The Narrator Paperback – Aug 21 2010
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About the Author
Michael Cisco is the author of The Divinity Student (Buzzcity Press; International Horror Writers Guild Award for best first novel of 1999), The San Veneficio Canon (Prime Books, 2004), The Tyrant (Prime Books, 2004), a contributor to The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases (eds. Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Roberts) and Album Zutique (ed. Jeff VanderMeer), and his work has appeared in Leviathan III and Leviathan IV (ed. Forrest Aguirre). His novel, The Traitor, is published by Prime (2007). Secret Hours, a collection of his Lovecraftian short stories, is published by Mythos Books (2007). In 2009-2010, his stories have appeared in the Phantom ("Mr. Wosslynne"), Black Wings ("Violence, Child of Trust"), Lovecraft Unbound ("Machines of Concrete Light and Dark), Cinnabar's Gnosis: A Tribute to Gustav Meyrink ("Modern Cities Exist Only to be Destroyed"), and Last Drink Bird Head anthologies. Forthcoming works include a story in The Master in the Cafe Morphine: A Tribute to Mikhail Bulgakov ("The Cadaver Is You"), an appearance in The Weird, an omnibus edition of published work from Centipede Press, and a new novel, The Wretch of the Sun, from Ex Occidente Press. His columns and the occasional review can be found at TheModernWord.com. He lives and teaches in New York City.
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And poor Low has been drafted, and his conscription has been cemented by the supernatural gaze of an Edek, a blind remnant of once-great imperial power. Low is not happy. "An army is a horror," is how he decides to start his story, "It's a horrible thing. They say you might change your mind about that when the country is invaded and your people are suffering wrong, but for me this is all just more horror, more army-horror." Not a sentiment one often hears today, but then again today the narrators of contemporary wars don't really concentrate on conflicts between the armed forces of countries that have a rough military parity, do they?
Low quickly falls in with a bunch of other people about as well-suited to engage in war as he is. There's Jil Punkinflake, a sort of priest of death and dying, who is actually jovial and fun, as his fantasy name suggests. In any other fantasy novel about war, he'd be the guy singing songs and falling headfirst into buckets for comic relief. There's also Makemin, the brave and resolute commander who definitely deserves a fragging. There's even a kick-butt fantasy heroine with a strong arm and a stronger will. Of course, she also spent a fair amount of time in the lunatic asylum, as one would.
Low's forces are hoping that the spirits in a far-flung corner of the land will support their operational goals over those of their enemies. The Narrator and the narrator and Our Narrator run up against the central question of history--what the hell is actually going on, and why are people even bothering to risk their lives doing things like securing a harbor? One is reminded of the only funny thing ever to come out of the mouth of a Maoist: when Zhou Enlai was asked about the historical impact of the French Revolution of 1789, he responded, "It's too early to tell." Well poor Low is right up against it, and as the guy in charge of telling the story of the war he's in for his side without the benefit of hindsight, or any stake in the outcome of the war, or even safety, he's come up a bit short.
There are many exciting battles and action scenes in The Narrator--the enemies are called blackbirds because they use lighter-than-air metal wristlets and anklets to fly for short distances. Low's squad is augmented by loonies from the mental hospital, and they're always fun, if unpredictable, in battle. Low is a medic and a translator, so spends a lot of his time observing the fight and then watching his friends die. Then he is given a magic charm that will allow him to lead his team more or less safely past the Lake of Broken Glass--a neverending windstorm of glass shards that swoops around every so often--and ruins proximity to which causes people to sicken and die (radiation?), to finally petition the gods for success. Too bad the whole point of having a narrator around is to have a story for posterity, so nobody really cares what Low thinks or says in the moment. There is even a traditional "meet the enemy and he is us" moment, when Low encounters the narrators from the other side of the war. They don't really know what the hell is going on either.
The Narrator is about the dual frustrations of the intellectual in an era of endless conflict--they're smart enough to know what's not going on ("They hate our freedoms!"), but can't get anybody to believe it. There's also no lone intellectual smart enough to know what actually is going on, despite the tendency to speak definitively on historical subjects. Quick, why did the Soviet Union fall? Really? Is that all? Is that the only reason? The only five, the only ten? And anyway, Low isn't half as smart as he'd like to be, or as his troops hoped he would be.
One might get the sense that Cisco is "subverting" fantasy tropes here, but of course these days apparently every fantasist in the world gets to make that claim if they do anything other than photocopy The Lord of the Rings and hand it in as their manuscript. But one might say that Cisco is a subverter along the lines of China Mieville rather than the my-elves-are-different crowd. So why is Cisco so obscure while Mieville is popular? Editorial pique, I suppose is most of it. The rest is probably a mix of personal charisma, Fortuna, and Cisco not whipping up enough monsters for the fanboys. Sad, that. If only Bruno Schulz had survived his war experience and launched a great fantasy trilogy, then Cisco would be richer than ten Bolivian Nazis! In another world, perhaps the world of The Narrator, this may have already happened.
["]An army is a horror. It's a horrible thing. They say you might change your mind about that when the country is invaded and your people are suffering wrong, but for me this is all just more horror, more army-horror.["]
The Narrator revolves around war and the army-horror that pervades it. Those first lines give the clearest image of the novel's contents, a brief glimpse of what lies in store as the book progresses. The novel shows these horrors in vivid detail, gives us a first-hand glimpse of the lives that war destroys, how war can infect people like a disease, and the ways in which it might transform a person.
But amidst the war, before and between the battles and the march, we are shown a fascinating world enveloped in the strange and wonderful. A world where cannibal queens hide way from eager followers, where corpses burrow from their coffins to join as a single, seething mass, where gravity-defying metals forged into bands and armor allow people to leap and skim across battlefields. Here, an asylum becomes an army, a massive ships sails the seas, destroying everything in its path, blue people and white people live beside humans, sleepwalkers bruise reality as they pass by, and languages can be learned by potion and make those who imbibe choke on words.
It is a world that exists in a state both advanced and regressed, separate from our own, but possibly an alternate version. Ministerial Ghuards wear what resembles power armor, forged from that light, gravity-defying metal. Infantry wield small arms and fling grenades via sling. Oddly, transportation seems limited to horse, foot, or ship. Standing cities are rudimentary, stone and wood and down from there, but great metal and enamel cities like in rusting ruins. And somewhere in this world, amidst the technology and the magic, there is an artist named Vinci.
["]It's through the rags of fast-moving smoke that I first catch sight of Tref. I'm standing in the pass, to one side of the pumice road, looking down from my perch on the massed roots of some dusty old cork oaks. The city below me is like a shining, smoking lake, thrusting its troubled glints into my eyes and making them smart. Overhead, the sun is lost in a white sky without circumference, above the flashing waters of the city.["]
Cisco displays a great talent for description that pricks at the imagination and summons imagery that is, if not relatable, vivid and effective. The above quote is a good example and the first of these descriptions in the novel. The scene itself may not be recognizable, but anyone who has traveled on a hot summer day and seen the false pools of water shimmering on the highway in the distance should be able to relate.
Cisco's descriptive quality is consistent, a standard that is never dropped and often amazing. He is able to paint a world that is beautiful and disturbing and ugly at the same time. The scene that best shows this involves the arrival of the Ministerial Ghuards, which begins in an almost glorious light--they are supposed to be looked upon in awe, the best units the Alak have to offer--and then the description continues, gradually devolving into a horrific display. They are revealed to be covered in their own excrement and surrounded by swarms of flies due to their refusal to divest themselves of their armor.
How war transforms a person, what it does to change them, is a large part of the novel. Many of the characters, the ones that share part of the spotlight, at least, are changed by the end, be that the end of the novel or the end of their lives. The best example of this, and certainly the character most changed, is Jil Punkinflake, a student of the embalming college in Tref, who befriends Low and is eventually caught by and conscripted into the battalion. When introduced, Jil is happy, energetic, and friendly. He is a nice guy, taking in Low, feeding him and showing him around the city as our narrator waits for his marching orders. The war transforms him slowly, but surely until he is nothing like the Jil we met back at the beginning of the novel. One can almost tell exactly when he becomes infected by the war, when he turns from shaking coward to something more crazed and angry. His infatuation with Saskia, a fierce warrior woman freed from the asylum and conscripted, no doubt aids in the transformation. And by the end, he is little more than a cowed dog at Saskia's side, responding immediately her demands and occasionally pulling at the leash, his anger and jealousy painfully evident and damaging.
The bulk of the story is a long, stuttered march that takes the battalion across land and sea. It pauses for battle, stalls in cities and towns to await further orders, and slogs on. The battles are reduced to Low's periods of consciousness, those moments when he is aware of his actions and surroundings, but they are confused, bloody, and quickly finished. There are no moments of glory in the narrator's eyes, just reckless, suicidal actions and more army-horror. The cities are given over to the bulk of the surreal moments, a short break that allows the book to abandon itself to the odd and fantastic. None of the occupations can match Tref for description or length of time occupied, which might explain why the city has a dreamlike quality to it that the subsequent occupations seem to lack. And, of course, the battalion slogs on toward death and madness and the horror of war in all its nightmarish glory.
The Narrator is not an easy read. Pay it less attention than it deserves and you are bound to be tripped up, confused, and too lost to continue without going back. It is a rewarding challenge and well worth the effort. Cisco is a superb writer, able to spin a story that stimulates the imagination, snags the attention, and leaves the reader swimming in that amazing, unique prose of his. Highly recommended.
The narrator of the book is, literally, a Narrator, at a Narrator's College, where he is training to be a Narrator. In this reality, reminiscent of China Mieville's New Weird Crobuzon except older and far stranger, Narration is important in the flow of everyday life. Picking up the tone and color of everyday reality and reshaping it through the judicious application of Narration preserves the fabric of power structures that keep the world in control.
Unsurprising something happens to throw the whole arrangement akimbo: the Narrator is drafted to fight in a war. The war, being a semi-rational horror, and guided by semi-rational officers drafts, the narrator will now be a Narrator for the war.
What do Narrator's do, exactly? Flashes and asides reveal the mangled ravings, journalings and dreamings of their work, wherein reality seems to be shaped and reshaped, but whether real comes before the imagery or the imagery before the real is open for discussion in the dense, rewarding text. Early in the novel, the Narrator searches for his assigned unit and further orders in a city that is alien to him, and us. Two religions exist simultaneously, one of life and one of death. The death religion takes center stage, while the Ekhets of the life religion seem to force death upon the world with their knowing gaze.
The novel is perhaps best understood by the cannibal queen. She lives in hiding, away from the crowds, in decadence. She sees the Narrator and invites him to her solitude to alleviate her sorrow with love. She had devoured her husband. At first, this pariah seems to be outcast. Not so; she is embraced by the death cult. She runs and hides not from shame, but from the reverence of the crowd, who would worship her. This early revelation adumbrates the horrors to come. What is an abomination on par with cannibalism more than warfare? It is celebrated by society like the cannibal queen's horrific act.
I reveal too much. There are wonders to discover more than this. Unforgettable imagery illuminates the manuscript without a single illustration. The festival of the dead, like a grotesque chaos of the battlefields to come, foreshadows with wonder what will later appear in terror. Embalmers' celebrate their death faith by sewing the dead limbs upon their own bodies, lips upon lips, limbs upon limbs and dance maudlin through the streets. War is at once archaic in it's musket tactics, like something from a Russian novel, yet more so with the floating irons of the enemies, the mecha-like war machinery of the allies, and the gorgeous fabulism of the world the army crosses in their march of death and dismemberment.
War, destroyer of narrations, brutishly marches onward with a beauty of language that could also undermine the horror of the experiences present, to readers who seek the stark brutality of crime or war literature. But, this is dark fantasy -- dark fabulism. If anything, the weakest section of the text -- the battle scenes -- are weakest not because they aren't enjoyable, but because they are described too beautifully. The bodies of the dead enemy hovering over the ground with their flying irons, the dismembering brutality of the war machines, the ancient horrors and religious rites, the wounds of the dead and the screams of the dying -- all described with a grace that risks alienation from the text. The horrors presented are not given room to be horrible, but are too strange to be truly and genuinely beautiful as a whole. To me and my enjoyment of the text, it creates the quintessential "Grotesque" experience, like staring into the nightmares of Heironomous Bosch while drinking too much absinthe with Jan Svankmeyer and Franz Kafka.
(this review first appeared at the Apex Book Blog)
I might be a bit late to the party by suggesting that reviewing one Cisco book requires a review of all of his work, at this point. In my mind, having read several of his books, I have to say that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to review a single book without considering the others. I am probably going to skip my review of The Tyrant for now, and The Celebrant, because The Narrator seems to be at the center of the entire mythos. A part of me feels like this is a sequel to The Tyrant. I still have to read The Great Lover, but I would imagine it might be a sort of polar opposite to this one…
So the really isn’t a reason for me to write anything about this book now only other than I feel I must. This is the most “accessible” of Cisco’s books to read, and because it is the most “realistic” it is the most honest. It is brutal in its intensity. One of the authors who commented on the book’s back cover compared it to Alien and Full Metal Jacket. That’s not even close. It’s more like Michael Cisco meets war. The book, I think, is about going INTO war, and that is what Cisco did here. All of the symbolism revolved around the idea that the book itself was going INTO war. Not the characters, or the plot, but the narrative. And here it seems the book becomes rather “unreal” or “surreal” when we compare it to his other works, but that’s wrong. That’s wrong because insanity and its very definition seem to fit with Cisco’s idea of war and reality and… love. Yes, love.
The fact that I am even writing a review now is a testament to the fact that The Narrator really got into my head just as war might seep into someone’s consciousness. The book features a sort of evolution of war, and it is both familiar and strange. It is every war story ever told or narrated. I felt like I was reading Matterhorn all over again (arguably one of the better modern war novels). I felt like I was reading Platoon and Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now… I felt like I was in all of those stories and every character from those stories was personified almost as a FLAT archetype of those characters just as the book is sort of an archetype for war. I felt like I was in a tank with General Patton. I felt like I was at Waterloo or Moscow…
This book is ridiculously beautiful and epic. Cisco is the master. The master. I feel like writing one massive review of all of his books rolled into one large piece that is just as much metafiction as his own works are. This is a book that will never, ever, ever leave me.
One last thing: I feel like every author has a line, or a passage, in each book that sort of defines the book, and it’s a hidden sentence. I like to find these hidden lines, as if I could find the one line in which the author might have written “here is what the book is about.” I feel like this book repeated the line… and took me into the "interior..."
Every modern (along with many ancient) war on the planet has produced a definitive novel--The Killer Angels, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Thin Red Line, Purple Mountain, the list goes on. But war, especially in recent times, has gained something of a broader definition than it had during the days when heavily-armored men spent hours lining up on battlefields to charge each other with lances. Nowadays, we go to war against ideas. Few people would consider attempting a definitive novel about the war on terror. (One assumes anyone who would attempt one about the war on drugs is, well, too stoned.) But as far as I can discern, that is exactly what Michael Cisco has given us in The Narrator--an absurd book that chronicles, albeit in urban-fantasy mode, an absurd, unwinnable war. It is the very absurdity, the unwinnable-ness, if you will, of the war on terror that makes The Narrator such a strong addition to the literature of war. Well, that and Michael Cisco's narrative style.
We begin with Low Loom Column, a somewhat unassuming student, being drafted, despite having put in for a student exception. Protesting all the way, he leaves his home in the mountains, from which he has never been far, and heads for the city of Tref, where he is supposed to meet up with his regiment. While in Tref, he befriends a number of students from the local mortuary school, including the urbane, witty Jil Punkinflake, and has a whirlwind affair with a local widow known throughout the city as the Cannibal Queen. Alas, the lackadaisical nature of the army comes to an end, and Low, along with Jil and a few of the other mortuary students, set out for the coast with Makemin, their commending officer, and his regiment. While their initial encounters are lighthearted, not dangerous at all (the regiment, which is severely undermanned, picks up strength--as well as another former mortuary student in the gangly, obsessed Thrushchurl--by liberating an asylum from the enemy), once they get to the coast and prepare to set off for the island they will be defending, things start getting nasty, and Low and his friends all handle the stress in different ways. Low, being the regiment Narrator, is supposed to be the one apart from the action, the dispassionate recorder of events, the historian. But he has also been pressed into service as Makemin's translator, the only member of the regiment who understands Lashlache, the language of the enemy, as well as the company medic. It is impossible to stay dispassionate, and the strain begins to wear. Low's very capacity for language begins to break down, and we, reading this account, are left to wonder: are things really as absurd as they seem, or has Low Loom Column simply gone insane?
The jacket copy compares Cisco's language in the book to both Antonin Artaud and Alain Robbe-Grillet, "with a tinge of Thomas Ligotti." The comparisons are warranted, and as a worshipful fan of all three of those writers, I do not make such pronouncements lightly. I would also add a comparison to the mythpunks, those writers whose depth of language is as much a feature of their work as their worldbuilding (Sonya Taaffe, Jeannelle Ferreira, Catherynne Valente, Wendy Walker, etc.). But all this aside, the novel I found myself returning to time and again was Heinrich Böll's first novel, The Train Was on Time. I had thought that comparison would wear off as Cisco's situations got more and more absurd, but instead, the opposite was the case; the farther apart the two novels grew on the fantasy vs. reality level, the closer they seemed to grow thematically (Böll's novel, after all, is an examination of what we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and many of Low's symptoms as time goes on could be explained that way as well).
The novel does contain a somewhat ridiculous coda--its only weak point. It does serve to answer the question posed at the end of the plot synopsis I gave above, but that could have been done any number of ways without stretching the reader's credibility quite do far. Still, that's a very few pages at the end of what is, in every other way, a masterwork. "What one word," Low asks himself (or us), "could I possibly write about war, as though I could pick it up and handle it like it were a sane thing?" Michael Cisco abandoned that idea from the outset, and it was the best decision he could have made in writing The Narrator. **** ½