Simon Morden’s Down Station

DOWN-STATION1I’m a bit behind the pack in reading Simon Morden’s novel Down Station (2015). I’m not sure I’m going to stay on board for its sequel, The White City, published in 2016, but there are a lot of very good things about this London fantasy novel.

1: It isn’t about London. It starts there, in the Underground, with cleaners and maintenance workers, but then there is a Voyage of the Dawn Treader moment in which a portal into another world opens out of nowhere. It’s an escape from utter terror rather than a cosy living-room, and the protagonists fall into a strange sea.

2:  It’s super-realist and beguilingly fantastical at the same time. The protagonists only have their underwear, boots and bright orange Underground maintenance overalls, but the land they’ve arrived in – called Down, though the portal called Down Station – is where buildings grow, magic can be learned, shape-shifting happens, and there are no stars, only an impossibly ginormous moon. I love the juxtaposition of the two modes, and Morden writes convincingly.

3: The explanations for the way Down works are almost science-based, and don’t rely on an evil mage, or a magic orb of power, or a long-lost hidden prince, or a curse. There are no prophecies or quests or faeries, thank goodness. This is ecofantasy working at a very high standard for internal logic.

4: One of the two lead protagonists is Dalip, an engineering student, an attractively earnest hero. The other, Mary, is stonkingly good, though with a limited range of expletives. She’s a stroppy teenager, without much interest in her femininity, which is so refreshing. These two of the small number of characters power the plot and hold all our attention. For these two alone I’d read the sequel.

5: Their antagonists are splendidly original, and true to the plot, which is about making a fresh start to life directly connected to one’s true nature. The darkness in some people’s souls breeds monsters, and there are some spectacularly good ones here.

On the other hand, there are some irritating aspects:

6: The mundanity of the party’s progress, heading through the strange magic-filled land, finding out how it works and how to survive, battling monsters and collecting useful weapons and prizes, is a bit too D&D for me. Role-playing games are about the journey, whereas a novel is about the story that the plot unfolds, beginning, middle and end, and there is a worrying smell of dungeon-master’s plotting about this novel.

7: If Dalip the good boy is worrying about the state of his underwear without any chance for a wash, how are the female characters managing with their periods? Or is the impossibly huge moon stopping the flow? Have they all coincided into amenorrhoea? Teenage girls cannot avoid the undisguisable monthly blood flow unless they’re too thin, which we’ve not been told Mary is. If the other characters’ concerns include a complete lack of baths, hairwashes, laundry, even toilet paper, dealing with periods needs to be part of that. Admit that you know where babies come from, and deal with it. Think through the problems, do the research, or ask a friend.

8: Why did Morden put some characters in the plot, and then forget about them? Mary, Dalip and Stanislav get whole chapters of lines and action, and undergo huge character arcs. Mama is forgotten until mother figure or fat woman jokes are needed, or some pathos about her babies needing her. Luiza and Elena are far too often described as ‘the two Romanian women’, and Elena doesn’t even have a line to say. Grace appears during the escape as an afterthought, then disappears completely. This is astonishingly unbalanced, and unsatisfactory to read. Perhaps Morden was saving Grace and Elena for a big showdown reveal in book 2, but it looks more like he simply forgot them, and had to patch in a few ‘Where’s Grace?’ and ‘We’ll have to go and find her’ lines to cover up when he was reading the proofs.

So I’m almost convinced, but I don’t think I’m convinced enough.

Simon Morden, Down Station (2015 Gollancz), ISBN 978-1-473-21146-9, £8.99

 

 

Laura Riding’s Progress of Stories

Here’s a conversation I had with Brad of The Neglected Books Page, about Laura Riding’s short story collection Progress of Stories (1935). This American author is most well-known for her marriage to the poet Robert Graves, and for her own poetry.

 

Riding 2KM: I didn’t like them. Well, I did like quite a lot about quite a lot of them, but her style did not work for me. The book was republished with an additional 13 stories in 1994, with not one but two prefaces by the author, both largely incomprehensible. And that’s the problem; you have to really buy into Riding’s reputation and oeuvre to enjoy these stories. They are modernist, surrealist fairy tales, written in a flat, disassociated style that hides wonders and makes the remarkable ordinary. Leonora Carrington did something similar with her collection The Hearing Trumpet (1960), but her prose is magnetic. I didn’t find that reading Riding. Her style is mannered and determined to keep the reader off-balance. At least, that’s what I thought.

RidingBB: Like you, I have mixed feelings about this book. There are a handful of stories that I consider just stunning in their refusal to be like anything else I’ve ever read (I must confess that I’ve not read Leonora Carrington’s stories). Certainly there is that deliberately abstract and absurdist approach that we all know from Kafka, where a man transformed into a cockroach overnight is taken at face value. But unlike Kafka, Borges, and others, Riding has no problem inserting herself into the story, commenting upon the narrative, at times almost poking at it like some odd specimen she’s examining with her magnifying glass.

I’m thinking in particular of the long story, ‘Reality comes to Port Huntlady’, where she interrupts her narrative with such asides as:

Exactly what the business between Cards and Lady Port-Huntlady was, then, is a matter standing in the way of your ultimate enjoyment of this story as a thing of your own. It is—how shall we say—the pious tediousness of the author, who, in telling a story, must always observe the fiction that to tell a story is to persuade people of something entirely true, or publicly actual; this side of a story is called its verisimilitude.

It is, of course, obvious that to tell a story is to persuade people of something almost false. We are all aware that there is no such place as Port Huntlady. It may well be that there is a place to which Port Huntlady stands as a lie stands to the truth. In fact, this is not far from being the case. And this is why some matters secondary to the story must be brought in, such as the business between Cards and Lady Port-Huntlady, to make the story seem true as well as, quite frankly, a story.

I find these asides rather marvelous and funny. On the one hand, Riding is both reminding us that we are engaged in an illusion – reading about these characters in this strange town called Port Huntlady – and shattering that illusion. It’s a bit like telling yourself you are speaking while you are speaking: many people find this quite disconcerting, sometimes so much that they can’t go on speaking. On the other hand, it’s also in the fine tradition of Sterne in Tristram Shandy, where the author provides a running criticism of his own work.

The many prefaces and other commentaries by Riding that clutter up the collection are truly awful, though – or perhaps I am insufficiently abstract in my reasoning to reach whatever ethereal plane she was operating on. I found, however, by coincidence, something she wrote in the mid-1950s for her entry in Twentieth Century Authors that may offer a clue to what she was trying – and help explain why it’s unlikely that it would make sense to anyone but herself:

We did not fully understand the character of the mental operation required for definitions of the kind we wished to make until we perceived that we must liberate our minds entirely from the confused associations of usage in which the meanings of words are entangled – and that, for us, the act of definition must involve a total reconstituting of words’ meanings. Much of our work has been done upon our minds, rather upon words directly: and we have proceeded very slowly, in consequence.

I would imagine that this would be a particularly difficult challenge when one has chosen writing as one’s profession.

Did you manage to extract any sense from the prefaces or did you skip them entirely, as I quickly decided to?

Riding 3KM: I could not be bothered after the fifth page of garbled nonsense in the first preface. It didn’t tell me anything other than she had a lot of mixed feelings about the process and intent of writing, but neither preface was interesting enough to try to untangle.

I have to say that I don’t share your amusement at ‘Reality comes to Port Huntlady’: that was the first story I gave up on. I quite liked the fable about Miss Banquett creating the world in her own image, but it palled. I liked ‘Socialist pleasures’ a lot, and found ‘Schoolgirls’ very interesting, but less enjoyable. ‘Three times round’, about the extraordinary life of Lotus which the narrative voice is deathly bored by, is a story you have to read by effort of will.

It’s Riding’s narrative style that kills the pleasure for me. It’s determined to BE stylised, and uninterested in the fiction. Aggravating and irritating, saved from complete annoyance by the brilliance of the subjects and small things slipped in unexpectedly, like fireworks during a boring play at the theatre. So the effect is to make the reader sit up and ask ‘Wait, what was that?’, and then IGNORE the reader’s needs. It’s a contemptuous way to tell stories.

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Brad will be posting a more detailed post on Progress of Stories sometime next week. I don’t have anything left to say!