Sunday, February 14, 2016

Soft Sighing Strains

Sometimes, a story that impressed me when I was nine years old not only survives the passage of decades, but turns out to be stranger than I had realized.

"Noise" was my first exposure to the work of Jack Vance, and I went on to read a lot more by him during my 'teens. My reactions were mixed. Some of the stories I admired for their intensity and clever details -- "The Dragon Masters," for example, or "The Moon Moth." Others felt emotionally hollow; lacking all conviction of detail or mood, they seemed less like stories written than stories typed. The worst example of this would be "The Last Castle."

After a while, the doubts appeared. Vance had been praised for the sensual details of his work, but I found that other writers had better eyes for setting. I preferred Clark Ashton Smith, J. G. Ballard, Avram Davidson, M. John Harrison, Gardner Dozois, C. L. Moore: writers who presented their worlds with a vivid sensory conviction that went far beyond anything I had found in Vance. And although he had been praised as a stylist, I found more precision and flavour in the best prose of Damon Knight, James Blish, Brian Aldiss.

For me, his greatest limitation was a focus on surfaces, rarely on depths. His detached, ironic approach to narrative could only take him so far, and it often kept him away from those fundamental things that make fiction worth reading. A typical example: at one point in The Languages of Pao, the protagonist was left alone with a woman who took an interest in him. Most writers would use this moment to uncover a character's inner life, to suggest the emotions and motivations that he would normally keep hidden; but given this opportunity, Vance drew the curtain and slipped away. "The Last Castle" went even further in avoiding depths, and I could never understand its appeal.

And so, by the time I was twenty, I had stopped reading Jack Vance. Curiosity brought me back to his work a few years ago, and my reactions have been much the same: he will never be a favourite of mine, and much of his work is not for me, but some of the stories I loved in my 'teens I would still call wonderful.

"Noise," for example.

The story begins with a clumsy prologue:

Captain Hess placed a notebook on the desk and hauled a chair up under his sturdy buttocks. Pointing to the notebook, he said, “That’s the property of your man Evans. He left it aboard the ship.”

Galispell asked in faint surprise, “There was nothing else? No letter?”

“No, sir, not a thing. That notebook was all he had when we picked him up.”

Galispell rubbed his fingers along the scarred fibers of the cover. “Understandable, I suppose.” He flipped back the cover. “Hmmmm.”

The notebook, however, in a quiet and more confident style, tells an enigmatic story in stark yet colourful detail:

The blue day goes. The sapphire sun wanders into the western forest, the sky glooms to blue-black, the stars show like unfamiliar home-places.

For some time now I have heard no music; perhaps it has been so all-present that I neglect it.

The blue star is gone, the air chills. I think that deep night is on me indeed…I hear a throb of sound, plangent, plaintive; I turn my head. The east glows pale pearl. A silver globe floats up into the night like a lotus drifting on a lake: a great ball like six of Earth’s full moons. Is this a sun, a satellite, a burnt-out star? What a freak of cosmology I have chanced upon!

The silver sun -- I must call it a sun, although it casts a cool satin light -- moves in an aureole like oyster-shell. Once again the color of the planet changes. The lake glistens like quicksilver, the trees are hammered metal… The silver star passes over a high wrack of clouds, and the music seems to burst forth as if somewhere someone flung wide curtains: the music of moonlight, medieval marble, piazzas with slim fluted colonnades, soft sighing strains….

When I was nine years old, I loved the simple magic of the story. It offered no explanations, no background. It only conveyed the baffled response of one man to a strange yet welcoming place, and it did this one thing with clarity and confidence.

The star falls; the forest receives it. The sky dulls, and night has come.

I face the east, my back pressed to the pragmatic hull of my lifeboat. Nothing.

I have no conception of the passage of time. Darkness, timelessness. Somewhere clocks turn minute hands, second hands, hour hands -- I stand staring into the night, perhaps as slow as a sandstone statue, perhaps as feverish as a salamander.

In the darkness there is a peculiar cessation of sound. The music has dwindled; down through a series of wistful chords, a forlorn last cry….

A glow in the east, a green glow, spreading. Up rises a magnificent green sphere, the essence of all green, the tincture of emeralds, glowing as grass, fresh as mint, deep as the sea.

A throb of sound: rhythmical strong music, swinging and veering.

The green light floods the planet, and I prepare for the green day.

As I read this again last week, what struck me was the absence of those ingredients often considered fundamental to fiction. Is there any hint of characterization? No. Of conflict? Not really. Of rising tension? Hardly at all. Curiosity about the next page? This might work on a first reading, but not on the next.

Instead, what drives the story, what kept me reading, is a quality hard to describe yet undeniable: the allure of wonder. With stark imagery, with simple use of colour, "Noise" tugged me towards a mysterious, beautiful place, and made me want to stay.

People who read and write must decide for themselves what works in a short story. For me, quite often, this can be hard to specify; I can only point, and quote, and say, Magical. That was my response to "Noise" when I was nine years old, and this is how I feel about it now.

No comments: