My reading for the past few days has been Hal Duncan’s Vellum, not a new book, came out in 2005. It was one of my many library finds some months back — I liked the look of the cover and a quick check of the blurbs indicated it would probably be up my alley — so I finally settled in to give a full read this past week.
It’s interesting reading something so very self-consciously state of the art as well as reverent towards its many roots and sources — as much as writers or artists were producing works based on accretion of older myths and legends and more in the past, so too now, though Duncan is one of those artists that works with a newer canon as much as an antique one. In that sense it’s a perfect first novel, because it isn’t merely indebted to its forebears but embraces them and aims to haul itself alongside them not simply by trying to make an impact but by explicit authorial intent. It couldn’t exist before now, and it couldn’t exist without those who had come before — as true a definition of what is ‘new’ as anything.
An oversimplified but accurate enough summary of Vellum would be Neal Stephenson meets Philip Pullman — from the former, technology set against earliest human myths, post-cyberpunk futures and characters, language as virus as means of control, narratives and secret histories concurrently running across time; from the latter, order versus chaos, infinite realities, a final war in or of heaven, actors beyond binaries. There’s plenty of bleedover between the two at many points, making something like Duncan’s work easier to come about, but the synthesis is reasonably strong and individual for all the endless references and reworks. (One of the more delightful — and unsettling — moments of Vellum is the first appearance of Metatron, the Angelic figure from Talmudic tradition who functions as the archoverseer of oppression and cruelty in Pullman’s work; Duncan’s variation on that slant at once acknowledges that reworking and suggests an alternate approach, as does his take on Pullman’s Dust.)
It isn’t just Stephenson and Pullman, though, far from it — off the top of my head, there’s implicit and explicit references to H. P. Lovecraft (more on that later), Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Mervyn Peake, the Wachowski brothers, David Lynch, William Burroughs, China Miéville, Mike Mignola, Clive Barker, many others besides…a now codified collection of artists aiming to capture disruption and alienation within words and images, across a variety of media. At one point in the book I was thinking that Michael Moorcock had to be another sourcepoint and was subsequently amused to see a brief but handy mention of that writer’s own ur-figure amid multiple realities Jerry Cornelius, but it was equally telling to see John Constantine mentioned shortly thereafter as well. Glancing acknowledgements, open tips of the hat, but not just as inspirations — as reclamations, Duncan fitting them into his own story. There’s an entertaining arrogance about that.
With all that as buildup, what is Vellum itself? It’s actually the first of two books — and I’ll be getting around to Ink soonish — but does work as a stand-alone story, at least for me. Duncan is if nothing else one to pull out all possible stops, though, and while there is a linear story at work as an anchor, plus a solid beginning and conclusion, it is as continually unstable collage that the overall read functions, something driving you forward as much as it is sending you down side roads, encouraging you to flip backwards (and almost flip forwards). There are core characters existing under alternate names, alternate identities, archetypal figures, there are retold stories, reworked points of view. Some stories exist in near isolation, others cross boundaries in unusual ways, everything down to the typeface can be and is a signifier. Again, it’s not that this approach is uniquely Duncan’s, but it is showing a remarkable command for the tools and tropes — not bad for a first novel, plenty of woodshedding must have already gone down for that to happen.
Part of the reason why I’ve discussed the antecedents so much is to avoid talking about the plot in too much detail, admittedly — if you’ve already encountered much of that work, you’re good to go, and if you know Stephenson and Pullman in particular you are VERY good to go. It makes me wonder what I would think of it if I didn’t know any of those writers or artists at all, if I came into this story completely cold. I can say that Duncan does have a sense of drive going that builds the more you read it — I’d initially been dabbling in the book chapter by chapter but after enough groundwork had been laid (enough, but by no means all — in fact there’s arguably groundwork being laid up to the final pages) and a sense of urgency started to drive the narrative, it turned quickly into can’t-put-it-down quality. So for that reason alone even if you’re not fully familiar with Duncan’s own sourcepoints, I’d say give it a go and let it begin to build from there — if you just want a good story, you’ve got it, in all its fragments and digressions as well as the main parts.
The shards that splinter throughout the book’s narratives help to keep the ‘genre’ tag hard to apply, as it should be. One core arc casts the story as a World War I-and-after tale of a tragic wartime romance and its aftermath, a tale of a doomed young soldier, the friend who killed him while being in love with the soldier’s sister, the officer who turned the aftermath into a bitter triangle, all against stories of socialist gatherings in Glasgow 1919 through to the Spanish Civil War and after. Another arc — with a connection to that first one, but functioning equally well as a separate story — pushes the Lovecraft fascination to a full exploration and revision of one of his most memorable stories, “The Rats in the Walls,” but in a much different context and scale, backgrounds including the Russian Revolution and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. And further arcs and stories on top of that, a teenage girl searching for her lost brother, mercenaries wanting out of a war they signed up for unknowingly, protohistory inscribed on mind, body and soul, and further along.
Lurking behind it all, the Vellum, the landscape of reality that’s the ‘true’ universe, another reworked trope. I think it was Roger Zelazny‘s Amber books that first introduced me to the concept of the real universe at the heart of the endless variations, back when I was 13, and if there isn’t a study of how this trope evolved over the years, there needs to be (it would have to include how that’s worked out in Marvel/DC continuities, obviously). Duncan’s riff on the idea is introduced fantastically at the start of the book — suffice to say anyone who is a cartographic fiend will be bowled over by the conceit introduced there, and the character who begins the book becomes a key anchor for what follows even as he disappears for long stretches, exploring his own long stretches of space and time.
Two things to note in conclusion, and a negative one first — for all the book’s power and ability, there is something perversely parochial about its range, reflective I think of the overall background of the author and many of his reference points. It’s a largely British-American universe, seen through those lenses — and that’s no sin, but as the global culture as such both stabilizes and mutates, I have a feeling Duncan’s work here will be seen more as a twentieth-century holdover more than starting point for the 21st, just as much as a lot of the general fears and concerns raised in the background of its (mostly) 2017 AD setting are products of the state of the world in 2005, when the novel was published. Again, it’s hardly Duncan’s fault for being born and raised in the UK, learning English as a first language and so forth, but it colors, perhaps more unconsciously than anything else, what’s meant to be a story of universal reach and detail. It should be noted that Duncan’s my age, though — younger writers will, I think, bring much different and wider reference points to bear when they make their contributions to the canon, and will I think ultimately refresh it all the more strongly, something I’ve noticed Duncan has discussed himself as part of a larger, to use his words, ‘generational change’ (more on that shortly).
But to conclude on a positive note — a regular theme from start to finish in the book is gay male love and lust, especially in the face of persecution and worse, and while Duncan doubtless resists the pigeonholing of being called a ‘gay writer,’ his attention to these themes is part of what helps to separate him from the novel’s two key forebears in particular (Pullman’s own nod to these issues does form a strong part of The Amber Spyglass but it is a story to the side at all times, for instance). An almost-totally separate story within the novel explores an alternate history (and biology) version of the Matthew Shepard murder, extending the larger thematic points Duncan makes but also showing how it serves as a vivid, harrowing story on its own.
As noted, there’s a second book still to read, but it’s no accident that Vellum itself ends on a story of quiet rather than earth-shattering apocalypse, being the second and (at least here) concluding part of another narrative arc set in a vague edge-of-the-world refugee town for escapees from an unclear disaster. It is in many ways ‘just’ a story of romance, of a narrator unsure of his lover Jack and unsure of himself, and not feeling cognizant of how he will face his moment of reckoning, as it’s literally termed, via the mysterious figure that acts as the town’s protector and judge. How it’s resolved lets the reader end here if one chooses, with a sense that there’s at least one way that things can end well in an infinite universe of struggle, pain and death.
Be interesting to see how Ink turns out when I get around to reading it. Meantime, no surprise at all to find that Duncan’s got a good blog — I recommend his recent post ‘Bukiet on Brooklyn Books’ both as a general response to the writer and issue referred to in the title and as a brief discussion of that ‘generational change’ I noted earlier, specifically on how the ‘literature’/'genre’ war might be finally collapsing as an outworn model of supposed conflict. A while back I noted my dissatisfaction with Michael Chabon’s overextended apologia for liking genre fiction added to the end of the otherwise really enjoyable Gentlemen of the Road. To quote myself a bit at the end, “here’s to hoping that as time continues the perceived need for this kind of explanation dies away, at the least bit by bit and at the most in a heap.” That Duncan is seeing this himself is a damn good sign, so I’ll end by quoting him more fully now:
I suspect there’s a generational change, with a lot of younger writers not simply indifferent but steeped in paraliterature, happy to use the strange (that which breaches mimesis in terms of credibility warp) and the diegetic (that which breaches mimesis by telling rather than representing.) And not just in an ironic way a la postmodernism but with the sincerity you find in magic realism and fabulism.
We’re on our way indeed.