Forty pages into Vellum, I was dazzled. Hal Duncan‘s debut novel appeared to be every bit as phantasmagoric as the tidal wave of advance hype was claiming it was. A hundred pages in, my initial delight was morphing into skepticism. Yes, Duncan is a remarkably assured stylist, but is there any direction here? Is there ever going to emerge a cogent narrative to involve me beyond the author’s obvious gift for lovely and visually evocative prose? By about 175 pages, I figured I had my answer.
I remember attending a critics’ panel at a local convention several years ago, before I launched my site, listening to Bruce Sterling. I love Bruce to death, especially when he prattles on in that showoffy way of his, demonstrating how much more well-read and intellectually promiscuous he is than you. He was in fine form this day, casually dropping the names of obscure eastern European literary critics and other smart folks you and I have never heard of but Bruce has, almost as if they and Bruce were drinking buddies, implying that these were the people science fiction needed to impress if ever the genre had a hope of being Taken Seriously in academia and entering literary high society.
My overall reaction, quite possibly shared by others in the audience, was why I should give a shit what these guys think, let alone why SF and fantasy even needs approval from outside the genre to be legitimized. But I took away something from that panel I always hoped I’d have a chance to use, and now I do. Bruce delighted in the fact one of his pet litcrit fashionistas had coined the term “cognitive estrangement,” and that’s a truly wonderful phrase that sums up my feelings while forcing myself through Hal Duncan’s Vellum.
This is a book of great, almost unsurpassed stylistic beauty that held my attention for a good while, though I only ever felt I had the sketchiest idea what the hell was going on. I had a basic idea of what Duncan was up to, sure. But cognitively, I felt completely estranged from the proceedings. Is there ever any point to this game of Mythical Chairs, other than the playing of it? There really isn’t, and that’s the goddess’s honest truth.
Vellum has neither characters nor plot in the traditional sense, and barely in any recognizable non-traditional sense. There is a premise involving the Book of All Hours, a legendary tome written by the Hand of God Himself, that unlocks access to the Vellum, the underlying fabric of all Creation. In Vellum‘s fantastic prologue, the book is discovered by a student at a university library in England. Opening it, he finds it to be full of maps that are recognizable at first, going on to alter the geography of the world, eventually showing the land masses of our world as only a tiny fragment of a series of continents spanning eternity. And by opening this book, he is now in this new world, making his way through the curious maps in search of — something — an answer — anything.
The Vellum is inhabited by the unkin — angels, demons, demigods and the like. Each unkin in the Vellum is inscribed with his or her name in a form of a “graving,” or sigil embedded in the flesh, fixing that individual’s true identity no matter how many different faces and names that person might wear while traveling the Vellum. The novel evolves into an exercise in retelling ancient myths. Duncan has a character named Thomas Messenger, a gay college student who happens to be the ancient god Tammuz or Dumuzi. His sister, Phreedom, is also the goddess Inanna, who follows Dumuzi into the Underworld with, shall we say, not terribly happy results. We even get a dreadlocked version of the angel Metatron, making like a cross between Sam Jackson and the Man with No Name.
Vellum seems to be precisely the sort of book designed to appeal to folks who think like Bruce. Though in all honesty, I think Bruce would hate it, and so would his favorite European academics. It isn’t that there’s anything wrong with Duncan’s wanting to do things differently; it’s that Duncan is so ham-fisted about it. See! how bravely the author defies convention, crosscutting between multiple plotlines, even using — how cool is this? — different fonts for each one. Gasp! in awe at the sumptuous writing, the dreamlike descriptions of alternate worlds, sun-parched landscapes, the way every character lights a cigarette with the same intensity and sense of purpose someone would use to fire a nuclear missile.
In fact, Vellum is empty, pretentious twaddle. It’s another naked emperor for the cheering throng that mistakes obscurantism for brilliance. I cannot even call Duncan’s novel an exercise in style over substance, because that term implies a substance beneath the style. Duncan, having exhaustively researched ancient myths, is just playing around with them here without shining the light of understanding upon them — either as stories in and of themselves, or upon the role of myth as a necessary defining ingredient of civilization. Rather, Duncan settles for being impressed with his own book’s coolness, displayed with all the glossy superficiality of a Vertigo graphic novel. We know how cool all of Vellum‘s characters are, because they wear leather and dark glasses, say “fuck” every third word, and only light their cigarettes with Zippos because Zippos make that cool klacking sound. If Vellum ever earns a place in the history of fantasy fiction, it will be for its sheer number of klacking Zippos.
Taken as a fantasy novel, Vellum‘s tropes feel shopworn. Both the themes of alternate realities and the deities and demigods that inhabit them were, I thought, much more entertainingly (not to mention coherently) addressed by Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials. As for finding new roles for ancient gods, give me Dan Simmons‘ Ilium and Olympos any day, or any of Terry Pratchett‘s romps. The haphazard narrative structure here recalls, to some degree, early Moorcock and Ballard, and even Delany‘s Dhalgren. For a book that many are likely to champion as a true original in a normally imitative genre, the irony is thick that Duncan’s antecedents are as evident as they are.
I normally go out of my way to avoid reading other critics’ reviews before writing my own. I know, for instance, via the grapevine that the estimable John Clute has savaged this book, but I’m waiting until after I post this to read it. Still, I found myself visiting a few columns and blogs by Duncan’s defenders while reading Vellum, just to make sure I wasn’t being terribly unfair or just plain dense in my assessment of a novel that has admittedly captivated quite a few smart and thoughtful people. I was surprised to find many of the book’s fans describing it much the way Matthew Cheney does on The Mumpsimus: “It’s a mess. But as messes go, it’s one I had a lot of pleasure wading through.” I suppose this demarcates the line between Vellum‘s defenders and detractors. Either you roll with its author’s penchant for masturbatory self-indulgence (an attitude I have some sympathy for, as I apply it to a handful of writers myself), or you don’t. In Hal Duncan’s case, I didn’t. Cheney writes, “…each time I was ready to give up on the whole book as gassy claptrap, something snared me again…” Those snares missed me. Thanks for taking one for the team, Matt.
I know it’s easy to imagine there’s much more going on with this novel than meets the eye. But I found Vellum to be very much like its namesake, the parchment on which so many ancient manuscripts were carefully illuminated. Beautiful to look at — pick it up, and it crumbles.
This review by Thomas M. Wagner is reprinted from his website SFReviews.net by special arrangement.