Monday, January 24, 2011

Thinking about books and magic

So I want to talk about a book. I know. I do this a lot. But this isn't a review. This is me, thinking out loud.

The book I want to talk about is Jo Walton's Among Others. There is a great deal I like about this  book. It is told in diary entries. Maybe that's an odd thing to mention, but I love novels that step outside of the traditional form. I love that Mori Phelps is such a voracious reader, and that it is through books that she learns about herself, and we learn about her. (I have often thought that if I were ever to attempt memoir, it would take the form of a very personal annotated bibliography. I do not measure out my life in coffee spoons, I measure it in other people's words.) I love the precision of the voice - Mori is real. And she is real in a way that I think explains a lot of the raving about this book in the speculative fiction community: we recognize ourselves in this bookish girl who lives a life outside of everyone else's.

But there is one thing that I really don't quite know what to think about. The magic. I'm pretty sure I'm supposed to believe that the magic in Among Others is actually there, that the book is a work of fantasy. Walton's discussion of the book on Whatever certainly supports this supposition. It's published by Tor, which publishes fantasy, and Mori certainly believes that the magic is real.

Except: all of the magic can be explained mimetically. That it's coincidence, or grief, the combination of isolation and imagination, or simply the miraculous strangeness of the everyday. 

Mori believes the magic is real. Maybe that should be enough for me as a reader - I spent years working on a dissertation about women whose experience of the divine fell into the category of the supernatural. And the academic answer I gave to people who would ask why I was writing on mentally ill women, was: "Well, they believed, and I owe them the respect of not treating their experiences as less than true for them." Mori's experience of magic is certainly true for her.

Maybe the point of Among Others is that uncertainty - that magic is a liminal kind of thing, and so there shouldn't be concrete explanations, and I should take off my academic gloves and stop trying to pluck out the heart of its mystery. But I guess the thing about this book, the thing that, while I like it a great deal, prevents me from loving it, is that I don't quite know what the mystery is.

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