I adore Michael Ondaatje's writing, and this book didn't disappoint in any way, yet it took me a full five months to finish a book that should have taken me three days, and it would have taken me that long a year ago.
Over the last five years, I found book reading became an obsession bordering on addiction. I was reading a minimum of one hundred books a year, and that didn't even include the massive amount of comics I was reading (every Marvel title, most DC titles and a goodly amount of Dark Horse and Image with a sprinkling of Boom and others). I was writing a review of every book I read. I was engaged in multiple online book clubs in our favourite censorship destroyed social media book site, and there seemed to be no end in site. Last summer, though, I started pulling away from the book sites (prompted by some personal issues then solidified by my ethical stance), and by fall i was struggling to reread the books I was teaching that semester, so much so that I found myself cheating by pouring over old notes rather than making a fresh reading of the words I have loved so much for so long. But the real problem was that I couldn't even start to read anything else.
I went through about ten books, reading the first page or the first chapter before tossing it away, and finally settled on Ondaatje's The Cat's Table. It's taken five months to finish this book, and the only thing I've been able to finish during that period is my comics. Why has it taken so long? What has happened to me? Burn out mostly, a massive, overwhelming, ass kicking energy drain. I pick up a new book, or I opened The Cat's Table, and all I felt was mental fatigue and an aversion to the words of others. Even beautiful words like Ondaatje's.
I think it is a testament to Ondaatje that I kept reading, and The Cat's Table is a damn fine book. It is not as tortured as Divisadero or as poetic as The English Patient or as passionate as Anil's Ghost, but it is a lovely little pseudo-memoir that is full of gorgeous little surprises, a travelogue through a time, through colliding cultures, through a world that never existed but existed all the same. I read it so sporadically that all I have left are impressions of moments, but I think that might very well be why I finished this book: it is made up of moments, just moments, bound together by the Oronosay, the ship the take from Sri Lanka to England, but still moments, still slivers of time cut out of a journey. This kind of fragmentation is always an element of Ondaatje's writing, but here I necessarily made it a part of my reading. I think I met The Cat's Table at just the right moment.
So will I go back to reading the way I used to? I dunno. I am still pretty burnt out. I am rereading Murder on the Orient Express with my daughter, but that is mostly to have fun with her and support her, so I blast through each chapter after she is finished so we can talk. I have had a nice trade off, though. I have lost reading but I've regained writing, despite my complete and utter lack of time. I am writing every day, and writing creatively, not just writing these reviews that no one sees (not that anyone is seeing my creative writing), and that is a trade I am willing to make.
Gods messing with humanity. Humanity interacting with Gods. Deus ex machinas to make everything work out ever so neatly. The Greeks knew how to write a great tale, and those tales are "oh! so relevant" to our time -- or so I've always been told.
I think that's a bit of bullshit, actually.
When I read Greek Literature I see people with concerns entirely different from our own, and I want to know those concerns, absorb those concerns, figure out what was relevant to them and why.
Sure, I see ways in which we can make the plays seem timely to ourselves, forcing the plays to say things that the playwrights would never have imagined. There's nothing wrong with that, I suppose. It keeps the literature relevant to our personal mythologies, after all. But I don't read Greek literature to look for a happy reflection of my own morality or to engage in criticism of the Greek's ethical or social short comings. I go to Greek drama to engage with a life we have left behind, to try and see what we are missing, what we have given up, and to wonder if some of what was relevant to the Greeks is what we, too, should find relevant today -- even while deeming it irrelevant.
So I have simply embraced what I feel Euripides was trying to say, which is likely as flawed as anything else anyone else would read into these plays, tainted as we are by so much distance from Ancient Athens.
What was he trying to say, you ask? He was expressing that hospitality was a great virtue, and one that would repay the giver many times over; he was telling us that it is parents who owe their children loyalty -- even if it means the gift of their life -- not the other way round; he was suggesting that keeping one's word, no matter the consequences, is paramount; he was saying that any interference by the gods, even when well meaning in the case of Apollo's deal to save Admetus' life, was to be feared, despised and avoided. Good lessons all, methinks, and the lessons I am most interested in when it comes to the Greeks.
It's not often that I read a book and decide on the talent of the writer within the first few pages, but that is precisely what happened by page ten of The Pastel City.
I came to M. John Harrison through the circuitous route of China Mieville's List of 50 Books Every Socialist Should Read, and each of the many writers I have met for the first time through that list or revisited because of that list have impressed. Thus I was sure I would like Harrison. And like him I do. I decided by page ten that I liked him, and by the time I reached the end of The Pastel City my like became love.
He can write and write well. I was instantly captivated by his perfectly realized descriptions. Not too sparse, not too heavy, just right. Those descriptions, however, were just preparing me for his gripping characterisations. Lord tegeus-Cromis appears, and he is instantly engaging. I've never met a character who captured my imagination so quickly. The swordsman who fancies himself a better poet than fighter, the lover of exotic musical instruments, the denizen of a lofty tower who covets his isolation, he is a man I loved immediately and that love never waned.
So Harrison's writerly talents were more than enough for me to walk away loving him and his novella, but his skill as a creator thrusts him into a rarified place in my personal canon of greats. I think, perhaps, that I witnessed the birth of steampunk in The Pastel City. It sure felt like steampunk to me, albeit steampunk wrapped up in post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi. There is the inexplicable tech -- the clockwork birds and the geteit chemosit (the shadow, brain removing troops of a distant culture) -- there is the mixture of swords and science, there are towers and cities and wastelands. Some may say this is more strictly a post-post-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi, but surely the kernel of Steampunk is present in Harrison's early work, as much as is present in Tim Powers' early work (and many consider Mr. Powers the original Steampunk writer). I don't think it is my imagination that Viriconium feels so much like Ambergris or that Tomb the Dwarf's exoskeleton feels like something straight out of a Bas Lag novel or that the mood and tone reflects the work of Stevenson then Moorcock then Hunt then et cetera. I think M. John Harrison is the unsung father of early Steampunk.
Whether that is true or not, however, he is an excellent writer, and his work deserves a serious audience. Why aren't we reading and teaching this man? It is a wonder that we're not.
Great writer? ✓
Genre progenitor? ✓
Intensely creative? ✓
Want to read more? ✓
Lots of love? ✓
5 Stars? ✓
WARNING: This review contains a discussion of the c-word, and I plan to use it. Please don't read this if you do not want to see the word spelled out. Thanks.
This is less a review than an homage to my crazy mother (now I have you really intrigued, don't I?)
It was 1983, and I was in my first Catholic school. I'd spent my first six years of school in a public school, but my "behavioral issues" coupled with my lack of growth made me a target for bullies, so my parents were advised to move me to another school where no one knew me.
So off I went to the home room of a fallen nun, who'd given up her habit for a family. She wasn't much of a teacher. She was an old school Catholic educator who practiced punitive teaching, which included kicks to the shins, yanking of ears, pulling of hair, and screaming from close range.
I kept my head down and tried to blend in with my new surroundings, but my Mother made that difficult from the get go. I was a voracious reader, and she passed on the disease to me. From grade two on she had been recommending great books to me. I was reading everything before most everyone else, but my Mom's recommendation of Lady Chatterly's Lover in my first month of Catholic school was probably her most outrageous and unforgettable recommendation.
She bought me a copy at the book store in the mall, and that's where I met one of my favourite words of all time -- cunt.
Back in 1983, cunt was not a word in your average child's vocabulary. Sure we'd heard it, and maybe even seen it, but it was not something that was regularly used by kids, and its usage was pretty vague to every 13 year old I knew.
But there it was in Lady Chatterly's Lover. It was all over the place. So as I read the story and absorbed the way Lawrence used cunt, his usage became my usage. Lawrence used cunt beautifully; it was not a term of denigration; it was not used to belittle; it was not an insult nor something to be ashamed of; cunt was lyrical, romantic, caring, intimate. And I came to believe that cunt was meant to be used in all these ways. That the poetic use of cunt was the accepted use of cunt, the correct use of cunt, and suddenly cunt was part of my vocabulary.
I was thirteen.
Now I didn't just start running around using cunt at every opportunity. I did what I always did with new words that I came to know and love. I added them to my vocabulary and used them when I thought it was appropriate.
And when I whispered it to Tammy, the girl I had a crush on, a few weeks later, thinking that it was the sort of romantic, poetic language that made women fall in love with their men (I can't remember what I said with it, but I know it was something very much like what Mellors would have said to Constance), she turned around with a deep blush, a raised eyebrow and a "That's disgusting" that rang through the class (I can still see the red of autumn leaves that colored her perfectly alabaster skin under a shock of curly black hair, aaaah...Tammy. Apparently she had a better sense of cunt's societal taboos than I did). Mrs. C--- was on her feet and standing parallel to the two of us in a second, demanding to know what was going on.
To her credit, Tammy tried to save me -- sort of. She said "Nothing." Then Mrs. C--- turned on me; I was completely mortified (I'd obviously blown it with the first girl I loved in junior high school), and while I was in this shrinking state, Mrs. C--- demanded to know what was happening and what I had said.
I tried to avoid repeating what I had said. I admitted I shouldn't have been talking. I admitted that I should have been working. I tried to divert her attention. But she was a scary lady, and I couldn't help myself. I repeated what I had said -- as quietly as I could -- but as soon as Mrs. C--- heard cunt I was finished. That was the moment I knew "cunt" was the catalyst for the whole debacle.
Now ... I'd known before that the word was taboo, but I didn't think it would generate the response it did. I really thought that Tammy would be flattered. And I certainly didn't expect that I would be dragged to the office by an angry ex-nun. Silly me.
I got the strap. It was the first time (although there would be another). Three lashes to the palm of the hand.
I didn't use "cunt" in public or private for a long time after that, but my punishment couldn't diminish my love for the word. Lawrence made such and impression on my young mind that neither humiliation nor physical pain could overcome my appreciation of cunt's poetic qualities.
To me the word is and always will be a beautiful and, yes, gentle thing.
Every time that event was recounted at the dinner table over the years, whether it was amongst family, or with my girlfriends or my future wife, my Mom always got this sly little grin on her face and indulged in a mischievous giggle before refusing to take the blame for me getting the strap. After all, "Who was the one who was stupid enough to use the word, Brad? Not me."
I love her response as much as I love the word.
And in case you were wondering, my Mom never stopped recommending books to me. She was an absolute kook. I miss her.
I can't wait to pass on Lady Chatterly's Lover to my kids...but I think it's going to have to be in grade three if it's going to have the same effect it had on me ... hmmm ... I wonder how that will go over.