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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Maze of Blood at First Things

Having just fished a snow-laden contributor's copy of First Things out of the mailbox, I am pleased to find not only my review of A. M. Juster's St. Aldhelm's Riddles (thank you to Matthew Schmitz for asking), but also an appearance in the year's roundup of 2015. I'm very glad to be among the lucky few included in the essay.

Here's a look, for visitors who don't have a subscription. (The essay will probably up online later on, just as last year's was.) I should clarify that the reference to "who wasn't written for Marly or for me" is a glance back to prior paragraphs, where Claire Vaye Watkins is mentioned, along with her much-read (yes, I read it) essay in Tin House that stabs at a good many targets, especially "white male literati."

* * *

from John Wilson, "Books of 2015," First Things (March 2016)

Jacket art, Clive Hicks-Jenkins;
book design, Mary-Frances Glover Burt
      Marly Youmans's new novel, Maze of Blood, has an epigraph from Jorge Luis Borges (who wasn't writing for Marly or for me, but whose books I have read and reread over the years). It's taken from Borges's story "The Garden of the Forking Paths": I thought of a maze of mazes, of a sinuous, ever growing maze which would take in both past and future and would somehow involve the stars."
     I hate to give away too much and spoil someone's first reading, but here I will be violating that rule a bit. Maze of Blood is (among other things) a novel about the imagination--"about it" by enacting it. (Coleridge is a tutelary presence throughout.) The protagonist, Conall Weaver, is based on Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian. Youmans tells us that before the book begins. But it is not a novel "about" Howard. Rather, it takes his experience as a kind of template.
     Howard committed suicide at the age of thirty--stunning, if you consider what he'd already achieved. (Lots of writers today have published very little by the time they are thirty!) Conall Weaver also kills himself--very early in the book. This is a novel told in reverse chronology: In the last section, Conall is a young boy.
     By now, you may be shaking your head--what sort of book is this? "Experimental fiction"? Ugh. Actually, no--though it may not be your cup of tea in any case. If you are willing to trust the writer, you'll soon get the hang of it. Conall Weaver, like Robert E. Howard, grows up in hardscrabble Texas, a setting in which his writing seems out of place. But he's not just alienated from his setting (which he also loves); he feels at odds with his "time." As does Marly Youmans in her "time," which is ours as well. His stories are an act of rebellion and an act of celebration.
     But this isn't simply a Portrait of the Artist--for Artists (or would-be Artists) only. We are all characters in search of an Author, so the Spirit of Story tells Conall:
     For everything inside a story--and know most of all, that the world is a story and began with a word--is made up. And so the tale of a Green Knight with his chopped-off head still holding a knight of the Round Table to promises made is no less true than the tale of a man crammed with secrets who spontaneously combusts and leaves behind only a black, tallowy mark on the floorboards, and his story in turn is no less true than the tale of a Texas sharecropper's wife who has had a miscarriage only ten days before but just this morning was walking behind the mule and guiding the jerking plow.


  1. Congratulations! First Things is such a distinguished publication. I should renew my subscription ASAP.

    1. Thank you, Tim--I'm glad they've had me in the year's round up essay for the past few books.

  2. This is some review!
    Yes... tasty.

    1. Glad you liked--I'm fixing lunch for Yolanda and Ashley, so hoping that will be as well!

  3. Splendid review, Marly! Love the way it ends with a beautiful passage from the book--"For everything inside a story--and know most of all, that the world is a story and began with a word--is made up. . . ." Damn!

  4. i'm currently reading "the total library"(borges); a collection of his essays over a lifetime. certain themes arise: eternity, religion, destiny(s), at al. the editor(s) seem to have made a worthy effort at achieving a broad spectrum of thematic elements; some excerpts are repeated, some times more than once but maybe that was because borges repeated himself occasionally. otherwise an enjoyable and enlightening peruse... he certainly had an eclectic grasp of literature, philosophy and history!

    1. Hi, Mudpuddle--

      I think that certain motifs and thematic concerns are so obsessive with Borges that the essays simply have to have some overlap. Because so many things are connected--like the idea of the maze with infinity, for example, so that even a desert can be a maze that reveals endlessness. I do like him. And am interested in his reading as well--loves for Anglo-Saxon poetry, Stevenson, etc.

    2. i find it incredible that he learned all that saxon/anglo poetry after he was blind. and the language first! an interesting and provocative read...

    3. Yes, he had a fascinating mind. And must have had a good memory. I always like reading his interviews.


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.