Monday, September 14, 2009

Vellum: Genius or Sheer Indolence?

I recently finished reading Vellum by Hal Duncan. Let me preface the remarks that follow by saying that, in total, it's an excellent book and definitely worth a read.

That said, I remain undecided as to what, exactly, to make of it. To say that it has a "non-linear plot" really doesn't do the phrase justice. The book jumps around in time and space frequently, sometimes multiple times in a single paragraph; to say that it has a single plotline isn't really accurate. Rather, it's composed of multiple, interrelated, storylines which (mostly) all point in the same general direction. Duncan has also done violence to the typical conception of what constitutes a "character"; his characters are really closer to something like a Jungian archetype which he reveals via the appearance of multiple incarnations thereof throughout the course of the novel. Some of these incarnations are more or less fully fleshed-out and some get only limited treatment, and on more than one occasion Duncan is deliberatley vague about which version of a character is actually being referred to in the text.

Here's the source of my indecision: part of me wants to say "My god, the guy's a frickin' genius!" and part of me wants to accuse him of being plain lazy. The careful interweaving of the various timelines and personages, the clever wordplay and generally powerful writing, the sheer, raw imagination necessary for some of his settings... all of it points to someone with immense talent. At the same time, however, the book feels like its composed of plotlets, none of which are necessarily strong enough to stand on their own. Freed of the tedium of traditional narrative Duncan is at liberty to paste these together as he sees fit without needing to be unduly worried about the overall coherence of the work. It's enough to suggest an overarching theme/direction and ask the reader to fill in the details. As my old AP English teacher might say, it's a work "rich in ambiguity".

As I said in the beginning Vellum is assuredly a worthwhile read, but I can't help wondering if Mr. Duncan isn't pulling a Pynchon on us to some degree.

That said, I'd like to pick a couple of nits as well. One of Duncan's archetypes/characters, Puck, is gay, and throughout the course of the book we watch Puck's incarnations pick up on a "straight jock" (also a recurring archetype) in a bar with varying outcomes each time. At one point Puck gets beaten, tied to a fence, and left for dead, at which point I thought "Oh, Matthew Shepard... I guess that's clever". Immediately after there's a digression which mentions Matthew Shepard by name which I found to be particularly jarring; it's not like the preceeding scene was particuarly subtle or needed further explanation. Matthew Shepard is the only non-fictional person mentioned in the entire book, so the passage is very obviously a public service announcement on Mr. Duncan's part.

The other item I'd like to touch on is the "Reynard" character. We first meet him as a young man (or young "Angelo-Satyr"... that's one of the areas of ambiguity) at the very beginning of the novel. Some things happen and he ends up getting sucked into a vast world devoid of people with a map of sorts leading him on a (very) long journey. We end up revisiting Reynard throughout the course of the novel and, at one point, the character intimates that he's been traveling this nearly infinite landscape for ten thousand years. But the tone of his narration changes not one iota over the entire course of the book. I'd expect that the 10,000-year-old Reynard would sound and feel qualitatively different from the Reynard we meet at the beginning of the book.

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