Friday 2 September 2011

Ventriloquism by Catherynne M. Valente, reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Envying your children doesn’t look good on a parent. My daughter has given five-star ratings to 37 books so far this year, while I've only done it once, with The Art of McSweeney's. I’ve slightly begrudged her the thrill of finding something new and wonderful in almost every single book she reads. At one point I began to wonder, was I losing the ability to be impressed to that extent by a book? Thank goodness for Ventriloquism, which makes it clear that if I want to be impressed, I’ve been reading the wrong books! All thirty-two of the stories in this collection surprised and challenged me with language, allusion and form, and gave me the unmistakable pleasure that comes from reading something I had never read before.

The quality of the writing was extraordinary – for example, a demon’s “eyes do not burn, but in them are long staircases without end, turning and turning in blackness” – but I’m always attracted to ideas, and this book was bursting with them: a snowbound colony on the moon (“Oh, the Snow-Bound Earth, the Radiant Moon!”); a damned monk who has come to relish the visits of his tormentor (“Proverbs of Hell”); and the practical issues involved in unconventional solar expeditions (“How to Build a Ladder to the Sun in Six Simple Steps”), to pick a few. There are stories told by way of strips of film from an unfinished documentary (“The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew”), in the course of a wine tasting (“Golubash (Wine-Blood-War-Elegy)”) and an auctioneer’s guide for bidders on a series of maps (“A Buyer's Guide to Maps of Antarctica”).

It’s a book of which a reviewer might well be wary – a reviewer, in judging a book, is judged in return, and in the face of this book’s complexity and artistry I hardly felt up to scratch. I didn’t always understand the stories. “La Serenissima”, in which a nun discovers hidden messages; the strange city of “Palimpsest”; the “sea snail skull” of “Mother Is a Machine”: all left this reviewer baffled. Perhaps the review is slightly compromised by that failure on my part, but one day I will read a book, hear a story, see an episode of University Challenge that contains the vital clue, and the full pleasure of those stories will be unlocked – it was twenty-five years after reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that I clicked to its echoes of the Odyssey.

Other readers, though, those who don’t need to write a review, certainly have nothing to fear. As with MST3K, if you miss one reference you’ll probably get the next one, and even if you don’t – if you are as ignorant as this reviewer of ancient myth and modern science – your enjoyment of the stories will hardly be lessened. For example, one can appreciate “A Delicate Architecture” – which tells of a confectioner’s greatest achievement and his hopes that it might return him to the Emperor’s favour, and the consequences for his daughter – without noticing the light it reflects upon the story of Hansel and Gretel. Or in “Thread: A Triptych”, one can feel for the plight of immigrant wife Ariadne, trapped in an asylum for the insane, without grasping the significance of her description of her new-born son: “his cow-eyes blinked limpid up at me, and his hair was coarse as my dress, coarse as the tail of a bull”.

Some of the collection’s highlights reinterpret stories with which most readers will be familiar. In “Milk and Apples” we see Snow White’s stepmother, locked away to nursemaid the King’s pale baby daughter, fresh from her own tragedy: “I had borne a dead daughter, I had squeezed a little pale corpse from my body as if I were nothing but a fat coffin.” In “The Maiden-Tree” the spindle tells Briar Rose what to expect from her rescue: “He will be almost too revolted to enter; the smell of twelve hundred months of menses will wash the hall in red ... and then the smell of bed-sweat and bed-sores gone to fester ... He will hardly be able to open the door for the press of your grotesquely spiralling toenails.”

And although there are several such reinterpretations of old stories, many stories are entirely new (so far as I know), such as “The City of Blind Delight”, where a railway station is made of interlinked human bodies; “The Anachronist's Cookbook”, in which a fifteen-year-old pickpocket plants revolutionary pamphlets in a steampunk Manchester; or “Killswitch”, about a computer game that deletes itself upon completion.

Lev Grossman (whose The Magicians - reviewed here - is one of those odd books that has continued to grow on me since I read it) notes in his useful introduction, “If I had the stylistic range and the richness of invention Valente shows off in this one book, I would publish it in half a dozen slim volumes, over the course of 40 years, and call it a career.” These are the kind of stories many writers would sell a wicked stepmother to write, a brilliant blend of fine writing, super ideas and formal experimentation.

It’s tempting to say that Valente makes it look easy, as she jumps from the science fiction of “How to Become a Mars Overlord” to the biblical fantasy of “A Dirge for Prester John”, from the zombies of “The Days of Flaming Motorcycles” to the pirate parrot horror of “The Ballad of the Sinister Mr. Mouth”, without ever touching the floor, but stories this rich in language and detail must surely be the product of a sustained creative effort, a great deal of work and thought – you really do have the sense that these are “six years of stories”, as she calls them in the acknowledgments.

So, this time, I’m not envious of my daughter, I feel a bit sorry for her. She would love this book, its generous selection of female protagonists, heroes and villains, and its imaginative reinterpretations of fairy tales, legends, myths and monsters, but it’ll be ten years at least before she is old enough to enjoy it. As a reviewer, I somewhat regretted choosing such a challenging book, but as a reader I couldn’t have picked anything better. Playful experimentation with serious intent: what could be better?

Ventriloquism, by Catherynne M. Valente. PS Publishing, hb, 352pp. Available direct from PS Publishing.

1 comment:

  1. Catherynne Valente's website provides links to online versions of some of the stories mentioned, as well as a free pdf version of her first novel, The Labyrinth: