It was bittersweet finishing The Sandman.

Well, endings of all kinds tend to be bitter, regardless of whether it is happy, or sad, or cathartic. But even more so when what ended was something which made you smile, gave you good dreams, and was a welcome distraction from all the things you should actually be focusing on. Such was The Sandman to me. It did not help my poor emotions that it ended with The Wake–a volume so gorgeous it induces synesthesia. I dare you to read The Wake and not hear Morpheus’ funeral dirge playing as words are said about the deceased, or the song sung by the panels masterfully dictating the tempo of the story.

The final volume has transcended its designation as “graphic novel” into the realm of deep, epic elegy. A fitting one for the King of Dreams, consist of not just words but pictures. And boy don’t each picture tell a thousand stories?

I have a long history with The Sandman. My first encounter with it was as a grade school student, seeing it mentioned in a local otaku magazine due to Yoshitaka Amano’s (of Final Fantasy fame) eventual involvement in the form of The Dream Hunters. In a long chain of association, of one-thing-lead-to-another’s, I ended up finding myself spending late nights Wikipedia hopping, trying to piece out the story, to no avail. And with good reason. In The Sandman, Neil Gaiman makes full use of his medium; mere synopses could do no justice. That the term “graphic novel”, so attached to Sandman thanks to an anecdote told by Neil Gaiman, invokes the idea of a novel liberally illustrated is rather unfortunate as it sells the series short to potential readers1. Not that it needs any further endorsement. But The Sandman is indisputably comics, and it is so much better off for that.

In the process of slowly saving up to buy a copy of the canonical ten volumes of Sandman I ended up deciding what my “Sandman Library” would have. Aside from the aforementioned canon, I wanted a copy of The Dream Hunters, arguably the title that set me on this path, as well as Endless Nights. I also wanted Alisa Kwitney’s The Sandman: King of Dreams “coffee-table” book, mostly because of how cool it looked. And, to cap off the collection, I wanted Hy Bender’s The Sandman Companion.

I never really expected to complete my Library, so much so that for a time, I referred to it as my ideal Sandman Library. The ten volumes alone that forms the bulk of it are expensive and hard to come by. The rest are even rarer and pretty niche, making chances of reprints slim. However, thanks to some fortunate turn of events, my ideal turned into reality at least in quantity, if not in composition, just in my second year of college.

My Sandman Library

I got everything I wanted, save for The Sandman Companion, but in its place I got The Sandman Papers, a collection of academic articles discussing the series. Overall, I could not call myself disappointed with what I ended up with. I have, after all, read everything Neil Gaiman wrote about the Sandman.

Coming from a childhood saturated with Japanese animation, it was quite a jump going into The Sandman. Gothic, at stretches bordering on eldritch, the art was, admittedly, not what I was expecting, especially considering that my earliest exposure to Sandman, no matter how trivial, is because of Yoshitaka Amano.

It is maybe largely due to this discrepancy in expectation and reality that I did not enjoy the first five issues as much as they are praised. They definitely have their moments but overall they felt like just a series of books. Well-written no doubt, but as far as an overarching plot is concerned, there was not much. The Sandman compilations I have, as pictured above, feature a blurb that claims you can read the series either in sequence or as standalone books. That claim holds strong for the first five compilations.

But Fables and Reflections is an inflection point. It may be ironic to say this of a volume that is explicitly a short-story collection but it is an excellent one to set the tone of the second half of the series. Destruction and Orpheus feature after being mere foreshadows of allusions in the first half. The history between the Endless siblings is also hinted at, laying ground for the developments that occur in the next volumes.

I call volume six an inflection point because this is the part where I will beg anyone who would care to listen: do not read anything from volume six onwards out of order. Damn whatever the blurb says.

It is also at this point where The Sandman had a curious effect on me. This is one of those anecdotes which might have a “mystical” air about it especially since we are talking about the King of Dreams here. But it happened, and you can make what you want of it. Back then, I would read a chapter (an issue) of Sandman just before I get whatever formal sleep I can. And that sleep would be refreshing. Sometimes, it would even end with the pleasant memory of a dream but overall, I just remember them to be good sleep, waking up feeling some kind of catharsis.

Lastly, I would say that Fables and Reflections marked the part where the series’ art style took a turn to my taste. I used to think that this is an effect of technology: that Sandman ran for so long that the evolution of comics printing is evident across its run. I used to think that it was largely thanks to technology that, by volume six, the art more closely–though ever so slightly–resembled the Japanese animation I am accustomed to. But lately I’ve come to learn just how much of it might actually be a creative decision on Gaiman’s part.

Or, maybe, it was still more of a creative constraint than decision. It’s just that Neil Gaiman knew his medium well and so played into its strengths and danced to its limits.

When I first took an interest in Sandman I remember foolishly wanting to collect the series on a per-issue basis. Call it naivete: the closest I even got to this was finding one issue–I no longer remember which–in a thrift sale in a shop2 in my local mall which sold an assortment of geeky items. Items I could not afford back then, relying on the mercy of my parent’s purse, but which I certainly returned to when, in adulthood, I found myself well-funded for my hobbies and sundry. Money does not change people, I guess.

Maybe today, if I ever come across another solo issue of the canon Sandman, I would buy it and then keep it in its case, never to be opened, preserved for posterity, and wait until the price for such things sky rockets so I could cash out.

Or maybe, nostalgia will get the better of me, and I will tear it open (after, of course, washing my hands very thoroughly) to breathe in comics fumes from the 90s, see the ads, and compare the original as published with its counterpart in the compilations.

My naive desire to own Sandman in its original serialization was somehow fulfilled a few years ago when Neil Gaiman decided to revisit this particular universe and wrote a prequel, Sandman Overture. Now, buying Overture on a per-issue basis (as opposed to waiting for the compilation that will surely come) was more than a matter of repressed-wish fulfillment. It was also a matter of logistics: my bookshelf, full as it is, could not accommodate another volume of Sandman. It could, however, fit individual issues in between the compiled volumes already housed.

Books before they were crowded

Still, in some strange way, I got something I have already given up on.

But it does not stop there. By the magical convenience of the internet and of public-key cryptography–the combination of which allows online shopping to be a thing–I have, recently, found myself in possession of the missing volume in my Sandman Library: Hy Bender’s The Sandman Companion.

My ideal Sandman Library has been realized in full. And more.

A person’s life consists of a collection of events, the last of which could also change the meaning of the whole, not because it counts more than the previous ones but because once they are included in a life, events are arranged in an order that is not chronological but, rather, corresponds to an inner architecture.

~ Italo Calvino in Mr. Palomar (?)

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

~ C.P. Cavafy, Ithaka

Like a stereotypical book maniac, I’ve always taken pride in owning “rare” books. Although over time I have come to realize I’m small fry, more like a kid calling trash and trinkets his treasure than a rich eccentric European Lucas Corso would have loved to plunder. My “rare” books are not exactly what book catalogs would list as rare or valuable; they are better termed as niche and maybe expensive, at least relative to my economic well-being at the time of acquisition. A first edition hard bound copy of Deathly Hallows, an omnibus of C. S. Lewis’ nonfiction, two volumes of Borges’ complete works, one for poetry and one for prose–you get the idea3.

Getting a credit card gave my hubris something else to feed on. Books that are maybe not as expensive, though so niche as to be not distributed locally: Templar by Jordan Mechner, of Prince of Persia fame, a comics (“graphic novel”) about a heist perpetuated by members of the eponymous knight order; The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach, a German sci-fi author who, as of this writing has not had much of his work translated into English; the complete Memoirs of Lady Trent by Marie Brennan, a beautiful (aesthetically and literarily) sci-fi series written as a pseudo-Victorian memoir. Maybe, just maybe, I could lay claim to having the only copy of these books for miles around, if not in the whole country4.

That includes The Sandman Companion. Secondhand but in good condition and a first edition too5. I would have loved to complete my Sandman Library sooner, maybe around the time I actually got the bulk of the canon, but I guess you can’t rush the universe’s schedule.

I no longer remember what I expected to get out of reading The Sandman Companion. But as I finally laid my hands on my own copy, the anticipation was stale, my expectations almost nonexistent. This was, to me, just a round of honor, just for the sake of completion. At this point I felt like I have read almost everything about The Sandman‘s canon: from interviews of Neil Gaiman, to his blog posts, to The Sandman Papers, and even King of Dreams. Maybe, it would be a shallow kind of debriefing, one where I’m told this is what this activity was going for (like it was not plain to see), this is what happened (like it did not happen to me), and thank you very much (I’d thank you too, out of courtesy).

I could not be more wrong. This Ithaka is not a resting place after all that I’ve encountered. It is more akin to a final adventure, the last one to give the whole escapade its form before I, maybe, really close off this library.

In format, The Sandman Companion is the odd one out in my collection. The bulk of the book is a transcript of Hy Bender’s interview with Neil Gaiman. The content is formatted in a way that is a bit reminiscent of magazines although maybe that should not be so surprising given the nature of the content. What is more unusual are the boxed insets of text that litter the interview transcripts: tidbits of information that is tangential to the topic at hand but was not directly brought up in the transcribed conversation. It reminds me of a common layout element in computer books for end users6.

Reading the Companion is like re-experiencing the whole series in completely prosaic form. The discussion on each volume starts with a summary of the volume concerned but where this differs from my early Wikipedia-hopping is that Bender does not try to tell a story but, rather, explain the inner workings of Neil Gaiman’s creation7. That the story is told in some way nevertheless is a mere side-effect of the process. Fittingly called, The Sandman Companion is like a pleasant tour guide in a beautiful country, pointing you to the wonders you shouldn’t miss without getting in the way of you establishing a personal connection with the place. Alas, the guide is only as good as the country.

Finishing the companion is like finishing the series a second time around. No less bittersweet, it is like a reunion with old friends concluded: we’ve caught up and reminisced, now it’s time to get up and go back into the world. But this time–and I would concede that this feeling might be unique to my circumstances as a reader and a Sandman fan–the conclusion comes with a sense of closure.

“[T]hat man would be scorned by all the others: by the king, by the conceited man, by the tippler, by the businessman. Nevertheless he is the only one of them all who does not seem to me ridiculous. Perhaps that is because he is thinking of something else besides himself.”

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Reading the Sandman today is a completely different experience from reading it just as the series progressed. Today, it is unavoidable to be spoiled by statements about the series: how it is about change, that Morpheus dies in the end. Heck, it is not inconceivable that “spoilers” like these could be someone’s gateway into the series. It’s just that the Sandman canon will no longer be the terra incognita it was for those who were lucky to be able to follow along.

Although, as I could attest, spoilers are not necessarily a bad thing.

Perhaps ironically, what I envy those people is in how Sandman came in trickles for them. An issue a month, I feel, is just the right pace for the intricacy of Gaiman’s story to settle. Repeatedly reading Gaiman summarize his two-thousand-page opus as a story about change, and how the King of Dreams’ inability to deal with this causes his demise, made me take this message for granted that by the end of my first reading of Sandman I am unable to definitively illustrate how it is about change, and how this inability to accept change ultimately kills Morpheus. Shame for such a self-proclaimed Sandman fan.

What I realized from reading the Companion is that beneath the huge ensemble of artistic talent behind the series, beneath the prestige it has accumulated, the Sandman is actually more similar to St. Exupéry’s The Little Prince. It is about change, yes, but it is also about dreams and hearts8–the things that make us human. Morpheus–like the grown-ups the titular prince encounters in St. Exupéry’s work–is too concerned with his function that he loses sight of how he and his function relates with everyone else. Despite being the anthropomorphic personification of dreams, there is nothing human in Morpheus’ core. And this inability to be human is what he cannot accept that he orchestrates his doom to give way to a new Dream. This time, a Dream that is human in form and humane in the execution of his duties.

I used to admire Morpheus’ approach in life for its stoicism. Perhaps I still do. In the celebrated special, The Song of Orpheus, Morpheus tells his son, the mythological poet who lends his name to the title, the lover of Eurydice:

You are mortal: it is the mortal way. You attend the funeral, you bid the dead farewell. You grieve. Then you continue with your life.

And at times the fact of her absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep. But this will happen less and less as time goes on.

She is dead. You are alive.

So live.

Solid advice, even echoed by Morpheus’ down-to-earth (and, oddly, much more humane) sister, Death. When Orpheus visits her, she tells him

It was her time to go, Orpheus. People die. It’s okay. It happens.

Go on with your own life. You have many things to do: many songs to play and sing.

But what differentiates the results of Morpheus’ conversation with that of Death is their further reaction to Orpheus’ grief. Where Morpheus is dismissive and will not hear any more of Orpheus’ laments, Death is understanding and sympathetic to Orpheus’ plight. Ultimately, it may have served Orpheus better had Death not considered Orpheus’ plan to petition his case before the gods of the underworld. But what Death understood and Dream did not is that what mortals want above all is choice, a say in the matter. What Death’s boon gave Orpheus is some semblance of control over his plight. Losing Eurydice to a snake bite on their wedding night, Orpheus is a victim of fate. Looking back at Eurydice’s shadow just as he is about to step out of Hades’ is his own choice, his own failure. Hades’ may have been cruel, less than fair in the deal he struck with Orpheus. But alas, this misfortune is a direct result of Orpheus’ choices. His grief is, finally, his own.

I wanted to go a step further on this final storyline…and so started lobbying for DC to publish directly from Michael (Zulli)’s pencils.

Michael used to send me his pencilled pages, and they’d be breathtaking; and then they’d come back after being inked, and there would inevitably be some loss of detail… Inking came about because it’s easier to reproduce dark lines than feathery pencil work but by 1995, I felt that technology was at a point where anything could be scanned in, even pencils.

DC was very doubtful, so Michael drew a test page of Death with an eagle…the page that resulted was absolutely gorgeous, with no loss of detail… DC ultimately acceded to the idea and let Michael do issues 70 through 73 in pencils only, with no inker.

~ Neil Gaiman on the art style of the first half of The Wake as transcribed in an interview with Hy Bender in The Sandman Companion.

Among The Sandman‘s accolades is a World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1991 courtesy of the issue A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Back then, this caused such a controversy that future editions of the World Fantasy Awards explicitly banned mere comics from being nominated9. This had the curious effect that, to date, A Midsummer Night’s Dream bears the distinction of being the only comic to win the said award, let alone being nominated.

I have been told that a hallmark of good art is in how it changes with its audience. Something read in your teenage years could take on an entirely new meaning when re-read in your mid-20s. This is definitely true of The Sandman.

The debate about what is and what is not art will rage on, maybe until Death has put the chairs on the tables, turned the lights out, and locked the universe. But meanwhile, I imagine them–ideas, realized and repressed alike–going about their merry existence in some platonic realm, maybe Dream’s. Happy to be whatever they are, be that a comics series or a children’s book about wizards attending school. The vanity of labels does not concern them.

Dream and Death

Life, after all, is but a dream.

  1. Ironically, my gateway to Sandman, Yoshitaka Amano’s The Dream Hunters, fits this connotation of the term “graphic novel” down to a T. []
  2. Which was called Skybucks for some reason. Not to be confused with a certain coffee cafe chain so well-known nowadays. []
  3. I am so sorry. I can’t seem to write about The Sandman in this blog without bragging off in some way or another. What a show-off! []
  4. Dear me, there I go again. I should really get this topic moving now, to prevent showing off. []
  5. I promise this will be the last time I brag off in this post. []
  6. Which, again, comes as no surprise once you learn that Hy Bender authored a bunch of For Dummies books. What a leap. This info was hidden in the back flap of the dust jacket of my copy, which meant that this was actually the last thing I learned from the book. []
  7. And hence, I call it a re-experiencing, not a re-reading. []
  8. In the chapter for The Doll’s House in The Sandman Companion, Neil Gaiman notes that, “If you leaf through the series you’ll find either an image of a heart or the word heart in virtually every issue. Hearts are a major part of what Sandman is about.” I am currently re-reading the series in search of these hearts. []
  9. Or, rather, reiterated the rule that comics are not eligible for the said category. True to a recurring theme in The Sandman, the story of what really happened depends on who you ask. []

Disappointingly Not Spellbinding

There is a book I had back in high school whose title I have now forgotten. I only remember three things about it today: the first being that its cover is lavender, the next being that it is among the first books I actively despised, and the last one is the fact that I hated it largely due to the fact that I felt it shamelessly ripped off The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I have tried to search extensively for the said book in writing this post, maybe for old times, but mostly for plain writer’s diligence. But no luck. I don’t find it listed anywhere when I search for works inspired by Narnia although, admittedly, given the little that I remember about it, I only skim through the lists looking for a thumbnail that is mostly lavender and hoping that if I come across its title it will scream familiarity at me.

I no longer have it in my bookshelves. Aside from being (possibly) the first book I actively despised, I bet it is also the first book I actively let go. I remember trading it with my sister for G. P. Taylor’s Wormwood, a trade I do not regret at all. So unfortunately, if we really want that book named in here we are relying pretty much on chance, that I will come across (and recognize) the title, or maybe that I could get my hands across a working copy of the book inventory I assembled then, but I think we’ll have better luck reversing the damages of 2016 within the next month. But I am woolgathering too much. Just keep in mind that, going forward, we will just name the book I traded for Wormwood as The Lavender Chronicles.

Fast forward to today, I no longer read young adult novels as much as I used to. There is room for it in my reading list every now and then but I mostly find them not as satisfying as I had before, cliched and repetitive as they are. If I end up reading a YA novel, you can bet that I have been persuaded into reading it (heck, shelling out money and allocating precious shelf space) by a very good endorsement1. And so it is that, back in MIBF 2016, I found myself buying a copy of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.

YA is not bad but if you can tell what's funny with this picture and take it with good humor, then you've matured as a reader. Image found from all over the internet.
YA is not bad but if you can tell what’s funny with this picture and take it with good humor, then you’ve matured as a reader. Image found from all over the internet.

First off, what endorsed the novel to me are the smattering of mentions it gets over at io9 which is largely thanks to the SyFy series that adopted the books. The impression I got with it is that it is a work which borrows elements from YA but is, ultimately, not afraid of tackling adult issues. Think Harry Potter if only it did not have to grow alongside its fan base, if it was written with the conscious maturity of the later books from the get go, and maybe even with more conscious maturity at that.

GRRM on The Magicians

The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea. … Grossman’s sensibilities are thoroughly adult, his narrative dark and dangerous and full of twists. Hogwarts was never like this.”

George R. R. Martin as a featured review quoted in my copy of The Magicians.

See what I mean?

To get the mandatory plot overview out of the way, The Magicians tells the story of Quentin a boy who discovers he could do magic and so ends up studying in Brakebills, a boarding school for (surprise! surprise!) magic. In Brakebills he meets a group of upperclassmen who, after Brakebills, goes with him to Fillory, a place which they only knew as a fantasy land from a series of children’s novels which most, if not all, of them are familiar with.

The whole of The Magicians is divided into a handful of “books”, as marked within the novel2. It should be telling that I managed to distill its plot, all 400 pages of it, into two long sentences. By my estimate, the relatively-shorter Atonement got a better actual-words-to-Chad-summary ratio.

All this, is my very-long-winded way of saying that The Magicians is giving The Lavender Chronicles a good competition in terms of leaving me dissatisfied.

Grossman proudly wears his influences on his sleeves and, as such, comparisons to both Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia is impossible to avoid. So let me start outlining my criticism with what I think is the innate flaw of The Magicians and compare it with its obvious influences: its world building.

Tolkien purists3 might scoff that I am calling out someone’s constructed world by comparing it to Harry Potter, it in itself is quite flawed and would collapse under its own weight if you take the implications beyond a British (with a few other European additions) setting. But that would just tell you how unimpressed I am by The Magicians. Almost from the get-go, The Magicians hand-waves its magic (irony, not lost on me) and tells you to pay no attention to it:

“This is not to say that we understand magic…we do not and cannot understand what magic is, or where it comes from, any more than a carpenter understands why a tree grows. He doesn’t have to. He works with what he has.”

~Professor March, in a Brakebills lecture.

And yet, throughout the book, practice of magic is laced with references to Circumstances and other vague allusions to calculations a magician must take into account before performing a spell. The outcome is that The Magicians finds itself stuck in an awkward zone where it attempts to ignore how to do magic and yet giving just enough details about what Quentin is doing so as to lend its telling some plausibility. And it never–never–quite works out.

The fact that The Magicians tries to fast track Quentin’s magical education does not really help. Whereas details of magic in Harry Potter is subtly built up and reinforced across seven books, Grossman, instead, treats us to an exposition disguised as plot. For instance, we are no more than a few months into Quentin’s first year in Brakebills when he, with a couple other classmates, is chosen to advance to the second year. This leads us to a few chapters where all Quentin does is study for the advance placement exam, where our takeaway should be that gosh magic is really hard.

This is the show-don’t-tell rule abused. We are shown how Quentin studies hard night after night after night but the whole set-up lacked subtlety and foreshadowing in the first place that it does not work out. The fact that Quentin gets the possibility of breezing through several months of magical education feels like a cheap shot and we have not established enough rapport with his two other (lucky?) companions to even care if they pass or not.

(There are many more instances of The Magicians being inconsistent with its world building, which I would touch on when discussing other things. But just to give another example, much is made about the Circumstances a magician must take into account before performing spells but, under duress, people just cast spells with little regard to Circumstance and with little to no obvious consequence.)

Which leads me to my next grievance against The Magicians: its treatment of its characters. I am inclined to think that this is a side-effect of the fact that Quentin’s five-year education is compressed to what is barely just half of the book. But I am more inclined to believe that there is fast-tracking a period of a character’s life, and then there is lazy writing where you haphazardly throw characters into the narrative for one reason or another. The Magicians is full of the latter.

In one instance, one of Quentin’s classmates is named only so she can be killed off a few pages later, an event which Grossman tries to impress heavily on his readers. But having mentioned her only in passing a few pages back, I hope I do not appear callous if I say I just don’t give a damn. When she died she is just another name to me, sure a classmate of Quentin’s but other than that…what? Without spoiling anything, this death serves to add weight for the book’s twist but the banality of who died robs the twist of some of its gravity. No amount of telling me about Quentin’s remorse, or of toasts held for their fallen classmate, could give this name the actual character that would have made her death matter for the reader.

In another case which sticks out sorely, Quentin, for no other reason than just because, takes a walk with a couple other Brakebills students. In this walk Quentin is introduced to welters–Grossman’s version of Quidditch/gobstones/wizard chess, though given this scene’s allusion to broomsticks I think what he’s going for is pretty clear–but like magic in general the rules are not really spelled out only for welters to figure quite prominently in one of the later arcs.

But (not) introducing welters is not the point of this walk, no. Grossman made Quentin take this walk so that someone with a grievance against Quentin could burst out the door as they returned and engage Quentin in a good old fistfight. (And for the record, no allusion was made before that this character had a grudge against Quentin.) The purpose of this fistfight is so that the Brakebills Dean could inform Quentin (and the reader) that, had they used magic while fighting, it was quite possible for their magic to consume them, turning them into less-than-human sprites called niffins. The reader will be grateful for this information twice later in the book: once when an urban legend involving someone who became a niffin is discussed, and once more, near the end, when, for the first time, someone is punished for not double checking on their emotions as they did magic.

(In case you were wondering what happened to those two other Brakebills student…well, nothing. One was just there to give a non-explainer about welters while the other one was just there to say he hates welters and prompt them to go back inside, allowing the fistfight to ensue, so we could discuss niffins. Heck it would seem it was not even them who broke up the altercation. At least they were not killed shortly after being named.)

And what really frustrated me as I read through The Magicians is in how often Quentin finds himself aimless. Having tried writing a few novels myself, I understand that you will often run into a wall where you have no idea how to get the plot to achieve your plans. One way of hacking around these mental blocks is to make your character want something, anything. Be that a glass of water or the next horcrux. Just. Make. Them. Want. Now obviously, it is easy to produce something inelegant with this technique but you know what’s worse? Flat out admitting to your reader that you(r main character) do(es) not know what happens next, so you just wax whimsical about a book inside your world which the main character has read as a kid.

And that’s exactly what Quentin does when he feels stuck and aimless, which is often! Now, maybe you can argue that these times where Quentin feels stuck and aimless are the “adult” parts of The Magicians. Maybe. But whenever Quentin starts wishing he was in Fillory (recall: Grossman’s version of Narnia) instead of wherever the heck he currently is, I, in turn, end up wishing I was reading Narnia instead of this shit.

In the scant instances where Quentin actually has a goal in mind, the narrative manages to collapse in other ways, mostly due to the lack of inked limits in Grossman’s world. I already mentioned how not calculating Circumstances had little to no bearing. But even more crucial is in how we have no clear idea what magic can and can’t do. This lack of limits obscures the options and risks Quentin (or some other character) may have at the moment. Knowing a character can’t do something is part of the climax, adding glamour to their victory, and frustration to their failure. Grossman’s set-up, especially while the characters are in Brakebills, makes it difficult to attach glamour or frustration to either their victories or defeats.

All my points so far does not mean that all the praises which made me buy The Magicians in the first place, are false advertising. Post-Brakebills (aka, the latter half of the book) pits Quentin and company against issues of adulthood and they are, I’m relieved to say, sensible treatments at last. Grossman subverts the genre of magical adventurers discovering magical lands by showing us how his characters remain victims of daily inanity, victims of routine, despite the Grand Adventure thrust into them. Grossman even waddles into the muddy waters of adult relationships, showing them as the messy tangle of lines that they are. This is not Ron and Hermione playing jealous with each other, nor Harry failing absurdly with Cho Chang, nor Ginny in a wild schoolgirl crush on The Boy Who Lived. Quentin and company ends up in a game of who-slept-with-who, trapping them in a messy web of intrigue. Finally, Quentin and company feels strongly about something.

But alas, we are not reading a contemporary Great American Novel, addressing the issues of adulthood through the lens of its oft-derided millenials. Even at its peak, The Magicians is haunted by its poor world-building and haphazard character encounters if maybe at this point already forgivable. It is ultimately framed by its fantasy backdrop and, as such, would keep running as a fantasy novel. There is no running away from that, for better and for worse.

Setting aside the slight hand-waving of how Quentin and friends managed to keep up their easygoing lifestyle at the start of the book’s later half, their adventure to Fillory finally starts to distance The Magicians with its influences. Grossman’s allusions to The Chronicles of Narnia can’t be missed but, at the same time, Fillory is better-constructed as an analogue to Narnia, in contrast to how Brakebills is an analogue to Hogwarts. Fillory is what Narnia would be, were it not so biblical, for lack of better term. Freed from the burden of trying to get a Christian thought-experiment (or allegory, depending on how you want to look at it) across, Grossman can paint Fillory darkly and subvert more tropes of the magical land genre.

At this point, Grossman’s writing starts to tighten up, making it difficult to critique without giving away spoilers. Reading this latter half gives the impression that The Magicians is more a response to Narnia than it is to Harry Potter, that Brakebills was just one whole set-up for this book’s actual point. In Fillory, Grossman intrigues the cast with the mystery of the Chatwin children. No points for guessing they are this world’s version of the Pevensies. Finding Fillory to be more than fantasy after all, is it not then possible that the Chatwins are more than figments of an author’s imagination?

A controversial issue which people debate in Narnia is Susan Pevensie’s non-inclusion in the last book. One side would pontificate that this is misogynistic on Lewis’ part. She discovered lipsticks, they’d argue, and that makes her unsuited for your heaven now? After all this time, I still interpret it differently; that it is not sexual empowerment or glamour which left Susan behind but, quite simply, being a grown-up. You see, grown-ups were never welcome to Neverland, could never see the important things like the horror of an elephant inside a boa constrictor.

But I am going off-tangent. Grossman turns this controversial issue on its head by his portrayal of the Chatwin who won the lottery and managed to stay in Fillory. I do not think he is trying to put his two cents in the debate of Susan. He is merely showing a fresh perspective on magic lands being tantamount to paradise. Saying more would definitely spill over to spoiler territory so let me just say, boy, what a take. Makes it all the more irritating that this twist had to be entangled with the sloppily-written death earlier.

The Magicians winds down like most first books in a series. After a lengthy and tiring adventure, a damaged Quentin is left to deal with the aftermath and, for a time, returns to Brakebills, presumably giving its academe something of interest that may direct future magical research. The last handful of pages read oddly Campbellian, if subverted like Narnia. Whereas the hero with a thousand faces finds himself unable to appreciate the banality of his former, ordinary life, Quentin, on the other hand, craves it. Scarred physically and emotionally, Quentin whiles his days away as a suit doing vague leadership in some big corporation.

Until Fillory, and three of his friends, show up in his life once more, and in rather dramatic fashion too…

But in the end, this sequel set-up of a resolution is overshadowed by the problems the novel has, as I outlined earlier. There are a few more reveals after the twist which, in retrospect, do not make sense. Mysterious characters are finally unmasked, even if only partially, and yet their earlier appearance serve no purpose other than to lend an air of mystery around them. It feels like a misuse of Chekhov’s gun; yet another example of haphazard foreshadowing, as if this book needed another. Granted, an explanation might be awaiting me in the two other books of the series but if I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’m buying those.

(Finally, if you feel pissed that I had to dedicate the first few paragraphs of this review reminiscing about a book that is ultimately just used to throw shade on Grossman’s writing, well, that’s kinda the point. I hope it serves to illustrate my points in this critique better.)
  1. Which, if you are paying attention, unfortunately does not convert to a good reading experience all the time. []
  2. I am sorely tempted to go into a tirade as to why authors/publishers would demarcate sections of an actual physical book further into “books”. Why not just call them something like “Part I”, “Part II”, etc.? Unless maybe you are publishing a compilation of books bound between a single pair of covers. []
  3. Or snobs at Quora. Hee hee. []

Rationality in the Time of Gunfire

He is a ghost. He is from some other world. He is Papa, Madame Manec, Etienne; he is everyone who has left her finally coming back. Through the panel he calls, “I am not killing you. I am hearing you. On radio. Is why I come.” He pauses, fumbling to translate. “The song, light of the moon?” She almost smiles.

“Are You There?” All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (emphasis added)

And then I found water in my eyes. How similar is it to the rain that falls outside, I do not know. Where rain is tasteless it is often salty. But it does not matter. They may be fiction, figments of fickle dreams but they found each other. A meeting that is a thing of beauty in the midst of a wretched war.

In a time saturated with generic posters from Nicholas Sparks movies, I worry that there is a strong tendency to overly romanticize the passage I quoted above. The thing with quotes is that you shower a particular part of the text with emphasis—put it on a pedestal, so to speak—and inevitably you lose at least some of its context. And at this point so early in this post, I would like to come out clean and admit that, contrary to common protocol, I started writing this review with a fraction of the book still unread. I found that quote that beautiful that I just felt like I have to write what I feel about it. Right. Now.

For every bit of Doerr’s skill, all the words in that quote could not begin to convey what or why I found it beautiful. I do not feel any guilt opening this post with a passage from the final stretches of the book. Can you really read the early stages of the book without thinking that they will meet? This piece of text does not matter. What matters (and what makes it beautiful) is how they got here.

And, just in case you need it spelled out loud, this passage is not beautiful because it speaks of romance in any way. Heck I don’t even know if this will blossom into one before the story breathes its last. He is German, part of the army invading Saint-Malo, while she is a blind French girl forced by circumstance to be in Saint-Malo at the time of invasion.

At this point, I think it is proper to admit that my interest (and horror) at the two world wars is more than casual. However, this book has dragged into my consciousness that my knowledge about them is horribly tainted by movies and pop culture. Just considering the second, it is so easy to divide the participants in black and white. Like highlighting certain parts of a text, this strips history of its nuances, the undiscussed footnotes and marginalia.

Take, for instance, the “heroes” of WWII, the Allied Forces. Slapping the label “hero” on them masks the fact that Winston Churchill let India starve to support the forces. How different is that, in principle, from the deaths the Nuremberg Trials accounted against the Germans? And speaking of Nuremberg, it is highly compelling to question the justice meted out in that court. Was it true justice or victors’ justice? Did that court evaluate the war or just one side of it? The atrocities the Nazi committed is beyond doubt but, had they evaluated the war itself, isn’t it suspect that the Allies come out more or less completely clean after all those proceedings? (Were they even held under scrutiny?)

How about labeling all Germans as the villains in this war? After all, they, as a nation, decided to put the Nazi party in power. Not to mention the state surveillance that marked the Nazi years, citizen against citizen. But, again, such sweeping labels seem an insult to the memory of brave efforts like The White Rose Movement. Beautiful, if maybe foolish, but futile (or was it?).

Footnotes to the greater narrative. Lights invisible inside the tide that brought us to present times. They are parts of the picture we should never neglect as we judge history.

Which brings us back to the text of Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning novel. Our ghost is Werner, a pale German orphan with an aptitude for electronics who finds himself in a time when getting education means assisting, if not outright swearing allegiance to, the Nazi cause. His talents take him to Schulpforta where he develops means to triangulate radio signals—a valuable skill if they are to crush underground resistance movements against the German forces.

It is the cast of Schulpforta which begs readers to challenge any stereotype they may have held regarding Germans in the time of the Third Reich. Sure, the common German portrayal is there: Werner feels stigmatized as most of his fellow students are just so willing to blindly follow the cruelty of their superiors. But during this time Werner encounters two contrasting characters: his friend Frederick and the revered giant Volkheimer.

Where Frederick is described as spindly, much is made of Volkheimer’s physical stature. Where people would not think twice before picking on Frederick, epic tales of superhuman feat are woven around Volkheimer. Where Frederick enthusiastically shares his interest in nature, Volkheimer’s demeanor is a caricature of German soldiers during WWII: aloof, calculating, and efficient.

What Frederick lacks in physicality he more than makes up for in moral courage. He has no remarkable qualities save this moral fiber and despite that I find Frederick the more-admirable individual in his friendship with Werner. Such is his conviction that, in one poignant scene, he proved better than even me, the reader, after I tried putting myself in his shoes. I can only hope that when the time comes that I am offered a cold bucket of water to douse a helpless prisoner with, I can make the right decision and choose what is right over what is easy.

(Werner, on the other hand, for all the stigma he feels, often takes the easy way out when confronted with moral decisions, even if hesitantly.)

As for the giant, there is so much more in him than initially presented. I will not specify instances as that I would consider spoilers but he stays silent for most of the text and yet he is never outright cruel. He defies tropes but manages to somehow remain familiar. Maybe, I find him so because he is me, trying to survive and do what is right, at least most of the time.

There are stretches of the German side of this story that felt particularly difficult for me to read not because of the prose but because the characters are made to face decisions whose horror managed to transcend the printed word and gripped me as I read it. Maybe it is just the zeitgeist I am currently witnessing. Or maybe, Doerr just writes that damn well.

As Werner is no prince I am pleased to inform you that her female counterpart, the blind Marie-Laure, is no princess nor damsel in distress either. In fact, it is actively due to her agency that Werner locates her. Unlike Werner she is seldom hesitant in her decisions, a trait that puts her in harm’s way more than once.

Marie-Laure, an avid reader despite her condition, spends most of the story under the care of her war-traumatized uncle Etienne. His father, a locksmith from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, was taken prisoner during a trip from Saint-Malo back to the capital. Displaced when Paris was taken, her father’s arrest does nothing to help her adjust to the circumstances of a war that is only getting worse.

Marie-Laure’s longing for familiarity and normalcy is understandable but her courage and willingness to fight for that sense of normalcy is astounding and praiseworthy. Instilled with a belief in reason early on by her father, she shows courage like Frederick as well as resourcefulness and resolve in no small amounts.

In the midst of our protagonists’ affinity with rationality, they are bound, if loosely, by a mythical piece of jewelry. And here, again, I praise Doerr for his skill. After everything that is said and done, the reader is left puzzling as to how much did that piece of jewelry really affect the story. Was it a passive object, a McGuffin, whose purpose was only so that the writer can make his characters want something, anything? Or did it play a more active role in the salvation or damnation of the characters who had the (mis)fortune to cross paths with it?

All of which comfortably puts All the Light We Cannot See into the shelf of magical realism. I have not read much from this shelf, I’m afraid, but, so far this is the one I like best. Unlike the superstitious nature of Gabriel García-Marquez’s characters. the rationality professed by our protagonists provides a nice counterpoint to the possibility of supernatural interference. Unlike the zeitgeist of Salman Rushdie’s The Temptress of Florence, these characters find themselves in a war, with no sorcerer nor god to save their skins. Will that stone have saved them? Did losing it made them perish? Go read the book, find out what happens, and decide for yourself.

I can only heap so much praise on Doerr’s work before it becomes redundant can only write so much about the book before I actually tell it word-for-word. This book is many things; it will make you ask questions and ponder on your moral values, all in the guise of a warm tale of an orphan boy and a blind girl.

Threads of an Atonement

I first encountered Ian McEwan’s Atonement from the film, directed by Joe Wright with James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. I remember the film having that dreamy quality which is so often attempted in excess by amateurs. That the film managed to play this style well marks its genius, an early verdict that is justified more and more as the story unfolded. One scene, in particular, stuck with me that I looked forward to reading the book just to see how that visual transition translated into words.

First things first. I would not want to spoil anyone who has not yet read or watched Atonement the pleasure of its surprise. So, for the sake of this review, I think it will be safe to refer to that scene as “Briony’s reveal”. And also, I am getting ahead of myself by starting with a scene that is obviously a twist in the plot and so occurs in its later parts. And so we backtrack.

Our story revolves around Briony Tallis, budding writer and little sister to Cecilia Tallis who is, in turn, a childhood friend of Robbie Turner. One summer day, Briony becomes an accidental witness to a rising romantic tension between Cecilia and Robbie, a scene which she (mis)interprets through the eyes of a child. Shortly afterwards, things spin out of anyone’s control and Briony finds herself responsible for a crime the consequences of which play out for years.

The artistic work that is Atonement is many things and almost everything that I find it to be strikes a chord with me. As a novel it is self-referential, using Briony’s artistic endeavors to reflect on the relationship of an author with her work; it even features a kind of foreshadowing, if you can call it that, with Briony’s The Trials of Arabella. It is a love story, not one where knights save damsels but one where a happy ending is as much a possibility as damnation. It is a war story, portraying war in all the exhaustion and futility it delivers. It is also, to paraphrase from someone else, a classic English novel with the “c” word in it.

…he dropped forward and typed before he could stop himself, “In my dreams I kiss your cunt, your sweet wet cunt. In my thoughts I make love to you all day long.”

It is at this point in the novel that the plot is stirred, the storm confirmed. You are not reading Pride and Prejudice, it seemed to say, where ladies and gentlemen spend almost a whole book in an emotional deadlock. In this story, women smoke, men are untrustworthy, and lives are ruined.

This is how Atonement sets-up its exploration of the burdens and complexities of growing up. Through the consequences of Briony’s misinterpretations and misplaced intentions, the novel waxes poetic on lost time and on a love that could have been. What keeps Atonement‘s take on this cliched plot element fresh is in how it gives context to the characters’ hopes and longings. For our lovers, there is the shadow of WWII hanging over them, around which they build their dreams and plans of being together. For Briony, that dread feeling of guilt never leaves and strengthens over time, which leads to her reveal, her act of atonement.

The years where Briony ages is obscured from the reader but her transformation, her growing up, is fleshed out well for the readers to follow. Taken plainly, the bulk of this work is not in how Briony atones for her faults but in how she grows the backbone to take responsibility of her mistakes.

“Growing up,” he echoed. When he raised his voice she jumped. “Goddamnit! You’re eighteen. How much growing up do you need to do? There are soldiers dying in the field at eighteen. Old enough to be left to die on the roads. Did you know that?”

As someone who has, on multiple occasions, tried to spin up a story, I cannot help but admire Ian McEwan’s mastery of words (and, consequently, Joe Wright et. al.’s visual language). I am delighted to report that this is one of the books whose opening I’ve found to take me in at once, a sequence which was repeated well in the opening montage of the film.

McEwan also has that gift of voicing his character’s inner thoughts so well. It is what fleshes them out, what makes them real and tangible. His descriptions of Briony’s initial attempts at writing, her reactions upon her initial encounter with the aforementioned “c” word, places her so well as a kid. Later on, McEwan treats us with Robbie’s exhausted thoughts while walking a war-torn France. And then of course, there is Briony’s own experience in the war, a part of her growing up as much as her crime is.

All those praises said, I still think that Briony’s reveal is better handled as a visual experience. I may be biased, having seen the film first, but I can’t help but think that the way Briony’s reveal is done in the book would require a bit of experience with authors and the way they sign introductions, the extra leaves of their publications. It is not something which even most well-read people would’ve understood at once; I admit that, when I reached that point, it still took me a few moments to realize how the reveal was handled, and I have seen the film at that. Had I not seen the film, I think it will take me the first few pages of the succeeding part to realize what just happened. Not that I have a better suggestion in how this bit could be handled in the book.

Take the book, take the film, it does not matter. I think both works are sufficient to convince anyone that an atonement is an act that requires as much gravity as any act concerned with a heartfelt emotion.

Did she really think that she could hide … and drown her guilt in a stream—three streams!—of consciousness? … Everything she did not wish to confront was also missing from her novella … It was not the backbone of a story that she lacked. It was backbone.