So – Hal Duncan and Modernism.
Well, his writing (particularly ‘Vellum’, as I’ve still got to sit down properly with ‘Ink’) is profoundly modernist in structure, relying on fractured narratives, parallels between individual sub-narratives, broad, deep allusiveness and massive stylistic experimentation to communicate meaning.
But it avoids the worst excesses of High Modernist mandarin-ism through their deep commitment to the broken and the battered. HD’s heroes are neither the epic good nor the epic bad; they’re the people caught between the two, the ones that see basic humanity as a fundamental virtue to live by rather than a negotiable obstacle to enlightenment.
That commitment is de-fantasised through HD’s repeated return to the narrative and iconography of the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay student who was beaten to death for his sexuality in Laramie, Wyoming in 1999. His outrage at Shepard’s murder both gives the novel its profound ethical core and works as a structural equivalent to Dickens’ ‘dying thus around us every day’ riff in ‘Bleak House’.
It reminds us that that ‘Vellum’, like all stories, results from a process of fictionalisation, a process that always begins with reality; that the brutalities and exploitative imbalances described in the book are indeed happening thus around us every day. One of Pound’s regrets in the broken, defeated ‘Pisan Cantos’ is his lack of empathy; HD takes that empathy and makes it central to his work.
And the resultant sense of ethical precision helps him step around a key Post-Modernist problem. His clear and direct sense that ‘this is just wrong’ underpins the book’s complex, broad allusive range, preventing it from falling into simple relativism.
So that’s it in a nutshell. But of course it doesn’t communicate one key thing; this is wildly enjoyable, profoundly psychedelic and utterly groovy fantasy writing.
At base it makes me think of a comment Jim Morrison made, back in the 60s – ‘The Beatles and the Stones are for blowing your mind – The Doors are for when your mind is blown.’ That’s where Hal Duncan is in relation to much genre writing – so if you haven’t read him, go check him out!
Oh, and apologies for the dodgy lineation of the Pound quotes below – each line should be staggered across the page. I’m having huge problems getting WordPress to lineate consistently. Will have another go later today…