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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 did.

Genre Snobbery

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 background.

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.

Book Magic

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 practicing magician.

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 Norrell's trust.

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 not.

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 it.

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 original works.

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 faux-19th-century prose.

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 complicated relationships.

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 experience it.

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 possessed.)

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 song.

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.)


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