Ink by Hal Duncan and In The Cities of Coin and Spice by Catherynne M. Valente

Reviewed by Dan Hartland

Ink, UK cover

In the Cities of Coin and Spice cover

John Lennon sings about a lucky man who made the grade, another who blew his mind out in a car, and the English army winning a war. The crowds don't recognise the faces or the names, the details are vague, the import sketchy. Suddenly, there's a disorienting swell of noise: you think you can make out individual scales, particular instruments, a sketch of musical form, but really it's just din. The song is lost, swirls in a frenzy, and then ... zip. It resolves—somehow—and the voice is now Paul McCartney's, singing in first person about catching the morning bus. Upstairs, he slips into a dream, drifts sonically back to John, who witters gnomically about holes in Lancashire. The swell again, the zap of resolution—and then the round of backward voices, a noise designed to drive dogs crazy. It's a day in a life.

I'd love to turn you on.

Like all good hipsters, I prefer The Beatles' Revolver LP to its infamous successor, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But "A Day In The Life" is easily one of my favourite Beatles songs. It's faintly liminal—a sort of nursery rhyme balanced between banal simplicity and chaotic abandon. Its shifts of structure and voice are underlined not by the deliberately bald vocabulary of the lyrics, but instead by musical convulsions. Lennon and McCartney suggest at least four quite separate stories which somehow coalesce into a whole whilst remaining quite separate. McCartney has called the song "a little poetic jumble." [The Beatles Anthology, Cassel & Co, 2000] It's telling stories in the only way capable of approaching the way in which they really happen—all at the same time.

"Any one version of the script must be [...] abandoned to the sands of time." This quotation appears on page 496 of Hal Duncan's hefty-but-hollow novel, Ink. It is a book concerned, in a bloated, over-regarding sort of way, with the process of story: who tells them, what about, how, why, whether in fact they are telling us anything interesting or useful. A direct sequel to 2006's Vellum, Ink has received far less attention than that enjoyed by its predecessor. This fact cannot be unrelated to the book's sheer unreadability, its mind-numbing insistence on over-complicating what is in essence a truth so commonplace as to be standard practice in every soap opera you can think of: everyone has stories, and, given the chance, everyone tells them differently.

Nominally, Ink follows the fortunes of a small band of gods, or "unkin," who find themselves struggling against the destinies imposed upon them in every fold—or world, or parallel reality—in the Vellum, for which we can queasily read "the universe." Their struggle is so deliberately convoluted as to defy précis—Abigail Nussbaum has argued that the book is "best appreciated for its gestalt effect rather than its plot," which acts as a sort of apologia for a book which talks about story without having much of a one.

In fact, what Duncan does in Ink is reiterate the same story so many times as to make it even less interesting than it was in the first place. One of the central unkin, Reynard, has got his hands on The Book of All Hours—a sort of Rosetta Stone for reality, which holds a record of everything that has and will happen between its covers—and has thus become unstuck in the Vellum, slipping between folds and reliving the same stories as they alter just perceptibly between instances. It's a hyperreal wonderland, where fantasy is reality, and vice versa, whilst characters struggle in unregulated tandem to change their actualities, swapping Nazis for Futurists and one sort of death for another.

If this sounds exhausting, that's because it sort of is. The problem with Duncan's novel is not that it is over-ambitious—as noted, it in fact chooses two fairly well-trodden paths in exploring the role of the writer and the function and practice of story. The book's problem is that it is simply over-done. It says things like, "A story doesn't just start at the beginning and trundle onwards towards the end," as if we are learning something new.(p. 5) Baldly, Duncan stays too long for the good he does.

Ink cannibalises sources from the classical to the popular, submitting Ovid and Lucas to the same magpie gaze. The book, in its defence, is occasionally witty in its endless iterations. In one strand, in which characters re-enact Euripides' The Bacchae, a character scoffs, "You want me to turn the Harlequin into some sort of god wandering amongst men? What is this? Do you see some money to be made in 'cult appeal'?" (p. 82) It's a wry self-deprecation. But too often, Ink feels like a humourless cliché machine, refashioning tropes into just another trope: terrorists in long, billowing coats (they appear to be a favourite of Duncan's), weakly expressed sub-Anarchist politics, the twist so obvious that it becomes the natural ending. "The Book is gone," p. 589 (I was counting) celebrates. "Story's over. No more destinies. No more gods with any luck." We are of course bowled over by this shock finale.

One of my colleagues here at Strange Horizons, Tim Phipps, will tell you if you ask him (and sometimes if you don't) about one or other of his two experiences of J Michael Straczynski's wordy, worthy TV space opera Babylon 5. One was of the rubbish Predator clone in the first season episode "Infection." The other was a snippet of a season four installment in which the god-like alien races of the Shadows and the Vorlons are turned on by the younger species they have manipulated for millennia. Rendered impotent by the galaxy's refusal to bend any longer to their whims, the elder races sit, cowed, as the leader of the "Army of Light," John Sheridan, glowers into the mid-distance, sets his jaw, moves it from side to manly side, sets it again and growls with horrible conviction, "Get the hell out of our galaxy."

Yeah, I know.

This is the seminal moment in Straczynski's saga, and it boils down to so hackneyed a line, delivered inevitably with so hammy a bark, that the whole thing is sold down the river. Duncan's interminable tome is betrayed by a similar tendency towards marrying the laughably ponderous with the terrifically banal.

"I skim the skybike low over the chimney-stacks of the Circus, slaloming between the chi-blasts from the thopters overhead. The crossfire of the gun emplacements pounds the sky all around me as I dive right down through it into the inner circle of the terrace, with its tarmac road and little grassy park where SS analysts are tucking into their packed lunches. The SS info-monkeys scatter, dive for cover, chi-lance held out at right angles, I strafe each Georgian townhouse in passing, shattering windows, splintering doors, scarring sandstone with the blue-green beam of jizz-juice." (p. 69)

Yeah, I know.

This deaf ear for prosody is what hamstrings the novel. Indeed, what is most disappointing about Ink is that its hope was not forlorn. Stallworthy and Daiches, in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, say of James Joyce's Ulysses, a novel about days in lives with which Duncan is clearly grappling in both Ink and Vellum, that "We must follow wherever the author leads us and let the language tell us what it has to say without troubling whether language is being used 'properly' or not." (p. 2234) It is that richness of language, of style and of diction, which separates the difficult, bewildering meanderings of Joyce (which are an acquired taste I have no love for) and the red brick blankness of Duncan. If Ulysses is deliberately unintelligible, it is at least a feast of language. Duncan's book, on the other hand, is deliberately unintelligible and badly written to boot.

Ink struggles not just to make sense of its unwieldy predecessor, but to encompass all human history and challenge both the narrow-minded ghetto mentality of genres (perhaps represented by the hermeticism of the Sovereigns) and the top-down canon-forming of the literati. It strives to free our imaginations to soar across all stories in a thousand ways. Instead, it leaves us pleading for order. Perhaps Duncan wants us to understand what it was to desire a fascist regime. More likely he overestimated his talent.

Duncan's hopelessly overegged pudding could be being described in Catherynne M. Valente's In The Cities of Coin and Spice, when a character happens upon an indecipherable script: "I could read many of the printed letters, but they folded into each other or thatched over each other to make arcane gibberish." (p. 14) Valente knows that multi-strand narrative risks being precisely that and in her book, also a direct sequel to an earlier work, she seeks not to bludgeon us with the unknowability of a complicated world, but reveal to us its beauty.

In the Cities of Coin and Spice features in its first one hundred pages more wonders than Duncan manages in six times the number: talking hedgehogs, bone economies, a woman with a wicker heart and her ravenous husband, huldra and unicorns, a greedy Doge and an undead ferryman. They all exist in the same bustling world, a moreish gumbo of folk traditions which weaves a sensible whole from what could have been a contradictory melange.

Most importantly, Valente uses frame narratives both to contextualise and enrich her many individual tales. Whilst this is undoubtedly a novel, it resembles in many ways a collection of short stories, in which each narrative may happily sit alone. Most are interrupted part-way through by another narrative, and in turn that narrative may be interrupted, but ultimately each story is self-contained, even as it fans out to make further sense of another. The effect is a rolling train of story, at times like Duncan revisiting the same event or history from a different perspective, at others elaborating the same situation or theme in a subversive manner, but always ultimately returning to the story itself. Valente tackles the post-modern problem of presenting narrative as something less than definitive without simultaneously convincing us to lose interest in the tales she has to tell.

Crucially, her language is luminous. It is syrupy in the satisfying way (though too much at once may become sickly)—textured and weighty whilst also managing to be fluid and sweet. Valente, too, tells of someone falling from a height:

"I looked down out of the dark, where light held hands with light. I remember the looking, and the first searing step out of the Sky, how it hurt so, and how I cried out for my mother as I fell. They caught me in their green, my limbs so raw and full of light, slashed to ribbons, bleeding out of the pits of my knees, the hollows of my elbows, the nape of my neck—all the places where a whole can tear." (p. 221)

There is something lyrical, something evocative and sinuous, about Valente's writing which manages to capture the magic of listening to someone speaking a story—ostensibly the nature of the tales here told—amidst the quiet and calm of a snatched moment. Like Jeanette Winterson at her best (most notably in The Passion), Valente has a knack for the convincing voice. By mining both oral and textual culture with such tenderness, Valente becomes a Grimm of the information age, fashioning a knowing text which recognises that the stories it contains are, even on their own terms, bunkum, whilst making them vital and fascinating anyway.

Connecting both novels (grouped together as The Orphan's Tales) is the story of a young girl with dark circles around her eyes which contain stories from a hundred sources. She learns towards the close of In The Cities of Coin and Spice that they are all eventually connected with her own origin. "They are the tales," she is told, "of everyone who reached into the silver shadows and pulled you into the world." (p. 513) It may be a slightly predictable close—Salman Rushdie famously spent a fair chunk of his similarly synthesising 1983 novel Midnight's Children telling not the story of the novel's narrator, but the story of how that story began—but it remains fitting, a sort of convenient coda for what has in fact been a novel with a more subtle depth. Valente slips in and out of stories, arriving and leaving them at different points whilst returning to the same themes and characters with a delicate rhythm, but what is always central at any one point in In The Cities of Coin and Spice is the tale being told.

Famously regarded by Brian Aldiss as the first work of science fiction, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein uses a similar frame narrative technique to separate its narrative threads—starting with the diary of a sea captain, Robert Walton, descending into the tale of a crazed scientist, Frankenstein, and then going deeper still by exploring the Creature's experiences using his own voice—and attains both clarity of voice and vitality of story in so doing. Valente's trick is to follow Shelley's choice. It's an acutely applicable technique for science fiction and fantasy—it gives an immediate, accessible voice to the strange and the alien, reducing narrative distance whilst maintaining a sense of the story's separateness from its surrounding apparatus. In Frankenstein, Shelley achieved a depth of characterisation, and weight of detail, which has rendered her novel practically insuperable. Valente goes a long way towards echoing this achievement, nesting her narratives and their narrators in such a way that they become active agents rather than inert ciphers.

"There is always a moment," Valente's orphan opines, "when stories end, a moment when everything is blue and black and silent, and the teller does not want to believe it is over, and the listener does not, and so they both hold their breath and hope fervently as pilgrims that it is not over, that there are more talesa to come, more and more, fitted together like a long chain coiled in the hand." (p. 506) There is not always this moment. It's a moment which only comes when the storyteller knows not just the process of story but also its potency—not just the complicated business of narrative theory, but how also to achieve the simple pleasure of telling a tale well. Hal Duncan, his style reminding me more of John Brunner's hectoring polemicist Chad Mulligan than a Virgil for our age, cannot marry in his heady, ultimately painful, duology the twin demands of multi-part narrative and compelling storytelling. He writes like a hippo. Catherynne M. Valente, on the other, enchants and enlightens in equal measure. She's the real McCoy, kids.

I trust that turns you on.


Dan Hartland has been doing this too long to think anyone cares who he is.