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The Worst Places of the Story (Two Book Notes)

One of my favorite spots in Tolkein's books, which happens while Frodo and Sam (with Gollum) are climbing the stair into Mordor, comes to my mind quite often. Sam has been talking about the great old stories, the ones that get told over and over, and how the characters in them could have turned back, but they didn't. They moved forward and finished their adventures, and that is why we still tell those stories. Frodo calls these tales, the ones with spots in them that seem impossible to resolve, "real tales." When we as readers read the story, we might (or might not) be able to guess how the hard part might be resolved (or we can just read the last page or two), but the characters themselves cannot see their way yet.

"You and I, Sam," Frodo says, "are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point: 'Shut the book now, dad; we don't want to ready any more.'"

We want to shut the book because we love the characters and we want them to be happy, but we cannot see how a resolution can be achieved and it is somehow easier to leave them hanging in limbo than it is to see them ruined. I love this part for many reasons (not a small one being its metafictional qualities—we are reading about characters stuck in an impossible position talking about characters stuck in impossible positions), but mostly because I have, in my own adventures, been stuck in the worst places of my story, unsure as to how to resolve anything or even if anything can be resolved at all. In some sense, all of life is its own impossible moment; the details of the drama change but is there ever really a time in a person's life when there is no drama? And as we cannot close our own book and leave ourselves in limbo, we have no choice but to push forward and see where the story takes us.

Last month I read two books that didn't just lead me up to the impossible moment but were made, entirely, of seemingly-unresolvable situations. The first was a book I couldn't wait to read from the moment I heard about it on NPR, The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. The book is about an apocalypse in America: suddenly, and without any seeming reason or logic or science, the language of children makes adults fall ill. The adults grow sluggish and nauseous. They can hardly eat. Their heads shrink and they eventually lose the ability to communicate at all, before they fall into their last stupor that leads them straight to death.

The story focuses on Sam and Claire, a middle-aged Jewish couple with an adolescent daughter, Esther. When the illness begins, Claire is struck the hardest and the fastest; Sam, who tells the story, is able to hold out longer and stay more mentally alert, enough so that he tries to devise different medications to help himself and his wife withstand the barrage of language-induced malaise.

I wanted this to be one of those books that swept me away in strangeness, and honestly: it is a strange book. Delightfully strange. Horridly strange. The concept of language being deadly is as horrific as you can imagine; it gives children all the power in the relationships. They start roaming neighborhoods in packs, cornering unwary adults already made weak by words and they preying on them by chanting nursery rhymes. At 14, Esther is just exactly old enough to be the leader of one of those packs.

What made The Flame Alphabet unbearable for me, personally, to finish—I confess, after having this checked out for 8 weeks and only making it through the first 133 pages, I left the characters hanging; I closed the book and did not finish it—wasn't its strangeness. It was its familiarity. Because really, this isn't a book about the power of language. It is book that draws a parallel about parenting teenagers, or specifically mothers with teenaged daughters. (This would be an entirely different book if the child were a son.) Sam is diligent in his work to protect his wife from their daughter's language, but he is helpless to do so. Which is a position Kendell has found himself in numerous times. Claire, the mother of a teenage girl, becomes withdrawn and saddened and smaller in her illness, which is exactly how it feels, sometimes, mothering a teenage girl. In order to leave us they must sever connections, and nature teaches them to be fierce with this cutting. I know that cutting with words was a skill I was particularly adept at as a teenager, especially with my mother. Now I am the mom, I feel like I have a good, strong relationship with my teenage daughter but we still definitely have our moments, and when I am in them I am astounded, astoundedat the power words have. Claire's illness reverberates within my skull. This creature you have loved and nurtured and taken care of and dressed and worried over and prayed for is suddenly bent on nothing but changing the relationship. Malice isn't involved, truly. It is, like the language illness, without reason or logic or science. It's just how life works. But it is also impossibly hard. "Sometimes love refuses to show itself at all," Sam thinks on the last page I read. "To conceal love is, in its way, the most sophisticated kid of smallwork there is." Teenagers sometimes bury their love so deeply that it seems to stop existing and we mothers are left, as Claire is, desperate for any scrap of affection or kindness.

The interesting thing? Esther will, eventually, grow out of her capacity for hurting her mother. Just as teenagers do, too. It doesn't always stay this hard, but seeing the end is sometimes impossible. Which is why I didn't finish. Not because of the strangeness, but because it is a story, an impossible moment, I am already living, and I don't need to also live it through reading as well.

The anguish in George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones wasn't quite so personal. In this fantasy—made so famous by the recent HBO series that I waited for literally 8 months and 3 weeks to get to the top of the hold list—seasons can last lifetimes. As summer draws to an end, Jon Snow, who is the bastard son of Eddard Stark, the ruler of one of the country's seven leading families, comes across a dead direwolf who has just delivered a whelp of pups, exactly enough that each of Eddard's children get to keep one. As the direwolf is the Stark family's symbol, seen only in winter, this is a sort of foreshadowing: cold, hard things are coming. The impossible moments begin right at the start and they do not let up, not even in the end.

The first one being the king, who arrives at Winterfell (the Stark home, on the northern edge of the habitable world) with a request for Eddard: that he become the king's Hand, a sort of advisory position. As it's the king who's asking, Eddard can't really refuse this request, and so the game (played over who will rule the throne) begins.

I think I've written before that I'm fairly picky about my fantasy. I don't want to reread Tolkein in lesser writings. When I want to revisit Middlearth I open up my copies of The Lord of the Rings. Derivative fantasy just doesn't interest me; nor do improbably strong/skilled/smart protagonists or slender world building. I like characters who are human despite their fantasy type (elf, wizard, dwarf, what have you), human and fallible, with weaknesses and strengths. I like sturdy, imaginative, new fantasy that I haven't experienced before; I like stories that both tell a story and make a point.

And I almost had it in Thrones. I fully inhabited the world Martin created. My favorite landscape was the Eyrie, a castle built on the peak of a mountain. Once I got the characters straight—and there are a lotof characters—I loved them, especially Eddard's daughter Ayra and his son Jon. And the direwolves. The story, despite its darkness, was a good strong story.

But here is where the book lost my undying affection: the only time I wished I had a pen in my hand when I was reading were the times I wanted to write "I hate you, Lannisters!" I didn't need to underline anything, or argue back, or write about how a particular bit of wisdom made sense to me in my life. As good as it was, it still felt like a story I was outside of—a drama I was experiencing and enjoying but not gaining anything from. Someone else's story. And when I got to the point, somewhere in the middle of the nearly-700-pages-long book, when I asked myself "why am I reading this?" the answer almost wasn't enough to make me continue. I was reading because I was entertained, despite the darkness of events, but not because I was getting much more than entertainment.

The odd thing, though, is that it doesn't really read as a fluffy book. It just lacked that indefinable something that makes a book perfect for me. When I was nearly finished, I mentioned the book to Becky, and she asked me if I would read the rest of the series. That's the true test of loving a fantasy, I think: will I be willing to continue to immerse myself in this world for 3500 or so more pages? Or will I leave the characters hanging? And my answer is this: I don't know. I don't ever need a book to have a happy ending, but even with a sad ending I need something, a bit of knowledge, a piece of truth, an insight into human condition, and this book didn't give me that. Maybe I will choose it for my vacation reading. Maybe if I find myself laid up in bed with a ton of time on my hands. But it will take that—a lot of time—to return. The impossible moments never had a reprieve, and the other side—be it redemption or resolution or victory or loss—wasn't profound enough to balance the darkness.


Becky K

One of my favorite moments ever together (and that is saying a lot) was when we were discussing LOTR on our way down Timp. We were a lot like Sam and Frodo at the time - clomping through the mountains, overcoming obstacles, and discussing characters and how they were flawed and why we loved and hated them. There are only a few books that can give you those ah ha moments. While I do love to be entertained, I love nothing more than reading a book and going away from it and the characters on my mind and in my heart for a long time afterward. Now that you've said that Game of Thrones doesn't do that for you - I'm not as tempted. I already wasn't super tempted anyway!

I did the same thing with the Flame Alphabet. Oh, I wanted to love it. I wanted to be smart and intellectual enough to finish it - but I didn't. The concept is a good one, but there wasn't enough for me to keep plugging away at it; I think it was the complete lack of connection with the characters.

Thanks for reviewing two books that have floated past my reading landscape. :)


Have you considered putting this review on Barnes & Noble or Amazon?


The third paragraph spoke volumes to me. I guess I am not a good reader or not into fantasy or just distracted right now... but I definitely know about being in the worst places of the story.

Kary in Colorado

I am in the same worst place with my youngest teenaged daughter and I understand exactly what you are saying. Thanks for the clarity, somehow it helps.

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