The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

The Sisters Brothers

Though this novel is quite different from the other books I have reviewed, which tend to belong to the fantasy genre, I nonetheless was intrigued to read it, because of three things: the bizarre cover, the awards it has won, and descriptions I had heard about its graphic depiction of violence.

Actually, fantasy readers might like this book because it is a fine work of genre fiction: that is to say, the Western. Westerns follow many of the romance conventions that inspire fantasy novels. Just as Sir Lancelot rides into castles, performs deeds for the king, wins fame and fortune, and rides out, back on his quest for the Holy Grail, Charlie and Eli Sisters, the protagonists of DeWitt’s novel, have multiple side-adventures.

Their quest is to fulfill their contract for the mysterious man named the Commodore, by murdering the prospector Hermann Kermit Warm. But then they begin to question the moral nature of their violent and dangerous job…
The adventures the two Sisters brothers may appear to be random, but in midst of the grit and melancholy of the Old West, little insights into the human condition surface, glowing like pieces of gold dust in a mighty California river.

The story focuses on the relationship between the two brothers Charlie and Eli. Charlie’s the taller and skinnier one, who loves a drink from the bottle, and he’s quicker on the trigger finger than his younger brother Eli. Eli is short and fat, but tries a vegetarian diet, caring for his half-blinded, pathetic horse Tub, much to his brother’s irritation. He’s also one of the only men in the Old West who brushes his teeth. He’s the one with the way for words, who tell the story through his first person perspective.

(Here I find myself describing another Don Quixote/Sancho Panza duo of assassins! Oddly enough, the two villains in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere are also two assassins with a similar character dynamic.)

Since critics often draw attention to the quality of the violence in the story, I had expected there to be more of it. Nonetheless, perhaps that made it easier to read. The style of violence is compared to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is dryly understated, almost casual. Eli gives less attention to some scenes of violence than he does to a description of how he orders a salad. We learn that Charlie is not above threatening someone with his pistol to get what he wants, and I was left wondering several times about whether he would actually initiate a bloodbath, or just let the insults that had been hurled at him slide. I have experienced similar reactions watching Quentin Tarantino films. The violence is well written, but quite glory (a.k.a. not just employing sight, but smell and sound as well).

There are also chilling dialogue scenes, where the words of speech alone somehow convey great fear, or desperation. DeWitt is worth reading simply for the dialogue, and for the way he writes Eli’s thoughts with a sensitivity for eighteenth-century speech patterns. The two brothers’ speech is surprisingly formal, to the point where I thought it was almost like reading Tolkien’s dialogue in The Lord of the Rings, since it was at times so direct and simple.

This novel was my first Western, so if you haven’t been introduced to the genre, The Sisters Brothers may be a good place to start. Also, if you’re interested in finding out what all the buzz is about this American Western written by a Canadian, who won numerous awards for it, including the Rogers Writer’s Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award (not to mention being a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Man Booker Prize), then read this book, by all means.

Also, if you are a fantasy novel reader and wish to get into a new genre, or if you just want to learn about the tropes of the classic Western, then look no further that The Sisters Brothers. Read a book outside your normal stomping grounds, and open a new frontier, as crazy as the Wild West.

Patrick DeWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers

Patrick DeWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers

Photo Credits:

Patrick DeWitt: http://blog.indigo.ca/fiction/item/434-qa-with-patrick-dewitt-author-of-the-sisters-brothers.html

The Sisters Brothers cover: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9850443-the-sisters-brothers

Special Post: Honours thesis added to brightweavings.com

Today, I make a special announcement: my Honours thesis “Fantasies of History: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Synthesis of the Historical Fantasy Novel” has been added to Kay’s official website at brightweavings.com.

This thesis is the fruit of over two years of thought, and one year of hard research, writing, and re-writing. It represents the summit of my achievement as an English literature undergraduate at McGill, and now it is online for the world to see!

 

You can read it if you wish here, or read my summary version, if you just want to read the basic ideas here.

 

Thank you Deborah, for the time out of you schedule to post my thesis online. You are a silver thread, brightly woven, in the Tapestry of the website!

I met Guy Gavriel Kay at the Alire stand during Salon du livre in November. He signed all my books--and my Honours Thesis proposal.

I met Guy Gavriel Kay at the Alire stand during Salon du livre in November. He signed all my books–and my Honours Thesis proposal.

Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

foucault's pendulum

A group of editors gets together to write a parody of a conspiracy theory. What if the parody ends up becoming perceived as the source of ultimate truth for an actual underground group that styles itself after the Templars and Rosicrucians?

The answer lies in the pages of Umberto Eco’s intellectual thriller Foucault’s Pendulum. In a way, the book is Dan Brown on steroids. Conspiracy theories abound in dizzying multitudes. Heretics, Knights Templar, Assassins, cabalists, Diabolicals, Masons, Jesuits, the Bavarian Illuminati, and the School of Night all become implicated in one giant Plan that spans centuries and has formed the very shape of history.

The editors at Garamond Press in Milan, Italy compose the Plan as a parody of a Templar plot that Colonel Ardenti believes he has uncovered from evidence found in Provins (Provence). However, as the editors mock Ardenti’s leaps in logic, their research into secret societies and the occult inspire them to create their own ultimate Plan.

However, the pastime, begun for the editors’ amusement, eventually begins to poison how the editors think. The Plan becomes real; life imitates art. And the central object that ties the created reality together—the thing that may reveal the greatest secret of all—is Foucault’s Pendulum, located in a Paris museum.

Though it was published in 1989, Foucault’s Pendulum continues to excite readers today. With the popularity of such authors as Dan Brown, author of The DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons (and his new thriller Inferno), interest in conspiracy theories and secret societies is running high.

Also, if reading Foucault’s Pendulum, you are reminded of the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise, you were not alone. In the Plan, Ismaili Assassins inspire the secret rites of the Templars, and dispense secret information to them about a powerful artifact with which they could control the world.

A Knight Templar.

A Knight Templar.

Perhaps Foucault’s Pendulum inspired Assassin’s Creed; perhaps Assassin’s Creed inspired Foucault’s Pendulum! After all, the programers were (obviously) Assassins themselves… And the only way to tell if someone really is an Assassin, is if they deny it.

Such is a sample of the kind of warped thinking into which the editors of Eco’s thriller fall. It combines the paranoid thought patterns of conspiracy theorists and witch hunters with the ars combinatoria, which seeks to interconnect all human knowledge. In Cabala, for example, passages of Hebrew scripture may be randomly combined with each other in order for new truths to emerge. In a similar way, the editors of Garamond Press enter statements of knowledge into a computer called Abulafia, which reconnects the entered statements randomly. Thus they emerge with a list, such as the following:

“The Templars have something to do with everything

What follows is not true

Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate

The sage Omus founded the Rosy Cross in Egypt

There are cabalists in Provence

Who was married at the feast of Cana?

Minnie Mouse is Mickey’s fiancée” (364).

The editors connect the random terms into a narrative and come up with the grand and exquisite claim that Jesus was actually married to Mary Magdalene and it was His marriage that was feted at Cana. In a clever way, Eco ridicules the exact same Templar conspiracy discovered in The DaVinci Code, which (coincidentally?) reveals the “truth” about Jesus Christ.

This is one example of Eco’s exploration of signs and symbols and how people connect them all together, even when no such connection exists objectively. It is the way that Garamond Press’ target audience, the Diabolicals, think.

I personally find Eco’s ideas fascinating, especially in the context of historical fantasy. In Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay discusses the philosophical implications of how desire influences how narratives of random historical events are told. These events become signs of a pattern, or signs of a plan to history’s unfolding. Eco shows how such plans may be interpreted from random data. Furthermore, he implies that in hyperreality, a universe where reality has largely been replaced by symbols and simulations of reality, the creation of such a plan in a spirit of fictitious play may have actual, historical consequences.

Umberto Eco, author of Foucault's Pendulum and The Name of the Rose

Umberto Eco, author of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose

Eco explores these ideas because he is a semiotician, a scholar who studies the structure of signs and the processes in which they develop signification. For example, his most famous novel, the medieval mystery The Name of the Rose, explores how signs can be interpreted, or misinterpreted. In Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco explores similar themes. Symbols and signs have such a wide range of meanings that everything (a rose, a triangle in a Leonardo DaVinci painting, historical events) can be interpreted in hundreds or thousands of different ways.

Indeed, it would be a legendary meeting if it were possible for Eco to meet Dan Brown’s protagonist Robert Langdon, who is a symbologist, a professional who interprets the historical meaning of symbols. While Langdon sees a triangle in Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper and interprets it as a symbol for the sacred feminine, Eco would perhaps more closely analyze at the process of how Langdon came to make that interpretation. Perhaps Leonardo had intended to make a symbolic triangle. Then again, the triangle may have been a random shape that Langdon only perceived to signify something.

We see symbols everywhere, but where are the real ones? This is a mystery that Eco leaves ambiguous, to his credit. After all, life is much more interesting with symbols to interpret that do not have fixed meaning.

On the whole, Foucault’s Pendulum makes for an engrossing read. Irony, a concern with symbols, and plenty of lists: these signature features of Eco’s style combine to create a unique reading experience. As the Garamond Press editors formulate the Plan, scenes pass almost exclusively in dialogue-based exposition, but somehow, Eco makes it work. Do not expect Eco’s thriller to read like a Dan Brown novel, but expect it to be richer, to fascinate and challenge you intellectually.

And take care you don’t become a Diabolical while reading it.

Foucault's Pendulum, in Paris

Foucault’s Pendulum, in Paris

Photo Credits:

Foucault Pendulum:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foucault_pendulum

Foucault’s Pendulum cover:  http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17841.Foucault_s_Pendulum

Templar: http://boltzmann.wordpress.com/2006/04/27/a-templar-in-his-habit/

Umberto Eco: http://politics-prose.com/event/book/umberto-eco-prague-cemetery

Quotation taken  from  Harcourt paperback edition, translated by William Weaver.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere

 

 

It’s an entire world just under your feet, in the vast underground networks that form the urban environment, where people who’ve fallen through the cracks of society vanish from our everyday reality.

Such is the setting of Neil Gaiman’s urban quest fantasy Neverwhere. One of his older novels, it was originally based on a 1996 TV series on BBC Two. It is now a BBC radio series, staring James MacEvoy as Richard Mayhew, Natalie Dormer as Door, and, among others, Christopher Lee as the Earl of Earl’s Court and Benedict Cumberbatch as the Angel Islington. While I have only read the novel, it is a definite sign of the durability of Gaiman’s story that it has seen so many incarnations in diverse media.

Neverwhere is the journey of an Everyman Scotsman name Richard Mayhew, who finds a girl bleeding on the sidewalk. After this encounter, his normal everyday life is ruined as he loses his job, his girlfriend, and indeed his very identity. No one recognizes him in the London of this world (called London Above), and he must find a way to get his life back.

Door, the girl he finds on the sidewalk, is a resident of London Below, an alternate world that exists in the metro systems, sewers, and underground tunnels beneath London Above. Its a world of hobos, aristocrats, rat-speakers, sadistic killers, monsters, and even angels. As Richard quests to find a way out of London Below, since it is impossible to live wholly in both worlds at the same time, he becomes involved in a quest to find who is responsible for the murder of Door’s family.

Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar

Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar

The villains of Nerewhere are just as memorable as the heroes, if not more so. Mr. Croup is a wordy, fox-like assassin who tears his victims apart with his fingernails and wears a raggedy old suit. Mr. Vandemar is a wolfish sadist who picks his fingernails with a machete and doesn’t like telephones. They are like a darker, but still funny version of your typical Disney villain trio–Don Quixote and Sancho Panza with switchblades. There are other villains in the story, but they are surprises.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Neverwhere, especially after finishing a semester of university. It’s ideal reading on the metro (or the Tube, if you wish), because there can be no better place to read Neverwhere than in the underground world where it’s supposed to take place. I read most of it myself in the Montreal metro.

Which leads me to wonder. Is there a Montreal Below, as there is a Montreal Above? I guess I just assumed there could be. Perhaps there is.

Gaiman appears to have done some research into the London Underground writing his book. He talks about “ghost stations” like the British Library Station, which was walled-in a long time ago and, needless to say, is closed to commuters. There is quite a lot of history in the underground world. I would doubt that there are ghost stations in Montreal Below, but Montreal could still have an interesting subterranean civilization, if we were to imagine one developing.

The metro system in Montreal. Do we see a Montreal Below when we look at this map? Click to see a more legible version.

The metro system in Montreal. Do we see a Montreal Below when we look at this map? Click to see a more legible version.

All the shopping malls in the passages under the city, all crisscrossing each other like a labyrinth, might prove ample room to place a alternate world, similar to the feudal-like society Gaiman imagines in Neverwhere. Promenades de la cathédrale, where engineers built a shopping mall under Christ Church Cathedral, could be a key location in Montreal Below. Perhaps Monk, a station on the Green Line, could have a band of monks similar to the Black Friars we see in his book (a pun on Blackfriars Station). What about the dukedom of Vendôme? The barony of Jarry? La seigneurie de Plamondon? Or what about le marquis de Rosemont as the counterpart of the marquis de Carrabas, a swashbuckling character in London Below? And don’t forget the angel residing at Station St. Michel!

Such a world would be an interesting combination of a British-inspired universe with French Canadian characters and settings. Hopefully, the result of such cultural fusion would end in a little more than a Montreal Below that resides exclusively within the potholes that appear on our roads each spring! Gaiman’s underworld is a world of people who have “fallen through the cracks,” after all.

Ah, we Montrealers take every opportunity to complain about our roads!

To avoid this post becoming like an opinion article in The Gazette, let me say a few words to conclude.

Gaiman is a storyteller extraordinaire. His novel reads almost like a bedtime story, except that it’s for adults (teenagers can get away with it). It’s a brilliant combination that reminded me about the nightmares in his Sandman comics. In fact, I almost felt like I was reading a comic book or a graphic novel at a few points, without the pictures or graphics. If you have not read Neverwhere, and you’re a Gaiman fan, then it’s a novel not to be missed. It was a lot of fun. Take it on your next metro ride through the world Below.

 

Photo Credits:

Croup and Vandemar: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/neverwhere/images/819335/title/mr-croup-mr-vandemar-fanart

Montreal Metro: http://www.stm.info/english/metro/a-mapmet.htm

Neil Gaiman: http://www.myspace.com/neilgaiman1

Neverwhere cover: http://jenniferdawnbrody.com/tag/neverwhere/