le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I Can't Stop Thinking About September

This summer I read Catherynne Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making.  (link to my very brief Goodreads review & Goodreads page for the novel)
I can't remember how or where I first heard of it, though I suspect it was from one of the always-on-top-of-things members of my listserv. I did hear a little bit of buzz about the book, though, so I put in a hold request at my public library and waited for the book to show up.
When I got it, I had more than a little trepidation. Whimsical fairyland stories are becoming a dime a dozen, and it's so easy to get it wrong. And a bad fairyland story is - really bad.  Lots of authors think they're either playing with, or paying homage to, old-school fairyland stories when really they're just copying them over, badly. It's not a form of flattery; it's a form of cheap failure.

Valente's book started off promisingly, and got better all along. The downright weirdness of her Fairyland appeals strongly to my own sense of weirdness, as well as my familiarity with the equally weird nineteenth-century fairy stories of writers like Jean Ingelow and Juliana Ewing. Valente knows her Fairyland(s) - she's got wyverns and witches and guardians and magical folk of all kinds populating the place. She also throws in twists and wrenches that both defamiliarize Fairyland and create it anew (the polygamous witches are just the start, really).
And it is in the defamiliarizing of Fairyland that I think this book makes its magic. We all already know fairylands of many kinds: we know Wonderland, Neverland, we know Oz, we know Faerie, we know the Back of the North Wind, the back of beyond, the Almost Anywheres, the nearly-generic Fairylands that crop up all over the place. We know Narnia, and Middle Earth, and the Magic City, and Nowhere and the North Pole. Even the most carefully crafted, intricately detailed fairylands have a family resemblance to each other, and many more contemporary fantasy lands seem to be simple variations on the same family face.
But Fairyland, circumnavigated by Valente (and September), manages to take what we know and feel comfortable with, and turn it that quarter- or half-rotation to make it startlingly, or just delightfully, new. The herds of migrating velocipedes. The town made entirely of fabrics. The magical university town. The sentient lamp and shoes. The hybrid Wyverary. The weird temporal twists and turns - because time, in Fairyland (as everywhere else, really) is a strange thing. The gorgeously-named Leopard of Little Breezes.
I admit to feeling confounded by questions of audience and address - Valente has written a quasi-19th-century children's book for grownups (her narrator at least once clearly indicates an adult audience). But in great 19th century fantasy form, Valente has also managed to make these kinds of questions practically irrelevant, interesting to the scholar of children's literature or narratology, but for the casual reader, essentially immaterial.
I need to read the book again; I was tempted to keep it longer from the library, for a second reading, but the waiting list was long, and I had another pile of new titles to work through, so I took this one back. In all likelihood, I will end up teaching it, or just buying it, within the next few months. I'm desperately eager for the second installment of the Fairyland books; September's adventures are not at a close, and my interest in Fairyland is only whetted by this first book.
The more time has passed since I read it, the more I realize what an intriguing and fantastic (in every sense of the word) read it was. I find myself thinking about the book, daydreaming sections of it, at odd moments, unexpectedly - this kind of unlooked-for afterthought usually signals, to me, that a text was more interesting or awesome than I initially realized. And then, a few days after having surgery on my shoulder, I lay in bed with nothing much to do except think of Fairyland, and a thought floated through my mind that has hugely changed my thinking about this novel, and makes me feel even better about giving it five stars on Goodreads. What crossed my mind was this: Catherynne Valente's book is the fantasy novel The Wizard of Oz was trying to be. L. Frank Baum's book, for all its popularity and sequels, for all that its film adaptation is fabulous, is still a remarkably unfanciful fantasy. Valente does Baum one better, and then laps him again, with this wonderful Fairyland of her own making.       


vanillagrrl said...

Beautiful. Makes me want to read it. I don't usually go for fantasy at all but love Malcolm Crowley's Little, Big and Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale affected me similarly, and stuck in my imagination like templates for universes I had only wondered about before reading these books.

Jazz Sexton said...

Are you going to use Fairyland in Childhood's Books? I'd be so interested to hear what Pitt students think of it.

kittens not kids said...

Jazz, I'm (alas) not teaching Childhood's Books this semester - they gave me Introduction to Literature. But I have very definite plans to teach Fairyland the next chance I get; I'd like to do a geography of fantasy/fairyland class. Or just teach Fairyland any old how, just to get it on the syllabus - it's worth teaching. And I've given up trying to predict how Pitt students will react to any given book; my experiences vary so wildly from semester to semester with the same books that it's impossible to try to make predictions.