Friday, March 23, 2012

Fantasy Out of Control?: George R. R. Martin and the Challenges of Epic Composition

George R. R. Martin’s latest book, A Dance with Dragons, has now been out for some time (it was released in July 2011).  Its release, combined with HBO’s hit Game of Thrones series has catapulted “The American Tolkien” into an even higher realm of stardom than before. Readers, be advised: I am a fan.  Dance comprises the second half of a two book sequence, beginning with A Feast for Crows, that continues the epic sage of the Westeros kingdom.  Both books cover roughly the same time period, though following events in different parts of the kingdom.  Dance’s events, however, go beyond those of Feast, drawing in characters from the earlier book in its later moments in an attempt for narrative closure. 

Dance’s characters will be familiar to many of Martin’s fans, since they are some of the most memorable that he has penned.  The book follows, for example, the attempts of Jon Snow to unify the Night’s Watch with their old enemies, the Wildlings, in order to combat the oncoming assault of the Others.  It also follows Daenerys Targaryen, now firmly ensconced in the city of Meereen, but facing war with neighboring cities, rebellion from within, the prospect of marriage, and, as if that weren’t enough, the murderous tendencies of her grown dragons.  And we become re-acquainted with Tyrion Lannister as he flees his patricide and gets sold into slavery in Pentos.  And finally, we learn of the fate of Theon Greyjoy, living as a sub-human slave of Ramsay Bolton, re-named “Reek.”  One of the major story-lines of this novel focuses on Theon’s reclaiming of his dignity, and his proper name.  On our way, we also become reacquainted with, among others, Cersei Lannister and Arya Stark, both of whom Martin provides with some truly memorable moments.  There are also some surprise appearances of characters from earlier in the series, but to reveal these would be churlish.

The events of the narrative are far too complex to summarize with any accuracy.  Instead, I would like to focus on that complexity itself.  The history behind the composition of George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons is crucial to understanding the challenges he faces in developing the rest of his epic series.  As many fans would attest, the first three books of his series work stunningly well.  Indeed, after the episode of the Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords, and with the other jaw-dropping events at the end of that book, fans could look back over the first three books and see the trajectory that built to that third book.  I have to say that this is one of the great accomplishments of modern epic fantasy writing, and what earned Martin his reputation, just as much as his trademark grittiness and Machiavellian sensibility.

In many ways, though, Martin put himself in a very difficult position.  True, he had pulled off a grand narrative climax that was profoundly satisfying to the reader.  However, he had built his narrative with such complexity that the narrative verged on being unwieldy.  And so it proved, with the next manuscript becoming so long that it became not one but two books, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons.  And this left Martin with decisions to make: should he write one long manuscript and then split the book in half?  Or should he split the “points of view” into two books, and follow one set of characters in one book and one set in another?  Controversially, he opted for the latter.  Even more controversially, he left many of the characters that provided the focal points of the series (Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister) to the later book.  This made A Feast for Crows, in my reading, underwhelming, though not unaccomplished, and makes A Dance With Dragons far more interesting than the previous book.

But an even more serious problem emerges in the narrative content of these books.  Both books have a sense of starting over.  It is as if Martin’s huge beast of an epic had reached the end of “Volume I” with the conclusion of A Storm of Swords and had to begin a new series of events, now juggling a significant number of balls in the air.  Furthermore, Martin had cast his main characters to the far reaches of Westeros, and had to find a way to bring them back together again.  And so the main events of A Feast for Crows took place mainly in the south, and the main events of A Dance with Dragons mainly in the north, though Martin brings the two threads together at the end of Dance, attempting a kind of narrative closure for the two books.

It is for this reason that I ultimately find both of these books to be unsatisfying.  They do not stand on their own as novels; neither one provides narrative satisfaction on its own, nor does Dance really provide that for the sequence of the two.  But I think that the relative failures of these two novels reveal a danger in the writing of novels, and perhaps particularly in writing of epic fantasy, with which many writers struggle.  The novel in the 19th century aimed for comprehensiveness; for example, Dostoevsky wants to show you the range of philosophical and theological positions in the Russia of his day in The Brothers Karamazov.  Likewise, George Eliot wants to show you the social stratification of an English town in Middlemarch.  Tolstoy wants to show you … just about everything in War and Peace.  The literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin has referred to the “heteroglossia” of the novel, its attempt to show you multiple social voices in dialogue, comparison, and contestation.  It is this tendency that provides such thematic richness to the experience of reading a novel.

Martin shares this drive to totality, and in some ways attempts to return epic fantasy to a more realist mode (though I think that Martin’s understanding of realism has still yet to be fully revealed).  He wants to show you the gritty, violent, political machinations of a kingdom that has had very few moments of peace.  And Martin wants to describe that world in detail.  His use of “points of view” clearly delineates the heteroglossia of his novels.  And Martin revels in the details of his kingdom, giving each segment of it its own customs, perspectives, priorities and interests.  He combines an almost anthropological and historical sensibility with a flair for the fantastical.

But the problem with narrative writing is that such heteroglossia has to be balanced with the focus of a narrative, ultimately telling a single sweeping story that aims inexorably towards its conclusion.  In tension with that narrative need is that a world such as Martin’s can take on a life of its own.  A narrative builds naturally, and expansively, and can take in just as much as a writer can imagine.  There are always more details to discover in a fantastical world.  There are always more potential voices to draw into the narrative web.  To top it all off, characters have a pesky tendency to have a life of their own.  A responsible novelist does not have complete control over a character or set of characters; the characters grow and have an agency all their own.  They do things, those rebellious characters.  It’s all a writer can do to keep up with them.  And then there is the problem of having to extract oneself from various narrative knots.  Even if one knows how the narrative will end, getting your unruly characters to that point is a difficult task. 

I think this is the issue that Martin has run into: his narrative has become too sprawling, too complex.  This is because he has reveled, along with all of us, in his capacities of invention, description, and character development.  The real question now, however, is whether he can reign it all in and re-focus the events to come to a satisfying conclusion.  Dance therefore does not provide a satisfying read in its own right; it seems like it is one step along the way, perhaps a necessary step in regaining a sense of control over a narrative run slightly amok.

Does this mean that one should not read these two books?  Not at all.  Martin’s vision here is still vast, and his characters are still characters that one cares about.  Martin’s world-building is still fascinating; he is, incidentally, one of the current epic fantasy writers, along with R. Scott Bakker, who deals with religion in his novels, though perhaps here the depths of Martin’s spiritual vision for his epic are still to be revealed.  Nevertheless, to sink into Martin’s world and to follow these characters is a privilege indeed.  It is enjoyable because of the high narrative standards that Martin set for himself earlier in the series.  Martin has retained his audience even through two plodding books.  It remains to be seen whether he will fulfill the high promise of this landmark series.