Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter has been recommended by some very prestigious left-wing authors as essential genre reading for socialists, and the messages of the novel certainly seem to fit with that recommendation - its nihilism aside, perhaps; the problem is that, as essential reading goes, it is actually a bad book poorly written, and that really does show through strongly.

Swanwick's novel has as confused a plot as any novel you are likely to have read.  Jane is a changeling working in a factory at the start of the novel, and wishes to escape; with the help of the iron dragon of the title, Melanchthon, she manages this and we explore parts of the world Swanwick has created through her eyes.  The biggest problem is the way in which we do this; a sex-obsessed, message-laden, chaotic, cyclical and above all poorly plotted out novel (when decisions have consequences, they need to have consequences, not just have brief consequences and then vanish despite the scenario appearing again in future; when you've set a theme, follow it through; when a character has learned something, they need to not forget it at opportune moments for purposes of plot). Indeed, those flaws rather run through the story of the novel; and are backed up by something worse - bad characters.  Jane is poorly written, simplistic, and rather more bounced around by others' than driven by her own desires and decisions, with the occasional brief exception which always fall apart rapidly after opportunities have been seized; and no other character has even as much three dimensionality as Jane, rather being simple and basic, designed as foils or friends or teaching aids for the changeling.

The problem becomes acute as we see, in different situations, the same scenarios explicitly repeat, with characters reappearing and (perhaps) resurrecting; the cosmology of The Iron Dragon's Daughter is never explained and just assumed, but in such a way that beggars understanding, as people keep popping up without any explanation or logic behind it, and sometimes in multiple forms simultaneously.  This is backed up by a world that is built to have different elements which both cannot and do co-exist; we see a world simultaneously pre-industrial, industrialising, and post-industrial, without any logical reason for the different elements and kinds of world to co-exists.  And the nihilism at the heart of the novel is just horribly overstated, and yet at the same time undermined, in no small part by the plot itself, and writing style Swanwick employs (that this novel did not win a Bad Sex Award is surprising; the sex is frequent, appalling written, and deeply voyeuristic, and the incoherence of the novel as a whole is reflected in individual elements of Swanwick's style).

In the end, I came to The Iron Dragon's Daughter with high expectations and a willingness to give Swanwick a lot of credit; but the credit was squandered and my expectations were not only quashed but completely destroyed.  A really disappointing read.
Given the slim nature of this book, it is surprising it has taken me so long to read it; this is less a reflection of Last Days, which is disturbing and excellent, and more on my current university life.  Evenson's novel is utterly uncategorisable, the ultimate in slipstream; unsettling and strange, I've read it as a part of my Halloween horror focus, and it certainly is, in a stunningly dark way, a horror novel.

The whole setting of Last Days is a mundane, real-world one, although it's never quite located, and that nebulous location adds to the unreal atmosphere of the whole thing.  The novel starts off in a city, and most of the action takes place either in this city or in a cult compound outside the city; the two settings are never really fleshed out to any great extent, but they do give us a sense of place and of the world, since they're both slightly nebulous and unsettling, whilst at the same time rooted in the normal and everyday life of the world.

Our sole real character is Kline, who starts the novel as an ex-policeman who has lost a hand, and killed the man who did it.  Across the course of Last Days, Kline comes to terms with the loss of his hand, and also becomes ever stranger.  Kline is more and more divorced from his humanity and his past as the novel goes on, and he becomes a strange other, with whom we are intimately familiar and yet whom we are utterly apart from, because of the alienness of his experiences and emotions.  That Evenson achieves this without a single overt supernatural occurrence is fantastic, and the imagination applied to the rest of the cast wonderful, even if they do deserve a little more fleshing out as full characters, rather than simply basic figures.

The plot is a very strange one, involving cults, a very Lovecraftian feel, and the numinous.  Last Days takes the idea of mutilation as sacred rite (for historical precedent see, for instance, The Galli of Rome) and makes it even more strange and alien, as well as extreme; the realisation of religious mutilation and religious fervour surrounding the mutilations is fantastically portrayed, with some excellently sympathetic and yet utterly other writing really working its way into the reader's head in a deeply unsettling manner.  The increasing darkness and horror of the novel, as the extremity and ultimate ends of the cult begin to become clear and additional players enter the cultic politics of Last Days, each with their own claim on Kline, really work well as they turn up the pressure and strangeness; and Evenson handles a complex plot excellently.  The writing style, simple, readable, and elegant, adds to this, as the reader is drawn in and on through the novel, not wanting to put it down as the model of a thriller is adopted; indeed, in many ways Last Days is a horrific subversion of the thriller genre, incredibly effectively written.

Last Days has to be one of the most unsettling novels I have ever read, and Evenson is to be complimented for that, as well as his refusal to fall into simple categories; indeed, this is also one of the least categorisable novels I have ever read.  What it certainly won't do is leave me for some time to come.


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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