Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Thumb. Thumb. Thumb.

I've just finished reading Alan Garner's Stone Book Quartet, four novellas bound into a single book. This was an edition printed in the 80s and then left, forgotten, in various boxes and shelves. Come on, it had a boring cover and the paper was the wrong weight so it was hard to open. Plus I was too busy reading Robert Aspirin and not talking to girls.

Anyway, I'd seen some references to the haunting quality of Garner's work and tried The Owl Service and then this. The Owl Service is about two kids in Wales -- my memory is spotty here, this was several months ago -- who stumble into a very old story and find themselves playing roles that others had played, generations before. A very old story. And I have to say the book was downright creepy.

The Stone Book Quartet is not easy to read, filled as it is with regional English dialects, references to offstage action and events, and to some extent, a lack of the comforting explanatory narrative I think we've gotten used to in books like the Harry Potter series. Alan Garner doesn't explain, he describes. He observes.

What makes these four interlinked novellas so haunting and compelling is that each of them is concerned with the past and old stories, all relevant and affecting the narrators. And each story has characters and references -- a stone wall, a steeple, a way of shouting -- that echo the other stories, so while reading you feel like you're in the middle of a pond with ripples spreading out and in, all around you. It's dizzying.

It reminds me of when I was little and used to be able to put myself into a semi-trance state by staring at my thumb and saying, "Thumb. Thumb. Thumb." Over and over until my thumb seemed strange to me, and my own existence seemed strange, and the fact that I was sitting on a chair in my grandparents' house, in a country in Earth in the twentieth century, it all felt like a hugely random accident, as if there was so much more in the world than my tiny perceptions. Thumb. Thumb. Thumb. Thumb.

It's the same feeling I get when I force myself to remember that, for example, people have been living in this part of the world for hundreds of years. Thousands of years. Right here. Playing and fighting and thinking and wondering, just like I am. And it's not some chapter from a history book or a museum exhibit: I could go outside right now and see the same kind of sky they saw, the same kind of tree.

(One Small Blue Bead has this same dizzying quality.)

AT ANY RATE. The link between my auto-fugue state and Alan Garner is this awareness of the heaviness of the world, all of the things in it besides me, the narrator of my own story. Somehow Garner pulled it off in a "children's book." Check it out.

The Owl Service, by Alan Garner
Stone Book Quartet, by Alan Garner
One Small Blue Bead, by Byrd Baylor

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