In the last two years, since I first discovered his books, Erikson has quickly became not only my favorite fantasy writer, but one of my favorite writers among all genres and classifications. And I started to ask myself what is that makes me “click” perfectly with some writers and not so much with others. What have Steven Erikson, David Foster Wallace and Roberto Bolano in common (the three most disparate writers I recently read)? I also got myself an answer: truthfulness. They write on the page things that are true. And I imagine the spontaneously arising question: how can a fantasy story be “true”? It can very well, and “Crack’d Pot Trail” is a most fitting example.
Recently I read a review of the first three novellas (not including this one, that comes fourth) that considered them a bit disappointing because they lacked a “serious” depth or actually gave something more to the characters primarily involved ( the necromancer Bauchelain & Korbal Broach, plus their manservant Emancipor Reese, the real star). This reminds me that the most devious aspect of everything that comes from Erikson’s pen/quill/keyboard is about the approach. Thus my warning, right here: this story of Bauchelain & Korbal Broach takes place, in-truth (and out-spoilers, trust me, for the whole length of this commentary), at the periphery of these characters. It is a story about them, but not featuring them. On the other side you get Erikson. Erikson himself, the writer, who put himself in the story unlike, not like, but still somehow similarly, Stephen King did with The Dark Tower. He’s there in the page and sometimes even pointing his finger and laughing at you, the reader. But, again, I remind you of the devious approach: the laugh is not scorn, just affinity. Sympathy.
The novella has a plot, it has a direction and drive, it moves toward a resolution already from the start. Akin to other fantasy and non-fantasy plots, it is also a journey. But in this case the plot isn’t the idea that truly builds the novella, there’s a metaphorical one that more strongly takes the scene. So two parallel binaries of purpose and narrative intent, both requiring payoff before the end, while also getting entwined enough to not be simply juxtaposed. Succeeding in doing that is not easy task at all. The novella is written beautifully, as I already raved weeks ago, almost to the point of showing off, stylistically brilliant, but in the second half I started having some serious doubts that it could get a satisfying resolution. Doubt that increased exponentially when I had just 10 pages left to read and still unable to see things possibly coming together in a decent way (no matter my own doubts were repeatedly voiced in the story itself by both characters and narrator). Then Erikson is able to pull it, masterly, in like 3 pages. It comes all together in three pages.
While the plot moves in a direction (an hapless bunch of artists, hunters, and champions of rectitude, together in necessity, on the heels of our infamous necromancers), the real story is about the relationship between art and audience. The artist, the critics and the public, seen from all possible perspectives and often metaphorically, but in such a case that a metaphor is, right the story, always executed literally, very real and sound (which I don’t explain here to not ruin the greatest idea/association in the novella). The tortuous relationship is made focus and explored without filters. What, elsewhere, readers often mistake for boisterous arrogance (on the part of Erikson, toward readers) and are ready to jump upright and accuse, is instead a skewed perspective because Erikson never defends univocally one side, and what appears as spite and mockery (sometimes even truly, but healthy, as part of all relationships) is also always parody of all parts included. The audience as well the writer (self-parody as well self-doubt are featured, hopefully not smothered and forgotten after the ending, that does take a side but that shouldn’t be interpreted as the author’s own true belief that erases all doubts before, in a kind of very, you know, un-subtle way, on the part of the reader. But we’re spinning again here and you never know which side you end up facing).
Which falls perfectly in the trick that makes the book, as subjects and objects mingle together and you can’t discern anymore if you are reading a parody or if you are yourself the object of parody, the one who’s laughing or the one who’s being laughed at, or maybe just staring at yourself in a mirror, playing both roles, that also connects with other layers inside the novella, both as themes and plots. Which novella essentially is: a satire, a parody. Totally un-subtle, not even trying. As satires are meant to be: all-encompassing, clever, malicious, deceitful, outrageous, disrespectful, defiant, very politically un-correct. And, essentially: truly subversive at its core since it lacks even a verse. There’s no safe ground. Everything and everyone is subject of scorn as well as compassion. No filters nor prejudices, just a razor sharp sight that spares no one.
Well, no one besides Bauchelain & Korbal Broach, who, you already know, are just meant to win even when they lose.
The premise that founds the story: who’s more useless in the world than an “artist”? (especially a world where first priority is just surviving) And what if, to justify their existence, the artists were made to pay with their own life if their art was judged not entertaining enough?
And what if democracy (voting for: life or gallows) was made of stupids and illiterates who would only reward the worst of the artists?
As you can imagine I loved this novella as much I loved the previous three. It’s not a mad rush as The Lees of Laughter’s End, not as funny and as entertaining, but it has a similar drive of The Healthy Dead and quality-wise I judge it above. Sharper and more outrageous. Plot-wise it only shines toward the end and slacks a bit in the middle, but the payoff in the end redeems that aspect, as long you don’t expect the plot and just the plot to drag you along for 180 pages. As in all cases, you have to be interested in what the writer is writing about, and in THAT case there’s no slacking or word wasted even here.
“So I pose the following provision. Should she decide, at any time in your telling, that you are simply… shall we say, padding your narrative, why, one or both of the knights shall swing their swords.”
It also reminded me I love reading.
In the 181 pages there’s also space for zombies (yes zombies, not T’lan Imass) and a good amount of graphic sex that will make you chuckle a lot (in a good way). Oh, and also a god addicted to jerking off.