Hiratsuka Raicho, suffragist and founder of a feminist literary journal.) In addition to how impressive and relatively obscure these thought leaders were, I was also introduced to the concept of the "I-novel," a form of reflective fiction that seems to be rather masculine in its extant works, but in this book is all wrapped up amongst these women. (More sourcesabout it in the bibliography, too.)
Nao learns about these things because her great-grandmother Jiko ran with this crowd, was a writer, was an activist. When her son Haruki died as a kamikaze pilot in the war, she left those things and became a nun. Now, when she teaches Nao, they are all fitting together: she says, the feminist poets, the Zen, it will all make you strong. SUPAPAWA!
By far the most emotional segment of the book comes from this kamikaze pilot, Haruki. He gets mentioned a lot (Nao's father is named after him), but the real exploration of him comes so deep and late in the novel that it almost feels like it constitutes a spoiler. Which is what's so strange about this book — it opens up in ways that make emotions feel like spoilers. But, the things we learn from this section are wondrous, the conscripted student soldiers, writing to us as they prepare to die. We get to see several writings that belonged to Haruki, and diaries like these are very real things. And that is pretty stunning. A novel about this subject, listed in the bibliography, appears to be extremely hard to track down. … Which is kind of fitting.
In some ways, the novel is about the impermanence of information and truth. If you erase something, if it's digital, is it still real? Ruth spends a good amount of time in this book Googling, desperate for information about the innermost souls of people she is observing from afar. Does she have a right to know? What was the true intention of a kamikaze pilot? If you write for someone but don't know who your reader will be (hello, internet!), are they a real person yet? If you pretend a teenage girl doesn't exist, will she die?
How, how, how can we talk about this book. There are thirty more things to discuss. I've got all day. I'll just pick one though.
It's Zen Buddhism! Okay. Ozeki, in real life, is ordained as a priest, and so her teaching in the book has the heft of good authority. Nao spends a lot of time talking about it. Her great-grandmother is her rock, and this great-grandmother is a nun in a remote mountain temple, and that's that.
Nao's time visiting Jiko's temple was my favorite event in the book. It felt special to me. She goes there tortured and raw, and therefore so, so open, and she doesn't know it. But she follows the rules, she makes the full-body bows of gratitude for every single thing, and she learns. It's her tool for healing. She does zazen. It helps.
I finished reading the second half of this book in one afternoon, ostensibly because my book club met soon, but mostly because that day I felt too peaceful to stop. I felt so lucky! It was so kind of the world to let me read. I watched the clouds moving by outside my window, the afternoon light changing, me reading. How many moments are in a fingersnap?
I will admit that lately I have been seeking. I have been finding teachers everywhere. Recently I saw the "Do Nothing For 2 Minutes" website. And it is a joke of course, a whole website for this, Ha, ha, I don't need a website in order to accomplish nothing for two minutes, thanks though! But then you go there and it says "FAIL" right away, and you're like wait, just a second, I don't want to fail. I didn't know it was a real test. You're really watching me, website? You are holding me accountable? You really want me to succeed at this? Me? I'm just somebody stupid. But no, this is in my power! The key is that it's nothing! Anybody can do nothing. What do I even have to give up, how much am I holding on to, this minute? Isn't this "nothing" about attachment, really? Isn't this website like a little zen master for the internet?
I mean, probably not. But I like to be optimistic sometimes? Question mark?
One day at the temple, it all starts to "click" for Nao, and she admits that she said thank you to the toilet. And she's like, wow, I just thanked a toilet? But actually I do appreciate it a lot?
The other day, in my real life, I did this with a stepstool in the kitchen where I'm short, and I accomplished something up on a high shelf and I felt good, so when I put the stepstool back I said "Thank you, stepstool, I appreciate what you do for me!" And then I was like, wow, I just thanked a stepstool. But actually I do appreciate it a lot.
So that's where we are, me and this book. A teacher, I think, is a good thing to have....more
I caught up on the website and noticed the second part of this series was published online (along with the first, which I read in hard copy). I was buI caught up on the website and noticed the second part of this series was published online (along with the first, which I read in hard copy). I was bummed when I learned that this was only a two-part series — it's a really rich part of the Gunnerkrigg story, but I guess the author's treating it a little differently than I expected, keeping it light. I want some big thing with FEEEEELINGS and he's written some cute thing with fairies. Oh well. Who the heck can argue with that?
So this wraps up Annie's getting acclimated to the forest people when she spends the summer there. Basically in the first issue she feels awkward and shy (and Ysengrin says, deal with your own problems!) and in the second issue she starts to make friends. They uh, get her drunk sort of? And she makes fireworks? I guess basically this could be called Annie Goes to Magic Summer Camp.
She shows a momentof pain, in her hangover sleep. I was glad for a little touch on what this is all about, with her. It's good she's having fun this summer, while she's processing a bunch of sad stuff in her past.
Just, how great is it when they ask her if she has a "love" back home and she says Kat? This is the best comic ever....more