Lonesome no More!

Different writers speak to different people. There can be lots of writers that you like, and lots that you don’t. But I think for each of us, there are a few writers who speak to us in a way that most do not.

isfdb.org
Image from isfdb.org

For me, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is one of those writers. Slapstick, or Lonesome no More! (1976) is not the most famous or celebrated of Vonnegut’s work—in fact, it was poorly reviewed upon release. Nor do I think it is necessarily his greatest book. It might be more fitting for me to be writing on Slaughterhouse Five (except I’ve already done that), or The Sirens of Titan, due to my love of stories concerning interplanetary travel and aliens.

Instead I’m going to talk about Vonnegut and my affection for him through the lens of Slapstick, because in a very personal way, I think it’s beautiful. Because this book is very much about being personal, and about finding a connection with other human beings, whether it is rational or not.

Hi-ho.

That’s the storytelling hiccup of Vonnegut’s narrator. Whenever the story has to change pace, or jump to a different part of the narrative, that is how he signals it.

When reading someone like Vonnegut it’s important to read the foreword, a tiny, honest slice of the author’s mind as it was when the strings of the book were all pulled together.

So I will preface what the story is about with what Vonnegut says on the very first page of my copy.

This is what life feels like to me.”

Hi-ho.

wychwords.wordpress
Image from wychwords.wordpress.com

Slapstick is the autobiography of Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11, the last president of the United States of America, who tries to solve the problem of American loneliness before Western civilization is destroyed by a plague unleashed by China.

Like so many of Vonnegut’s works, the narrative is wonky, anecdotal, and often non-linear. He explains much of Wilbur Daffodil-11’s life story right from the get-go, because the slow reveal of information has never been Vonnegut’s style. His storytelling is more about his desire to share an idea, or to bring himself closer to his reader in some way.

Wilbur and his twin sister Eliza are born looking like ugly, Neanderthal-like creatures. When separated, neither twin is very smart. Believing that they are brain damaged, Wilbur and Eliza’s rich parents lock them away in a mansion in Vermont, where they are expected to live out short half-lives and then die.

But Wilbur and Eliza survive. Slowly, they discover that while apart, each of them operates as half a brain. Wilbur is the left brain: logical, rational, and able to communicate. Eliza is the right brain: vastly creative and with high emotional intelligence, but unable to communicate herself properly.

All throughout the novel, Wilbur repeatedly claims that Eliza is the smarter of the two, but nobody ever knows this, because she cannot read or write.

Through a strange telepathic power, Wilbur and Eliza become a single great intelligence while in physical contact with each other, far beyond that of an ordinary being. Together, Wilbur and Eliza realize that it is their bond that has allowed them to survive their childhood. It was their togetherness. While hidden in the mansion where their parents kept them locked away from the world, Wilbur and Eliza devise a plan to save all of America from the loneliness that they have saved each other from.

Their plan is to give every American a new middle name based on random objects and a number from 1-20. Everyone with the same name is to be cousins, and everyone with the same name and number are to be siblings.

This is how Wilbur Rockefeller Swain became Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11.

goodreads
Image from goodreads.com

But then Wilbur and Eliza are separated for revealing their intelligence. Because he can communicate, it is deemed fit for Wilbur to enter society, while Eliza is condemned to an asylum. Once apart, neither of them is a whole person, and they become unable to think of themselves as the special geniuses of Wilbur and Eliza, but as two dull entities, which they nickname Bobby and Betty Brown. Eventually Eliza leaves the asylum and emigrates to the planet Mars. She would die there. Her tombstone reads like this:

Here lies Betty Brown.

As for Wilbur, living the life of Bobby Brown without his sister, he runs for President of the United States and wins. He runs the campaign that his sister had created when the two of them were children, with the slogan that became the subtitle of the book itself.

Lonesome No More!

And even as western civilization crumbles around him, at the very least, nobody is alone. Everybody in America has a great wealth of brothers and sisters and cousins. Nobody is left alone.

Hi-ho.

There is more that I could say about the novel itself. I could get into what happens with Wilbur’s parents, his grandchildren, and his doctors. I could get into his interactions with life after the fall of western civilization. But I won’t. I don’t want to spoil it. If the tidbits that I’ve given you are enticing, then go read the book. But what I have laid out, that desperate need to be close to another person, is the point of Vonnegut’s novel.

Instead, I’m rolling all the way back around to the preface of the book. Vonnegut gave this story the title Slapstick because that is how he sees it. He sees this story as something grotesque and horrible but also somehow gut-wrenchingly funny, like watching someone fall down the stairs in a Laurel and Hardy movie. Situational poetry, he calls it.

On the third page of the preface, Vonnegut sums up his thinking with a small anecdote. When about to go away, one of his three adopted sons said to Kurt: “You know—you’ve never hugged me,” So I hugged him. We hugged each other.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote this book because of his sister Alice. Three days before Alice Vonnegut died of cancer, her husband died in a train accident. Kurt was with her when she died. After, he adopted her three children. One of them is the adopted son he hugs in the preface to Slapstick.

So this is a novel about closeness. It is about the closeness one can have to family, or simply to other people in general. It is an examination of the sense of closeness that Kurt Vonnegut felt with his sister Alice. It is very funny, and secretly very brutally sad. It’s slapstick comedy.

Hi-ho.

I wanted to write a post on here about the strange closeness one can feel to a person they have never met. I wanted to write about the way a book can speak to you, even though you never have and never will enter the author’s thoughts. I wanted to write about Kurt Vonnegut, because his many novels, short stories, and lectures speak to me in an alien and personal way. These are novels that have had an unnaturally large effect on my life, and the way I live my life.

So I picked Slapstick, a meditation on the strange and alien closeness human beings can have for one another. Perhaps Vonnegut doesn’t speak to you the way he speaks to me. That’s okay. There are many, many other books and other writers out there, perhaps waiting to speak to you in the same or similar way. I pick up one of his books, and I read it as if the author is speaking to me in that strange and personal way, a small stab to attempt the premise of the book, to be lonesome no more.

Thank you, Kurt.

Hi-ho.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Review of Wychman Road by Ben Berman Ghan

wychman

It’s an age-old question, one that has embedded itself in the consciousness of humanity for as long as we can perceive, and that dares us to consider the impossible: What would we do with god-like powers? What if we could enter the minds of our peers; if we could be faster than they are, stronger; if we could make them do whatever we wanted?

Ben Berman Ghan’s Wychman Road is the newest installment in the literary exploration of this particular tantalizing possibility. His novel follows the journey of two characters, one who is thrust into a world of unimaginable power, and one who has gone way too far down a dark path and yearns to regain his lost humanity.

First and foremost, what is rewarding about Ghan’s novel is the bond forged between his protagonists. Joshua Jones is a traumatized, century-old veteran trapped in the body of a twenty-two-year-old, while Peter Alexson’s inexperience in his harsh new world runs far deeper than his adolescence. The novel dedicates much of its time to carefully developing the brotherhood between these unlikely companions, and it is the strength of their friendship that drives the plot forward, leading to moments of self-realization and sacrifice.

The characters themselves are believable and unique in their own right. Joshua’s strong, stoic exterior reveals a softer, more childlike nature; and Peter’s complex feelings as a kid who receives ultimate power at the cost of great tragedy realistically flips between him feeling like Superman and wanting his uncomplicated life back. With this novel, Ghan demonstrates awareness for both its genre and the nature of youth.

The horror elements of the story stand out as the most refined and skillfully crafted. Ghan’s real talent shines in creating moments of suspense and foreboding, and his villains are a particular treat, combining a sadistic charm with some truly horrifying action. Ghan’s vision of the corruption of ultimate power is embodied in the characters of Christopher Patera, whose detachment from humanity after millennia has twisted him into a kind of monstrous god-figure, and McGrath, whose gleeful fascination with children, and with breaking them down into sad empty shells, evokes the bad-touch-spine-shivers every time he appears.

As we delve deeper into Joshua’s twisted past, we get some truly excellent flashback sequences, darkly humorous and deeply disturbing. These are some of the best in the novel, as Ghan’s wit aAnd wickedly black comedy shines through in these horrifically entertaining scenes.

Wychman Road is a worthwhile read for any fan of the speculative. This novel does well in carving out a hidden fantastic world within the familiar landscape of our own Toronto streets. It is an absorbing beginning to what I imagine will be an action-filled and engaging series.

-Contributed by Amy Wang

OXFORD: A Cradle of Fantasy

Modern fiction and fantasy have an unquantifiable amount of geographical, cultural, and institutional origins, but only a few of these places can be credited as continuous sources of literary innovation. These locations may even deserve the title of “birthplaces”, for they have inspired many genres of literature, including: classic and modern, children’s and adult, fantasy and speculative fiction.

One of these literary cradles is the city and University of Oxford. Although the university’s precise date of establishment is not known, scholarly activity in the city dates to Medieval England, as far back as the 1090s. That’s right, Oxford has been an active site of scholarly pursuits and literary innovation for more than 900 years.

The university is therefore considered the oldest educational institution in England, and the second oldest in Europe, only preceded in establishment by the Italian University of Bologna. Oxford increased dramatically in size and student population after 1167, and gained a royal charter between the early and mid-1200s.  This essentially gave the university official recognition and the allowance of institutional power. Over time, Oxford came to be made up of several departments and divisions. The most notable aspect of its structure is the 38 colleges, which were created at different times ranging from the 1200s to just about a decade ago, and were established by various religious and political groups, educational departments, and influential individuals.

map of oxford
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Oxford#/media/File:John_Speed%27s_map_of_Oxford,_1605..jpg

For those who love fiction, the magic of Oxford is not only in its incredible history, but also in the world-changing works of literature that have emerged from within its walls. These works and their respective authors have influenced, and continue to influence, the concepts of fantasy, children’s literature, secondary worlds, modern fairytales, and the writer’s agency. A fraction of the renowned poets and authors who graduated from and/or taught at Oxford University include: C. S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, Percy Shelley, J. R. R. Tolkien, Graham Greene, John Fowles, Philip Pullman, and Thomas Warton.

While the educational origin of these authors is significant, the most amazing aspect of these authors’ connection with Oxford is that it was, for many of them, the actual location where they wrote some of their most influential works. For some, the setting of their stories also took place at the great English institution, ranging from C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia to Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Incredibly, several of these and other acclaimed authors associated with one another for many years—gathering in Oxford pubs, restaurants, and gardens to discuss their work. In some cases they shared deep connections and long friendships, supporting one another through personal hardships and inspiring each other through faith and creativity.

The Eagle and Child
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inklings#/media/File:Birdandbaby.jpg

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, more popularly known as Lewis Carroll, is one of the most well-known writers who emerged from the University of Oxford. Considered to be one of the founders of children’s literature, Carroll studied at Oxford and later taught mathematics at the university for most of his life. This was also the place where he conceived of and wrote his two most famous works, the beloved childhood favourites Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

Alice’s story goes something like this: in the late 1850s Carroll had a strong friendship with the Liddell family, who also lived in Oxford at that time. The family included three daughters, one of whom was named Alice, and who is believed to be the inspiration and dedicatee of Carroll’s books. The idea for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is said to have originated in 1862 during a paddling trip on the river when Alice Liddell requested a written copy of the story Carroll had told her that day. A few years later in 1865, after giving Alice a manuscript and being encouraged by many friends, the book was submitted to a publisher. Soon after, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland met with amazing triumph as a bestseller. And so, it was near Oxford University, on the checkered, manicured lawns of the riverbank, under the ancient swaying trees, where Alice of Wonderland was born, or perhaps, had always been.

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image of Oxford River from traveltalesfromindia.in
alice in wonderland
image from http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/resources/analysis/picture-origins/

Two other prominent authors inseparably linked to Oxford and whose works are world-wide classics are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Both writers were graduates and later lecturers at the university. Additionally, both were part of “The Inklings”, a group of Oxford writers and intellectuals who met often to discuss literature and debate both tradition and innovation in the fantasy genre. Tolkien, while teaching at Oxford, produced two of his most acclaimed works: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; while Lewis wrote the well known The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of The Chronicles of Narnia series. Notably, the Narnia series is thought to be a product of his return to Christianity—a process encouraged by his close friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien.

Oxford, England
original photo of Oxford, England – Polina Zak

 

Visiting the University of Oxford last summer, I was completely blown away by its beauty, vibrancy, mystery, and majesty. Somewhat naively, I expected a large, lone castle on a hill, with spacious libraries, stone-laid corridors, and expansive gardens—yes, I admit it, I was expecting Hogwarts. And Hogwarts is what I got: there were rose gardens and green pathways, domed libraries and intricately carved walls, spiralling staircases and soaring towers.

But I also experienced a grand and joyous city that I was completely not expecting. Walking through both the busy streets and the peaceful gardens, it was not hard to imagine why this place was the inspiration for and the setting of so many great works of fiction. Oxford holds mystery, magic, and knowledge, and will no doubt be the origin of much more fiction and fantasy.

Oxford University
image from huffingtonpost.com

-Contributed by Polina Zak

Imagine Magic! In Defense of Fantasy Literature

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living.”

― Dr. Seuss

Illustration by Dorothy Anne Manuel
Illustration by Dorothy Anne Manuel

Fantasy has been a part of the literary tradition since literature began.

In fact, the case could be made that fantasy was the first literature of ancient culture. From Jewish folklore thousands of years old to the Greek epics of Homer such as the Odyssey and Roman tales like Virgil’s Aeneid, the first stories of literature were about the fantastical. They were about magic, and monsters, and mad heroes going on impossible journeys.

These stories are taught in schools and are respected as great classics. So when did some people begin to lose respect for the fantastic? At what point did people decide to relegate fantasy to the fringes of literature under the classification “genre fiction”?

Today the fantastical dominates both the big and small screens. Fantasy is everywhere, and is more wildly popular than ever before since today’s special effects are finally able to capture the magic we have yearned to see for so long.

But what about on the page? See, the thing that makes the written word arguably the greatest mode of storytelling we have is that there has never been a special effects budget, or necessary run time, or props. When something fantastical is described in the pages of a book, the only possible limit is what you can imagine. That is what sets literature apart from all other modes of storytelling: the reader is an active participant in the experience of telling the story.

More than any other kind of writing, fantasy forces us to push the limits of our imagination. Unlike other genres, fantasy requires us to imagine things for which we have no real reference. If you ask anybody what a dragon looks like, they can tell you—they will describe to you exactly what they think it looks like. If you ask someone what it would feel like to fly, or to turn into an animal, or to do magic, they can tell you.

But there is no frame of reference for these things—nobody (or at least none of you muggles) has actually seen a dragon. And yet in a way we can do it. Fantasy makes us imagine things that are impossible or nonexistent. It opens up entirely new worlds for our minds to explore.

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Illustration by Dorothy Anne Manuel and Kristine Buerano

 

Fantasy, as Dr. Seuss says, is an important part of life. It can lend us perspectives that other forms of literature cannot, trapped as they are by the conventional laws of the universe. Fantasy can shrug off those conventions and follow its own story through to the limits of its own potential without having to concern itself with what is real or possible.

As well as providing an escape, fantasy allows us to be captured in truly human stories. Even in situations so far removed from anything we ourselves could face, we can still connect with and be moved by characters in fantasy worlds. Fantasy can be a perfect outlet for exploring the human condition and connection. It strips away all the unexciting necessities of everyday life and replaces them with (way better) tasks such as homework from Hogwarts or learning to ride a dragon.

Fantasy can still be about human connection by letting us learn from our protagonists while rooting for their quests and friendships. We cry when things go wrong for them and we cheer when things go right. Fantasy also lends itself to creating incredible antagonists, evil creatures whose terrifying powers and plans can surpass the realm of possibility.

Fantasy also allows for social commentary and allegory. Fantasy can tackle problems of the real world—problems of race or social class—and present them in a more accessible fashion to younger or less educated readers. By doing so, fantasy opens them up to new ideas, which they can see reflected in everyday life.

Everybody has fantasies. Deep down, some tiny part of us wants there to be something bigger going on, some magical happenings behind-the-scenes, or some impossible monster lurking in the woods. We want to imagine that our reality is somehow bigger than it is.

It has nothing to do with belief or what we know to be true. Sometimes we all want to imagine magic.

And that is what makes fantasy such a vital part of literature and life. It brings out our imagination.

So why do we seem suddenly embarrassed by this?

Let’s put magic back on our reading lists!

-contributed by Ben Ghan

How to Make a Land: The Magic of Literature in Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land

Illustration by Ariana Youm
Illustration by Ariana Youm

 

This review contains spoilers.

With The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman has completed one of the most sophisticated fantasy series of recent times. Written carefully and glowing with subtle beauty, The Magicians trilogy depicts the hopes and malaise of a self-conscious, self-critical, and sometimes self-destructive group of young adults trying to find their place in the world.

The trilogy is clearly inspired by Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, and echoes Brideshead Revisited and The Catcher in the Rye. Allusions to Shakespeare and Dungeons and Dragons permeate the novels indiscriminately, and Grossman has even made a helpful starting list of some of the allusions in the first book. In many ways, The Magicians trilogy is a love letter to literature—it is both a paean for fantasy and the wonders of reading as well as a dirge to the loss of childhood dreams and the escape of make-believe.

The first novel, The Magicians, opens with Quentin, a socially inhibited high school senior, being accepted into Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, a secret university dedicated to the study of magic. Though Quentin is initially thrilled at the prospect of studying magic, the allure soon wears off. Learning magic is a rigorous, arduous, and tedious task that resembles the real world university experience of stressful exams and trying to absorb swaths of information in short periods of time. (Though most of us don’t have to learn Arabic, Aramaic, Old High Dutch, and Old Church Slavonic in just a few weeks.)

Quentin has been obsessed with the Fillory and Further book series (a simulacrum of The Chronicles of Narnia) since his childhood, and when he and his friends discover that Fillory is real, they believe that lasting happiness is finally within their reach. But their expedition to Fillory is a disaster, filled with tragedy and loss. One of the key themes of the first novel is the constant, crushing, and bitter disillusionment and disappointment that one faces in the ‘real world’.

Many readers will find that the biggest obstacle to enjoying these novels is the characters, particularly Quentin. Readers will almost certainly (and rightly) cringe at Quentin’s rabid entitlement and his abysmal treatment of women for much of the first two novels.

But there is another factor at play here: Quentin has depression, and I cannot help but think that a large part of the negative reaction towards him is based not in aversion to his sexism and narcissism, but to a lack of understanding of and stigma surrounding mental illness.

Readers will often bemoan how despite being given the opportunity to learn magic, something most of us can only dream of, Quentin spends most of his time avoiding serious study of magic, and instead chases instant gratification.

This is arguably the most achingly and powerfully realistic aspect of the series. Quentin’s depression is not magically solved when he discovers magic; it doesn’t go away with the flick of a wand. He struggles with it, and it is often difficult, but it is a part of who he is. These novels candidly tackle what it means to live with mental illness, a subject that is often ignored in speculative fiction.

Returning to the subject of Quentin’s sexism, it is important to understand that this is not an accidental aspect of the narrative, but is part of Quentin’s larger trajectory of growth. The Magicians trilogy operates as an extended bildungsroman in which Quentin learns to take responsibility for himself and his actions.

One of the ways the trilogy reflects Quentin’s self-obsession giving way to maturity is that the narrative expands to encompass more point of view characters. In the first novel, Quentin’s perspective is inescapable. The second novel sees the inclusion of the point of view of Julia, a friend from Quentin’s high school who does not get accepted into Brakebills and instead becomes a self-taught magician. The third novel is populated with the perspectives of Alice, Janet, Elliot, and Plum.

This widening of vision also allows the reader to see not just how Quentin has matured, but also how his friends have come into their own as well. Eliot goes from being a self-hating gay man who drowns his internalized homophobia with alcohol to the High King of Fillory, a responsible and loyal sovereign dedicated to protecting the magical world. Janet, famed and feared for her acerbic tongue and caustic wit, becomes possibly the coolest character in the series from just one chapter that explores her single-handed annexation of a desert state. At the end of the first novel, Alice, a magician prodigy and Quentin’s girlfriend, transforms herself into a niffin, a demon made of blue fire, in order to save her friends from Martin Chatwin. Her sacrifice is heroic and tragic, and her subsequent disappearance affects Quentin deeply.

In the third novel, Quentin manages to undo the spell that had turned Alice into a niffin. Though Quentin believes he has saved Alice and finally done the right thing, Alice is livid. She had enjoyed being a niffin because for once in her life she did not have to be meek or kind, she did not have to coddle Quentin, and she did not have to sacrifice herself for those around her. Instead, she could be selfish and independent, and had the unquestionable sense that she was right about everything all the time.

In other words, she was acting like Quentin had throughout much of the books, and like many men in patriarchal culture.

It is only in the third book, when Quentin has matured, that he is able to have healthy relationships with women. He teams up with Plum, a talented magician and one of his former students, during a heist to steal the suitcase of Rupert Chatwin. Their relationship is based in mutual respect and trust. Plum is the first woman Quentin treats as his equal. Perhaps more importantly for Quentin’s social development, their relationship is completely platonic, and neither assumes or expects there to be a romantic or sexual dimension to their relationship.

The positive treatment and portrayal of Plum is especially welcome in comparison to the tragedy that plagues the other women characters in the series. Alice and Julia, the two most important women characters in the trilogy, are dehumanized. Alice becomes a demon made of pure magic; Julia becomes part god after being the victim of a brutal and sickening ceremony. Even Janet, though she retains her physical humanity, only reaches her full power after she has discarded her emotionality.

And this is why Quentin’s success in reversing Alice’s niffin state is so crucial to the narrative structure of the series. It symbolizes that Quentin has finally overcome his sexism, and that for the first time he is able to see Alice as fully human, as someone whose life does not revolve around him. It is only then that the possibility that they may have a successful, happy, and truly loving relationship opens up.

At the end of the third book, Quentin and Alice make a land—that is to say, they make a new world or dimension (hence the title of the third novel, The Magician’s Land). The spell they use to do so requires a plant that is the incarnation of the wonder children feel when they discover a new world in a book.

Quentin and Alice decide to remain in their new world and explore it together. Their adventure begins with the appearance of the Cozy Horse, a figure from Fillory, whom they decide to follow and see where it leads them.

The trilogy thus ends on a powerfully poignant metaphor, one that stands for both life in general and for the writing process. Just as Quentin realizes that he must move on from Fillory in order to have a good life, so too must we move on from our childhood and adolescent fixations. Eventually, we must create our own worlds and lives. This process begins as a seed—as a distant intimation of who we could one day become and what we might be capable of doing. If we’re lucky, through care and effort, this vision will bloom into reality.

The appearance of the Cozy Horse represents how our imaginations are captured by certain ideas or motifs, and how we then repeat them in our own creations, as Virgil did with Homer, as Michael Cunningham did with Virginia Woolf, and as Lev Grossman did with C. S. Lewis. We take the ideas of our predecessors that strike our souls, and use them as the foundation to build new artworks for a new age.

And so the cycle continues, for The Magicians trilogy will undoubtedly have planted a seed in the minds of many young writers, and they too will be writing back to it when they create their own land, fondly remembering the trilogy that took an uncompromising and honest view of the fantasy genre.

 -contributed by Alex De Pompa