In Books: Ursula K. Le Guin is Right About ‘The Buried Giant’

buriedgiant-coverIn Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant, the author of Remains of the Day takes on a different kind of period setting: A fantastical yesteryear in which ogres roam the land, King Arthur is only recently departed, and a great dragon threatens the land.

It’s not the easiest fit for Ishiguro, who never quite seems comfortable in his own setting. He continually holds the reader’s hand, taking them aside for background notes on what they are witnessing instead of just letting the story flow. The flatness of his language, which was more appropriate to the subject of a novel like Never Let Me Go and its story of stunted humanity, here keeps the reader from ever engaging with his deeper, fascinating-in-theory themes of memory and selective amnesia.

When Ishiguro was interviewed about working in a different metier than he was used to, he seemed uneasy that readers might think of the novel as being fantasy. Which, of course, it was. You wouldn’t think that authors would still hold such prejudices against genre, given how porous the borders between literary fiction and fantasy and science fiction have become. Just see the reaction to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road a few years back. Now everybody can play.

Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness) took exception with Ishiguro’s defensiveness, as well as his seeming nervousness, “Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it didn’t work. It couldn’t work. No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”

Le Guin is right in her judgment. Ishiguro’s inability to commit to the wild strangeness of his story kills any joy or mystery the reader might have found in it. Perhaps the natural chilliness of Ishiguro’s prose makes it a better fit for certain other types of genre writing (again, like he was able to deliver much more powerfully in the mournful science fiction of Never Let Me Go).

The Buried Giant is fantasy. It’s just not very good fantasy.

There’s an excerpt from the novel here. You can also see Ishiguro reading from it here.

Terry Pratchett Walks with Death

Fans of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels were by definition fans of one of his greatest characters: Death. A calm, steady, and fairly graceful presence, Death could be counted on for some wry observations, delivered in ALL CAPS. 

So it was appropriate that when Pratchett died yesterday of dementia at the age of 66, it was announced on his Twitter account in the voice of Death himself:

AT LAST SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.

New in Theaters: ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’

Martin Freeman as Bilbo in 'The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies' (Warner Bros.)

Martin Freeman as Bilbo in ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’ (Warner Bros.)

hobbit-posterSix films and who knows how many gajillion dollars of revenue later, Peter Jackson’s monumental, exhausting adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ring novels comes to an end with the third film in the second Hobbit cycle. Love it or loathe it, this is the end—and it’s going out with a bang.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies opens in all known territories next Wednesday. My review is at Film Journal International:

Amidst all the clashing armies, fell spirits, and talk of destinies and dynasties that fill J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythological adventure novels, the author’s eye never drifts far from the plucky little hero who finds unknown strengths in terrifying times. Peter Jackson dutifully sounded the same tune in his films of Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. But where Tolkien was a humanist, Jackson is a strategist, ever marshaling his forces for grander victories. There’s no denying the films’ quality as battle-ready spectacle of the first order. But the final installment, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, is just about all Jackson and precious little Tolkien. In other words, if you like orc-killin’, and lots of it, this is your film…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: Ice-T Goes Fantasy

After having gone from being the rare gangsta rapper who had actually lived the life instead of just rapping about it to loud monotone fixture on Law & Order: SVU and too many horrendous movies to count, Ice-T has a new gig: Recording audiobooks. It makes sense, given his clear, bottom-heavy voice. But according to Paste, he talked on a recent podcast about running into some trouble recording an unnamed Dungeons & Dragons novel. Just realizing the depths of nerd-dom that he’d gotten into (“They were talking about ‘pegasuses’ and ‘pegasi.’ That’s horses with wings”) was an education in itself:

It took Ice three-and-a-half hours to record 25 pages of the book, whose title he does not reveal. But, he added, he will slay the fantasy-lingo dragon and let fans know when the audiobook goes on sale.

“It’ll be a treat to watch me, with my South Central-educated ass, trying to read some Dungeons & Dragons shit,” he promises.

The O.G. further notes that “Considering the way music is right now, you’re better off listening to a book … Honestly, it’s more entertaining.”

Reader’s Corner: Tolkien Family Correspondence

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In late 1944, J. R. R. Tolkien’s son Christopher–who would later prove so industrious in the keeping-up of his father’s legacy—was away from home, serving with the Royal Air Force in South Africa. J. R. R. had published The Hobbit seven years earlier, and was still in the process of writing his Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring wouldn’t appear in print until 1954). J. R. R. would post draft pages to Christopher as he wrote.

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In this letter sent three days after Christmas, J. R. R. talks about his new chapters:

I am glad the third lot of Ring arrived to date, and that you like it—although it seems to have added to yr. homesickness. It just shows the difference between life and literature: for anyone who found himself actually on the stairs of Kirith Ungol would wish to exchange it for almost any other place in the world, save Mordor itself. But if lit. teaches us anything at all, it is this: that we have in us an eternal element, free from care and fear, which can survey the things that in ‘life’ we call evil with serenity (that is not without appreciating their quality, but without any disturbance of our spiritual equilibrium)… I am afraid the next two chapters won’t come for some time (about middle of Jan) which is a pity, as not only are they (I think) v. moving and exciting, but Sam has some interesting comments on the rel. of stories and actual ‘adventures’. But I count it a triumph that these two chapters, which I did not think as good as the rest of Book IV, could distract you from the noise of the Air Crew Room!….

More of the letter can be found at the American Reader‘s “This Day in Letters” feature.

Trailer Park: ‘Oz: the Great and Powerful’

Strangely, given both the rather towering presence that the film The Wizard of Oz holds in world cultural consciousness and the current mania for sequels and films based on proven properties, it’s been decades since anybody has tried to make another film based on the L. Frank Baum series. There’s over a dozen books there, filled with strange worlds and CGI-worthy beasties to turn into multiplex 3D and IMAX gold. The sour memory of Walter Murch’s then-failed but now 1985 cult classic Return to Oz  holds a powerful sway over studio heads, it seems.

But next spring, Disney (which holds film rights to the entire series) is getting back into the Oz business. Sam Raimi is at the helm of Oz: the Great and Powerful, with James Franco (who he directed in the Spider-man series) starring as the young Wizard, who gets swept away to Oz in a balloon years before young Dorothy is even born. There is some great potential here for a sweeping new kind of fantasy filmmaking, but also for an imagination-starved Tim Burton-esque detour into design and animation for its own sake.

Either way, the trailer is up now and shows that at least Raimi is borrowing the trick of using color stock for Oz and black-and-white for Kansas: