October 26, 2012

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods

RAGNAROK: THE END OF THE GODS by A.S. Byatt (Grove Press, 2012)
GENRE: Literary - Mythology

I should state up front that A.S. Byatt is one of my favorite authors. Her short story collections are full of small jewels, perfect little things that leave you questioning or haunted or content. Her novels are odd and thoughtful, woven through with references to other authors and other works - not so much that the references swamp the story, but enough to weave a sort of socio-cultural fabric around the story. Done well, it's shockingly effective. Possession: A Romance, for which Byatt won the Booker Prize, is an excellent example of this. Unfortunately, Byatt's most recent offering, Ragnarok, is not.

Ragnarok refers to the mythical battle that ends the reign of the Norse gods. It's a immensely fertile ground and more than one writer has plumbed its depths - Wagner's Ring Cycle and Tolkein's Fellowship both contain aspects of the myth. What makes these appropriations (adaptation is too strong a word) work, is that Wagner and Tolkein took aspects of the source material and gave them new life in completely separate works, a trick Byatt has pulled off more than once in many of her novels. It is a trick she failed to pull off here. Ragnarok is essentially a straightforward retelling of Ragnarok from Asgard and the Gods. The only nod to a context beyond that of the myth is the fragile frame story about "the thin child" who reads the book, Asgard and the Gods, while her family is evacuated to the countryside during WWII. It's a lovely connection - the fall of the gods set as the backdrop of world war - but Byatt declines to take it further. In fact, she rather declines to take it anywhere at all. The "thin child" reads the book, her father comes home from the war, they all move back to London. Of course, there is more to it than that, but that's what it ultimately comes down to. As a reader, one is left wondering why Byatt bothered with the frame story at all - why not simply publish her own translation of the myth?

In the end, it's a matter of preference. Ragnarok is a beautiful book in that way that all of Byatt's books are beautiful. Her command of language and detail are unparalleled in in their lovely precision, and from that point of view, Ragnarok is a gorgeous success. But I tend to want and expect a chewier narrative from Ms. Byatt and so, unfortunately, Ragnarok left me hungry, not so much for more, but for different. I know many will disagree, but I think that's a fair expectation when something as meaty as a Norse myth is on the menu.

October 4, 2012

Throat-clearing, Or, Finding, Ignoring and Then Using Your Voice(s)

What, exactly, is an author's voice? What does a critic mean when she writes, "Author-with-Potential" has finally found his voice? It seems like an easy question to answer, but it isn't and the prevalence of that statement used to drive me a little nuts. As an writer, it's not something I've ever concerned myself with in a conscious way. My characters sound the way they sound. My narrators narrate and I try to stay out of the way. I've never worried about it and, quite frankly, I tended to think that people who did worry about it could have spent that valuable energy thinking about something else, like plot. Or characterization. Or editing. Or research. Or global warming. Or grocery shopping. Or Whatever. I had found my voice years before, a voice that was fluid, that changed and adapted to suit the material, and I just didn't worry about it. Turns out I was really pretty full of myself and other things...

Take this blog for example. I used to write the "reviews" off-the-cuff, for my own pleasure and amusement (which worked out great because very few people actually read these posts). But then I started to get more formal, because I was using the blog for a class and had an audience whose approval I needed. The reviews became less personal, more professional and perhaps more thorough (read: formulaic), but far less interesting to write or re-read. But I got really nice feed-back from my professors so I kept doing it that way even after the classes ended. Even after that "audience" had checked out, I kept writing for it's approval. I kept ignoring my voice. And there it is. My voice.
In the same way that personalities are not static constructs but rather fluid, adaptable creatures (or maybe that's just me), "voice" is a fluid adaptable thing too. And I had allowed mine to shape itself after the idea of the polished, published review. It sounded authoritative and professional and really fairly hollow, and while it's very legitimately "my voice" it isn't my only voice.

And before you say, "well hold on there missy, my voice is mine and Shakespeare's was Shakespeare's so you can just pipe down", hear me out. You don't speak to your boss the same way you speak to your mother. You have different voices for each situation. I write professional material in one voice, children's material in another, short stories in many voices, and blog posts in what comes closest to my speaking voice - except that I stopped doing that and used the professional voice for what is, ultimately, a blog that I started to please myself (and hopefully the few others who occasionally pop in). Kind of silly. So I started thinking about a writer's voice and I have come to this conclusion:

It is a complicated, oddly personal thing, and not one to be dismissed. It is something to consider, to honor and to pay attention to. And ultimately to leave alone. At least, in the case of my voice(s). Because I have many voices and they're all mine, but they don't all belong in the same place. If one of them invades another's space, context goes out the window and it all loses it's shine. So long live the author's voice - every single one of them.