Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 18, 2005
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
WorldCon, Jonathan Strange & Carly Simon
Every year, the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) votes on the best
fiction of the year, giving out Hugo Awards in the novel, novella, novelet, and
short story categories.
Unlike, say, the "World Series," WorldCon really is international (though it is
relentlessly anglophone). This year it was held in Glasgow, Scotland, and there
are those who say that it was only because there were so many Brits at the
convention, and relatively fewer Americans, that the Hugo for best novel was
given to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.
British convention; British writer wins; what could be more obvious than that
the process was biased?
Except for one tiny problem: There has been no history of pro-British bias
when the convention was held on British soil. I won my Hugo for Speaker for
the Dead, a profoundly non-British book, when WorldCon was held at Brighton.
I am now convinced that anybody complaining about unfairness either had a
book of their own that they thought should have won (fair enough -- most of us
think we should win every year, even when we're not nominated -- what
happened to write-ins?), or they simply haven't read Jonathan Strange.
Because there are only a few years in the history of the Hugo Awards when
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell should not have won over the book that actually
Of course, it is a fantasy -- complete with magical spells -- which means some
diehard sci-fi fans are convinced that it is the devil's spawn and should never
be given an award by a science fiction convention. (Yes, O ye literary snobs,
there are snobs within science fiction who look down on fantasy the way the
literati look down on sci-fi.)
But fantasy and science fiction are impossible to distinguish in any meaningful
way. The supposed rules that separate them -- that science fiction is about
the possible, and fantasy about the impossible -- fall apart upon a moment's
examination, since sci-fi is full of stories about faster-than-light travel (so
commonplace that we usually refer to it by the acronym FTL) and paradoxical
time travel and other charming impossibilities.
Most of the same writers write in both genres, using techniques and motifs
developed in one kind of story to enhance the other. We share the same
miserable little ghettoized section of the bookstores, only a shelf unit away from
tawdry romances and cozy mysteries. And half our shelf space seems to be
taken up with the Harlequin romances of the counterfactual world: Star Wars
and Star Trek novels.
The only real-world distinction between sci-fi and fantasy that holds up with
any consistency is this: Fantasy has trees on the cover, and science fiction has
sheet metal and rivets. It's about the feel of it more than anything.
But Jonathan Strange has neither trees nor rivets on its cover. It has the title,
the author's name, and a single raven in flight -- white, on a black
And that's exactly the right cover, because this book defies any category
boundary. It's a genuine original.
Other fantasies have trees, other sci-fi novels have high technology, but
Jonathan Strange is centered around, more than anything else, books.
There is no trace of Tolkien in this story, no heavy-handed harking back to
medieval English folklore. It does have a bit of sci-fi in it -- an alternate
history, in which for several centuries just before the Renaissance, England
was divided into two kingdoms -- England proper, ruled by the kings from our
history books (though with a few odd exceptions), and Northern England, ruled
by the Raven King.
But that's all ancient history by the time the events of Jonathan Strange begin.
As the story opens in the early 1800s, we find that there are indeed magicians
in England, but they are all scholars, studying books of magic and never
actually trying to cast a spell.
Indeed, a very careful distinction is drawn between books of magic and books
about magic. And throughout the entire novel, a key issue is the fact that a
scholar named Mr. Norrell has been surreptitiously using his substantial
fortune to seek out and buy up every single copy of every book of magic that
exists in the British Isles.
Hearing rumors of his marvelous library, the York society of magicians rather
pesters him about joining their number or perhaps inviting them to have a look
at his library. And indeed, some of their number do go to his family estate and
see his amazing collection. But only one of them realizes that they have not
only seen the books, they have also been subjected to various spells -- that
Norrell, in other words, isn't just studying magic, he's doing it.
That is Norrell's cause -- the restoration of practical magic in England. But he
has another goal that at times is more important to him -- making sure that
magic is restored entirely on his terms, with only Mr. Norrell himself as a
And for a time he is able to bring about his goal, and he does his best to be an
admirable and beneficial magician, trying to use magic to help overcome
Napoleon in the current war; at the same time, however, he uses his influence
to get the work of other magicians declared illegal.
Which is not entirely inappropriate, since most of them are magicians as we
know them -- masters of legerdemain but possessed of no actual magical
power at all.
However, Norrell seems unaware that he is throwing out the baby with the
bathwater -- he is actually damaging English magic by cutting off other
magicians, real ones, when they don't follow his strict prescription for how
magicians ought to behave and which kinds of magic ought to be used.
Jonathan Strange, though his name comes first in the title of the book, is not
even introduced into the story until many pages -- and many chapters -- have
passed. And to our surprise, Norrell accepts him almost at once as his pupil.
Strange was a dilettante, unable to find a proper occupation for a wealthy
gentleman, until a chance encounter with one of the magicians driven out of
London by Norrell's new regulations gives him a written-down spell, which he
tries -- successfully.
Strange discovers he has a talent for magic, but when he tries to find books to
learn from, he learns that they have all been purchased by Norrell. He has no
choice but to learn from Norrell or reinvent all of magic himself -- which is not
impossible, for he has what Norrell has not: a gift for inventing spells to
accomplish strange things in new ways.
Alas, Norrell is not an honest teacher. He withholds from Strange the books
that he regards as dangerous -- and which, of course, Strange himself most
wants to see. Strange is quite aware of Norrell's concealment (the man is not
subtle, though he thinks he is), but he decides to be patient and try to earn
Weaving in and through every part of the story, though he is long gone, is a
personage called "the Raven King," who also goes by many other names. He
was the one who emerged from Faerie and conquered northern England,
forming his own kingdom there, which lasted for three centuries, including the
early years of the Tudors.
The Raven King was, in Strange's opinion, the real founder of English magic --
it is impossible to learn magic with any depth until you have an understanding
of the Raven King. Norrell, however, wants to wipe out all memory of the Raven
King, claiming that it's because the Raven King is either legendary or
dangerous, or both. It is over precisely this point that controversy between the
two men eventually erupts.
The novel is written in a mock-nineteenth-century style that Susanna Clarke
brings off with perfection, not because it is accurate, but precisely because it is
After all, with the shining exception of Jane Austen, most fiction from the early
19th century in England is nearly unreadable to modern audiences, and a too-accurate reproduction of that manner of writing would have had no impact at
all on the reading audience of today.
Instead, she takes a few motifs from that period -- the authorial aside, the
hyperpolite circumlocution -- and uses them often enough that the reader gets
the feel of the prose of that period without having to suffer through the fact of
The authorial asides are dropped into footnotes, which can be skipped by the
impatient reader (to his great loss, I must add). In the audiobook -- which is
beautifully performed by Simon Prebble -- these footnotes become the most
frequent dividing points between CD tracks, which makes it easy to navigate
back and forth between the printed book and the CDs.
The result is that the book can seem slow. And I must admit that early on,
there are times when you wonder: When is the story going to start?
Then, all of a sudden, you realize that the story has been going on all along.
But, like the characters themselves, we readers have been distracted by all the
handwavium of Norrell's and Strange's various projects -- Norrell's effort to
restore, yet simultaneously tame, English magic, and Strange's efforts in
support of Wellington's campaign against the French in Spain, where Strange
makes himself indispensable to the general.
For a pivotal event that happened quite early in Norrell's magical career in
London turns out to have devastating consequences that tear apart the lives of
both Norrell and Strange. And, in the end, all their quarrels are stripped away
by the necessity of finding a higher power to help them quell the grave danger
that has come to them personally and to England generally.
The resolution of the core problem comes as a great relief, and yet is a little
dissatisfying, since the price that is paid for victory seems quite steep. And yet
it is also just, and though I wished when I closed the book that it might have
gone on longer, it was the same kind of wistfulness I felt at the end of Lord of
the Rings -- though this is the only resemblance between these two vastly
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is not just a masterpiece -- that is, a work that
shows that a writer is ready to take a worthy place in the literary scene -- but
also a great work. By any literary standard, it is a masterpiece; and it is also
hugely entertaining, at least to the reader who can get into the rhythm of the
It is also a morally important work. It exposes how easily the best-intentioned
people can harm others by imagining themselves the sole judges of what is
right and wrong. While much of its effect can be summed up in the words of
Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" -- "You don't know what you've got till it's
gone" -- it is well earned through powerful and thorough characterization and
One might even read into this work a commentary on the dying "literary" art in
the English language today, where "literature" has been increasingly removed
from anything that ordinary people could possibly care about. The book at
once describes the disease and enacts a cure.
Any literary snob who rejects this book because of its genre -- fantasy -- says
far more about himself than about the book, none of it flattering. This year,
the aficionados of science fiction have bestowed their highest honor on what
may plausibly be anointed as the finest literary work in English in the twenty-first century so far.
And, I assure you, I grind my teeth when I say that.
Not everyone will enjoy it. For some it will simply represent too long a
commitment in time: 782 pages or 25 CDs, depending on how you choose to
Nor is the book perfect, though I won't waste time pointing out flaws (except to
complain that for the audio edition, someone should have taught Simon
Prebble how to pronounce the word sidhe).
It takes audacity for an author to expect us to take such a vast amount of time
out of our lives in order to put her made-up stories into our memory, But I felt
well-rewarded for the time I spent with Susanna Clarke's brilliant work, and I
hope you who love great literature or magical romances or clever writing or
subtle humor or beautifully drawn characters will give this work more than a
quick taste, but will immerse yourself in it.
I believe you will come out at the other end of the book all the better and
happier for having read it.
Carly Simon was a folk singer -- or at least, that was her entry point into pop
music back in the late 1960s. The truth is, she wrote sharp, witty songs and
sang them with passion and subtlety.
But that era faded -- the time when James Taylor and Carole King and Joni
Mitchell and Dan Fogelberg and Janis Ian and a few others (never very many)
could write and sing songs that were truthful and beautiful and clever and
moving, and find a huge popular audience.
Such music was overwhelmed by disco and punk and then buried under rap,
hip-hop, and alternative, all of them increasingly anti-musical and anti-lyrical.
(And don't bother writing to me your bitter complaint that rap is too musical or
that alternative "reinvented" music. All these movements explicitly abandoned
sentiment, melody, and form, and the fact that a few good musicians have
managed to rise out of the swamp to create good songs says more about
persistence of talent than about some hidden qualities that these genres
So what does a singer like Carly Simon do? Well, she tried once before, with an
album called Torch, to tap into the wellspring of traditional American pop
music -- but Torch, alas, was a failure. Simon simply doesn't have the voice to
sing torch songs.
It takes a Streisand or a Cline, somebody with a full-throated instrument and
the ability to put real passion into her singing, in order to bring off a torch
It is no slur on Simon to say that her vocal instrument simply wasn't up to the
task. Nobody can sing every kind of music. Hearing Kiri Te Kanawa sing
Broadway songs is proof of that -- one of the best voices in the history of
recorded music, but that Broadway album is just ... sad.
The good news is that Simon has found a musical niche for herself in these
anti-musical times. In the new tradition of Michael Feinstein and Michael
Bublé and Jane Monheit and Diana Krall, it is possible to sing lighter, gentler,
simpler versions of pop standards that still swing when they need to. Big
voices need not apply -- leave the torch songs to them.
What counts in this light pop-jazz genre is that you make the words come to
life while understanding the nuances of the underlying music. And Carly
Simon can do it.
Her new album, Moonlight Serenade, is, in my opinion (and who else's would
I be giving you?), every bit the equal of her seminal No Secrets in terms of the
quality of her performance. Carly Simon has found her niche today -- exactly
the kinds of songs and the style of performance that suits her talents.
Though I'll confess that much as I love her renditions of the old standards --
songs like "My Foolish Heart" and "In the Still of the Night" and "I Only Have
Eyes for You" -- none of those has, for me today, the revelatory power that
"You're So Vain" and "No Secrets" had when they first came out.
(One warning. This is a two-sided disc, which means both sides have readable
content, and there is only the tiniest of label space around the center. They
carefully label "this side up for CD" and "this side up for DVD." Only on my
copy, at least, they placed them exactly wrong. So if you get a disc that seems
defective, it's not -- just flip it over and it will probably work.)