Literature as a consolatory device

I took the occasion of a forum discussion to delve in some ideas I was brooding for some time. It’s again the ideal link between all the books I’ve read lately, with “Infinite Jest” as the central pillar.

The discussion about characters is the excuse to examine literature and its position in the grand scheme of things.

the soldiers are just random mouthpieces for the author, who’ll switch attitude (I cannot speak of personalities: they don’t actually have personalities) with every scene. It’s not really hard to be more powerful than that :)

Take Gardens of the Moon. On my first read I could hardly match a Bridgeburner name with the corresponding character, if I did the description of the personality of that character would still be rather limited.

I’m following Tor re-read of the same book now. With the struggle to memorize names and context out of the way I’m discovering a whole new layer in characterization that was almost entirely missing on my first read. Dialogue that was before just between anonymous masks is now consistent with the character and unexpectedly rich in nuances. I feel like I’m reading a wholly different book. Not just consistent but filled to the brim with cross-references that required the insight I didn’t have before. Things to glide over or just producing a big question mark to then move on with the reading. The last two pages I’ve read about Rallick Nom gave an introspection and depth to the character that I didn’t remember was there, written really well. The tension of Kalam and Quick Ben when they are found by Sorry, and the realization that what they thought was correct, and that it meant they would be dead. Or when they leave for their mission, knowingly reciting a number of delusions as to exorcise them. Then the scene with Whiskeyjack waiting for them with the rest of the squad, a scene where every line adds something to the characterization and true friendship of the whole squad, the dialogue between them, and then the arrival of Quick Ben who cringes in front of WJ, and WJ losing his patience. An undeniable feel that these characters have been together for a really long time, and not just since the beginning of the written page. Characters that come out of the page, with natural dialogue between them and drawn from they are, and not directed to the reader.

That scene is as great as any Black Company scene written by Glen Cook, and it’s from a book that is far from the best Erikson delivered when it comes to characterization.

The confusion and inconsistency isn’t of the characters, it is of the reader. The books pretend a reader to memorize and familiarize way more than it is possible, way more than what it is reasonable to ask, and that’s why re-reads are so revelatory in this series about both characters and plot. The confusion of the reader is undeniable because the series represents the far opposite of “accessibility”. It’s actually a big flaw the series has. It is inimical, too dense and unwieldy. But the characterization is there in that ink and it is consistent. It requires more patience than usual because you only get quick glimpses at a great number of characters, and they only become “real” characters with an adequate amount of pages and time, time that is definitely not easily available among readers who are already having an hard time getting through a so dense book and digesting Erikson parsimonious writing style.

Erikson’s characterization can be compared to an impressionist painter who only delicately dabs and sketches. It will take time to familiarize and recognize a character for what it actually is, and to appreciate the panting that at a first glance appeared as just a confusion of random colors. The forms are in the painting, but it takes time to make the eye used to them and recognize them for their value.

This opposed to a traditional type of characterization (neither better nor worse, just different) where you stay in the mind of a character for the long haul. Full-on introspection that begins giving you the context of where and how that person is living, what he feels, what he loves, his fears, his desires. A thoroughly rationalized character. That makes a reader familiarize and understand it. Identify himself and so “caring” for the personal story and feel emotional attachment and empathy.

The heritage of “modern” fantasy was not in delivering characters that are “gray”. But in forcing the reader into their PoV. We often have warring factions, but we zoom into both of them, taking both sides. All of the recent fantasy with gray characters could be turned into solid black and white by just removing the corresponding PoVs. Without motivations and alternative observation points, every story becomes polarized.

The thing Erikson successfully or unsuccessfully tries to realize with his characterization is about starting to show that “stories” exist with the characters, but also in spite of them. The real world chews characters and spits them out, is disdainful of personal stories. A book can usually follow the life of a character through an ideal arc, whose premises define its conclusion. But that’s the nice trick and deceit that traditional literature does to the real world. The illusion that there is “sense” and “meaning”. Beginnings and ends. Justice. Retribution. Payoff. We create “meaning” out of a meaningless, unjust world. Lives are cut short and no one actually dies only once he solved his issues. Flaws, imperfection, lack of meaning and especially the lack of understanding of others are the things that are always true. Humanity is about the damnation of the deceit of seeing “meaning” where there is none. It’s a tragedy, and the Malazan series is written as a tragedy. It’s not “fantasy”, it’s a 1:1 copy of this world, a reflection on a only slightly misshapen mirror.

To grieve is a gift best shared. As a song is shared.
Deep in the caves, the drums beat. Glorious echo to the herds whose thundering hoofs celebrate what it is to be alive, to run as one, to roll in life’s rhythm. This is how, in the cadence of our voice, we serve nature’s greatest need.
Facing nature, we are the balance.
Ever the balance to chaos.

“in the cadence of our voice” means a written page. Language. Or what only separates humanity from the rest of life forms. (I am a man. I stand apart from these things.) Nature is the chaos from where we desperately scrape meaning.

With that lacerating truth in mind, Erikson realizes characters whose story (and characterization) is shred and tattered. Suspicion and opaqueness are traits that are true in our world. And if a foe suddenly turns into a possible ally it’s not “inconsistency”, it’s understanding. Full-on introspection doesn’t work like that even for ourselves. (Foster Wallace attempts “true” full-on introspection with the result that it generates a tremendous annihilating whirlpool that either sucks you in or hurls you away) We don’t have the privilege of a personal writer who overlooks what we do every day and inscribes meaning and finality into our lives. We are opaque and uncertain even to ourselves, even less to one that merely observes. Meaning is not “found” outside, it is created within. The story of the Malazan series is unmindful of characters, it’s up to the characters to find their path, only to see it end abruptly. And up to the reader to decide what to do with them.

The only journey that lay ahead of him was a short one, and he must walk it alone.
He was blind, but in this no more blind than anyone else. Death’s precipice, whether first
glimpsed from afar or discovered with the next step, was ever a surprise. A promise of
the sudden cessation of questions, yet there were no answers waiting beyond. Cessation
would have to be enough. And so it must be for every mortal. Even as we hunger for
resolution. Or, even more delusional: redemption.

Now, after all this time, he was able to realize that every path eventually, inevitably
dwindled into a single line of footsteps. There, leading to the very edge. Then… gone.
And so, he faced only what every mortal faced. The solitude of death, and oblivion’s final
gift that was indifference.

The Malazan series is not consolatory, it is about compassion and reconciliation.

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