I’ve got four gifts for you. Maybe. It depends on your imagination.
Do you ever feel like you just seem to enjoy things nobody else does? I mean, you read reviews of a movie you utterly despised and a train of folks are raving about it (Wonder Woman 1984, for example)? You troll the Barnes & Noble or Amazon recommendations, and it’s bland tripe. Again. You hit the used bookstore and come out empty handed. Again. That’s my deal, man. But things turned my way recently, and that’s what I want to talk to you about.
I worry sometimes I have a misfit imagination. I just can’t get pumped about orcs and dudes with swords and super complicated future empires chocked with outlandish aliens. And lesbian vampires don’t do it for me. If they did, I’d be all set, for sure. Then I read something by Borges talking about infinite libraries, or Barrington Bayley describing empires across time, anything at all Harlan Ellison wrote (I’d read his grocery list), and I thrill over it all. Huge…freaking…ideas, and I don’t need them explained. I really dig the notion of a fantasy conceit, the weirder the better, and seeing how a good wordslinger extrapolates on what that would mean.
So recently, I came across a handful of goodies I’m going to recommend to you should any of the above resonate.
- Piranesi by Susanna Clark
I mean, this one just starts with a dude in a world entirely comprised of an infinite mansion loaded with mysterious statues, that floods sometimes. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about; it’s genius. We stay with the somewhat confused, but kind-hearted and gentle narrator and eventually puzzle all this out…what the place is, what that weird old man is doing, who’s evil and who isn’t…all that. My point though, is I’m presented with an engrossing, enigmatic fantasy conceit and things proceed from there, as I imagine they would, should that infinite place be real.
I loved it and swallowed the whole book in a couple of days. That’s rare for me, man. I’ve got the attention span of a mosquito and no patience for crappy dialogue or a dull first few pages. This one’s the real deal, and you should get it immediately.
That is, if you’re a misfit too. Just stick with me here.
2. Pfitz by Andrew Crumey
Here’s one that I should hate, but wound up in my top 10 of all time. I mean, I’m a science fiction and fantasy guy who appreciates a great battle if it’s done well. I love space ships, sure! Who doesn’t? How’d this get in here?
So there’s an 18th century prince seeking his own immortality by funding a massive operation to develop on paper an entire imaginary city. Whole. Not a bit of it exists or will exist. He’s just paying legions of artisans and engineers and writers to dream it all up on paper. The larger story we follow in this cotton candy treat of a book is that of one of the cartographers working on this project, who’s sneaking peeks at a co-worker (biographer) that’s caught his eye. The dude she’s dreaming up a biography for has apparently gone missing, and there’s murder and mystery and performing bees.
Not kidding, I’ve read this thing twice. Also super rare for me to do that, if it isn’t something by Arthur Clarke or an Elric book from Michael Moorcock. I love the idea of the excruciating detail of a fake city and all its history and people. I love the intrigue and slow unfolding of what happened to Pfitz. And I feel like I’d really like to walk through the halls with these people and flip through the stuff they’re working on.
It’s a slow burner, like Father Brown stories by G.K. Chesterton. Crumey isn’t going to smack you over the head with somebody suddenly hopping in bed with somebody or exploding something to keep your attention. He has respect for you, and he thinks you’re smart enough to stay with him.
3. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
I know. If you’ve been to see me here before, you’ve probably heard me rave about Gormenghast. I won’t pretend it’s the first time I’ve tried to tell you that the first two books of this trilogy rank among the finest pieces of literature ever written. Dickens level, in my opinion. And you can draw comparisons to Dickens, if you’re into that sort of vibe.
Weird, British names like Prunesquallor. Oddball, grotesque people like a morbidly obese lady surrounded by owls. A massive estate the size of a city, with a history that seems like a character unto itself. The birth of the new lord of the estate, which should be a great joy. Yet there’s a figure of incredible ambition among the sweltering kitchen staff, aspiring to greatness in a legacy never meant for him.
Oh man, the atmosphere alone! Just that, and this is a great piece of imaginative literature better than most everything on the first few pages of anybody’s Kindle. Yet that Gormenghast estate, sprawling impossibly for miles and with slate Hogwarts-style rooftops that rise forever…it’s just a beautiful kind of crazy.
4. Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
I can’t say anything yet about any sequels to this one, as I’m not that far. I’ll tell you though, this is one of the great ones. It’s the thing that got me writing this article.
Imagine a Tower Of Babel in something like the early 20th century, and a young couple from a rinky dink town have saved up to go see it for themselves. The Mister is a humorless and awkward schoolteacher. The Missus is an innocent, wide-eyed beauty younger than him. Nobody knows why she’d marry this guy. Yet here they are, arriving by train to see the mighty tower where no one has even mapped its top. Maybe it doesn’t even have a top.
Each level is a kingdom unto itself. The market at the base is huge and busy. The higher you go, presumably the crazier things will get. Some of those people up there have never been to different levels. It’s impressive. You have to watch yourself, though, as there are thieves and conmen everywhere.
He loses his wife in the crowd by page three. And he finds out quickly there’s an entire wall of placards and letters for people who’ve lost loved ones in the mighty crowds for years, if not forever. It happens. Often. So he heads into the tower to find her.
If you’re at all like me at the beginning of a new book, you’re ruthless and brutal and impatient. If some kind of hook hasn’t happened, if nobody is interesting, if somebody says something predictable or stupid or political, you’re out. Too much else competing for attention, right?
Not gonna be a problem here. I saw reviews beforehand saying it dragged and there was too much description with nothing happening. That wasn’t my experience at all, but as I said above with some of these others, this is a slow burner for your mind. It tickles and soothes you. It makes you think.
So there’s four recommendations for you. See what you think. Send me your own. I could keep going on this, for sure, and I’m curious whether you have some little nuggets I’ve missed that are out of the mainstream maybe, but also awesome.
Take care, guys. Be cool.
Till next time.
Dreams are engines. Be fuel.