Monday, December 19, 2011

Digital Domains

Between 1996 and 2005, leading speculative fiction editor Ellen Datlow selected original fiction for three different online-only publications: OMNI Online, Event Horizon, and SCIFICTION. In Digital Domains, Datlow reprints fifteen stories, many of them award winners or nominees, culled from those outlets. As the anthology's theme is place of publication rather than content, the stories are remarkably diverse, from near-future science fiction to mythic fantasy to a very modern ghost story. I could say that these stories, uniformly well-written and often excellent, prove that great fiction can be published online, but I think that in 2011 most people know that, even if they would prefer to read that fiction in paper formats. So I'll make a broader and equally accurate statement: these stories demonstrate the strength and range of turn-of-the-century speculative fiction, period. That's why the subtitle is "A Decade of Science Fiction & Fantasy," full stop.

With contributors like Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford, and Kim Newman, Digital Domains doesn't lack for big names, but the stories by less familiar writers are just as good, from the inimitable Howard Waldrop's "Mr. Goober's Show," an eerie tale about the dangers of nostalgia and the history of very early television technology, to Simon Ings' "Russian Vine," a quietly poetic piece of science fiction that meditates on the mechanisms of imperialism. A fine companion piece to "Russian Vine" is M. K. Hobson's "Daughter of the Monkey God," in which an unusual form of outsourcing is the basis for a moving demonstration of the power of forgiveness and emotional catharsis. And then there's Severna Park's "Harbingers," where the instability and violence of contemporary Africa is the backdrop for a mind-bending story about two young women caught up in events beyond their comprehension, involving aliens, time travel, and more disturbing things. These are the elements of science fiction, but Park uses them in an eerie, suggestive manner that gives the story a welcome flavor of dark fantasy.

Some stories speak directly to the concerns of the modern world; others have timeless, unearthly settings. Almost a prose poem, Jeffrey Ford's "Pansolapia" echoes the Odyssey, providing a sense of the epic and the numinous in only three pages. Kelly Link's "The Girl Detective" is an unclassifiable, difficult to describe melding of elements from myth, fairy tale, and twentieth-century juvenile fiction into a surreal, strangely evocative story about the search for meaning and emotional connection. Plus it's pretty funny. Actually, there are a few funny stories in the mix here, like Paul Park's "Get a Grip," the concept of which has aged in the years since its publication, but which remains a pleasure because of the ironic sharpness with which Park imagines its details. Or Kim Newman's "Tomorrow Town," in which a utopian society based on the ideas of classic science fiction turns out not to be quite what was hoped for.

Although Datlow has edited and enjoys all types of speculative fiction, she's most strongly associated with horror, not least because of her long career identifying the genre's best stories, which will hit the quarter-century mark with the 2012 volume of The Best Horror of the Year. Unsurprisingly, several of the stories in Digital Domains are dark enough to be called horror. Most striking to me were Nathan Ballingrud's "You Go Where It Takes You," with its potent, upsetting metaphor for the flight from responsibility, and Richard Bowes' "There's a Hole in the City," a story about the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks that demonstrates the author's ability to write fondly but unsentimentally about New York City, and to evoke the tragic force of memory and regret.

Although there were a few stories that resonated less for me, like James P. Blaylock's "Thirteen Phantasms," a World Fantasy Award winner that I thought was well-crafted but driven by hollow, unconsidered nostalgia, there was nothing I thought was so outright bad it brought down the total grade for the anthology. I'll admit that I bought Digital Domains on a whim at a bookstore liquidation sale, and didn't expect to enjoy it all that much. But as is so often the case, a retrospective covering a longish span of time turned out to offer the cream of the crop. As Datlow's dedication mentions, there was a time when online publication was seen as a risky, vaguely unprofessional proposition. But a group of great writers took the risk, and the positive results, of which this book is just one, are all around us.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

There's Nothing in Why: Robert Aickman's "The View"

"The View," Robert Aickman's third contribution to We Are for the Dark, is the first of four of his "strange stories" that have very similar narrative outlines. A man goes on holiday, where he meets an attractive and mysterious woman with whom he forms a brief, blissful physical relationship before some disaster separates them, bringing his happiness to an end. This might be "The View," or "The Wine-Dark Sea" (where there are three essentially interchangeable women rather than one), or "Never Visit Venice," or "The Stains." To point out this similarity is not to suggest that the stories are repetitive; indeed they are not, for the specificities, of character and setting and supernatural phenomenon, render them quite distinct. One common feature, however, makes them difficult to write about within the framework of these essays: there is little about them to explain. Both in terms of broad narrative meaning and of wide-ranging theme, they seem to me fairly straightforward. (If I can be forgiven a digression, this may be why they have never struck me as among Aickman's finest tales; the air of unsettling ambiguity, though present in all of them, is not as strong or as all-pervading. In this, and in most other ways, I think "The View" is the best of the four.)

One could, of course, dig deeper, searching for a hidden level of meaning, a key to unlock the story and make every bewildering detail relevant. But I'm not sure that's a helpful approach. Both Aickman's theory of the ghost story as an artifact of the unconscious, "akin to poetry," and his philosophical stance that the modern over-reliance on reason and the scientific method represents a "wrong turning" for the human race, suggest that past a certain point the search for meaning is fruitless or even dangerous. "The View," though not the first Aickman story to hint at his criticism of the modern world-- there are intimations of that perspective in both "The Trains" and "The Insufficient Answer"-- is the first to move it into the foreground, contrasting the over-explained, dreary, unhappy world of contemporary England with the baffling, beautiful, fascinating Island and its lovely inhabitant, Ariel.

The critique of modernity begins with the description of the protagonist's temperament in the second paragraph. "Carfax always saw all good in terms of 'emancipation': all beauty, all duty. Others had seen the vision, but the slave selves of their past had intervened, making the gorgeous tawdry, the building in strange materials as rapidly failing in beauty, use, and esteem as the human body itself." (In the same vein is his later remark that "There are no beautiful houses in England now. Only ruins, mental homes, and Government offices." Note, by the way, that Carfax's own brief escape from his "slave self" is followed by the rapid aging of his own body.) Shortly afterward comes a glimpse of several such slave selves, in the array of overheard comments on the deck of the boat, which captures in a few brief paragraphs the depressing, faintly absurd quality of daily life and the various unsatisfactory bulwarks built against it.
"She has no idea how plain she is and of course you can't tell her," observed a conspicuously unattractive woman of about forty-five to a replica of herself.

"Communism gives the workers something to work for," vehemently asserted a man in a raincoat. His wispy colorless hair appeared on his prematurely obtruding scalp-line like the last vegetation in the dust bowl.

"So I said I'd give it to her if she promised to have it dyed green," remarked a round matron to her bored and miserable-looking husband.

"If you'll bring in the orders, I'll look after production. You can leave that to me. I know how to handle the ruddy Government."

"In the end I had to drag the clothes off her, and she tried to turn quite nasty." The speaker looked away from the other man and laughed gloatingly before resuming his former confidential manner.

"There's no hope for the world but a big revival of real Christianity," said the serious-minded, rather important-looking man. He was apparently addressing a large popular audience. "Real Christianity," he said again with emphasis.

"Look, Roland! A porpoise!" said a woman of thirty to her offspring, in the tone of one anxious to guide rather than dominate the child's formative years.
The pessimistic tone set by this passage and by the disagreeable boat journey is disrupted by the arrival of the woman known as Ariel, Aickman's first real femme fatale and the voice in this story of the rejection of modern communal values. There is her dismissal of her real names as "hideous commonplaces names of schoolgirls and young brides, and elderly lonely pensioners, and pure women in books. Godparents' names. Goodly names. Useful names which people in shops can spell." There is her description of Carfax's usual existence:
You live surrounded by the claims of other people: to your labor when they call it peace, to your life when they call it war; to your celibacy when they call you a bachelor, your body when they call you a husband. They tell you where you shall live, what you shall do, and what thoughts are dangerous. Does not some modern Frenchman, exhausted by it all and very naturally, say 'Hell is other people'?
The complaints she invokes are at once sweeping-- describing life in England as lived "entirely among madmen"-- and exact-- references to the absence of British taxes on the Island and to eating a lot of butter with breakfast. And finally there is the couplet written in her hand, reiterating her rejection of the pursuit of explanation: "There's nothing in why/The question is How?/Whatever you learnt/From the golden bough."

Faced with a story that itself seems to abrogate exegesis, one might simply throw up one's hands and enjoy it as an encounter with the irrational and beautiful and disturbing world that exists, or might exist, or ought rightly to exist, under and around the common one. But the details of that world, while not fitting into a reductive schematic explanation, do contribute to its resonance in ways that may not be obvious. "The View" is one of Aickman's more profusely allusive stories, rich in reference to the worlds of myth and art, and the remainder of this essay will track down some of those allusions for the benefit of readers who don't wish to do so themselves, suggesting in places how they relate to the larger theme of the story. Such a process does, of course, leave one at risk of "fancying absurd resemblances" and "making quite false identifications," but when analyzing Aickman, such risk is never far away.

Carfax: the name of Dracula's home in England in the Stoker novel, but I doubt that matters much. Its origin is in the Latin word for a crossroads, which would certainly fit the character's status, but it may just be the sort of British name Aickman was drawn to: at once vaguely aristocratic and faintly ridiculous (cf. Wendley Roper, Laming Gatestead).

Ariel: Shakespeare's air spirit from The Tempest, obviously, perhaps with reference also to the Biblical angel of the same name. Considering the gender ambiguity surrounding the Shakespearean character, which is explicitly mentioned in the story, the Aickman character's habit of dressing as a man is striking, if only as a suggestion of a more than human quality or of a duality comparable to a simultaneously human and non-human nature.

Fleet: Time is fleeting, indeed.

the Island: wherever it is. That it is left unnamed is surely the point. The Isle of Man is located in the right general area, and is likewise something of a tax haven, but I don't detect specific reference to that or any other place.

The Last of England: a Ford Madox Brown painting, shown here along with an accompanying sonnet by the author. The poem is, in tone if not in details, suggestive of Carfax's ambivalence about his holiday.

the Pastoral Symphony: Beethoven's Sixth,  intended to suggest the pleasures of travel in the countryside, with movements labeled "Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country," "Scene at the brook," "Happy gathering of country folk," "Thunderstorm, storm," and "Shepherds' song, cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm." The association with Carfax's pastoral recollections and reflections is obvious.

Voltaire: his freethinking tolerance is, of course, quite fitting for Ariel.

the carpet: Possibly with an echo of Henry James' "The Figure in the Carpet," where a writer's great and secret intention is compared to "a complex figure in a Persian carpet," though one hardly needs to have read James to use carpet patterns as a metaphor for pointless meaning-seeking.

a huge and burly man: "one of the Island gods" according to Ariel, and therefore perhaps with some reference to giants of Celtic myth. It's worth mentioning that, with its mysterious woman, its strange and magical landscape, and its unexpected time dilation, "The View" has an underlying similarity to very old stories about visits to faerie lands.

Ariel's verse: This is a translation of a Sappho fragment by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of a pair of fragments he combined into a poem variously known as "One Girl" and "Beauty." Aickman's ellipsis at the end covers his omission of the final words "till now." The second fragment as translated by Rossetti is "Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found,/Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound,/Until the purple blossom is trodden into the ground." Sappho has already been mentioned as part of Carfax's train of thought that was interrupted by Ariel-- that drew her into being near him, if one wants to interpret the story in that way. Critics have observed that Rossetti's use of these fragments has mythic significance, reflecting on love and death with reference to underworld myths like those of Orpheus and Persephone. But that observation postdates the writing of this story, and the general resonance of these images of the desired, the unattainable, and the destroyed for "The View" is a simpler matter given Ariel's own fleeting quality.

Così è se vi pare: Literally means "You're right if you think you're right." The title of a Pirandello play dealing with the fragility of truth and the relentless search for meaning.

Beddoes: Thomas Lovell Beddoes' work demonstrates an ongoing obsession with death, which would seem to make it a poor, or perhaps a telling, choice for Carfax's musical endeavor.

Dahlmeier's collection of Judaeo-Arabic fables: I assume this is a real book, though I can find no information about it. I have no idea about the relevance, if any, of the first fable to Carfax's situation, unless to suggest he has made or will make a wrong choice, but both the second, with its tradeoff between lifespan and pleasure, and the third, with its "pleasurable but dangerous activities... of some visitor from another world" are certainly suggestive.

"Dover Beach": I imagine the relevance of the poem to Carfax's situation is obvious from the section quoted by Aickman, but for those who somehow got through school without reading it the whole thing is here.

the golden bough: As the text suggests, Sir James Frazer's book was The Golden Bough, a rationalist, non-theological study of myth and religion, and as such a logical target for Ariel's (and Aickman's) criticism of scientific analysis at the expense of metaphysical significance. The absence of capitals, if it means anything, may also be meant to bring to mind the specific "golden bough" out of which Frazer's book grew. This was a ritual associated with the goddess Diana Nemorensis in which a runaway slave could pull down a bough from a special tree and fight the priest-king to the death; if he was successful, he became the new priest-king, at least until someone successfully challenged him. Frazer linked this practice to a perceived worldwide myth about a sacred king, married to a goddess, who died and was reborn as part of a cycle associated with fertility.

Without forcing a tempting but imprudent one-to-one comparison (Carfax as runaway slave, the impossibly tall figure as dominant god), one can see this legend and others reflected in "The View," a story that, for all its distinctive Aickmanesque touches, has something classically mythological about it. Whether a conscious product of revision or a result of the unconscious workings to which Aickman attributed the success of all true ghost stories, this air of myth produces that juxtaposition of the quotidian and the uncanny on which Aickman and so many other great writers of the supernatural have drawn.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan (Volume One)

One of the pleasures of reading widely is that you can achieve enough distance from an author's work to make you forget how brilliant it is, so that when you return to that author, the rediscovery is almost as powerful as the initial encounter. Caitlín R. Kiernan is such a talent, and her latest collection, Two Worlds and In Between, is ideal both for discovery and rediscovery. It's a "best-of" volume spanning 1993-2004, and like all great retrospectives it demonstrates at once the range of which its author is capable and the recurring themes, images, and stylistic features that make her work distinctive. At about 200,000 words and nearly 600 pages, it's a generous selection, including 25 short stories and novelettes and a long novella, each followed by a brief author's note on its genesis or its place in Kiernan's oeuvre. But enough of facts and generalities: on to the stories.
Lucy has been at the window again, her sharp nails tap-tapping on the glass, scratching out there in the rain like an animal begging to be let in. Poor Lucy, alone in the storm. Mina reaches to ring for the nurse, stops halfway, forcing herself to believe that all she's hearing is the rasping limbs of the crape myrtle, whipped by the wind, winter-bare twigs scritching like fingernails on the rain-slick glass. She forces her hand back down onto the warm blanket. And she knows well enough that this simple action says so much. Retreat, pulling back from the cold risks; windows kept shut against night and chill and the thunder.
The tricky thing about retrospectives is that they're usually arranged chronologically, putting the weakest work in front. Kiernan herself observes of two of the first three stories in the collection that they seem to her more ambitious than successful. But the ambitions themselves are enough to make these stories basically satisfying, especially given Kiernan's style, which even in her earliest work lacks any hint of awkwardness and has the darkly propulsive intensity that has become one of her hallmarks. The prose has been touched up over the years, but a look back at the original versions shows that this was only a honing of already-polished language.

"Emptiness Spoke Eloquent," quoted above, follows the long decline of Mina Murray in the aftermath of Dracula, and by interweaving her personal tragedies into the sweep of the century (world war, influenza, interwar Paris, war again, psychoanalysis in 1950s Manhattan), impresses even as it fails to compel on an emotional level. "To This Water (Johnstown, Pennsylvania 1889)" has a few extraordinary evocations of a storm, but likewise lacks the psychological force that would be necessary to guide the reader through its careful tangles of prose.

But with the very next story, "Tears Seven Times Salt," that force arrives, and is instantly overwhelming. This story was recently chosen for the mammoth Century's Best Horror Fiction, and its invocation of displacement, dissatisfaction with identity, despair easily earns the distinction. The great genius of Kiernan's early writing is its depiction of the lives of outsiders and isolates; as Neil Gaiman put it, she is "the poet and bard of the wasted and the lost." Addicts, prostitutes, blocked artists, those who can't or don't want to find a place in what is sometimes called the adult world: Kiernan's gift is to write about them so sympathetically that even those who dismiss them as lazy or twisted can be made to understand how their lives feel, how the "unnatural" becomes the only natural thing.
Three very small rooms and each of them filled with his books and newspapers, his files and clippings and folders. The things he has written directly on the walls with Magic Marker because there wasn't time to find a sheet of paper before he forgot. Mountains of magazines slumped like glossy landslides to bury silverfish and roaches, Fate and Fortean Times, journals for modern alchemists and cryptozoological societies and ufology cults. Exactly 1,348 index cards thumbtacked or stapled to plaster the fragile, drained color of dirty eggshells and coffee-ground stains. Testaments uncorrelated, data uncollated, and someday the concordance and cross-reference alone will be a hundred thousand pages long.
That's from "Rats Live on No Evil Star," a portrait of something like schizophrenia, of pattern-making and the desperate search for truth, and the portrait of eccentricity, the evocation of a decayed yet strangely attractive place, are found throughout these early pieces. The settings, from the heat of a New Orleans summer to the chill solitude of a millionaire's estate on the Hudson, are as vividly captured as the flawed, obsessive, volative characters who populate them. But there's more at work than human yearning and despair; these are, after all, fantasy stories, dark and disturbing ones. Kiernan's supernaturalism, enhanced by her knowledge of geology and paleontology, of things so ancient or unrecognizable that to the common imagination they might as well be monsters, is, in its very different way, as reserved and elusive as that of the classic ghost story; it's unsurprising that the producer who wanted to turn the marvelous "Onion" into a screenplay should have mistaken it for only the first half of a story. Her work may not offer the expected answers, but as Kiernan writes, "one good mystery is worth a thousand solutions," and it is the awe brought on by the inscrutability of the phenomena she writes about that gives them their staying power. Without answers, there are only the images, which tap into the terror that comes when our fragile sense of order is disrupted.
But Frank didn't run away, and when he pressed his face to the crack in the wall, he could see that the fields stretched away for miles and miles, crimson meadows beneath a sky the yellow-green of an old bruise. The white trees that writhed and rustled in the choking, spicy breeze, and far, far away, the black enormous thing striding slowly through the grass on bandy, stilt-long legs.
As Kiernan's style develops over the course of the collection, another gift becomes evident, a mastery of narrative structure comparable to H. P. Lovecraft's. Stories told out of chronological order, further flashbacks within those disordered sections, dreams that echo the unrevealed past or foreshadow the future, excerpts from books whose banality is belied by the reader's knowledge of their true significance: Kiernan has mastered every device, gradually pulling back the curtain to reveal as much as she's ever going to. Small masterpieces like "Andromeda Among the Stones" and "La Peau Verte" use this non-linearity to great effect, building up to their defining moments so that those moments have the grandeur, the terrible and long-lasting reverb, for readers that they do for the characters.  Eventually Kiernan begins to experiment with the first-person point-of-view, which she had long resisted, and the narrator's struggle with ordering events, with describing the indescribable and focusing on the horrific, further increases the brilliant structural complexity out of which fleeting and sinister knowledge emerges. For readers expecting the straightforward, the double whammy of elaborate structure and elusive meaning will be frustrating, but for those who prefer carefully-orchestrated and suggestive cosmic dread, there are few greater pleasures.

I wish I could convey what makes each of the stories in this collection excellent, but I don't know how to do so without bogging down in plot summary, which is beside the point. So let me mention only a few favorites. "The Road of Pins," a werewolf story except that it isn't one at all, in which profound unease grows out of the work of a contemporary artist, a mysterious film, and the writer's block and fragile romance of the protagonist. "The Dead and the Moonstruck," which shows the unexpected ease with which Kiernan's decidedly adult vision can be adapted for a satisfying young-adult story. I especially admired the few science fiction stories mixed in with the fantasy. Science fiction allows the weirdness that exists in the shadows of Kiernan's fantasies to emerge into the light and define her universe, which makes the element of cosmic terror all the more potent. In "Riding the White Bull" and "The Dry Salvages," the aliens are truly alien, but they're only a part of the strangeness of space-- vast, dangerous, beautiful-- and human society itself has or might become a nightmare scenario.

I give up. That paragraph feels hopelessly false, exactly what I might say about half a dozen writers I admire, nothing specific to Kiernan's talent. All I can think to do is quote more, the stopgap of throwing out the author's words when my own prove insufficient. And in the end, it's perhaps the way an author uses words that matters most. Themes, motifs, structural devices: they're common coin, accessible to anyone, but the flow of sentences is nearly impossible to imitate.
And all the world goes white, a suffocating white where there is no sky and no earth, nothing to divide the one from the other, and the Arctic wind shrieks in her ears, and snow stings her bare skin. Not the top of the world, but somewhere very near it, a rocky scrap of land spanning a freezing sea, connecting continents in a far-off time of glaciers. Dancy wants to shut her eyes. Then, at least, there would only be black, not this appalling, endless white, and she thinks about going to sleep, drifting down to someplace farther inside herself, the final still point in this implosion, down beyond the cold. But she knows that would mean death, in this place, this when, some mute instinct to keep her moving, answering to her empty belly when she only wants to be still.
A simple paragraph in some ways, picked more or less at random, but what I respond to in Caitlín R. Kiernan's fiction is there as much as it is anywhere else. It's not representative of her style-- no one paragraph could be-- but it has a compelling rhythm, captures the sense of being tossed into the deep end, somewhere you can't catch your breath, can only hold it in as you navigate the marvelous, malevolent landscape while looking for the way out. An easy experience? No. Never crude, Kiernan's work is nonetheless raw, likely to upset certain readers in ways they aren't looking for. But anything worth reading is going to upset someone, and if you want fiction that juxtaposes emotional frailty with the magnitude of the universe, fantasy that leads you someplace else and makes that place as real as here and now, Kiernan should be at the very top of your reading list.

Fantasy, Lite

At the risk of becoming one of those people who gets sniffy every time Tolkien is mentioned in the mainstream media, I'm going to take a minute to look at this New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik. Which isn't actually about Tolkien; as far as I can tell, it's an attempt to explain the popularity of Christopher Paolini, into which Tolkien is awkwardly interjected. Of course Paolini is influenced by Tolkien; he is, as you would expect from a writer who began his series as a teenager, influenced by virtually every piece of fantasy and science fiction he ever read. But, superficial points aside, is there an actual basis for comparison? Paolini has the same relationship to Tolkien that caffeine-free diet soda has to the caffeinated, sugared variety: everything that makes it what it is has been taken out. Considering Tolkien through the lens of his imitators is inevitably going to diminish what makes his work different. Focusing on Paolini, and to a lesser extent Stephenie Meyer, also means the article flirts with treating The Lord of the Rings as a similar young-adult saga, even though it manifestly isn't.

Considering which, the key thing about the article is that it isn't too bad. There are problems, of course, or we wouldn't be here. We're told that The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin are early works, which is of course an oversimplification: depending on which texts you're looking at, they're early, they're late, they're contemporaneous with The Lord of the Rings. The context in which they're called early is the interesting part; they're distinguished from The Lord of the Rings because they lack "Hobbits and humors and pipe-smoking wizards" and are "as dull as dishwater in consequence." The irony is that the earliest version of The Silmarillion has a frame story that, while hardly a counter-balancing social comedy like Hobbiton, is more immediate and human than the later approach that of necessity won out in constructing the published text. That both The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin are, despite the existence of editorially-managed continuous versions, incomplete is also something Gopnik doesn't mention or consider.

But none of that really matters, and one can hardly argue the general point that for a lot of readers The Silmarillion as it stands is less interesting than The Lord of the Rings because of the absence of "lovable local detail." (One might, however, demur from the notion that J. K. Rowling's invented world is anything like "Tolkien's sword-and-sorcery realm," or that Tolkien's realm has anything to do with what's usually called sword-and-sorcery. All fantasy is not pretty much the same thing.) More important is this:
Modernist ambiguity, or realist emotional ambivalence, is unknown to Tolkien—the good people are very good, the bad people very bad, and though occasionally a character may be tossed between good and evil, like Gollum, it is self-interest, rather than conscience, that makes him tip back and forth. Betrayal and temptation happen; inner doubts do not. Gandalf and Aragorn never say, as even the most patriotic real-world general might, “I don’t know which side I should be on, or, indeed, if any side is worth taking.” Nor does any Mordor general stop to reflect, as even many German officers did, on the tension between duty and morality: there are no Hectors, bad guys we come to admire, or Agamemnons, good guys we come to deplore. (Comic-book moralities, despite their reputation, are craftier; the “X-Men” series is powerful partly because it’s clear that, if you and I were mutants, we would quite possibly side with the evil Magneto.)
That's a little better than an absolute denial of moral depth, but not much so; in the fundamentals it's no different from the usual response you get when readers of psychologically realistic fiction bounce off Tolkien's epic morality. Several things might be said in response: that in a novel about the seductive nature of power, self-interest is not readily separable from conscience; that Frodo's failure, a vital part of the novel's moral structure and not reducible to "self-interest," hasn't even been mentioned; that talk about who "we" do or don't come to admire or deplore is an act of projection. The underlying problem is that some readers confuse the style by which moral complexity is conveyed in twentieth-century literary fiction with the substance of that complexity. That the tragedy of Boromir is not described in interior monologue doesn't mean it doesn't exist, or that it isn't part of the appeal of the novel. The absence of a debate about the morality of takings sides in a particular invented war is not the absence of morality.

Eventually, after some mockery of the Inheritance Saga, we get the explanation of the appeal of fantasy:
And the truth is that most actual mythologies and epics and sacred books are dull. Nothing is more wearying, for readers whose tastes have been formed by the realist novel, than the Elder Edda. Yet the spell such works cast on their audience wasn’t diminished by what we find tedious. The incantation of names is, on its own, a powerful literary style. The enchantment the Eragon series projects is not that of a story well told but that of an alternative world fully entered. You sense that when you hear a twelve-year-old describe the books. The gratification comes from the kid’s ability to master the symbols and myths of the saga, as with those eighty-level video games, rather than from the simple absorption of narrative.
 It's not so much that that's objectionable, although there are young adult fantasies that don't deserve to be treated as mere exercises in world-building, or that it's inaccurate, although I'm not inclined to take someone who writes with such anthropological distance as an expert on how kids read. It's that, as an explanation, it's utterly banal. Fantasy is unrealistic but people respond to the depth of the mythology-- this is an insight worthy of four pages in The New Yorker? It's like writing an article on Cubism whose big insight is that Picasso actually meant his paintings to look that way. The young-adult spin, that books like Eragon and Twilight provide typical adolescent struggles plus a light gloss of magical wish fulfillment, is equally unprofound. This, I suppose, is what gets on my nerves: that in 2011 the audience of a putatively intellectual magazine still needs to be told that fantasy isn't purely juvenile escapism, that it has some connection to the real world. An article like this should be an elaboration of the complicated appeal of fantasy, not a basic look at how the other half reads. The argument Gopnik makes ought to go without saying.

(By the way, is Huckleberry Finn really "a narrative whose purpose is to push the hero toward a moment of moral crisis?" I rather doubt it.)