Another Kingdom, by Andrew Klavan

Another KingdomThe success of this book depends on how much you expect. There are a lot of things that Andrew Klavan does right.

This is a book which takes place between two worlds, and the conceit of relating them is what the book is mainly about. Klavan writes about Hollywood, where reading books has been relegated to the periphery, where writers go to lose their souls, and where good stories are ruthlessly marginalized. It is a book about the power of a good story, and the navigation of two separate worlds is crucial for that.

Another thing he gets right is the transition from world to world. I have to say that it is difficult to judge a series in progress. Were you to do that with, say, Harry Potter, you may come up very wrong; you have to do all seven books to make the proper judgment there. There are things missing from this first volume, but it is a projected first volume. One of the things missing is a satisfactory sense of the magic involved in moving from one place to another, and so that is not what I mean when I say this is something he gets right. What he gets right is the surprise of the transition from one world to the next, abruptly, often, which gets the reader every time it gets the narrator. That is a skill at timing the events and pacing of the story that Klavan has mastered. If you read the book just for that, you will be very happy indeed.

Klavan seldom lets the pace that he has set for himself drop. There are obviously pauses in the narrative, but on the whole, it reads like a series of uninterrupted chase scenes mostly because it consists of a series of uninterrupted chase scenes. The hero of this story is a scrambler. Let me add that one of the things he gets very right, as might be expected, is also the humor. Klavan is funny. Klavan’s sense of humor is based on good timing and a sense of proportion that always appears when least expected. The wit, the self-deprecation, the banter, all the good things that entertainment has managed to keep for itself in our age, he squanders none of these away.

But many of the things that make for modern entertainment’s cheap illusions also distort this book. Klavan is engaging the culture wars over sex, gender, and traditional roles. He has shrewd insights to offer, and he places them exactly. He is doing the right thing in engaging these through powerful stories: that’s where the traditional side has the advantage, after all. But he squanders some of that advantage by the cartoonishness that he either can’t keep out or prefers to include. Again, the banter, the humor, he occasions in which relationships flower, these things are often yielded to cheap effects. If you are going to write about men and women, about traditional roles, your adversaries advantage is the sentimental, cliched, glamorized, cheaply sexualized approach of movies. I do think Andrew Klavan is in search of better expression, and I appreciate his boldness in taking the subject on: it needs to be. But his imagination is too Disney, too cartoonish, too much visualized in a pornographic age. I don’t mean to say his story is pornographic—though the chaste ecstasy in a pool full of nymphs is the most bizarre attempt at a positive catharsis yet attempted, following hard on the most bizarre and obvious attempt to portray defilement (as a chase scene) ever—but I do mean that this is not a story for your kids, nor is it free of troubling, cheap approaches to romantic love and sexual relations.

Klavan is doing more than just telling about events: he wants to gesture at things, to set up resonances in which meaning is heard. I do not think, however, that what he achieves is enough. There is one thing that he gets really wrong, and that is the complete absence of any real, deep, moving pathos. Dreadful things happen, and they happen like a movie, like a cartoon. It is all on the surface, so much so that even a sword thrust through the body remains on the surface, you might say. Heads are bitten off, and the emotions all pass in a blur, without atmosphere, in good, concentrated, car-chase style. A story should get deep into us, but that is the worst thing that Klavan does, or fails to do. It is all a bit ephemeral. There needs to bet a better sense of place, and by that I don’t mean L.A. The foil for L.A. is not much a foil for L.A., part of it being that the book sometimes seems an long attempt to instantiate the platonic ideal of the car-chase in as many diverse iterations as possible. He does this chase-thing well, but doing that is not enough! The characters are perhaps developing gradually over the course of several volumes, but they are not developing sufficiently over the course of one.

Perhaps I am wrong. The book goes fast. It does go fast indeed, and delivers punches and keeps you reading. Perhaps by the last book, however many are projected, the story will take on depth and luminosity. I hope it does. Perhaps all the chases are from the stage in our hero’s way that requires he escape before earning a pause to rest and think. Klavan knows how to put the parts of his story in order, he knows how to structure the suspense. I hope the other crucial elements of a good story are things his story can get as it goes along.

It is hard to write a good story. I’ve been trying for years and years, without success. I wish I could at least do what Klavan has. But if I had, I would also want people to tell me what is still wrong so that I could get it better. What he is attempting is worth better success.

Fantasy remains a human right – Tolkien

Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold.

I’ve been reading The Monsters and the Critics and On Fairy-stories again. One of the things I do is neglect the library I have, and I have a good library. So in the afternoons when I’ve written and done Latin, I return to it nowadays. It is a good time for dipping, though I’m not much of a hand at dipping yet. So I look for smaller complete things to read through, though Tolkien’s essays are surprisingly long.

We are fortunate to have these essays in which he works out a complete theory of what he actually achieved. This is astonishingly neglected, or not put into practise, or perhaps best: hard to put into practice. You’ll still notice, when you think of all the good fantastic literature you know, that he isn’t wrong.

I was reading The Elfin Ship, because I don’t usually give up on books even when I’m re-reading them–not much of a dipper, you see–and it was a bit tedious (and I squirm because it makes me aware of silly things I’ve written). There are things at which he succeeds, and more things at which he doesn’t. And when I think about it I see that Tolkien was right.

For all that it is wandery and even random, Blaylock’s view of magic, at least in this book, is not altogether wrong. Lots of things are silly, too much of it is incoherent and flimsy, but he appeals to the desire for an interesting place (Seaside and specially the book store) and maintains a sufficient seriousness about magic, as can be seen by the failed Professor Wurzle’s experiences and vain speculations.

Of course, what Tolkien writes doesn’t explain all the failures a contemporary writer of Fantasy may make. You can get the generally literary part of the craft wrong and so fail. But if you can do at least that much–and it is much–you still need to know about the special criteria that a fairy story has in order to succeed at that.

Fantasy … is difficult to achieve . . . and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

Which, I think, is why we read and re-read his success. Potent story, and there are not enough stories in the world, and the sense of elvish craft.

Do you know he’d even thought of the perils of drawing fantastic subjects?

Harry Potter and the Moral Imagination

J.K. Rowling’s  great Harry Potter opus begins with a boy to whom the most wonderful thing happens. From living in a closet under the stairs, an orphan with a miserable life, Harry Potter goes on to be not only a wizard introduced to a magical world of wonders, but a famous wizard and the only one who can save the world. As Rowling opens up the world of wonders to Harry Potter, the corresponding dangers are proportional, and so the coherence of her creation is maintained through proportional dimensions. 

It would have been gratuitous—and boring—for Rowling to give him wonders without perils as well. I don’t know exactly what wisdom and insight this woman has, but I do know she knows how to tell a story, and a good one of wisdom and insight. She knows how to do the beginning, sustain the middle, and give it a satisfying end. And whatever Rowling is doing in this sprawling and baroque thing she makes, she is not doing things gratuitously. There is a logic that governs what unfolds that has its seed in the very first book.

There is a reason for the sprawling diversity Rowling sometimes struggles to bring all together in this book. The series sags a bit in book four and then in book five before she masters the complexities of everything she’s trying to accomplish. Her first three tomes grew at a modest pace, and then all of a sudden the fourth could almost swallow all those before, and the rest follow longer. And there are times when you wonder if all the anger in book five, all the snogging in book six, all the clueless wandering in book seven serve a purpose. The answer is that they do, and that by that time Rowling knows most readers will stick with her. And that is the key—if you stick with it long enough, it pays off. It is one work, in seven volumes—and it must be that way.

The ending does not disappoint. It is a big, elaborate quest to understand exactly what magical connections have been made and consequences are being reaped, but it hangs together and points to the theme unambiguously. The theme is that the good holds within itself an unending world of marvel spanning distances from lemon drops to the beauty of undying loyalty to friends and that highest and most powerful magic: love expressed through sacrifice. Which is why I say there is a logic to the whole thing. She is introducing wonder: the books can only increase in wonder. She is not introducing one wonder, but a whole world of wonder, and so the books have to enclose more and end climatically  It is no wonder Rowling struggled with keeping things coherent in the middle of the series, but the wonder is that she was able to pull it off and make a triumph of the whole. And she has to show, which she does, that evil is flat, mean, confused, ignorant and the death of all that is interesting. She does, she does, she does. The story ends with Harry Potter saving the world and is no letdown. 

That is the great appeal, it seems to me, of Harry Potter. There are wonders and depths of wonder, the world is not simply a place of clashing envy, hatred and will to power. Those things belong to the side of evil, destruction and death—the line of which runs through every human heart. The world is more, and the interesting story is the one in which real knowledge is used to resist darkness, ignorance, hatred and in short, evil of every kind. It is not accidental that the story takes place in a school: one of the great points she makes is that evil is inferior to good in what it knows because it does not love. There is this sense all throughout that maybe the dark side knows things, secrets, mysteries that the weak and the good are too cowardly to acquire. But that is set on its head in the end. And that is true to life. Are we not seduced? Is there not a glamour to debauchery, a mystery of iniquity that mocks prudence and proper caution as cowardice? But it is a false boasting, only an illusion, a magic of deception that beckons us not to life, but to death and the fear of death. Evil is for coward, traitors, liars and thieves. True courage is on the side of what is right and honor is amirable. And when Rowling makes this point it resonates in the deep heart’s core. The deepest magic is still the magic of love. That last spell Harry casts is a symbol of all he stands for, and why we admire him, and there is a tremendous symbolic resonance in the last duel and its just outcome. 

A great work like this has a lot of themes one could speak of. The flaws in people, the imperfection in us that might prevent but does not have to prevent admirable behavior seems to me a powerful one. When Dumbledore met Harry at King’s Cross and confessed his faults, it brought before me the truth that we each of us tend to perceive morality to favor our own weaknesses in a way I had never before seen it. She is dealing with heroes and has to deal with how we ought to deal with heroes. She does it well. There is a generous ambiguity about what makes one hero better than the rest around him. There is a humility about self and an admiration and regard that shows a very deep wisdom. The way she handles from start to finish the character of Severus Snape—not completed until that crucial epilogue in book seven—is an example of this and rich food for thought. 

A lot of kids have grown up with Harry Potter. It is for better or worse a part of the world of many people and I think it is if nothing else as an act of cultural literacy that we should be familiar with it. The good news is that it is a good addition to our cultural literature. In this sprawling work there is God’s plenty, and certainly enough for people to find that to which they may take exception. But it is in its broad themes and its architectural execution a triumph of the moral imagination.

A Book

I’ve uploaded to Kindle Direct Publishing part one of my story: The Other Side of the Garden Gate.

I didn’t want to charge, but Kindle has to have at least a price of 99 cents. I am not sure why they ended up putting $2.99 on it, but they did. Maybe it is too long for them to do for less. Maybe it really gripped their attention. Maybe that’s just what they always do. (Looks like in the Kindle it shows up for .99, at least Katrina looked it up that way and that’s how it shows up–not sure why all that.) I think 99 is worth it, not sure about 2.99. Anyway, for that you get 30k words, six chapters, 94 pages.

And it’s by me.

I wrote this back in the day for Sophia. I used to write individual stories but then I wanted to get going on something longer. I tried to get each story up to 5k words, and so you can do the math on the chapter length and the word count. She always wanted me to write something set in Narnia, and once I did, but mostly stayed out. This is kind of like it, only not. I’ve revised the original chapters–though more revision is not out of the question. One can keep updating the text, and already I’ve updated the cover because I found a more interesting font.

So maybe you got a kid, a kindle and three bucks to spare. Be a chap, get the story and make me famous. There will be more to follow.

If you want a free copy, I’ll send the file to you and you can read it on the understanding you’ll post a review at Amazon. Of if you just want a free copy I can just send it to you. There is the option to put it into the Kindle lending library, but then I’d have to agree not to otherwise distribute an electronic copy. Not sure what to think of that.