03 December 2005

The Narrows by Alexander C. Irvine

a guest review by Torger Vedeler

Some years ago, my friend Jean Kilczer (still one of the finest writers I know) relayed to me the following adage: a story is only science fiction or fantasy if it requires the fantastic in order to work. In other words, science fiction and fantasy are about science fiction and fantasy, are defined by this.

It's an interesting idea, and it does have the advantage of setting clear boundaries for the genre, but I must confess that I wonder if it actually works in real time. Should there be such rules for genres, and do they present any benefit beyond the advantage of telling bookstores which books go on which shelves? We've all met people who only read certain types of books and stories, but is this actually a good thing?

At first glance, Alexander C. Irvine's novel The Narrows clearly fits the category of science fiction or fantasy. It is, after all, about golems, those creatures from the Jewish mystical tradition, and mysticism, however it manifests itself, tends to include the fantastic. As well, The Narrows is populated by giants, by shapechanging shamans, and by a mythical dwarf who presages doom, among others. The setting is Detroit during the Second World War, and our protagonist, Jared Cleaves, finds himself on an assembly line, building golems that will be sent against the Nazis in Europe. As a child, Jared had a run-in with the above-mentioned mythical dwarf of prophetic doom, and now, much later in his life, this encounter pulls him into the center of a thrilling and mysterious plot involving Nazi spies, secret government organizations, and plenty of magic. It's good, engaging stuff (Irvine's presentation of America in the 1940's feels particularly authentic, even down to the language of the narrative and the racial politics of the time), and we certainly want to see how it all comes together in the end.

But where the above summary might bring to mind such alternate histories as those of Harry Turtledove (who seems to have made a career based on the old Saturday Night Live skit "What If?": "What if Spartacus had had a Piper Cub?"; "What if Napoleon had had a B-52 at Waterloo?"; "What if Robert E. Lee's army had had access to the AK-47?"), to dismiss The Narrows as merely another speculative alternate history along those lines would be to do Irvine's book a disservice. For this novel, in the end, is not about the admittedly pleasant idea of Jewish golems ripping Nazis asunder, and it is not about the impact that such mythical creatures might have had on the war. Indeed, we, and Jared himself, see very little of that. The war is far away, since Jared is not permitted to enlist because of a childhood injury to his hand.

This brings us to the novel's real strength: Jared is no hero. He is not going to lead a charge of golems against Hitler and thereby save the world or even any small part of it. Rather, he is frustrated at his inability to serve, at the perception that he isn't doing his part, and is frustrated as well by his troubled relationships with his wife, his in-laws, his father, his co-workers, his boss, and with himself. His days are spent molding clay into human forms so a Rabbi can raise them to life, and his sole source of joy is his two-year-old daughter. He's a guy whose only real injury for the war effort consists of pulling a fishing hook out of his hand.

Jared Cleaves, you see, is an Everyman, is you and me. His doubts are our doubts, are ones we share and understand. Around him are momentous events; has he done his small share to defend his country? His wife pulls away from his embrace; how has he failed her, as a man, as a husband? His father is distant; has Jared failed in this man's eyes too? And his own child-- is he doing right by her?

The Narrows succeeds because it asks these questions of Jared and takes us through his struggle to find their answers. Unlike so many writers for whom the grand story, the great adventure, the clever plot is paramount, Irvine makes Jared's everyman life a basic part of his novel. To be sure, the plot is clever, and thrilling, but our desire that Jared mend things with his wife is every bit as compelling a reason to read on as the war against Hitler and the solving of the mystery, because that is the way the world actually works: our little stories are every bit as important as the big ones far away. No less a writer than John Steinbeck put this principle to use throughout his work, and our literature is all the richer for it.

And so I return to the adage given above, but I propose that it be revised. What makes a science fiction or fantasy story really work is what makes any story work, not that it is about the fantastic, not that it is about clever gadgets or interesting monsters or the "what if?" questions that are so amusing to ask. We are not heroes, for heroism of the sort so common in science fiction and fantasy novels is not what defines the human condition; in reality even those who do heroic deeds only do them a very small percentage of the time, the rest being spent with far more mundane things, with the little joys and sorrows and victories and defeats that make up life. Even if the fantastic is central to a particular science fiction or fantasy story, this is not what is most important. Rather, it is the degree to which the story connects with us that matters, with those common things that we all share.

You and me and Jared Cleaves.

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