Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Book of Lost Things

by John Connolly

Fugue state, formally Dissociative Fugue... usually involves unplanned travel or wandering, and is sometimes accompanied by the establishment of a new identity. Fugues are usually precipitated by a stressful episode.
The Book of Lost Thingsin world war 2-era england, young David loses his mother after a lingering illness and begins to experience strange dissociative episodes, often involving the sounds of books whispering to him and usually ending with him falling into unconsciousness. soon enough, his father finds a new wife named Rose - a nurse at his mother's hospice - and David finds himself with a stepmother and an infant half-brother. David is deeply unhappy with this development. after the new family moves out of london to Rose's country home in order to escape german bombers, David realizes a shadowy, crooked figure has sinister designs on him and his brother. one night, after a particularly bad argument with his folks, David hears his mother's voice calling him. following that voice, he crawls into a hole within a sunken garden - just as a german bomber also falls from the sky and crashes into that garden. he emerges into a sinister fantasyland. his quest: Find and Rescue His Mother. his nemesis: The Crooked Man.
John Connolly is best known as a respected writer of an excellent detective series. his strengths have been widely reported: gorgeously dark and lush descriptive skills, a sensitive portrayal of private eye Charlie Parker - an unusually tormented protagonist (tragic even for a genre noted for its sad, sad heroes), and a unsettling ability to mix the prosaic with the supernatural to startling effect. in this book, Connolly takes each of those gifts and streamlines them in a way that is appropriate for the reader of young adult or even children's literature - although this novel is very clearly an Adult Fairy Tale. the result is pleasingly distinctive. there are many scenes that are striking in their psychosocial nuance, their foreboding atmosphere, their ability to evoke that wonderfully shivery feeling of fearful anticipation. my favorite passage happens early on: David's daunting entry into the strange fantasy world... an eerie vignette that is a model of careful, suspenseful writing, featuring unearthly quiet, child-like flowers, a a taciturn Woodsman, the smoking remains of the german bomber, bleeding trees, a house in the woods with a Giger-like exterior, and a gathering of evil wolfish beings.
Dionysian imitatio, a literary method of imitation conceived as the practice of emulating, adaptating, reworking and enriching a source text by an earlier author.
 Book of Lost Things is a book of mythopoeic templates - revisited, revised, regurgitated, remixed, and reimagined. we have an entire company of Big Bad Wolves, reconfigured as ambitious wolf-men, born of a grotesquely slutty Little Red Hood and sprung from the nightmares of a juvenile king... a perhaps not-so-Wicked Stepmother... a malevolent and terrifying Sleeping Beauty... Childe Roland, transformed as a brave gay soldier in search of his long-lost lover... trolls and harpies and a savage, hungry Beast... a young girl's spirit in a glass jar... and our villain, a gleeful child-thief, a striker of dark bargains, a Rumpelstiltskin, an old old devil: The Crooked Man.

the use of revisionism is, sadly, not always successful. a comic interlude with the socialist Seven Dwarves and an obese, monstrous Snow White is depressingly unfunny and a little desperate (at least to this reader). and a long part near the end, depicting various torture chambers and examples of The Crooked Man's terrible villainy seems to be merely an excuse for Connolly to indulge himself with a gloatingly vicious array of sadistic tableau. both sequences were eye-rolling and sigh-inducing.

but those are aberrations; despite them, Connolly more than succeeds in creating delightful and intriguing reinterprations of figures from fairy and folk tale. even better, David's character is a slow-burning but dynamic one, changing in bits and starts from boy to man with each new encounter. he is a realistically flawed protagonist as well as a brave and endearing little hero.

Memento mori, a Latin phrase translated as "Remember your mortality", "Remember you must die" or "Remember you will die"... it names a genre of artistic work which varies widely, but which all share the same purpose: to remind people of their own mortality.

the novel's extended endings were a brilliant surprise. to avoid spoilers, i'll just say that i was entirely taken aback by the meaning of The Book of Lost Things itself. and - even more memorably, more intensely - the closing pages' no-nonsense illustration of the potential and/or inherent tragedy of human life in general... and the idea of that tragedy - no matter how intimate - somehow not really being that tragic at all - just simply a part of the greater cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

i hate to end a review with a tv show reference... but if you have ever seen the last 10 minutes or so of Six Feet Under's final episode - a wondrously sad, wistful, yet somehow uplifting experience - you will know exactly what i mean. the ending of this rather fantastic book is equally moving.

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