25 April 2006

A Few Words on Vellum

Hal Duncan's extraordinary first novel, Vellum, arrives in U.S. bookstores today. Vellum was among the best books published in 2005 that I read, and I am curious what U.S. readers will make of it, because it is not an easy book to read, and many people will, I'm sure, complain it is impenetrable, pretentious, self-indulgent, etc. While reading it, there were moments when I was tempted to call it all of those things (yes, even "self-indulgent"!), but each time I was ready to give up on the whole book as gassy claptrap, something snared me again, a detail or a phrase or an image, and before I knew it, I'd read another fifty pages in a kind of hyperattentive dream.

Some reviewers have, of course, disliked the book, and that hasn't surprised me at all -- this is the sort of book that causes strong reactions in readers, and it is a book that requires some real effort to read, given its length and complexity. I've not been much annoyed by reviewers who said, "I don't get it, and I don't want to bother getting it," because that's anybody's right, but I have been angered by a couple of reviewers who, strangled by the leashes of their pet taxonomies, have willfully and lazily missed the riches within the novel. (This is not to suggest I think the book is perfect -- not at all. It's a mess. But as messes go, it's one I had a lot of pleasure wading through, discovering unexpected jewels in amidst all the material strewn far and wide.)

I received a finished copy of the Del Rey trade paperback of Vellum yesterday, and it's a lovely artifact, feeling much like the beautiful edition of M. John Harrison's Viriconium that Bantam recently produced. One interesting difference between the U.S. edition and the British edition of Vellum is that in the British edition, all of the dialogue is indicated with dashes (a la James Joyce), while the U.S. edition provides standard quotation marks. I expect the standardized version will be somewhat easier to read, but I was kind of fond of those dashes...

11 comments:

  1. I liked Vellum too. I'm expecting the same sort of reaction as you are, which is why I'm very pleased that Hal wrote me this article, in which he explains what this "style" thing is all about.

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  2. Thanks, Cheryl -- I meant to link to that originally, and then forgot. (I think my burnout on the whole issue is having a powerful subconscious effect...)

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  3. The change from dashes to quote marks was entirely my fault; I claim full responsibility. Actually, it was a very deliberate decision.

    Because to me, those dashes have was always been a French affectation adopted by Joyce, and I find them personally annoying. Don't get me wrong, I don't think it's an invalid argument, the idea that it blurs the line between dialog and prose. But I am enough of a prudish fuddy-duddy to draw a line in the sand and say there's no need to rely on French affectations. I think Hal (and Joyce) can manage just fine without them. It's the words themselves that matter to me (and yes, I found Danielewski's House of Leaves design so annoying I never finished the book. I mean, I chuckled at how they played with design, even admired it, but it became too much of a barrier to the enjoyment of the text. But, I digress...)

    I just thought I'd own up to that change, since it was my decision. (Hal did okay the change, though we had great fun discussing the matter.) In the end, VELLUM stands up well enough either way.

    --minz

    P.S. I will mention I think the US edition has a distinctively better overall design, with a more deliberate, evocative variation of typeface, much more distinctive and useful to the narrative than the typeface design in the UK edition. FWIW

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  4. I have to say that the only book I can think of off the top of my head that used dashes in that way in which it didn't strike me as a distracting affection is Wilton Barnhardt's Emma Who Saved My Life. Also FWIW. It's definitely a fine line.

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  5. ... but I have been angered by a couple of reviewers who, strangled by the leashes of their pet taxonomies, have willfully and lazily missed the riches within the novel.

    Come on: name names.

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  6. CRAP! I really wish I'd gotten to twork on that damn book.

    Hey, Minz - Happy belated birthday!

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  7. As for naming names...
    I was disappointed by John Clute's review at Excessive Candour. For me, it is one of the kind that Matthew mentions.

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  8. As for naming names... I was disappointed by John Clute's review at Excessive Candour.

    There's some sort of irony here ;)

    Is "pet taxonomies something you can accuse Clute of? Matt's criticism of unnamed reviewers seems very specific and a without examples a little confusing.

    I don't find Vellum impenetrable, I do find it pretentious and self-indulgent. I agree very much with Matt that "as messes go, it's one I had a lot of pleasure wading through, discovering unexpected jewels in amidst all the material strewn far and wide." I don't think the novel is able to get over the fact it is such a willful (and partial) mess though.

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  9. I'd second Martin's question. I can understand how a fan of Vellum might not get on with Clute's review; but I don't think that the criticisms in his review were anything to do with his "pet taxonomies" - ie, presumably, the model of fantasy structure he put forward in the Fantasy Encyclopedia. So I too would be genuinely interested to know from Matt which were the specific reviews he was angered by, and why.

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  11. I picked up Vellum back in August 2005 and read fifty pages. I put it down again, confused. Not unusual for me: confusion. Still, I picked it up again a month ago and read it from front to back. It's crazy, beautiful, frustrating, manic, sad, stupid, and structurally broken. So what?

    Hal Duncan is a welcome voice, a lunatic fringe exponent that bucks at the core of SF mainstream. For all of the diverse reviews, (a healthy outcome) one thing is certain: Hal Duncan's voice and individual personality is stamped hard on the pages of this book. It's a triumph of imagination!

    It's a shame Mr Minz didn't stick to Hal's original lack of speech marks vision. Would the lack of speech marks seriously dent sales? Are American readers really that simple-minded? I think not.

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