Graham Joyce Retrospective, Part VII: How to Make Friends with Demons

This review is also up at Goodreads.

How to Make Friends with Demons (published in the UK as Memoirs of Master Forger) features lost love, terminal cancer, and the daily presence of malevolent demons. It’s also Graham Joyce’s lightest and breeziest book by far. Told in the first person, Demons alternates between a few days in the life of middle-aged antiquarian book forger William Heaney on the one hand, and the darker tale of how college-aged William developed his ability to see demons on the other.

The present-day storyline offers little in the way of conventional plot, but William and his acquaintances are likeable enough I barely cared. William’s days are taken up with a new book forgery project, an endeavor based more on boredom and his friendships with partners-in-crime Jaz and Stinx than on any financial desperation. The rest of his time is taken up with two very different relationships with two very different women. There is his platonic, longstanding bond with the saintly homeless-rights activist Antonia, but there is also a sudden romance with a mysterious young woman named Yasmin. Oh, and he sees demons everywhere.

The second storyline offers more familiar territory for Joyce readers. Young William enjoys a passionate romance with his college love, but that romance is threatened when he and a friend dabble in the occult and realize they have touched the supernatural realm. The dual timelines mean that the outcome of this second plot is never in doubt; we know William does not end up with his college lover, and we know he continues to see demons well into middle age. The pleasures of this storyline come not from any twists or turns, but rather in the melancholy, thoughtful treatment of young love and bad luck.

As in so many of Joyce’s books, the story is rife with potential pitfalls that he avoids through sheer strength of characterization. The fantasy of a middle-aged man being pursued by a gorgeous younger woman is an eye-roll-inducing cliché (ahem, Stieg Larsson), but by making William and Yasmin appear as well-rounded people, her desires and his desirability both make sense. His interactions with Stinx and Jaz, similarly, could easily devolve into the kind of Guy Ritchie caper we’ve all seen in roughly 10,000 British crime films, but Joyce persuasively frames the forgery project as just another part of a longstanding friendship.

Oddly enough, the titular demons barely matter to the story. William sees them, and we are as certain as one can be when dealing with a Graham Joyce story that they are real, but they never drive the present-day plot in any meaningful way. They serve instead as markers of personal suffering, grief, and depression, which William uses to better understand those around him. Even the earlier plotline is driven less by the demons than by stranger byproducts of William’s occult rituals. As in all of Joyce’s works, the characters simply experience the supernatural as part of their day-to-day lives.

I doubt anyone would rank this as Joyce’s finest or most ambitious work, but I don’t think he meant it to be. This was never intended to convey the horror of Dreamside, the poignancy of The Facts of Life, or the historical specificity of The Limits of Enchantment. This is an altogether jauntier piece of work. I can almost imagine Joyce viewing the writing of this work as a kind of vacation. Of course, since this is Graham Joyce we’re talking about, even that easygoing break has to include some demons.

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Graham Joyce Retrospective, Part VI: Some Kind of Fairy Tale

This review is also up at Goodreads.

Twenty years after fifteen-year-old Tara Martin disappeared without a trace, she turns up on her parents’ doorstep. She’s unscathed and appears not to have aged a day since her disappearance. Most unsettling of all, Tara tells her bewildered family that she has only been gone six months, and that she spent that time in a magical fairy realm.

The bulk of Some Kind of Fairy Tale’s narrative centers on the reactions of the people she left behind. Her parents, Mary and Dell, believe her to be mentally ill but don’t want to risk confronting her about the story. Her brother, Peter, responds angrily to Tara’s evasiveness, attempting to catch her in a lie and expose the truth about what happened. Her ex-boyfriend, Richie, who was investigated in connection with her disappearance, sees Tara’s vanishing as the moment his life derailed and her reappearance as his second chance. Also in the mix are Peter’s wife, Genevieve, and their four children, along with a curious neighbor lady and an eccentric psychiatrist who interviews Tara about her experience. All of these characters become tangled in the book’s central dilemma: what do you do when you are confronted irrefutable evidence of something you cannot possibly believe?

Note that the dilemma is not “what really happened to Tara.” Given that this is a Graham Joyce novel, it probably won’t come as a shock to anyone that he is largely uninterested with pinning down the boundaries between fantasy and reality. As in all of his work, he prefers to examine the consequences of the fantastical through character interaction. How much really happened or where Tara went is, through that lens, largely inconsequential.

The strengths of Some Kind of Fairy Tale are those common to all of Joyce’s work. Joyce had uncommonly acute insights into all kinds of human relationships. Here, in the form of Peter and Genevieve, we get an authentically rendered depiction of one of those married couples that have settled into a contented, quietly happy partnership. In Peter and Richie we see the fumbling awkwardness of an old male friendship damaged by past scars and conflicts. In Jack, we are given a teenage boy who is neither the quipping, smart, quasi-adult kid of so much TV nor the insufferable idiot that adults often see when they observe the young. Every one of these characters is believable and sympathetic in their strengths and imperfections, to the point where I could easily imagine meeting any one of these people in real life.

The major weakness of the book is, oddly enough, the woman at its center: Tara. Even though a considerable portion of the narrative is told in the first person from her perspective, she remains something of a beautiful cipher. This is partly by design; Joyce clearly wants her to remain inscrutable to the surrounding characters. While that might have been a wise choice if the point of view remained restricted to the other characters, however, Tara’s sections suffer from her depiction as a reactive figure rather than one with agency and clear desires. Even when Tara does make a pivotal decision late in the book, it feels inevitable and manufactured by the plot.

Along with the sketchy rendering of Tara, the fairyland she recounts is surprisingly dull. For all the images we get of ritualized combat, sexual free-for-alls, and sentient lakes, little happens and the entire scene feels distant in a way that the main “real world” narrative does not. Again, part of this is by design. Tara’s memories are presented as recounted to a psychiatrist or to Peter, so the reader is supposed to wonder about their authenticity. While I understand Joyce’s approach in theory, I found myself comparing this unremarkable fairyland to the rich, fantastically alien scenes of The Limits of Enchantment or Smoking Poppy.

All in all, though, the fairyland is not the point of Some Kind of Fairy Tale. This is, like all of Joyce’s work, a book about men and women, family bonds, sex, and the ways in which choices echo throughout one’s lifetime. On that level, it is a successful and well-rendered depiction of one family faced with the impossible.

SPINES

So this is what I’ve been up to lately. I’m the head writer for SPINES, an upcoming serialized audio drama podcast. Here’s the first teaser; as always, promotion is huge for podcasts, so all the retweeting/sharing/subscribing on Itunes will be greatly appreciated:

Graham Joyce Retrospective, Part V: The Limits of Enchantment

In preparation for this (long overdue) addition to my Graham Joyce retrospective project, I went back to see how many of his adult novels were written in a female first-person voice. I was shocked to find that it was only one: The Limits of Enchantment. It’s not really that odd, except that in my mind Joyce had such a perfect command of female characterization it just made sense that he would have written several novels from a first-person female perspective.

That wonderfully confident ability to write from a female point of view is one of the features that leads me to classify The Limits of Enchantment as one of Joyce’s Three Great Masterpieces (and, yes, I think the caps are entirely justified).

Limits tells the story of Fern Cullen, a young woman adopted and then apprenticed by a midwife nicknamed Mammy. The story unfolds primarily in 1966, as rural England begins to feel the creeping changes of the postwar British order. The National Health Service has been established, the government begins to regulate the practice of midwifery, and the Cullen family finances appear increasingly dire. Despite these economic and social pressures, Mammy and Fern carry on in good spirits until the untimely death of a young woman who had recently sought an abortion from Mammy. Reputation crushed, Mammy begins a precipitous mental decline, and Fern must learn to take charge of her care while also attempting to complete a mandatory midwifery course and hold off the landowner seeking to evict them.

Of course, this being a Graham Joyce novel, there is also a fair amount of subtle magic and spirituality at work. Mammy is one of the few remaining people in the area to believe in and practice forms of magic not quite dramatic enough to resemble witchcraft but certainly going well beyond country superstition. At the center of this loose belief system lies a ritual known as Asking, a harrowing drug-induced spiritual journey only to be undertaken in times of extreme need or crisis.

While the main conflict of the novel centers on Fern’s attempts to avoid eviction, gain her midwifery credential, and shield Mammy from disgrace and possible institutionalization, there are several intertwined subplots. Two of these involve young men instrumental in Fern’s sexual awakening: nice local boy Arthur, and new hippie-commune resident Chas. It would be unfair to spoil the specific role each plays in the story, except to say that their interactions take some unexpected turns. Along with these two quasi-romantic subplots, there are also various comings and goings involving the pregnant women of the village as well as a burgeoning friendship with Judith, a young, witchy true believer of Mammy’s Old Ways.

The climax of the story comes with Fern’s Asking, a trippy sequence involving hallucinations, human-animal transformations, and one shockingly violent and disturbing attack. The literal reality of this entire ordeal is open to debate, but it permanently alters the trajectory of Fern’s character and the way she approaches her dire economic situation.

While this book ticks all the Graham Joyce boxes—a fascination with the power of sexuality, blurred boundaries between fantasy and reality, and the effects of larger social and political shifts on individuals and small communities—it also offers a few unique features that set it above most of his other work. To start with, Fern Cullen is by far his most vividly rendered and sympathetic protagonist. She’s far from perfect; as written by Joyce, in fact, she can be hostile and an overall stick in the mud. She’s also, however, sharply intelligent, independent, and deeply observant about human relationships while also being too young to know entirely what to do with those insights. Not one stray thought or line of dialogue rings false, which is all the more remarkable considering the deeply gendered issues confronted by this male author through the eyes of a female main character.

Beyond the overall strength of Fern’s depiction, though, is the fact that she spends a great deal of time and energy grappling with the magical elements intruding on her orderly world. Fern, you see, is not much of a believer. Yes, she has been raised with knowledge of these older forms of spirituality and systems of magic, but she doesn’t know if she really believes any of it. Listening to news broadcasts about the space race and learning the scientific consensus on fetal development, she isn’t sure she has any time for a culture in which one asks the moon for advice or decides a course of action based on signs and portents. Some of Joyce’s other protagonists ignore the magic around them, and others dive wholeheartedly into it, but only Fern Cullen teeters on the brink, taking a close look at what she believes and wants to believe. The realistically painful and difficult way in which she gradually reconciles these two forms of knowledge forms the core of her emotional journey, and Joyce executes it just perfectly.

One other feature sets this novel apart from Joyce’s other work, and that is in its use of an unreliable narrator as a way of toying with audience expectations. We trust Fern isn’t crazy, exactly, but we can also be sure not everything she describes is happening in the way she says. In approaching the story through this lens, Joyce constantly challenges us to rethink our assumptions about memory, reality, and the construction of narrative. As Fern Cullen warns us on the opening page, “And while I offer you my story unbroken, like the apple peel, it hangs by a fiber at every turn of the knife. When you come to know the nature of the teller of this tale you may have good reason to doubt both. . . Perhaps I once was mad. Briefly.” But as told by Joyce, truth isn’t black and white. There is truth in the madness, and it is this realization that finally allows Fern to reconcile the magical and mundane sides of her life. The rest of us should be so lucky.

On “The Lobster”

*Warning: Spoilers Ahead

I just saw Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster, and overall I thought it was a brilliantly weird, disturbing gem. The ending, however, left me cold, and it got me thinking about how many movies I’ve seen lately that employ the dangling ending as opposed to the ambiguous ending. I love ambiguous endings. I love dissecting the final scenes of a book or movie, focusing on dialogue and cues delivered as subtext. Ambiguous endings by their very nature offer a few possible options, and it is left to the reader or viewer to figure out the most likely one.

The dangling ending is a different thing entirely. The dangling ending, rather than offering a couple of possibilities, ends too early. It ends without giving the viewer enough information to even understand what endings are within the range of possibilities. The dangling ending isn’t ambiguity. It isn’t the writer or director bravely refusing to spell things out. The dangling ending is what happens when directors/writers can’t figure out how to offer enough information to point to some possibilities, but not enough to spell it out, so they just end in a place that circumvents the problem.

Let’s take two movies with very similar plots: The stellar Picnic at Hanging Rock and the crappy Strangerland. Both involve children vanishing into the Australian outback, some never to return. Setting aside the many problems of the latter movie, let’s look at how the endings differ. In Picnic, we are left uncertain about what happened to the girls. We are, however, given enough glimpses and flashbacks to have a vague sense of the events surrounding the disappearances, which provides us with enough information to understand the possibilities. Strangerland, in contrast, simply ends without providing any information at all about the nature of the girl’s disappearance. Since we know nothing, there can’t be any tension surrounding what could or could not have happened.

Which brings me back to The Lobster. The film ends with Rachael Weisz’s character waiting to see if her lover will blind himself so that they can be together. I’m not saying the viewers needed a conclusive answer to this question. The problem is that it ends in such a way that we can’t possibly derive the answer ourselves. Imagine if, instead of ending with her sitting at a table waiting, it had ended with him in the bathroom, holding the knife. He looks into the mirror. We see the expression on his face, and it ends. In this scenario, the viewer has what they need to decode his expression and body language and decide for themselves how it ended. As it stands, though, there isn’t even enough there for it to qualify as an ambiguous ending. It just ends.

I propose the following test: If the story could have ended one scene earlier or one scene later without changing the nature of the ending, you picked the wrong place to end it. The ending needs to feel like the only logical stopping point for the story instead of the result of a coin toss.

Tropes That Must Die: The Convenient Visual Metaphor

Have you ever looked at water pouring from a pitcher into a glass, and suddenly thought about how life’s problems feel like a deluge, a nearly Biblical flood of water drowning you and leaving you kicking desperately up through the water and toward the light? No? Congratulations, you’re a human with human thoughts.

Tortured analogies like the (barely) fictionalized one above are more commonly found in works on the literary end of the spectrum, but they pop up in fantasy now and then. This type of scene is lazy, and it’s stupid. I have an exceptionally fantastical way of viewing the world, and not once have I stared at a quotidian event and waxed philosophical about how it reflects some bigger issue I’m facing. Except that one time I was entertaining a dreaded relative and the cat vomited on the carpet in a moment of exquisite comic timing.

The point is, real people are not as poetic and insightful as we would like. Yes, it would be much easier if characters could realistically stumble upon the perfect visual metaphor to sum up the themes of the story. Realistically, though, people generally look at a glass of water and think, “That’s a glass of water.” Find a better way to introduce your brilliant analogy.

In Praise of Bitch Planet

BitchPlanet_vol1-1

This isn’t a review, partly because I don’t have time and partly because it’s an ongoing series still in its first seven issues. But, seriously, people of Earth: Read Bitch Planet. Even if you don’t read comics, even if you have no interest in a feminist reappropriation of women-in-prison sexploitation films, even if sci-fi isn’t exactly your thing. Just read it. You’ll see why.

 

Graham Joyce Retrospective, Part IV: House of Lost Dreams

Part IV of this retrospective focuses on Graham Joyce’s “lost” novel, House of Lost Dreams. His least-read book went out of print quickly and remains hard to find; the cheesy cover on the paperback edition goes a long way toward explaining its lack of appeal, while the $40 used copy price speaks to the tiny number of copies in circulation.

House could be considered part of a loose trilogy of Joyce novels—along with Smoking Poppy and Requiem–in which Brits journey to an exotic locale and encounter the dark supernatural forces that live there. In this case, that exotic locale is a remote village on a volcanic Greek island. The book’s married protagonists, Kim and Mike, journey to the sleepy little town in order to paint, swim, fuck, and generally escape the drudgery of their old lives. A third central character, Manoussos, remains nameless for much of the story but gradually begins to act as a spiritual guide/guardian angel for the pair.

Joyce wastes no time in getting to the horror of the story. The titular house where Kim and Mike stay is a scorpion-infested shithole without indoor plumbing or electricity, instantly leading the reader wonder why Kim and Mike don’t just camp on the beach. This question keeps popping up, particularly when it becomes clear that the scorpions are the least of their problems; far more alarming is the fact that the house has a tendency to manifest anything spoken of in its vicinity, ranging from dolphins to snakes. Kim and Mike stick with it, though, perhaps because they begin to realize that the rest of the island is just as dangerous as the house.

None of Joyce’s works have less of a plot than House of Lost Dreams. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, the meandering storyline nicely reflects the relaxed lifestyle of a small Greek village that still considers the seasons a far more important marker of time than a clock could ever be. The loose style also keeps the reader guessing, as it is never possible to predict where things are going. Still, compared to the tension of Stormwatcher or the incredibly high stakes of Smoking Poppy, House of Lost Dreams can feel a little aimless at times.

The plot, such as it is, involves Kim’s discovery of Mike’s infidelity with her best friend Nikkie. This revelation leads to a fracture in their relationship, which may in fact be worsened by some type of malignant spirit identified by hermit sheepherder Manoussos. Mike’s conflict with this spirit involves everything from symbolic nightmares to being beaten by a metal-shoe-wearing saint. As Mike sinks deeper into alcoholic depression and Kim drifts farther and farther away, it’s up to Manoussos to help Mike do battle with his literal demons.

As always, Joyce is at his best here when meditating on relationships, gender, and sexuality. The speed at which Mike’ and Kim’s marriage collapses is both shocking and terribly realistic; Joyce was all too aware that even loving and successful relationships are built upon unspoken compromises and necessary moments of willful ignorance, all of which can be destroyed in an instant of too much truth. Joyce foregoes the loud fights and shouting matches one might expect of this situation, opting instead to illustrate a decaying marriage through excruciating descriptions of long silences and stiff body language.

Graham Joyce’s talent for describing a setting is also on display here. Whether writing of a bucolic English village, the streets of Chiang Mai, or a Greek island, Joyce always managed to immerse the reader in the little details of the characters’ surroundings (I challenge you to read this book and not immediately seek out some dolmades and moussaka).

One unusual and surprising problem with this book involves the way in which Kim gets sidelined for much of the third act. If anything, Joyce usually erred on the side of his female characters, granting them more than their fair share of growth and discovery. Here, though, Mike must undertake a spiritual quest with Manoussos, battling his demons while Kim stays at home and engages in a far less interesting battle with her temptation to sleep with young Greek men from the village. While all too common in literature as a whole, this dangling female character is an unusual lapse for Joyce.

Some readers might complain that the spooky house of the title isn’t sufficiently integrated into the main storyline, but I see it as a deliberate and strong choice on Joyce’s part. Manoussos and other characters in the story make it clear that there are many, many strange things about this island, of which the house is only one. It would make no sense for Kim and Mike to be presented with a comprehensible explanation of the house and its mysteries considering that it is only one small part of a millennia-old puzzle. Beyond this, any disappointments surrounding the house’s mysteries are silenced by the revelation of what happened to Manoussos there. This incident, the most literal representation of Joyce’s obsession with the dark power of sex, somehow manages to represent the sexual abuse and torture of two young men by a horde of sexually bewitched village women with sensitivity and tact, a major achievement considering that it could easily have turned into a cartoonish mess straight out of an exploitation flick.

House of Lost Dreams is an odd book, even for Joyce. Neither his spookiest nor his most surreal, it is nevertheless striking for the ways in which it defies normal rules of plotting and structure. One gets the sense that it wasn’t quite what Joyce was aiming for, as though there was pressure to cut or merge subplots or alter some aspects of character interaction. Regardless, House of Lost Dreams offers us Joyce’s first foray into stories about people sent on a mental and spiritual journey by their new surroundings, a theme that Joyce revisited to stunning effect in Smoking Poppy. If you find yourself looking for a good beach book for a Greek vacation, however, you might want to give this one a pass.

Graham Joyce Retrospective, Part III: The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit

Now I’d like to discuss Graham Joyce’s last and weakest book, The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit. Released in the UK with the much better title of Year of the Ladybird, Joyce’s final published adult novel follows a young college student during his summer working at a decaying seaside resort. This student, David, deals with a number of odd occurrences over the course of the summer. In addition to being torn between two beautiful women (poor bastard), he finds himself courted by the local National Front chapter, subjected to terrible pay and work conditions, and bombarded by a plague of ladybugs. On a more mysterious note, David has visions of the titular ghost and a small boy, which the reader will immediately understand have something to do with the fact that David’s father died at the resort twenty years earlier.

It’s hard to say exactly why Ghost doesn’t work as well as Joyce’s other efforts. On the surface, it seems to share striking similarities to his very best books. Like The Facts of Life, it intertwines a small-scale story with much larger political and social processes of postwar British life. Like The Limits of Enchantment, it deals with the long-term repercussions of choices from one generation to the next. And, like every single one of Joyce’s works, it explores sexuality and the complicated terrain of male-female relationships. Yet, somehow, these themes never seem to gel in the same way they do in Joyce’s other fiction.

Part of the issue seems to be that the relationship between the quotidian and fantastical is far less elegant than it should be. Joyce was always skilled at mixing fantasy and daily life into a sort of British magical realism, but here the two parts rarely intersect. That isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself; the fact that the protagonist constantly sees demons in Memoirs of a Master Forger had little direct bearing on the plotline for much of the story, yet it worked. The big difference seems to lie in how magical experiences affect the character. Protagonists like Forger’s William Heaney and Smoking Poppy’s Danny Innes may try to set aside their magical experiences in order to deal with more real-world issues, but these visions and dreams nonetheless become integral to their characters. Here, David seems almost unchanged by his interactions with the ghost. A last-minute reveal as to its nature is an emotional blow, but there isn’t a sense of the magic reflecting anything in particular about his character.

The romantic subplots also don’t ring as true as those of other Joyce works. In nearly every other case, Joyce avoided anything as simplistic as a “bad” or “good” woman. Many of the relationships he wrote ended in failure, but for believably complicated reasons. Here, David has a choice between two women so clearly unevenly matched that there is absolutely zero suspense about the outcome. One is Terri, a repressed wife of a vicious racist. Any sympathy for her victimization is canceled out by the fact that she is also quickly revealed as manipulative and petty. The other woman is gorgeous, witty dancer Nikki, who offers David all the fun and companionship he can’t have with Terri.

The preordained outcome of this romantic triangle is complicated somewhat by Terri’s disappearance. This serves as the greatest source of suspense within the story, as David becomes convinced that her brute of a husband has murdered her. When the reader discovers that the murder never occurred, it isn’t so much a relief as a source of new questions. Numerous acts by the husband, Colin, don’t make any sense if in fact he didn’t kill his wife. Why is he throwing bags of meat down a mineshaft? Why is he lurking around in a way calculated to frighten David? By what miracle could he have seen his wife kissing someone but not be able to identify that person? It almost seems as though Joyce had originally planned a different outcome for this story and changed course at the last minute. That new ending, unfortunately, serves as one of Joyce’s only examples of an artificially happy conclusion. The love between David and Nikki survives, Terri finds happiness with a new lover, and David enjoys a tidy revelation about his father that seems to come off as more cathartic than it really should be. This all’s well that ends well close to the book offers a surprising contrast with so many of Joyce’s other works, which almost fixate on lost opportunities and scars left by past relationships.

While disappointing by Joyce’s standards, it should be noted that Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit is still head and shoulders above most of the competition. A disappointing Joyce book still gives you outstanding imagery, rich dialogue, and frightening visions of worlds beyond our own. For another writer, Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit would be the masterpiece they built up to over the course of a career. Only for someone of Joyce’s caliber could it instead be a disappointing finale.