Sunday, 18 November 2007

Following the Pied Piper

Although these posts pop up at casual, weekly intervals, there's a been a fair bit happening in Blogdom recently. It might seem quiet and relaxed here, but it ain't quiet out there. Busy, busy, busy. And that's not a whinge, because it's all good stuff. Good, busy stuff. The net is working overtime at networking.

Following the Grand Opening of my website (see last post), I was delighted by the number of links made to it and sing THANKS to everyone who created a connection. I must say a particular "Thank you" to Mike French, who very generously not only posted a comment about it on Go! Smell the flowers, which attracts a phenomenal 15,000 hits a month, but also (having received a good deal of recognition and a number of awards for his own blog The View From Here) gave this PaperBooks blog a Be The Blog award. Thank you, merci beaucoup, gracias & diolch yn fawr.

None of this, however, leads me into what I'd originally intended posting about this week. But, in acknowledging that, I'm lead (through an interesting obversion) into what I'd intended posting about this week: The Pied Piper of Hamelin and Black Juice.

The Pied Piper
was one of my favourite stories when I was a kid, and I recall having 'rewritten' it on a couple of occasions (in what might have been a juvenile recognition that there are few new stories, only new ways of telling old ones). The notion of someone playing a music so powerful that every living thing might follow, coupled with the idea of good triumphing over bad, were concepts I found appealing. Along with the touch of magic, and innocence masking wisdom, arrogance masking greed ... all that and more. In some versions the piper returned the children to Hamelin once he'd received payment for ridding the town of its rats, and in some versions he didn't: his revenge was absolute. These are the ingredients of folk tales and sometimes appear in stories I enjoy reading as an adult.

This perhaps is the reason I enjoy Margo Lanagan's short stories. I posted a comment a few weeks back about her Red Spikes anthology, and have followed Black_juice_and_pied_piper_rats this up by reading the superbly titled Black Juice. This time, though, I thought I should try and articulate a little more fully what it is about her writing that appeals. (Maybe, through recognising what we like in someone else's writing, it's possible to begin recognising what shapes our own writing.)

For sure, there are elements in some of her stories that might ordinarily turn me off, and it's probably because of this that I'm keen to identify what it is that makes me carry on reading. They can, at times, appear abstract to the point of making me feel obtuse, but, in part, it's the slightly disjointed feel that she creates when she positions the cosily familiar into these abstract scenarios that engenders their enchanting dream-like or nightmarish quality. Thus, in Singing My Sister Down, we have many of the trappings of a family picnic and a holiday outing set within the macabre situation of the narrator's sister being gently sung to her death as she sinks into a tar-pit---the punishment she meekly accepts for a crime she's committed. Because I often think visually, Lanagan's stories put me in mind of Chagall's paintings (where lovers are depicted floating through the air and houses may have eyes), or those of Hieronymus Bosch.

One of the interesting elements in both anthologies of stories is the sense that the reader's expectations are being challenged in every respect, from use of language to conventions of genre. Whilst it's easy to pull out labels like 'fantasy' or 'speculative fiction', this would be unwise with many of these pieces, for the author seems to delight in leading you towards one place and then letting you discover you're somewhere else, less comfortable, altogether ... like being in the middle of a tar-pit. And I love that about her work. However, like the best poetry, it's the way she uses and plays with language that really hooks my attention and leads me along. The thread which holds all these stories together and unfies them in their respective anthologies is the delight that Margo Lanagan obviously takes in naming things: objects, emotions, places, people, experiences. We discover accordions known as the House of the Three and the House of the Many, monsters by the name of yowlinins, an elephant called Booroondoonhooroboom. And even here, her etymology straddles the familiar and the unexpected, so we're left, as readers, feeling haunted at times by some of her word choices, sometimes guessing what the words suggest, but definitely taking notice of the music of the sounds and definitely being lead on by the tune of each story. Like good poetry, this writing makes me feel that, whilst I might not always be absolutely sure where I've ended up, the journey is always interesting.

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