Myths, Genres, and Forms in Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism

1063554Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism is a landmark of literary criticism to which I found my way via its influence on the Tolkien scholarship of Tom Shippey and Margaret Anne Doody’s superb book The True Story of the Novel. Frye’s discussion of the function of the imagination also reminds me of the thinking of Ted Hughes and Lindsay Clarke.

Frye organises his grand analysis of the whole realm of literature by means of various dimensions – ‘modes’, ‘symbols’, ‘myths’, ‘genres’, ‘rhythms’, ‘forms’ – all of which terms he defines in his own ways that don’t always match more familiar ways of understanding them. What I love about his taxonomy of literature is that he doesn’t try to force books into a small number of procrustean categories, but instead he sets up continua or fields containing countless potential gradations or mixtures. For example, his theory of ‘myths’ may be pictured as a wheel of fortune, in which different nuances of narrative pattern rotate from ‘comedy’ at the wheel’s summit, via the downbeat trend of ‘irony/satire’, to ‘tragedy’ at the nadir, and then upbeatwards via ‘romance’ back to comedy.

In his chapter on ‘genres’ Frye insists that ‘fiction’ be defined not in contrast to ‘non-fiction’ but rather as the genre of literature in which prose predominates. He regards as ‘fiction’ any prose writing that may claim to be literature, and argues that prose that’s determined to present itself as purely ‘non-fictional’ will inevitably slide either towards emotion-laden rhetoric devoid of intellect (propaganda, advertising) or towards flat propositional language devoid of emotion (technical and most academic writing). The effect is to collapse into the same arena of ‘fiction’, alongside novels and short stories, genres like memoir, travelogue, nature writing, and indeed anything we might normally regard as ‘non-fiction’ – so long as it’s written with some kind of literary quality.

Frye goes on to analyse fiction in terms of four primary forms – ‘novel’, ‘confession’, ‘anatomy’, and ‘romance’. Here ‘novel’ has nothing to do with the length of the narrative; it refers to fiction populated by psychologically realistic characters, in contrast to the more stylised archetypal characters of ‘romance’. ‘Confession’ is basically the form of autobiography, narrated in the first person. ‘Anatomy’ is the form of fiction concerned more with exploring ideas than characters. The title of Frye’s own book – Anatomy of Criticism – implicitly acknowledges that even so analytical and scholarly a book, because it engages the reader with literary skill, may ultimately be seen as a work of fiction.

You may try to seek pure examples of each form, but in practice they are blended in endlessly varying combinations. Most ‘novels’ contain some admixture of ‘romance’. Frye elucidates Joyce’s Ulysses as a work of fiction in which all four forms are present and of more or less equal importance. He doesn’t mention Tolkien, but it occurs to me that, though The Lord of the Rings may seem most obviously a ‘romance’, it also contains substantial ingredients of ‘novel’ (concentrated in the hobbit protagonists) and ‘anatomy’ (the encyclopaedic examination of history, geography, and lore); ‘confession’ occurs only in the ‘editorial’ paratext with which Tolkien frames the story – and perhaps in the occasional Gandalfian monologue.

I can’t resist applying this lens to my own novel, Deep Time. It’s a ‘novel’, for sure, having a number of psychologically complex characters, but it’s permeated also by systems of archetype and symbol characteristic of ‘romance’. It is written in first person as an intimate ‘confession’ and is also an ‘anatomy’ in its kaleidoscopic exploration of geological time and the relationship between wild nature and being human. I take comfort from Frye’s observation that novels containing a strong element of ‘anatomy’ usually baffle the critics when they first appear.

Posted in Fiction, Literary criticism | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

51wqgcxqrbl-_sx324_bo1204203200_I was keen to read David Mitchell’s new novel because I loved Cloud Atlas. Like that masterpiece, The Bone Clocks comprises six novella-length sections each narrated by a different character in a different time period. But these narratives are closer linked than in Cloud Atlas, taking place at roughly decade intervals and reincorporating the same characters, so the whole adds up to a single story in a single fictional frame. This integration of the story has posed certain structural challenges to a writer whose primary interest, both here and in Cloud Atlas, is in the kind of high-performance pastiche that gets you listed for the Man Booker Prize.

The narrator of the first section, Holly Sykes, daughter of a Gravesend publican, is 15 years old in 1984. She crops up as a character in every section, so we witness her progress through life as the decades go by, and she returns, with satisfying inevitability, to narrate the final section in 2043, when she’s in her seventies. The second section is told by a Cambridge undergraduate, an arrogant twat who ruthlessly exploits for his own gain anyone who trusts him. The third narrator is more sympathetic, a war reporter whose only flaw is his fatal addiction to his work. The fourth section, extending from 2015 to 2020, follows Crispin Hershey, onetime ‘Wild Child’ of literature, now going to seed, whose grudge against a hatchet review of his latest novel shamelessly recycles a plot driver from Cloud Atlas.

These first four sections revel in evoking the narrators’ voices, from the stroppy semi-articulacy of the working-class teenager – ‘I’d never nicked anything in my life and really I almost peed myself’ (p. 41) – to the jaded sophistication of the has-been novelist: ‘I see my reflection in the mirrored wall, and recall a wise man telling me that the secret of happiness is to ignore your reflection in lift mirrors once you’re over forty’ (p. 305). The present-tense narration – so overused these days – is justified by a number of scenes where, for reasons I won’t spell out, the narrator loses their memory of what they’ve just related. These four sections also work hard to evoke the flavour of each decade – with cultural and current-affairs references that are sometimes too obviously shoehorned in: ‘You say that, but reunification is going to cost the earth. My clients in Frankfurt are very jumpy about the fall-out’ (p. 113). The sections are linked by the network of connections between characters, of which Holly is the central node, and also by a hidden plot that now and again surfaces, unexplained, into the characters’ lives. At first glimpse, I thought we had to do with the supernatural or beings from another dimension. It quickly becomes clear that the individuals in question are human beings blessed with advanced ‘psychosoteric’ powers.

Little is explained about these adepts till the fifth section, set in 2025, when a narrator who is one of them reveals all via a sequence of big infodumps and flashbacks. There are goodies (Horologists) and baddies (Anchorites); I best not say much more. This narrator’s voice is less distinctive than the previous sections’, the life and times of the 2020s are little evoked – beyond a few token advances in IT – and neither scenes nor secondary characters are strongly realised. What we get instead is a Latinate lexicon to refer to psychosoteric phenomena, some nice visualisation of the metaphysical landscape of death, and a high-stakes Harry-Potter-style combat sequence that seems pitched for the big screen but also made me wonder whether Mitchell’s intention was parody.

After that, the final section is anticlimactic, despite its subject being the collapse of civilisation when the oil runs out. It’s a well-imagined and all-too-plausible portrayal of a local community struggling along with their chicken-keeping and homemade clothes, as promoted by today’s Transition movement – only for this tolerable existence to be overrun by gangsterish survival of the fittest when the Chinese-sponsored Cordon of law enforcement ceases to be economically viable. The impact of this scenario is weakened by the fact that – bar one brief prognostication that the internet won’t last for ever – it’s not set up by the rest of the novel. The psychosoteric plot is abandoned, has no consequence, except to provide a deus ex machina.

As in Cloud Atlas, there is a sustained theme of the perennial moral choice between coldly exploiting others to serve one’s own interests and, on the other hand, warm-hearted service of others – in ideological terms, the choice between the right and the left. The relative autonomy of the six texts in Cloud Atlas permits the novel to be unified by a theme. In The Bone Clocks, theme isn’t enough; the narrative continuity between the sections demands more coherent narrative structure.

If the relationship between the science-fiction plot and the verbal pyrotechnics of pastiche is strained, and the crucial fifth section is under-imagined and over-explained, the first four sections could use some polishing to eliminate intrusive detail and a sometimes forced tone of voice: ‘Still, boyfriends act goofy to hide stuff, any magazine’ll tell you. Wish I could phone him right now. Wish they’d invent phones you can speak to anyone anywhere anytime on’ (p. 3). During a lovely send-up of a literary festival, Mitchell quotes the trasher of Hershey’s novel to throw in what sounds like a ironic acknowledgement of risks Mitchell takes in his own writing: ‘One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: what sure sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?’ (pp. 281–2).

The Bone Clocks is better than that, it’s well worth reading, but I fear it may have been written against a deadline that prevented Mitchell doing full justice to his genius.

This review was first published in Vector, No. 280, 2015

Posted in fantasy, Fiction, science fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Lewis Spence and the Problem of Lemuria

514g1sbvk8l-_sx315_bo1204203200_If, like me, you love myth and folklore, you may know Lewis Spence as the author of numerous books, in the early twentieth century, about the mythology of different parts of the world. I find his books more readable and useful than the rival series of similar books by Donald Mackenzie. Spence’s sphere of interest extended also to the fabled continents of Atlantis and its Indo-Pacific counterpart, Lemuria, and hence to the fascinating interface between mythology and geological science.

Being educated as a geologist but routinely working with mythology these days as a storyteller and writer, I can’t help getting turned on by this kind of thing, but the waters of scholarship in this area are treacherous. From today’s vantage point, Spence’s The Problem of Lemuria (1933) may be considered ancestral to the lurid speculations of Velikovsky and von Däniken and the whole genre of ‘mysteries of the unknown’, whose distinction from fantasy hinges more than anything else on the use of journalistic form. From the perspective of the 1930s, however, the distinctions between science and speculation were probably less clear. Spence is keen to dismiss the Lemurian theories of Madame Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, and James Churchward as fantasy, and yet his own conclusions about the sinking beneath the Pacific of civilisations and continents now look equally far-fetched.

What fascinates me in The Problem of Lemuria is seeing Spence struggling to make sense of geological and biological data in a way that might be logical without the discovery of plate tectonics. The distribution of various groups of animals and plants in places as far apart as Madagascar, India, Australasia, and South America plausibly points to the existence of a land mass that once connected these regions. Only, rather than being intervening land that has subsided to the bottom of the ocean, this land mass – we now know – was constituted by the regions themselves when they were joined together as the supercontinent Gondwana. Tantalisingly, Spence does briefly mention Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, but moves on without comprehending its crucial importance to his subject; this theory itself being regarded as wild speculation until conclusive proof of it was discovered in the 1950s.

There is perhaps less excuse for Spence’s confusion of the apparent ‘dispersal’ of fossil animals and plants from an ancestral land mass, which took place tens of million of years ago, and the apparent dispersal of human cultures from such a land mass, which can only have taken place a matter of thousands of years ago. He simply ignores the difference of timescale, which I believe was known to science in his day. What may have contributed to his conflation of these two ‘dispersals’ is that the human populations of the Pacific islands may well have originated from a land mass that has partly vanished beneath the waves: not Gondwana, but Sundaland – comprising Southeast Asia, the nearby islands of the East Indies, and the area of continental shelf linking them that was flooded by the rise in sea level after the last ice age (as discussed at length in Stephen Oppenheimer’s Eden in the East).

To prioritise evidence derived from mythology above rigorous use of science, as Spence does by his own admission, may seem foolhardy. His conclusions about Lemuria have been sunk by what we now know about the workings of the Earth’s crust. Yet I remain sympathetic to the idea that the legendaria of cultures around the world, in Europe and the Middle East as much as the Pacific, have preserved a folk memory of the flooding of large tracts of land after the last ice age. We know that it happened, so why shouldn’t the stories dimly remember it? Of the cultures that existed in those lost lands we know little. In that space of uncertainty the legends of Lemuria and Atlantis may continue to stir our imagination; as well they might, now that we face, in our own time, the prospect of further permanent flooding of the world’s coastal regions.

Posted in Mythology, Prehistory | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Critical Mass to Escape Dystopia

51sdqvpe3gl-_sx333_bo1204203200_Do you ever feel oppressed by the relentless coercion to spend ever more of your time online, staring at the screen, jumping through the hoops imposed by organisations of every kind? Do you detect the synergy between this and the interests of big business allied with government to control and exploit us as compliant worker-consumers, and at the same time to distract us with a barrage of images and words from the ongoing demolition of our economic security, our health, and the beauty of our physical surroundings?

Alexandra Claire’s Random Walk extrapolates all this into a future-primitive dystopia in which an all-powerful company, e-Tel, manages the population of a flood-ruined Welsh city by means of a tracking chip implanted under your skin at birth, a Receiver that floods your perception with virtual-reality Xperiences, a Box that runs your home, satellites able to detect the heat of living bodies from space, and ruthless Guards who’ll kill anyone who tries to steal from the polythene-tented Food Fields outside the city because they lack enough work credit to buy food.

Not everyone is compliant, however. Remi spends his nights running across rooftops on a mission to disable e-Tel’s information transmitters. Eight-year-old Osian has thrown his Receiver in the river because he couldn’t bear the noise in his head. Lisa has come from the wild countryside where people grow their own food outside e-Tel’s control. Only now she has the chance of a privileged position inside the company machine.

In this world, information technology has ceased to have any positive aspect. It serves only tyranny. Sites of resistance must be found elsewhere: in the physicality of bodies able to leap across rooftops and of minds able to pick a ‘random walk’ to dodge surveillance computers seeking predictable patterns; in the bonds of affection between people, expressed in the touching of bodies and the speaking of Welsh words – ‘bach’, ‘cwtch’, ‘calon’, ‘fy nghariad’ – redolent of endearment.

For me, the novel’s execution doesn’t quite match the cogency of its insights. I found the prose rather flat, and more imaginative work is needed to evoke a convincing future world, beyond the basic apparatus of e-Tel and the circumstances of the protagonists. The city is supposed to be burdened with teeming masses, but the presence of other people is referred to so rarely that in most scenes my mind’s eye pictured the characters moving through what seemed an empty city. Moreover, there’s no sense of how the situation in this city fits in with what’s going on in the rest of the world – and this can’t really be justified by regarding the story as what Le Guin calls a ‘psychomyth’, isolated in its own pocket universe, since it’s explicitly set in twenty-first-century Wales.

The part I enjoyed best was, in fact, the self-justifying speech by e-Tel director Oswald White, the equivalent of O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four. There’s a telling irony in his insistence the Random Walkers must not be allowed to become a critical mass that would cause the social order to change.

This review was first published in Vector, No. 271, 2012

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Archaeopteryx – by Lorna Smithers

Signposts in the Mist

Archaeopteryx, I call to you kindly through layers of stone.
Geological time is not the history of the victors. No!
It does not lie or exploit. I pass through time
as I pass through stone like a wave of radiation,
find you in your death pose, bare bones of your wings
raised like the arms of a skeletal dancer, legs bent, killing claw
bared. The feathers of your frond-tail lift you into resurrection
soaring to heights where sylphs play bone-flutes
on your bones. Beautiful bird black wings like a raven’s
against the illusion of a double rainbow you forget
you are extinct. For a moment I forget our extinction,
smile with sharp small teeth and join you in flight
with a sweep of my bony feathered tail.

800px-Archaeopteryx_lithographica_(Berlin_specimen) - Copy

View original post

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Greg Bear’s Queen of Angels

41fj1hz38sl-_sx283_bo1204203200_My first encounter with Greg Bear’s fiction was the superb Moving Mars, at a time when I was reading everything I could find about the planet Mars. Queen of Angels, though set mainly on Earth, is considered to be part of the same loose sequence, along with Slant and Heads.

Queen of Angels is quite a demanding read – thanks to the sheer complexity of plot, which alternates between several protagonists who have no direct contact with each other; and the cognitive dissonance induced by coolly presenting future technologies, mores, and language without explanation; and the intellectual ambition of Bear’s themes. It’s not only an intelligent novel but also artfully written and psychologically convincing.

What brings everything together is the theme of the ghost in the machine, the mind–body problem, the question of whether we have a soul. The kind of thing that the recent film Ex Machina tackled in a much simpler way. Bear comes at it from every direction. We have an out-of-favour poet whose stream of consciousness reads like a notebook app. Another poet who has gone mad and turned into a murderer. A pair of psychologists who, in a superbly dramatised sequence, use a controversial technology to enter the unconscious of said mad poet. A policewoman (in search of the same mad poet) who’s undergone ‘transform’ nano-surgery so that her body no longer matches her original racial identity. Two AIs struggling towards consciousness, one of them in orbit around a distant planet and, with a nod to Solaris, trying to work out whether or not it has sentient inhabitants. Infusing all of this are coercive norms of ‘therapying’ people to make them into compliant citizens, the prevalence of nano-technology that can make anything out of anything, and Hispaniolan beliefs in Voodoo gods who can ride people’s bodies.

All this adds up to an exploration, from science fiction’s usual materialist perspective, of the traditionally spiritual concept of the soul – and not merely the existence of a soul that’s something other than the body, but its association with the power to choose between good and evil. The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. But the novel goes further that that. Bear is raising questions about the implications of advances in IT for human consciousness and the relationship between mind and body. Much seems at stake in the quality of people’s lives, in how we are treated and what is demanded of us; and deeper than that, if you take a spiritual perspective, in the well-being – the survival? – of our souls. Big questions to reflect upon when you consider how the world has changed since 1990, when this novel was published and the digital revolution had barely begun.

Posted in Fiction, science fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Forty Signs of Rain

sc1_forty20signs20of20rainHaving tackled the environmental politics of Mars and Antarctica, Kim Stanley Robinson took on the challenge of global warming. Forty Signs of Rain is the first instalment of a trilogy and should not be judged as a stand-alone novel. Most of it is devoted to establishing characters and the political and scientific background for a climatic drama that only begins towards the end of the book.

The central theme is the politics of science. Robinson takes us inside Washington’s corridors of power, following three main protagonists: Charlie, climate adviser of the ecofriendly senator Phil Chase (revived from Robinson’s earlier novel Antarctica); Frank, a sociobiologist employed in reviewing grant applications at the National Science Foundation; and Charlie’s wife and Frank’s colleague Anna, who befriends the Washington representatives of Khembalung, an island nation threatened by rising sea level.

The writing is leaner and faster-paced than in Robinson’s other big books, yet, as usual, includes dollops of scientific explanation, emplaced either in a protagonist’s consciousness or as chapter prologues; a practice Robinson has defended as enabling more thorough examination of subject matter than is possible in a straight-line narrative. A detailed subplot concerning a new pharmaceutical procedure appears only tenuously connected to the subject of climate change, but, in the light of Frank’s ruminations upon game theory, illustrates the dubious ethics underlying the funding of research. Much of the politics and psychology is spelt out to an extent that might seem unsubtle were it not justified by the analytical mindset of the protagonists, though Robinson allows us to note for ourselves the irony that the one person (Charlie) making a serious effort to modify US climate policy for the benefit of future generations is saddled with the daytime care of an unpredictable infant (who’s the source of much incidental humor).

The scarcity of external description through much of the book also seems calculated to convey the scientists’ inhabitation of a life world of abstract ideas, ICT, and indoor spaces. External nature is present mainly in pervasive repetition of how hot and humid it is outdoors – until meteorological events breach the cerebral space of science and politics with lucidly narrated drama.

The book ends with a whole raft of unresolved subplots as well as the big question – ‘What’s the climate going to do?’ – to catapult the reader into the next volume. On Robinson’s previous form, one would expect the sequels to this thoughtful and compelling first act to unfold a crisis of awesome scale and yet hold out a creative glimmer of hope.

This review was first published in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2005

Posted in Ecology, Fiction, science fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment