Review: Fludd, Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel is best known in recent years for her award winning novels Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012). Given the accolades showered upon Mantel’s fictional treatment of Tudor England, readers may be forgiven for overlooking one of her earlier novels, Fludd (1989.) Indeed, short, strange, tragicomic, and allegorical, Fludd could easily be dismissed as a curio, a relic predating Mantel’s ascent to literary stardom. But like the novel’s title character, Fludd conceals more than it lets on.

Fludd, Hilary Mantel.

Fludd, Hilary Mantel.

Mantel takes us to Fetherhoughton, a dour mill town in the north of England. Mid-twentieth century Fetherhoughton is a singularly miserable place, surrounded by moors on three sides, “the vast cemetery of [the villagers’] imaginations” (12). Father Angwin, Fetherhoughton’s spiritual leader, is a drunk. He is also an atheist. Agnes Dempsey, Father Angwin’s be-moled housekeeper, cares for the priest and keeps him to a semblance of order.

The “modern” bishop, upon visiting Fetherhoughton, insists that Father Angwin dispose of the statues of saints that line the church. Father Angwin is distraught: “[F]aith being dead, if we are not to become automatons, we must hold on to our superstitions as hard as we may” (27). The bishop will also send a curate to “assist”–that is, spy upon–Father Angwin. When the titular Fludd arrives in Fetherhoughton, he is both more and less than what he seems, and he sets into motion events that will change the lives of Father Angwin, Agnes, and Sister Philomena, among other Fetherhoughtonians.

Someone made fun of me for reading this edition, referring to it as a "unicorn book."

Someone made fun of me for reading this edition, referring to it as a “unicorn book.”

Mantel narrates Fludd with a diction that is distinctly English even to these benighted American ears. The “typography of Fetherhoughton may repay consideration,” Mantel tells us. “So may the manners, customs and dress of its inhabitants,” all of which, by the way, Mantel neatly skewers (11). That line is representative of a syntax and vocabulary that is singularly English. The propriety of Mantel’s writing lends it an archness that simultaneously softens and enhances the jibes she makes at her characters’ expense. Fetherhoughtonians, stand-ins for Mantel’s northern countrymen, refer to the second stories of their homes as “miyoopstairs” (13). Distraught by the suggestion of the vernacular Mass, Father Angwin comments of the townspeople, “I can well understand if you think Latin’s too good for them. But the problem I have here is their little grasp of the English language, do you see?” (10). Mantel employs this diction and tone to great comic effect throughout Fludd. She makes it plain that Fetherhoughtonians know nothing about their faith, and the (faux) politeness of her delivery demonstrates not only the absurdity of their practice, but also the absolute confidence with which they mangle their religion.

Some readers have complained that Fludd loses its momentum in its third act. It’s true that the story grows somber as Mantel shifts her perspective from Father Angwin’s battles with the bishop to Sister Philomena’s more existential struggle with life as a nun. In my opinion, Mantel’s decision to focus on Sister Philomena improves the story. It takes what would be a passing comedy and lends it greater depth. As Mantel makes clear before she begins the novel, Fludd is based on a sixteenth and seventeenth century alchemist, so the story must involve transformation. Some readers may find Sister Philomena dull–I did not–but, by becoming involved with her, Fludd himself is changed. Fludd confesses that he normally ignores women, but he is drawn to Philomena. Through Philomena, then, Mantel takes a deus ex machina-type character, the mysterious and unknowable Fludd, and illuminates his humanity. The novel is the better for it.

Fludd may not be a perfect or even a great novel, but it is a very good one. Some readers have commented on its subtle “gothic” tone, but that’s hardly right; indeed, if the gothic is present at all in Fludd, it is there for Mantel to mock. Fludd is something of a paradox. It is a comedy that knows the importance of the issues at which it pokes fun. Mantel is cynical, but she also believes in personal transformation. It is complicated, like Father Angwin, who, having given up on God, fights all the harder on behalf of “the dear old faith.” Fludd is of two minds, like many of us these days: “Everyone is where they should be; or we may collude in pretending so. And God’s in his heaven? Very bloody likely, Father Angwin thought” (157). Highly recommended.

Beatniks & Super Powers

Earlier today, due to my reading of A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, Deborah Baker, I began wondering what it might be like if the Beats had super powers. As one does when one is bored at work on a Tuesday afternoon.

HEROES

Beatman Beatman, costumed in the requisite turtleneck, beret, and sandals, chafes against postwar conformity. He urges 9-to-5ers to quit their soul-numbing jobs and engage in artistic expression. Beatman can often be found crashing suburban barbecues and breaking up rotary club meetings.

The (ab)Original Wild Child Wild Child is a pre-Columbian spirit of the land. She defends nature against the expanding interstate highway system and tract housing. Wild Child is accompanied by Janice, a mute Beat who expresses herself solely through the medium of interpretive dance.

The HOWLer Unshaven, and clad only in his underwear, the HOWLer speaks out against censorship everywhere. His Bongos of Hallucinatory Transcendence cause fits in his enemies. Often teams up with Beatman.

Bodhisattva & Kid Karma Disturbed by the emergence of the Atomic Age and the possibility of global destruction, Bodhisattva turned to Buddhism and preaches the path of peace. Bodhisattva rarely ceases meditating. Flight is his main mode of locomotion; he hovers several feet above the ground in the lotus position. Bodhisattva stuns his enemies by reciting koans. Kid Karma, Bodhisattva’s ward, keeps sacred scraps of Yeti hair that emit rays with which he blasts his opponents.

VILLAINS

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit Nameless, faceless, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is a doppelganger who steals his victim’s identities in order to ensure that they and their loved ones remain mired in the mundane.

The Company Men A team of slick baddies bent on extending corporate capitalism around the globe. They communicate telepathically and are fueled by liquor. Often in cahoots with The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

Ms. Hollywood A blond sex kitten who seduces men, encouraging them to stray from their wives. Hollywood is extremely persuasive; she mesmerizes her victims with eye contact.

Sgt. Scuttlebutt Sgt. Scuttlebutt is an anti-communist crusader in league with the FBI, the CIA, and the John Birch Society. The sergeant believes knows that war is the only truly human activity, and the only thing that can purge the world of godless communism. Can be distracted by long hair.

Any additions/revisions/suggestions?

February Recap

February 2015: I quit. Then I didn’t.

Tl;dr: I overreacted to the feeling that blogging was (is?) an obligation, and, more generally, “information overload.” It turns out my blogsbuddies have experienced similar feelings and have devised a variety of coping mechanisms. Lessons learned:

  1. I should be less dramatic.
  2. I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed at times by my digital experiences, which is heartening.

Am I back? Not quite. I’m figuring out how to manage my online experiences in a way (or ways) that minimizes anxiety and stress. Blogging is secondary to that. But I won’t rule out the possibility of continuing to blog if and when the muse strikes. (I quite admire From Couch to Moon’s schedule, consisting as it does of weekly posts, with occasional increased frequency, usually dependent upon awards schedules.)

I haven’t posted a review for some time, but I have been reading. I plan on writing longer reviews of Signal to Noise and Half the World, but I’m listing here some “flash reviews” of the books I’ve finished over the past few weeks.

Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts. I knew after reading Jack Glass that I needed to read something else by Adam Roberts. Yellow Blue Tibia begins in the USSR, 1947. Stalin calls leading Soviet sci-fi authors together to imagine an alien threat that might unite humanity. The project is canceled without explanation, and, decades later…the narrative imagined by Stalin’s writers appears to be coming true. I quite liked Yellow Blue Tibia, and would recommend it over Jack Glass. See Catherynne M. Valente’s blog for a very different reaction.

A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick

A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick

A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick. The first PKD I ever read! A dark vision of the future (really the 1990s, imagined in the 1970s) illuminated by PKD’s incandescent prose. PKD questions the nature of identity, and, ultimately, the realities in which we perceive ourselves, via Bob Arctor, an inveterate drug user who also happens to be an undercover police officer keeping tabs on…Bob Arctor. Arctor’s brain is fried by Substance D, and nothing is quite what it seems. Bottom line: I thoroughly enjoyed this PKD, and look forward to reading more in future.

The Gallows Curse, Karen Maitland. A historical mystery with just a dash of the supernatural. I enjoyed Maitland’s previous novels, A Company of Liars and The Owl Killers, both in the same vein, e.g., murder mysteries set in the darkness of thirteenth and fourteenth century England. There are some interesting elements here–for instance, the narrator is a mandrake (!!!)–but, overall, The Gallows Curse is dull. The plot, or plots, involving a villager falsely accused of murdering her child and a French plan to overthrow King John, didn’t quite add up, and the ending was unsatisfying. I don’t know anyone who enjoys this (sub)genre the way I do, but, if you do, you might want to steer clear of this entry.

Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Children, Ransom Riggs. (Young adult.) The follow up to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar ChildrenHollow City is even darker in tone, with Jacob, Emma, and the other peculiars trekking across England and Wales, 1940, in search of a way to save Miss Peregrine. Riggs’s story is effective, if not particularly compelling, and moves forward at a steady clip. Although narrated by Jacob, a fifteen year old, it reads like someone twenty years older, an effect that is jarring and inauthentic. An entry in an ongoing series, Hollow City, predictably, involves a twist and a cliffhanger ending.

Signal to Noise and Half the World are both for the young adult crowd. Signal to Noise has received quite a lot of buzz, due perhaps to its unique setting, 1980s Mexico City. I found it a sweet if not particularly affecting story, and recommend Abercrombie’s book over it. Reviews forthcoming…when I get around to it.

Update/Forgot to mention: I’ve decided that, for every novel or short story collection I read by a male author, the next I read will be by a female author. (This doesn’t apply to nonfiction, which I handle differently.)

Ssh! On Information Overload

*peeks out from behind blog* He…hello? (Projection: Drunken Dragon Reviews will be the first blogger to point out the irony of my writing a post several days after saying, “I quit.”)

But it’s my space, damn it, and I’ll be inconsistent if I want! As Walt Whitman might say, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself.” Or, to quote someone more on my intellectual plane, Popeye, “I yam what I yam.”

It occurred to me, in the days (hours?) following my decision to cease blogging that my problem might be identified as one of “input versus output.” In other words, the output was this blog and the variety of interactions I engage in on social media. The input was the variety of information I receive daily, not merely through sensory experience, i.e., walking down the street, but also via the Interwebz. When I’m talking to someone on Twitter, I am by virtue of the medium receiving a stream of information from other people, much of it peripheral, to be sure, but still there nonetheless. I would come home after staring at a screen all day, more and more often at spreadsheets and databases that are (tens of) thousands of rows long, open up WordPress, and…there were 42 new blog posts to sift through. To me–but not necessarily to you–that’s exhausting.

Social scientists, and, in their wake, journalists, have begun to comment on the daily flood of information people confront. Anxiety is the most common result. In my personal experience, I recall logging into Twitter the first time and thinking, “Oh my God, what is this, it doesn’t stop!” And it did cause me anxiety. Yet I couldn’t look away. Still can’t. Favorite. Favorite. Retweet. Researchers have identified Facebook as a source of anxiety and depression in some users, possibly due to the large number of cat videos in their news feeds. (Just kidding. Everyone loves cat videos.)

The analog version.

The analog version.

In summary, then, individuals must absorb larger and larger amounts of information, much of it of varying quality. Sociologists have long noted the affect media consumption has on our ways of thought–during the 1990s, we feared gang violence, a relatively rare phenomenon, far more than we did the negative health consequences of pollution, which is rampant–but the quantity of information presented to us daily is simply overwhelming. You may filter it, of course, but then you’re exacerbating the selection bias you practice without even realizing it. You end up with blind spots bigger than a house.

Some of this is a matter of personality, personal preference. Perhaps I simply have a low tolerance for much of this social media tomfoolery. (Although it doesn’t really stop at “social media.”) I suspect that some of it is the way I’m constructed. We’re all familiar with the notion of introverts and extroverts, although, as I understand it, and perhaps From Couch to Moon will be kind enough to correct me if I’m wrong, there really is no such thing as an introvert or an extrovert; rather, we all exist somewhere along an introversion/extroversion “spectrum.” Those who tend toward introversion, though, are “low energy” and are more quickly wearied by external stimuli. That’s why introverts don’t do well at parties; there’s simply too much going on. (Note: Shyness and introversion aren’t the same thing, although they can coexist. I suffer from introversion and grumpiness.)

I wasn’t able to describe any of this until a few years ago, after reading Susan Cain’s 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It was only after reading Quiet that I realized that I didn’t like parties because they provide me too much sensory stimulation. Plainly: They’re loud. And I have to talk to people. With whom I’m minimally familiar. For hours at a time. Prior to Quiet, I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe my experience. So I mumbled my way through many a shindig, suffering in begrudging silence, only to retreat to my lair at the earliest opportunity. (Quiet is a very accessible and easy book to read. Readers without children can skip several chapters near the middle that deal exclusively with the ways in which various settings, for instance, schools, are stacked against child introverts. Readers with children will likely find those chapters of interest.)

My struggle over the past few weeks has been “How do I sift the digital wheat from the electronic chaff?” as much as it has been “Do I hate blogging?” Characteristically, my response has been retreat. Fall back, fall back, dig in. But even that is only a stopgap. I might feel secure behind my Maginot Line, but the digital blitzkrieg rushes on. To put it another way: If I have limited cognitive bandwidth, how do I maximize its usage in terms of the variety of inputs demanding my attention?

Closed for Business

Indefinitely

Indefinitely

After long and (perhaps) careful deliberation, I have decided to cease blogging. Although I still love reading and discussing books and, to the degree that I am capable of it, writing, I find the “management” of blogging–e.g., planning posts, the sense that one is obligated to post about rather than merely enjoy every book–exhausting. What was supposed to be a diversion ended up feeling like a job, and, of course, I already work full time. Suffice it to say that I have a limited store of energy on which to draw, and blogging taxes rather than recharges what is a precious resource.

I’m not going to cancel my account or remove my blog. Keeping the blog means I will be able to return to it some day, or post intermittently, should the muse strike. More importantly, having my account will permit me to continue to follow those friends and “colleagues” I made while blogging. Some of you follow me through Twitter and Goodreads, to which I am linked here; if you don’t already, feel free to follow me there. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

To the West.

I'm finished.

I’m finished.