I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space…
I’m not great with self-imposed challenges, as you may have noticed: I didn’t complete an author alphabet challenge a couple of years ago, barely started on an attempt to read more authors not from an Anglo-American milieu, stalling on my task of reducing my to-be-read pile of books. In fact by instinct I’m a bit of a flibbertigibbet, strolling from one random title to another, as the mood takes me.
Only, my randonneur leanings may not be as random as I thought.
Over the last month or so I’ve read (and, in some cases, am still reading) slightly under a dozen titles, the settings of which have ranged from the New World to the Old, and from the Arctic to the Antarctic. At first no obvious threads suggest themselves. And then I look closer. For example, Nicholas Tucker’s overview in Darkness Visible of Philip Pullman’s work has naturally led me on to revisiting Pullman’s novella Once Upon a Time in the North,* a prequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy, set just below the Arctic Circle in Muscovy. And that has — subconsciously as it turns out — now drawn me to Jenny Diski’s memoir Skating to Antarctica,* ostensibly about the late author’s trip to the southern continent. Are there other threads that I’ve not been aware of in recent reading?
It turns out that this is indeed the case. Jem Lester’s Shtum — about a soon-to-be-divorced father’s attempt to get professional support for his son diagnosed with severe autism — is not too far distant from John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things,* which focuses on the inner fairytale world of a boy with mild OCD who feels both estranged from his widowed father and conflicted about female figures. Connolly’s novel links, via fairytales and mythology, to Horatio Clare’s The Prince’s Pen, an updating of a traditional Welsh narrative to a near future dystopia. The global conflicts that are alluded to in Clare’s novel also remind me of global conflicts of a different kind in Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World in Forest,* one of the novels in her Hainish Cycle.
From Le Guin’s SF tale (which I’m also currently enjoying) to Alison Croggon’s The River and the Book is not a big step, as both deal not just with opposing world views but also ecological and anthropological themes of despoliation and exploitation. That potential for irreversible and rapid change is simularly examined in Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, about a virulent organism that threatens all human life and not just a human way of life.
Croggon’s novella is also a first-person narrative by a woman displaced — voluntarily, it’s true — from her community with all her certainties questioned, off on a quest for an object that could turn out to be a MacGuffin but which is really a symbol of those lost certainties. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea is also about a displaced person, the mad woman in the attic of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, who is estranged from her own culture in the Caribbean and further alienated by her ill-considered marriage and removal to England; the Sargasso Sea of the title, where flotsam and jetsam ends up, is a sad commentary on the gap between her desperate hopes and harsh reality.
Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane also has a liquid symbol at its heart, the body of water that stands for many ideas — evolution, the well of ideas, rebirth, the subconscious and much more. Its protagonist, a boy on the verge of growing up, is akin to Connolly’s child in The Book of Lost Things: both are readers, imbibers of fairytales and deeply imaginative, learning about life through the lessons taught by the archetypes contained in the narratives they soak up.
And as I pan back to a wide angle shot I find that these individual threads are part of a bigger picture, one with warp as well as weave. There are journeys and quests here, and unexpected landscapes with confused individuals that also exhibit bravery and determination, and above all stories within stories. I now understand that my global diagram indicating the settings for these fictional worlds is a bit incomplete. Whether the planet of Athshe in Le Guin’s novel or the exosphere environment of the Andromeda virus, the earthbound countries of Wales or Jamaica, or the alternative worlds visited non-corporeally by some of the protagonists, these are all universes of the authors’ creation — and by extension those too of the readers.
We thus all, as Shakespeare wrote, become ‘kings of infinite space’, where nothing is random, where all is joined by the power of the imagination.
Let’s hope that, unlike Hamlet, we don’t have the bad dreams he says he suffers from.
Ignoring self-imposed reading challenges, are those of you who read widely finding that you are fashioning subconscious threads between apparently unconnected titles? Or are your travels through fiction and non-fiction determined by different demands where connectivity doesn’t apply at all?
* There asterisked titles are books I haven’t yet reviewed, given that two or three of them I have yet to finish!