The story is a flashback: a middle-aged Englishman revisits his childhood street and recalls events which happened when he was seven. Of course, since Neil Gaiman is the author, these events are supremely supernatural, weird, and not entirely explainable. The boy’s new nanny turns out to be an other-dimensional being which considers mankind an amusement at best, who hitched a ride by burrowing into the boy’s foot and up into his heart. And she’s actually pretty benign compared the the “cleaners” or “varmints,” whose role is to clean up entities from other planes of reality who don’t belong it their current locale. With all the scary stuff out there though, luckily old Mrs. Hempstock and her granddaughter Lettie (both eternal despite their apparent ages) are vigilant in their defense of humanity.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” With a first line like that, how can you help not reading more? I found “One Hundred Years of Solitude” to be compulsively readable, partly thanks to it being peppered with hooks like that first line. “Firing squad? Ice? Huh? Gotta keep reading to find out!” Furthermore, the tone of the author is that of a very good storyteller, holding his audience in silent thrall, seamlessly weaving fact and fiction such that you are never quite sure of reality.
This is the story of the Buendia family, founding members of the town of Macondo, Colombia, circa latter half of the nineteenth century or so (at least to begin with). As promised by the book cover, one hundred years are duly delivered, which works out to six or seven generations of Buendias, all of whom seem to be named “Arcadio” or “Aureliano” (males) and, to a lesser extent, “Remedios” or “Amaranta” (females). That does get kind of confusing, but thankfully there was a family tree printed near the front of the book, which I referred to quite often. I suspect if I hadn’t been so engrossed in the book as to finish it in less than a week, I would have been even more lost with who’s who.
The Buendia family history is that of recurring tragedy, usually a kind of tragic comedy. The book has a surprising amount of humor. Everyone is just a little strange or so extreme in their personality that even somber events are somehow very funny. The tragic flaw of these folks, generally, is letting themselves be governed too much by emotion or passion and the pressures of the moment. Coupled with the general lack of a moral standard regarding marital fidelity and the like, you end up with something like half of the family tree being illegitimate, and sometimes the tree don’t fork neither, if you get my drift. Along with all that, there’s just some bits of bad luck and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. For a multitude of reasons, each of the Buendias ends up alone (see “solitude” in the title), physically or emotionally, either by choice or circumstance. Somehow I think I see a kind of Buddhist “life = pain” meaning here, but maybe I’m wrong.
Good read, in any case. In retrospect, I am greatly impressed by the quality of the wordsmithing in this book. Excellent for a translation.
I’ve been wanting to read something by Blaylock for a while — he’s often mentioned in the same breath as Tim Powers, and I loved The Anubis Gates and (somewhat less) Declare — but sadly I’m a bit disappointed in “The Paper Grail.” It’s really not bad; I just think that my expectations were too high. My main complaint is that there is a lot of “weirdness” just for the sake of being weird.
Howard Barton, a small museum curator in Orange County, California, travels up north to Mendocino County, where he spent some time as a youth with his aunt and uncle. He comes in order to secure for the museum a rare Hokusai sketch owned by one of the aged residents he knew back then. Quickly it becomes apparent that the sketch is more than it seems, and Howard becomes swept up the struggle to keep it away from the forces of evil.
The main draw in the story is the clash between the normal everyday and the supernatural weirdness that lurks just under the surface, just about everywhere and in everyone. As an example, my favorite character is Uncle Roy. He’s always got a money-making scheme cooking, whether it be a ghost museum, selling scrap redwood lumber, or setting up a haunted house for Halloween. His planning and scheming is pretty hilarious sometimes. These business endeavors inevitably fail due to lack of planning and pie-in-the-sky thinking, but Roy remains perennially optimistic. The other side to Roy is that he apparently leads the loose-knit band committed to protecting the grail. His army of allies always comes through and saves the day. Turns out he’s got success where it really counts. Perhaps his bumbling persona is a bit of a facade?
Like I said, there is a lot of weirdness for the sake of being weird. I wouldn’t mind it if it all made some sense and were explained in the end, but it isn’t. I guess that might be the point though – can’t explain the supernatural, that’s why it’s not natural. 😉 Specifically these aspects of the story were not explained enough to my liking:
- What’s up with the Gluers – commune hippies who glue small objects to cars – and the recurring Humpty Dumpty images? Late in the book someone says how the grail causes those nearby to compulsively “put things back together” a la all the king’s men, but that’s just about the only clue I saw to explain it.
- Jimmers’ machine conjures up the ghost of John Ruskin … why him? The machine is somewhat a source of interest and driver of mystery throughout the story, but it turns out it doesn’t really serve a very important purpose, IMHO.
- Two things about the grail don’t really jive with the traditionally powers and description of The Holy Grail. For one, it is a paper origami cup – did they even have paper back then? And the grail’s sole power seems to be weather control and the ability to call up great storms … why? What happened to the whole King Arthur / Indiana Jones immortality bit?