Lost in Cloud & Ashes
My mother doesn't drink alcohol. She doesn't like the lack of control -- the feel of it more than an actual loss -- that comes with even a single glass of wine, a single beer. The smell of alcohol makes her shiver and a sip makes her jump and screw up her face like she's eaten a lemon. I imagine a similar expression on reviewers who complain of a lack of explanation in a book and on critics who place clarity on the ultimate pedestal, no matter the purpose of the writing. They, too, shiver when they encounter words so thick that understanding is visceral rather than mental, like bumping into trees in a fog.
This kind of reading drunkenness, though, is a key part of what I seek in fantasy: the experience of not knowing, of being uncertain, of being unsteady. Its watered-down forms are fantasy's stereotypical strange names, proto-medieval kingdoms, and the vampire and fairy societies woven into contemporary America. But fantasy has stronger drinks. The strongest, perhaps, are those that not only don't directly explain their new rules but that also release the latent unfamiliarity in sentence structure and verbs, as well as nouns. Greer Gilman's Cloud & Ashes: Three Winter's Tales is of this strain, rife with a mythology that borrows freely from Persephone, Odin, Icarus, and others to create a myth-cycle new and strange, told in language that is not quite our own. When I first read the novel, I carried the book on my train commute, adrift in a mythology and world that left me heartbroken and drained, yearning to return. At the same time, the unfamiliarity of it all and Gilman's trust in the reader to keep up meant that I wasn't certain what precisely I had just experienced. Like running through a forest in the fog, I knew by feel that some of the trees had needles and others had flat leaves and still others had broad trunks that disappeared above the fog. But I couldn't say where the forest began and ended. I didn't know its borders and couldn't have retraced my steps. I was drunk, in the best way.
After three readings, the borders are a bit clearer. Cloud & Ashes is composed of three titled sections. The first two, "Jack Daw's Pack" and "A Crowd of Bone," were published individually elsewhere. Together, though, the three form a cohesive narrative, with characters and storylines introduced at the beginning and resolved at the end of the third and longest section, "Unleaving." The characters belong to and believe in a mythology closely tied to the seasons, the death of the sun in winter and its rebirth in spring. The narrative spends the most time within the Persephone part of this mythology. In this version, Ashes is the summer daughter held trapped by her winter mother, Annis, though in some ways they are also both each other, both different versions of the moon. The story's seed is planted when Thea, who is Ashes, breaks from the myth. She runs away and has a child with a regular man. Her daughter, Margaret, replaces Thea under Annis's control, but is no more willing than her mother to remain trapped in her role. The story of Thea and Margaret is a story of constellations and harvests, a story in which characters fit themselves to their mythology in order to undo it.
"Jack Daw's Pack," the first section, is the key to this mythology, and yet, because of the newness of everything to the reader, those first twenty pages are a gorgeous obscurity before later storylines place the characters in context. Nevertheless, those pages have to come first, flashing images that echo and repeat throughout the novel. They remind us, for instance: "If they come as guisers, you must let them in: the slouched one with her bag of ashes; the patched one with his broom of thorn. They bring the sun." We don't know what it means at first, but as the book continues we learn the guising -- the ritual theater that enacts Gilman's mythology. With knowledge, the meaning breaks through the fog like the sun the guisers bring.
But I don't want to make an argument, even indirectly, that reading Cloud & Ashes will be worth it if you just work at it until understanding comes. Pleasure is present at all stages: the fog of the first twenty pages, chilled and dripping and quiet; the context and accumulated knowledge that pierce the fog like sunlight, making rainbows between the trees; and finally the flashes of clear sky on a third reading, when memory finds the connections previously missed. Pleasure is also in the language itself, whether understood or not. Here's a description of cutting hay:
Sweetness of green hay. Midsummer. Endless dusk. And still the mowers, mothpale in their shirts, strode on. Kit watched the coil, recoiling of their backs, the long sweep of their scythes, in unison, and so enlaced that not a blade of grass between them stood. They struck and strode, advancing like the white edge of a wave: whish and tumble and the intricating arcs of edge. A long wave, standing with the sun. It stood; the flowers fell and withered with the grass. No sea, but slow green fire, kindled by the sun his kiss.
The play of color and movement -- green hay, white wave of mowers, green fire -- is only the beginning. The rhythm of the sentences call out to be read aloud and savored.
Unlike Nalo Hopkinson's writing, discussed in last month's column, Gilman isn't mimicking or evoking speech patterns. This is most apparent in regards to the dialogue. There are nods to naturalism, with shortened words, phrasing, and references to the mythology imperfectly understood by those who don't live within it. But even the briefest exchanges don't seem quite natural. For example, when Margaret runs away, the servants of the human household where she is taken in converse about where she may have come from:
"Ashes?" said a wispy child, and blushed in confusion. "Not Ashes, but..."
"Ashes i' May? Thou noddy. Imbers i' January." The scoffer drained her mug and held it out.
This exchange is recognizable as dialogue, and borrows from the structures we have learned to recognize as speech, yet its rhythms are not those of regular speech. On my third read, I finally put the language together with the importance of guising, or ritual playacting. Gilman's language in and out of dialogue is dramatic, theatrical. Its home is within the wordplay and meter of early theater and the less naturalistic forms of contemporary work. Cloud & Ashes is still very much a novel -- there is not nearly enough dialogue for a play -- but the language itself is evocative of the home stages in which the characters present their plays. Much as the language of a play can work with the stage to emphasize that we, the audience, are now elsewhere or else-when, so too does Gilman's heightened language work with the mythology and the physical act of reading to emphasize that we, the readers, are no longer in the here and now.
There are works that create another world with explanation and "clear" language, leading the reader step-by-step and thus avoiding the drunkenness of being truly lost within a book. But that is a different kind of pleasure entirely, as dissatisfying when I want to be lost as being lost is dissatisfying when I want to be grounded. The risk is that with knowledge and familiarity, the drunkenness of Cloud & Ashes, or a similar book, will dissipate. It's true that the second and third reads were not like the first, but they brought their own pleasures -- the buzz of language, the heartbreak of myth. And luckily there will always be new books, unexplored worlds, to get drunk off again and again.