Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Michel Faber's "The Courage Consort" Book Review

What I admire about Faber: a refusal to live up to our expectations. In his novels "Under the Skin," which perhaps took on a bit more than it could handle but featured masterfully drawn scenes in the Highlands between the victims and their mysterious killer, and "The Crimson Petal & The White," the subsequent contemporary homage to the Victorian "triple decker" which proved worthy of its twenty years of preparation (I hear a sequel's a-borning), Faber combined a love for the fabulations he created and a seriousness about what he expected from his readers as to committment towards the half-familiar, half-alien sensibilities he explores.

By the way, this novella collection, which I read after the shorter stories compiled recently and issued in the US as "Vanilla Bright Like Eminem" (reviewed by me), in its British version had featured as its title piece the shortest novella in "The Courage Consort," "The Fahrenheit Twins." Rather confusing, so I figured I'd clear it up for any transatlantic followers or readers of the fine print on the copyright acknowledgements of Faber's works.

Previous readers on [the Amazon US] site have summarized the stories themselves, and fairly discussed their strengths or weaknesses. I agree, but when reading them, the ambiguities that later perplex me earlier have entertained me. That is, Faber-- so a blurb from The Scotsman notes on the inside flap-- "is fiercely inventive, his plotting wholly unpredictable, but he pulls no tricks." True, but whether readers will be pleased by Faber's skillfully disguised (at least before the conclusion) tendency to leave ends loosened rather than neatly tied up at a story's end may show whether one wants in fiction the messy versimilitude of "real life" along with the metaphors, digressions, symbolism, and characterization of any literary text. The stories do not end when you expect, nor do the characters meet the ends you expected.

"The Courage Consort" stayed with me akin to watching a multi-layered arthouse film. It did not satisfy all my questions, but in leaving them vague, the resonance somehow echoed the musical and sonic textures of the story itself. There were, unlike most popular narratives on screen or in print, many suggestions left unanswered. The cumulative flow of Faber's prose stands out; while individual sentences may not show off their precision, their total effect works to set mood and delve into motive well. The characters all turn recognizably familiar while remaining "types" as in an allegory. The omniscient voice tends to drift in and out of a main figure, and again this may frustrate readers wanting easier explanations. This story may be more to the taste of readers who have read other stories by Faber.

Similarly, "The Hundred and Ninety Nine Steps" sets up with its Whitby setting, Dracula references, Gothic and murder and monastic settings all sorts of intricacies, perhaps intentionally left all about at the end of the story half-connected, perhaps since Faber wished to simply conclude rather than tie up the loose ends tediously. I liked the clash of Siân's medievalism with Mack's yuppie motives, but their exchanges appeared too mannered, and not only on her side as would be expected. The dog turned out to be my favorite of the trio! The mood of the historic seaport works well, but quirks remain-- why the Welsh name of the protagonist? Why is her surname a secret? What's the point of her mid-career curatorial switch? This story would appeal most to readers who liked "Crimson."

I wasn't as taken by the Fahrenheit twins; their arch names and the kitschy nature of her fairytale parents and their Siberian second home appeared to lack the grounding in reality that the previous two stories had established. This does show Faber's range and his imagination, but the story's dialogue and the narrator's coy tone served as barriers between my understanding of as opposed to my enjoyment of this story. It's ambitious in the way many of his stories are in "Vanilla," and this story as a fable proves uneven, if perhaps a good choice for readers of "Vanilla" or "Under the Skin."

Faber remains a favorite writer of mine for his ideas, his refusal to find the easy way out of his fictional labyrinths, and his intelligence. He may not follow the lead of so many genre writers who never give you a detail or a character that they cannot account for later. The prodigality of Faber's invention may make him a figure admired by a few rather than many, but he seems to have found his style and may it serve him and us well for many more decades of quality fiction on whatever he sees fit to make into his next novel or story.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

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