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...

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