No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, April 30, 2006

#38: Vellum -- Hal Duncan

There is so much in Vellum that it's hard to consider the book as a whole: doesn't help that the sequel, Ink, won't appear until 2007. Time, in this novel, is three-dimensional, which makes causality a whole new ballgame. Characters slip in and out of summer 1970; relics from a lost civilisation come to light in 1921; the hands of the clock run backwards; "It's August 4th, 2017. Sort of."

Space, though, is flat -- or at least looks that way, a world without end depicted on the map that Guy Reynard Carter steals from a university library. (This first scene starts off horribly like my vague impression of The Da Vinci Code , though unarguably better-written.)

It's not space, as such. It's the Vellum. a limitless landscape of possibility that can be traversed by those in the know. When Guy first opens the book, he finds a map of the city (Glasgow, more or less) that's subtly different from the world he knows. Turning the page, the scale increases, the map zooms out. And out. And out. "A world where Greenland was an island in a river's mouth ... Asia and the Americas were mere promontories ...". The world Guy knows is a fleck in the middle of the Vellum (for the map, like a crypto-GPS, centres itself on the observer): and, knowing this, he can flee the suddenly-empty city, can run and keep running after meaning.

Spoilers from here on in.

There are a lot of narratives in Vellum, though sometimes they're iterations of the same basic story. There's the tale of Phreedom (hippie parents) and her brother Thomas, who discover they're unkin, more than human. There's a war in heaven, or for heaven, and the angels of the Covenant (the good guys, allegedly: they want an end to chaos and change) come calling, demanding that the two 'hatchlings' choose a side. Metatron, the voice of God, the author of the Book of All Hours, is black as shadow, and the 'book' he carries, with details of every unkin and the ways in which their lifelines cross, is a PDA.

Phreedom's story echoes Inanna's, a tale from Sumerian myth of a goddess who goes to the underworld to bring her betrayed lover back. Seamus Finnan, friend to Phreedom and Thomas (looks about 20, acts a hundred years older) has a role in that myth too, and in other stories. No one in this novel -- except, perhaps, Guy -- is singular: everyone is bound to everyone else by love, betrayal, death. Jack Carter is a university friend of Guy's; an angel of fire; a terrorist (Jack Flash) in a steampunk Empire; a body on the beach; a wild man encountered by Guy and Puck (green-haired and horned; but 'Puck' is Thomas's nickname, sometimes) on a post-apocalyptic veldt; a student reading his eponymous grandfather's account of a lost city in Anatolia; a man who mutilates himself after his lover (Puck again) is murdered ... and possibly Phreedom's son.

There's familiar and fictionalised accounts of Scottish socialism, war in the Middle East, the murder of Matthew Shepard; there are nanotech bitmites created by the Covenant but beguiled by an old-new Prometheus; there are richly baroque landscapes (a couple reminded me, for no good reason, of early Banks), and exotic vehicles in which to travel over them; there are some truly savage scenes that would be horrific even if they weren't firmly rooted in the real.

Hal Duncan's prose is, on the whole, magnificent (there were a couple of passages where polemic or exuberance overwhelmed, and a couple more when I was thrown by what was probably a proofreader's oversight). He switches narrative voices with ease and assurance. (But should insist that, if different fonts are being used to distinguish between threads -- a largely unnecessary technique here, I'd say -- they're sufficiently different that the reader doesn't get distracted by examining the hooks of y's, the slant of hyphens.) His knack for showing past and present in the same scene makes me grind my teeth with envy. Vivid images are still fermenting in my head, and probably will be even when Ink appears. I can't wait to see how all the threads come together: the road north, the skin-books, the gravings, the Republic of Heaven.

Or, you know, whatever new comes in instead.

I liked this book so much that I'm not going to complain about 'off of'. <g>

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