Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Altogether Now! Some Thoughts on Jo Walton's "Among Others"

A short one today, as I wrap up end-of-semester affairs, submit grades, and hawk over the Rutgers web portal to see if I've clinched yet another 4.0 semester. We'll see.

Now, for some words on books. It's been a while since I've read a novel with such fantastical elements as fairies and magic, but Jo Walton's consideration of the supernatural in Among Others is at once elegant and plausible. Among Others is written as a series of Morwenna Phelps's diary entries between 1979 and 1980; the events follow the magic-induced death of Mor's twin sister (Morganna, also known as "Mor," as if this wouldn't cause more confusion), and the novel approaches the aftermath of these happenings with a measured tone, a rare occurrence in the hackneyed diary-as-novel genre. The twins' mother tried to twist the twins' beloved fairies into doing her evil bidding--which resulted in Morganna's death and Morwenna's crippling injuries.

(If you caught the subtle pun near the end of the parenthetical in the above paragraph, I applaud you.)

Glossing the novel in this way does it a disservice and paints it as something from the catalogue of trite, post-adolescent, angst-and-acne pocked high fantasy. (Blame the dust jacket for this affront and its explicit reference to a "magical battle.") The novel is actually about the lifelines that we draw during our own existences, and Mor's diary illustrates magic, life, and literature as something almost Heideggerian, something that is always already happening, so that the inciting moment appears to be coincidental at best.

Books are like these coincidences: They appear at the right moments and allow us to make sense of the world. The fairies draw Mor back to her native Wales, where she forms a gate through which the spirits of the deceased pass. One of those souls is Mor's twin, and she almost refuses to let go until a fairy whispers "Half way" into her ear. Mor elaborates, "he didn't mean I was half dead without her or that she was halfway through or any of that, he meant that I was halfway through Babel 17, and if I went on I would never find out how it came out." Despite the absence Mor feels because of her twin's death, Babel 17 serves as an unlikely--yet somehow appropriate--reminder that the rest of the world still exists.

Books, for Mor, function as a collective codex for negotiating existence, and her feverish reading (n.b., it's implausible how much she can read) allow her to sail through a depressing, fairy-less life at Arlinghurst, the boarding school she attends. Those who have not spent their lives floating across the existential pond with Ursula K. LeGuin, Robert Heinlen, Frank Herbert, and Anne McCaffrey in tow will have difficulty understanding how these books serve as Mor's intellectual life preservers. (For the rest, Mor also avidly reads Plato and The Communist Manifesto.) Regardless, she is able to unify her life and her reflections around these books, around the search for these authors and their bodies of work. Her diary entries are often about these pieces, about how Mor responds to them, as they are about her constant struggle to restart a dialogue with the fairies and to escape her mother's dark machinations.

Also, apparently, the fairies speak Welsh. (One should keep in mind that Jo Walton, the novel's author, is a Welsh-Canadian, and Mor herself is also a Welsh girl.) Though we occasionally have to sort through some difficult-to-pronounce Welsh, we receive some translations of fairyspeak into a Tolkien-esque, high rhetoric, courtesy of Mor. She uses Tolkien to translate for us, literature as a tool to explain the speech of others.

So literature lets us make sense of the world. Now--whoever would've thought that?

And now begins a long summer, some four months of imminent unemployment, in which I'll be reading and (I hope) writing a lot. I accept donations in the form of pittances, books, and stuff for my cat.


Post a Comment