Happy Lord of the Rings Day. 🙂
About a week ago, I began rereading book 7 of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. This followed my realisation earlier this year that I had somehow lost the ability to read fiction. I had neither the interest in the genre nor – unlike in the pre-pandemic era – the ability to force myself to read the first few pages of a book and automatically get into it.
A friend had lent his copy of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium short-stories, a classic of the high-fantasy genre. Though I could appreciate the higher quality of writing and why Harrison’s style is so celebrated, the stories themselves didn’t take. When I returned it to my friend, I noticed his collection of the Malazan books (to which I’m proud to have introduced him many years past), and asked to borrow book 7 – considered by many to be the series’s best installment (and by me to be the second-best).
The Malazan series is epic fantasy – in my view the highest form of fiction simply by virtue of the amount of invention involved followed by the discipline required to rein it in and make it all make sense – and I didn’t expect to be able to read it, beyond snippets here and there. But in four days, I finished 588 consecutive pages. (I’m currently on a two-day break to read a shorter non-fiction book.) It has been a pleasant yet unrelenting surprise. It seems I can read fiction, yet the thought of reading some other work in the genre remains off-putting. Why?
I have been thinking about this on and off, and today, I think I have the beginnings of a hypothesis. Epic fantasy fiction is one of the few things I truly love because it has fiction’s ability, through pure storytelling, to recapitulate a uniquely human experience of reality, or any particularly interesting part of it, as well as achieve that, and frequently expand it, to situate, deconstruct, and explore the human through different kinds of realities.
(I’m speaking, of course, of good epic fantasy, which J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth stories did in a limited yet genre-defining way in the early 20th century, and which to me today continues to be exemplified by the work of Steven Erikson.)
To begin reading a book of fiction is to begin a journey of pure discovery; to begin reading epic fantasy should only be more so. And so: I believe I have lost, hopefully temporarily, the appetite for discovery ab initio. Perhaps I’m afraid of what I will find, but it’s almost certainly that increasingly grim sensation that it will just be more of the same, related through new turns of phrase, new dramatis loci, and new points of view. Nothing new.
Non-fiction, in this regard, can be comforting because it helps to explain and de-threaten what is already known and has exhibited an unsettling tendency to repeat itself. (I particularly like monographs.) At this time, to me, the Malazan series is also practically non-fiction: less in the sense that I believe the series chronicles real events from an alternate reality and more that I read the books a decade ago, have vague memories of their various narrative arcs, and to reread them now is to not discover but rediscover.
Rediscovery is not repeated discovery just the way multiplication is not repeated addition; it is a second-order thing, something greater than the sum of its parts, containing both the prospect of discovery and the memory, so precious as I become more cynical, of its effect on the mind. Yes: I suppose I am, or like to think that I am, rereading the Malazan series to relive this effect and beat back the dark clouds of nothing-new-is-possible. And so far, I think it is working.
Perhaps once I (re)finish all the Malazan books, I can return to good old Tolkien himself…