Wednesday, January 16, 2008

His Dark Materials: Not So Dark

I didn't hear about "The Golden Compass" or the "His Dark Materials" series until the movie of the first book came out last year. And I wasn't really interested then either. I mean, come on: armored polar bears? Yes, very exotic. A+. Now sit down and shut up. But then I heard that these books were anti-religious and had angered the far right. I thought, "I bet they aren't either. I bet they're all like, 'Hey, it's Sunday, let's have an ice cream,' and the religicos are all like, 'Oh my G-... goodness, they hate God and want to kill him with an ice cream on his day of rest!' Stupid right wing nut jobs." (Just as an aside, have I ever mentioned how totally tolerant I am of other people's beliefs? I'm like a frickin' saint.) Armored bears? Twee exotic. Anti-religious themes? Ooh, count me in!

I will try not to give away plot points, but in so much as they are about the stance these books take vis-a-vis religion, it may be unavoidable.


So I read the first one as quickly as I could, getting very little sleep in the process. And it wasn't anti-religious, and certainly not anti-Christian. It was a great little adventure story about a bratty little girl, the world's awesomest pocket watch, some armored bears and a really evil monkey. It wasn't exactly what I'd consider a children's story, but it's themes regarding religion could be summed up as follows: "Religion is fine, whatever, and faith is really a good thing, but you know what sucks? The Spanish Inquisition. Yeah, religions should really avoid that Torquemada shit." Pete said that the real Anti stuff didn't occur until the second and third books, according to what he'd read about them, so of course I had to go on. The second book ("The Subtle Knife") did broaden the anti-religious sentiment. It's message was more: "Actually, now that I think about it, religion in general kind of sucks. Somaybeweshouldkillgodjustasuggestion. Or whatever." And I was left with the feeling that something had happened in the midst of writing the last quarter of the first book that had poisoned Pullman against the church as evinced by the second books more strident denunciation. Still, it wasn't exactly revolutionary. More like, "Well, if the church in this made up world is evil, maybe one should excise its black heart." It didn't imply, "The church in reality is evil. Seriously. Evil." And the story was still engaging - now there was a sullen boy character from our own world! and the world's awesomest knife! - so I forged ahead. (Actually, that makes it sound like work. I'll try again.) - so I excitedly started devouring the third book ("The Amber Spyglass"), anxious to see what would become of Lyra (bratty girl who is also inexplicably sympathetic) and Will (sullen boy who is necessarily sympathetic for putting up with Lyra).

The third book started out by pretty much shouting at the top of its voice: JUST IN CASE YOU MISSED IT BEFORE, UM, THIS IS AN ALLEGORY FOR HOW THE CHURCH IS EVIL AND NOW YOUR BELOVED CHARACTERS ARE GOING TO EMBARK ON A MISSION TO KILL GOD; TRY NOT TO STRESS OUT ABOUT IT TOO MUCH BECAUSE IT'S FOR THE BEST. And that was okay because up until that point they had primarily been adventure stories and that's what I was in them for anyway. Also, the baddest of the baddies (the one with the evil monkey) had yet to be dispatched, so I had that too look forward to. But then...

Wait, let me describe this book physically first, in case you haven't seen them. This is a 450 or so-page paperback in like 8pt type. It's not what I would call a long book, but I certainly wouldn't call it short. It's more like the book you take on vacation - it's good for 5 hours on a plane, half an hour to an hour every night before bed in your hotel room, and the 5 hours back home. In that size of an adventure/fantasy book I expect a main quest, one or two side quests, some kind of mystical destiny to be fulfilled, a Big Bad to be revealed, thwarted, reborn and then finally defeated, and then for either a family to be reunited or the protagonist to fall in love (it works if they just come to grips with the death of their parents or lover instead, if that's what's called for). Probably someone should make a noble sacrifice in there somewhere. If it's a book for adults, there will probably be some awkwardly written sex, but that's okay so long as no one's "manhood" throbs and no one feels "awash in womanly" anything. (PS: this is one of the primary reasons I prefer young adult sci-fi/fantasy as no one ever goes farther than kissing or virgin marriage.)

But what does "The Amber Spyglass" give you? Deus Ex Machina MacGuffin Quest 2008. It reads like a series of half-hour episode summaries for a British mini-series called Amber Spyglass. Every improbable idea works the first time, exactly as it's meant to. The magical items that propelled the plot of the first two books are suddenly MacGuffined for no clear reason. Why does it matter if so-and-so stole your awesome tool if you're never going to use it? Oh, because you needed a reason to go to this other place and steal this toy that for a while was also an awesome tool but now will also not be used. Even when they do use their magic items, one is given the impression by the ease with which they pick up these esoteric new skills that the item is itself irrelevant. And really, that would almost have been a more interesting story. What if Will didn't need a knife, subtle or otherwise, to cut his way into other parallel worlds? What if Lyra didn't need a golden symbol reader - or even a brass tack! - to understand the universe and answer impossible questions?

"The Amber Spyglass" is a little breathless at times. I think Pullman had enough ideas left over at the end of "The Subtle Knife" for about 10 books, but decided it had to be a trilogy because of God or Jesus or the Holy Ghost or someone, and so just crammed all the ideas he could into one book. The result is that the characters never have more than a moment for introspection or development and it is wearying. An example:
A: Hey, that's a neat watch.
B: Oh yeah? Thanks! Oh no, that man stole it!
A: Really? Well let's steal it back.
B: Oh no, it's not where we saw him leave it!
C: Hey kids, I'll make you a deal: I'll give you your watch if you get me a new spork.
B: Any spork?
C: No, a specific, magic spork, that makes everything taste like meatloaf and A-1.
A: K...
C: Oh, did I mention that it's in a parallel universe?
B: Hey, we're in the parallel universe. Thank god we just happened upon that door marked "Parallel Universe, In Here"
A: Oh no, some crazy guy has the spork!
B: Let's fight him.
D: Oh-you killed me! You're now the Spork Master!
A: Let's get my watch back.
B: Yeah, we have the watch and the Spork!
A: Let's go to Hades.
B: Okay!
A: Wow, Hades sucks.
B: Yeah, let's let all the dead out of it.
A: Good idea!
B: There you go, ghosts! Enjoy Not Hades!
A: Oh no, I'm captured!
B: I'll save you!
A: Safe - except for this new and even more random danger!

And it just goes on like that for 450+ pages.

Somewhere along the line Pullman just completely loses his authorial voice. I mean completely. In literary theory they talk about monovocality and polyvocality - all the characters having the author's voice and pushing forward his/her agenda versus all the characters having independent voices from the author's as well as independent agendas. The first truly polyvocal writers are said to be the 19th century Russians - Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc. - and when you compare them to say, Jane Austin, you can really see what a literary theorist is talking about. Normally I am irritated by monovocality, unless it is historically appropriate. For instance, George Sand's "Indiana" or Voltaire's "Candide" wouldn't be very good political statements if the characters could voice opinions that differed from the author's main purpose. But a good story, especially a good adventure, is always better when it's polyvocal. And that doesn't mean you can't hear the author: you can, it's just separate from the characters. An allegory kind of has to be monovocal, which is why complex adventure stories usually make poor allegories. Questing stories make excellent allegories; they're very linear. "The Golden Compass" was truly polyvocal, in my opinion. It was, at its heart, an adventure and Lyra had all the hallmarks of a great adventurer: brave, lucky, foolhardy, smart-assed, headstrong, loyal, clever, compassionate... The second book was pretty good that way too, although at times it seemed like the author was working a little too hard to force Lyra and Will into different voices every time they seemed to naturally align. The third book began the decent into allegory. And that's where Pullman really got lost. Rather than my usual complaints about a monovocality where polyvocality is warranted or vice versa, it was like Pullman himself didn't know what he was going for. There are whole sections of the book where I can almost hear him pacing behind me, fretting, "Oh dear oh dear oh dear," as he tries to stay true to his adventuring ideas (The world of the dead! Also: harpies!) and yet at the same time force it into an allegory-shaped box.

By the end, the dialog doesn't even sound like the same characters any more. They're completely washed out. And that is when you can really begin to see the author's philosophical struggle. On the one hand, he wants to make sure you understand that Religion Is Bad And Evil And The Source Of All Suffering, so he has to set his characters up for heartbreak so you'll want them to succeed. But he loves his characters: Will and Lyra are his children. So he wants them to be happy and then they are. But that seems to imply that all it takes to be happy in the world is to reject religion, and that becomes its own religion, so they have to continue to suffer so that you know that's just how the world is. But that shouldn't make up doubt that the world has the potential to be a nice and good place! So then he gets all hopeful again. The ending is so sugar-coatedly twee, so transparently uplifting and inspiring, that it even as it made my eyes tear up and my chest heavy with sadness for these two sweet-hearted little kids I'd been rooting for, it also made my eyes roll. Pete thinks there should be a word for that, crying and eye rolling. He suggested Crainge, like cry+cringe.

So what is the bottom line. The bottom line is that "The Amber Spyglass" was wholly unsatisfying. I'm sitting here right now wishing I knew what happened to Lyra and Will. Only I do know. What happened was so super saturated with adventure and doe-eyed adoration it read like fan fiction and therefore doesn't really feel like part of the story. Here is a summary of how "The Amber Spyglass" ultimately concludes its tail:**SPOILERS**

Two 12-year olds maybe have sex and that saves the world from pouring all of its consciousness into a great abyss. Religion is bullshit, but ESPECIALLY Christianity - one character actually says, "Christianity got it completely wrong" which lead me to say to myself, "Bone to pick much?" which when I type it doesn't look like it makes much sense but it did in my head - and God is a hobbled old man who just wants to die, except that he's not even the creator because no one knows how that happened, but maybe it was just science or something. ANYWAY, the real meaning of life, the universe and everything is a balance between altruism and sensual pleasures (of which I'm sure there are exactly 42) and that's why it's okay for two 12-year olds to have sex (maybe - it says "they lay together" - about as subtle as a knife that cuts through anything).

Sigh. The worst part is that I can't stop thinking about it because it was so unsatisfying. If you've read these books, I'd be interested to know what you think. Or if you haven't read them. Either way. I've been harassing Pete with it all evening. And he was like, "Oh my God this is a lengthy blog post so please type it up and stop asking me if I think a confused authorial voice and allegory that might just be a bad metaphor or analogy makes for poor reader satisfaction!" So I'm posting a lengthy blog post and asking you: what do you think?


Joseph said...

Yup, that's pretty much exactly right. The first two were pretty clever and interesting, and then in the third one Pullman goes all "Yeah, I'm just going to throw down some half-formed plot arcs on a paper and hope my editor fixes things up for me."

The anti-religion thing didn't really register with me, as funny as that may seem. I mean, I knew they were supposed to kill God and all, but I just remember thinking "That's kind of silly", not "Goodness! How blasphemous!" But that's 'cause I'm weird, I guess.

Sam said...

I haven't read any of the books yet, but it is something that I plan on doing eventually. (I highly doubt that Astoria has these books being sold ANYWHERE).

However, I did hear about all the hullabaloo with the easily offended Christians and honestly -- since I'm evil or something (who knew?) -- it makes me more curious about reading them. Now though, reading the third book is starting to seem more of a waste than anything since almost all of my friends that HAVE read it were very dissatisfied for the same reasons that you are.

Beau and I did see the movie the other night, and while I was able to follow along with what was going on it seemed that more than a few people in the audience were left behind about 5 minutes into the film. (To them, dust = soul = pet thing and that was about as far as they got except for acknowledging that Nicole Kidman is evil and her monkey likes attention (that just sounds wrong, but thats ok!)). In itself, I think the movie was very rushed and probably missing about 50% of the book. It was pretty too look at but I wasn't very satisfied with the film in general (mainly because the story lacked in substance and smooth connections to events).

***quasi spoiler commentary***

Really, the movie was more of OMG POCKET WATCH! and OMG I KNOW HOW TO USE IT! Let's save people! The end. Oh and as Beau mentioned in the movie theater "Darth Vader, much?" in reference to Mrs. Coulter.

*** end quasi spoiler commentary***

Who knows? Here's to hoping that I actually remember to pick up the first and maybe second book next time that I am on Portland or Eugene. I am fairly certain that I will enjoy the book much more than I did the movie.

Sydney said...

Joseph- What's so funny to me about you not registering killing God as blasphemous (or whatever) is that the book doesn't really either!


When they find God and break him out of his little crystal cage, it's so anticlimactic. And then no one ever mentions it again! What the hell!


My other gripe, that I keep forgetting, re-remembering and then re-forgetting (but which is currently in my head) is the whole nonsense with... Okay, I will try to make this comprehensible to those who haven't read the book. Imagine you're reading a book about Troy and it's told from the Trojan perspective, so Achilles is like Mr. Bad News. It gets to the big fight with Memnon, Achilles is all ready to do battle, sharpening his sword, polishing his shield, and out of the corner of his eye he spies some Trojans wearing big leather Trojan belts (just pretend it was like the thing that made them Trojan: belt wearing). And in the midst of all of this he thinks, "And when I'm done with Memnon, I'm so going to take those belts away. Yeah, that'll teach these nasty Trojans to mess with Achilles! No more belts for any of them!" He stands up, takes a step towards Memnon and Paris shoots him in the heel. One must ask one's self, "What was with the belt thing? What was the purpose of that?" There is such a scene in "The Amber Spyglass" and it really makes me question the editor. I mean, who wouldn't have cut that?

Sydney said...

Sam- Oh man, I can't believe that I didn't see the Darth Vader parallels before now! That is hilarious! All she needs is asthma and a helmet. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie, although I don't know how they could fit even a quarter of the book into a two hour movie.

Sam said...

lol At the end of the movie the Darth Vader action minus the mask and respirator is pretty thick. It's really, really hard to miss in the movie... so hard to miss, the only way you COULD miss it is if you had no idea who or what Darth Vader is/was. xD

Dale said...

I think this is some of the best critical writing I've ever read about anything. Haven't seen the movie. Read the books with attention because they were favorites of a dear friend. The last really does get all wobbly and didactic. Which is a pity, because it was really a very good fantasy action adventure. Pullman had a great story to tell, but he didn't really have anything to say about faith, except that he's agin' it.

It suppose it resonates more with people who were abused with religion as a pretext. My father, who grew up wanting to be a scientist in fundamentalist Texas, has a similarly puerile picture of religion: he'd never been around an intelligent person of faith, and had no idea that any such existed.