Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Monday, July 08, 2013

Closure of "Thaliad"--

Poet Lesley Wheeler has some very interesting comments on Thaliad and other "speculative verse novels," as she calls them. (Although I don't have much concern for genre and categories, I'm still interested to see what people call my books.) She is very positive--a thank you to her!--but has one criticism. It is one that does not particularly surprise me, though I don't agree. If you've read the book and have an opinion, please comment.

Many dramatic and sometimes terrible things happen in Thaliad, but the narrative does end on a glad we-are-not-alone note that suggested "the marriage plot" structure to Lesley Wheeler. I'm not one to end in that direction lightly, and a novel I've written that does appear to end that way to some degree--Catherwood, soon to be back in print--ends with the figure of a man and a woman holding a cloak wrapped around human bones. That's just not your average romantic embrace... (Val/Orson also has union at the ending, deliberately borrowing inspiration--and twins and Arcadian landscape--from Shakespeare's romances.)

Nor is this a typical romance; we catch glimpses of a much older Thalia as leader of her realm through the memory and eyes of the young woman, Emma, who serves as narrator. Thalia and the narrator have large roles in their community, though both would very much like to have children--that is, to continue a fragile world. They want a man, yes, but not for reasons of romance. There is nothing of yielding in their desire, nothing soft. A man is no figure, one of many, to dream after and fancy, but a piece of the post-catastrophe puzzle, a vital part of renewal of the world--and not just of the world but of the world as a better place than the one that died. The last words of the poem are not the end of Thalia's story by any means, and we know it because we have seen her leading the members of the community--we don't see her man again, but we know he fulfilled a role as father, that children were born. The sequel to the story is seeded in this one.

If I had left out the necessary man (we must have fertilization in order to have any kind of society, much less a matriarchal society after apocalyptic events), then the glimpses one has of Thalia as the matriarch of her small, renewed world would seem utterly impossible.

However, I might have nabbed the man and then had a different ending. But then it would not have been a closure that foretells new beginning; it would not be the sudden knowledge and surety and joy to Thalia that it is.  She will enter in to her rightful inheritance and live out her role as leader; this she knows, bone-deep.

These issues are elements I thought about when making the narrative. But that is as nothing to whether the poem's closure works or not.

As the internet is a lively place, I've already gotten several responses. Here's a younger reader who shall remain anonymous:
I see what [Lesley Wheeler] means about the sudden implication of romance at the end after [Thalia has] already caused the death of two men over refusing to choose between them. But what I think she's missing is the mythic aspect of it. It's not about "marriage," it's about Adam and Eve... if that makes sense.
And it does make sense to me. The poem ends with beginning: it makes an arc from destruction to further shattering to hope for a new world. It's an ouroboros. We've already glimpsed patches of sunlight; this is the dawn.

That is, we know that hope was confirmed in time because we have the narrator's word and her account of the older Thalia. What strikes me is that there is no other beginning possible at the end, unless one wants immaculate conception or the discovery of a sweet little sperm lab in good, frozen shape accompanied by clear, easily comprehensible directions on retrieval and thawing...

Any other ending does not fulfill the promise of the beginning or make sense in terms of what we already know about Thalia; without Thorn, the blossoming of Thalia's world is impossible, and yet the whole book from the very first lines proclaims that it has already happened.  The very fact that Emma is narrator declares it. It does not matter if Thorn remains a minor character. He is a needed foundational figure for the tale Emma narrates.

Here's Beth Adams, who published and designed the book and knows it well:
...she's the only one left! How does humanity start over if she doesn't become the new matriarch? Perhaps the reviewer's feminist axe is ground to too fine an edge.

I always saw it as more of a Virgin myth grown up: the girl who wants to remain virgin and dedicated to her vocation who then, by virtue of actually growing up and seeing What Needs to be Done, also becomes matriarch. It's not like she was going to spend her life being somebody's little wife!
It's an interesting question Lesley Wheeler brings up.

If you've read the book, please weigh in... I promise to have zero prejudice against those who are critical. Writers must have skins that endure slings and arrows, and they need to be able to question their own work. And learn. And grow. Like Thalia, they need to come into their inheritance as best they can.

 * * * * *
 Review clips for Thaliad here.
     The book has had some spectacular, bright reviews,
     and there are links if you want to read more.
Amazon reviews here.
     So far, the book has nine 5-star reviews.
     Alas, books of poetry often have none at all, so I'm glad of these.
Phoenicia Publishing Thaliad page here.
     If you want a paperback, that's easy--available in the usual spots.
     If you want a limited edition hardcover, go through Phoenicia.
Looks for an indie bookstore here.

13 comments:

  1. Thanks, Marly, this is great! I find the comments about myth and genetic beginnings particularly helpful. As for the comment that my response was grinding a feminist axe: yes, I'm a feminist and proud, but what I was trying to do was work rationally through a feeling of "no, it can't end there!"--emotion definitely preceded ideology. We all read from some autobiographical moment and those circumstances infuse our insights whether we acknowledge it or not. Right now, I'm interested in the weird experience of being the woman allegedly in charge, and I'm sure that life-stuff shaped my response to the book. Hope there are more comments because I'd really like to know just how idiosyncratic my response was!

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  2. Writers'...need to be able to question and discuss their own work.'

    Question, yes. Discuss - absolutely not. At least not publicly. That's for readers and critics to do.

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  3. I don't think Beth objected to your being a feminist! Just thought that reading was too influenced...

    Oh, I imagine you won't be the only one. I certain thought about the end and how it might be taken.

    Thanks for writing about it--very grateful!

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  4. Lee,

    Oh, I agree, in the sense you mean, I believe. But I think it's perfectly okay to defend/discuss a choice made--if you want to!

    As far as explaining things, well, often the magic gets explained away, too. I'm not interested in that either.

    A number of people have asked me to explain exactly what happened in the story that went up online at Weird Fiction this week ("An Incident at Agate Beach.") I find that amusing, but I would never, ever spoil the thing by nailing down what should not be pinned.

    Maybe I should change the word from "discuss"...

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  5. Okay, chopped the word! Good call, Lee... Though I think there are plenty of things that can be talked about by writers, you don't want to talk away the heart of the work.

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  6. I find this discussion genuinely interesting, because I would have assumed that the hint of the other hope-bringing marriage in the poem might be the one that most irked readers who are sensitive to such things. (Trying not to spoil the fun for new readers.)

    Lesley Wheeler, if you happen to return to Marly's comments section: Thanks for a blog post full of wonderful discoveries, particularly Carson, who's been fast-tracked onto my to-read list.

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  7. I agree with what you've said re 'discussion', Marly, and I apply the same thinking to my work. Painting and writing are similar in this respect. It's my experience that a question session can occasionally turn into a discussion, though I never forget to leave enough space around my work for it to continue as independent from my thinking and explanation, and capable of springing surprises even on me.

    I love the introduction of Thorn into the last scene of Thaliad. Thalia's future has already been glimpsed within the poem, and so we know she survives to be a matriarch in a new society. After the gruelling events that lead to Thorn's appearance, I felt a relief that here was someone solid and fine and able to help build a future Yet because he also represents the beginning of a story thread we've only been afforded glimpses of, we can't know much beyond the sense you give us that Thorn and Thaliad will be together. It is indeed Adam and Eve, and I can see that I might have made another image for the book that showed as much, but for the fact that I didn't want to preempt his appearance, and there was no space for a vignette after it. But there is his portrait of course, on the endpaper, and the portrait of Thalia from the beginning of the book to go with it. Together they imply a fertile coupling.

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  8. Jeff,

    Yes, I thought so too--actually there's a whole complex of elements related to re-forming a religion and morality that I thought might bother some people, since the characters as children have no concept of the politically correct. There is a certain amount of "making things up" based on insufficient knowledge, which is the way of children.

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  9. Clive,

    Thank you! That business about space and surprises is exactly right.

    And I really like the "bookend" quality of the two portraits...

    Now I must go ferry a child to camp--thanks everybody! I'm very interested in seeing what people think about this one. Shall be back later to see comments and puzzle over reactions!

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  10. I'll have to re-read the ending and see what I think in terms of closure, but I think I've already told you that my only problem with Thaliad was that is was 200 pages too short.

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  11. Yes, you did. And I like that problem!

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  12. Hi Marly, sorry to return so late, but my garden is a wilderness requiring at least minimal attention, and the NSA issue has occupied me as well.

    I like very much how you put it: '...you don't want to talk away the heart of the work.' Yes, indeed. And I'd rather not direct readers in any way: what they find in my fiction (or not) is theirs to find. Which is not to say that I don't pay attention to criticism or work over problems with someone else, if possible with someone who sees things very differently than I do. My filmmaker daughter is invaluable in this regard, for example. She's always seeing via a camera: where to focus, where to cut, where to slow etc. A brutal critic, she is, too!

    And of course there's much that a writer can talk about: what interests me a great deal at the moment is whether fiction can ever be apolitical, or should it.

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  13. Anything you make really has to partake of your time, place, and view of the world, whether intentionally or not. Recent events in sf/f/h genre land show us that men and women can have radically different visions of the state of the world and woman's place in it. Elements like religion (or lack thereof) and national culture strongly affect a writer's stance, even if he/she never writes directly about such things. It really is impossible not to be political in the sense that you intend here.

    Gardens and the acts of nations are both unruly. Here's hoping for better order and fewer weeds in both. I have more confidence in a weeded garden, though.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.