Friday, November 26, 2004

Two by Shepard 

Ever since starting this blog, over a year ago, I've intended to discuss, at least occasionally, things I've been reading. Call it the restless urge to review.

Not that comments here are intended as formal reviews. Merely commentary about things I've found noteworthy to comment about.

In the past couple weeks I've ready two new books by Lucius Shepard. (I've missed a number of other recent books by him, meaning I've bought them and they're on my shelves but I haven't yet read them; this is true of most authors, even my very favorite authors, and is notably true of Shepard since he's issued so many short-novel/novellas over the past couple years.)

Viator (Night Shade Press) is about a cargo ship that's been run aground on a small Alaskan island. The protagonist, Tom Wilander, has been hired, along with four others, to occupy the wreck and evalute its salvage value. As they live on the wreck, they experience various perceptions, or delusions; they become obsessed by the patterns of rust, or the shapes of glass fragments, from the wreckage. Tom has dreams of flying creatures, and his obsession with the ship, his growing impression that the ship is moving toward some transdimensional version of the island, that the ship is unwilling to die, threatens to jeopardize his growing relationship with a woman in the nearby town who welcomes his companionship, but who is increasingly impatient with his obsessions.

The story has the obsessive force of something by J.G. Ballard, and Shepard acknowledges that his style here is deliberately intense: long meandering sentences, paragraph and page long, with no quotation marks for dialogue. It gives the sense of the exotic and the impersonal, the impression of vast forces that overshadow mundane events. Yet-- at the very end, there is a gesture toward a 'rational' explanation. It shifts the story from the genre you've thought you've been reading, to another one altogether. There are enough unexplained details to leave the story ambiguous, a la a classic Twilight Zone episode, but I can't help but think it would have been stronger as a pure fantastic allegory, something in which reality and the subjective are not parsed.

A Handbook of American Prayer is a first person narrative by one Wardlin Stuart, a barkeep sent to prison for a bar scuffle that results in murder. Stabbed by a fellow inmate in prison, his desperate reflexive prayers, and his subsequent survival, result in a philosophy of 'prayerstyle' whereby the formulation of poetic prayers, for specific, achieveable goals, brings about a success that produces a book sale, a personal-ad marriage and release from prison, and a national reputation. His book is chosen by Oprah; he makes the cover of Time and Newsweek; and during an interview with Larry King, he brings forth the wrath of a traditional TV preacher named Monroe Treat, whose wrath drives the remainder of the book.

The book accentuates the strengths and weaknesses of Shepard's writing. The book has a remote, distant air, in that much of it narrated rather than dramatized, and the focus isn't even on the prayerstyle and its metaphysical implications as on the interpersonal events of the first person narrator-- for instance, the fact that he sells the book from jail is mentioned only in passing; and the apparent miracle of the prayers that work is barely examined, in favor of much agonized self-reflection by the narrator. In a way, this makes sense: the book is written as if Wardlin's reputation and national reputation is well-known, establish, and need hardly be mentioned. It makes sense, if this were a real person writing his biography; but it's not usually the way fiction is written.

Shepard's writing suffers, if it's a flaw, from being far more intelligent than most of the characters he writes about. Shepard can't resist long paragraphs (entire pages) analyzing a situation. These are fascinating--essays really--but they don't contribute to the book's plausibility. At the same time Shepard excels at sharp verbal exchanges and character confrontations. The Larry King interview, the threat to Monroe Treat in the diner, are spectacles.

There's a fantasy element in the mysterious person, who's maybe been summoned into being by Wardlin, who appears and disappears, who's identified with the persona 'Lord of Loneliness' in Wardlin's poem/prayers; this makes the book fantasy even if the prayer is all the effect of psychology and happenstance.

The best parts are the editorializing about the social and public effects of the story: the description of the book tour (page 68); Darren speculating what would happen if Jesus appeared today (p180); his analysis of how Wardlin succeeds because he doubts (p177); and aside such as Therese's (Wardlin's wife) job to undress for a certain Mr. Kim (chatper 13).

Notably amusing: Shepard/the narrator's remarks about Roger Ebert (page 97):

all globular and pampered in his blue blazer and open-collared dress shirt, he seemed to have the substantiality of a human parfait one moment, of a cartoon elf the next...

And about George W. Bush (page 213):

I contemplated the prospect that there would one day be a George W. Bush Presidential Library and decided it would be stocked with volumes such as The Little Golden Book of Trees.

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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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