Saturday, January 9, 2016

Weird & Wonderful- The Crane Wife

For our first bookclub of 2016, Weird & Wonderful gathered at City Lit Books to discuss Patrick Ness's 2013 novel, "The Crane Wife".

It's "not" a retelling of the classic tale, though it does draw some of its basic mechanics from it: there's a shape-shifting, magical crane, with amazing creative powers. This story is set in modern-day England, and focuses on an expatriate American, George, and his daughter Amanda, as well as Kumiko, the titular crane.

While we all agreed that the book had worthwhile bits, our overall consensus was quite negative, generally due to the feeling that it seriously flubs its own myth-making. Spoilers below:

Things we liked:
  •  Some aspects of George, particularly his relationships with Mehmet and his grandson.
  • Amanda, her character, and her relationships with the women in her office--those weird power dynamics.
  • Um, that's about it.
Though they did bring to mind the Disney/Pixar
short "Lava". Don't know how long this link will live
but you can watch it online.

Nonetheless, we had a fun time dissecting what we thought went wrong or didn't work here. Primarily, there are a number of core concepts that don't function or weren't communicated well: what exactly was going on with the "love=inflict pain, forgive=stab'em-through-the-heart" non-equations? Our biggest complaint over all was that the "Crane and Volcano" mythic/magic backstory just made no sense whatsoever to us, and didn't click with the rest of the world at all.

And when the supernatural elements the story relies on fail to deliver, the whole thing falls apart, and as a result we felt the novel was very uneven, "too literal, and then not literal enough", working in some narrowly-focused sections but not as a whole. There were also plot elements--particularly George & Rachel's affair--that came completely out of the blue and didn't feel real to us. Also, decisions made while being compelled by magic forces that you can't properly remember or be held accountable for are not really effective from a story-telling perspective.

We also talked about the difficulty in suspending disbelief over the tiles that George & Kumiko create, how life-alteringly beautiful they're supposed to be. We talked for a bit about the difficulty of deploying "fictional art" effectively, with comparison made to the music in David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" (which the Chicago Nerds recently discussed). Travis also told us about William "Princess Bride" Goldman's short story "Haircut", about a barber who gives life-alteringly beautiful haircuts, and how that couldn't be adapted to film.

While talking about the tiles, we also brought up Su Blackwell, whose work is a little bit like George's, and who also did the cover for the book.

There is some racial appropriation...oddness in here, primarily with Kumiko. Despite a Japanese name, and clearly originating from a Japanese myth, Ness rather bizarrely refuses to characterize her as actually Japanese; with others unsure of her nationality, she becomes merely a deracinated exotic figure. Which is weird, though it does go hand in hand with "The Crane Wife: the Ness Myth, not the Japanese Myth, Sorry I Didn't Just Pick a Different Name". We also didn't know what to make of Amanda's casual if seemingly-harmless racism re: Mehmet and Hank, and wondered why it was included since it didn't go anywhere.

"Crane Wife 1 &2" on Youtube
We talked about the original myth for a bit, as well as it's interpretation by the Decemberists in their 2006 album of the same name, which was apparently a major inspiration for Ness--a quote from the lyrics is the epigraph, and lines and words from the song appeared throughout. As I've mentioned before, Colin Meloy is the preeminent singer-songwriter on the topic of supernatural shapeshifting romance OF OUR TIME. And we talked about this as kind of mythic archetype--the supernatural spouse who can't be looked upon at certain times. Cupid and Psyche probably being one of the earliest recorded versions, but it's a recurring story--we mentioned selkie stories as one variant, including the version used in Neil Jordan's 2009 film "Ondine".

As mentioned above, we really liked Amanda and her sequences, which felt the most realized and interesting. Discussion of Rachel's constant lifting inflection led us to talk about sexist reporting/shaming on vocal patterns, and the fact that everybody--even NPR--does vocal fry. For a future Weird & Wonderful podcast special, look for 17 minutes of us demonstrating vocal fry, which may or may not double as the keening (or possibly hacking cough) of the majestic crane.

We had a great after-discussion, talking about what else we've been reading, famous Alaskan volcanoes, and the Happy & Seinfeld cuts of "The Shining".

A good club! Later this very same month, we are discussing "The Shining Girls" by Lauren Beukes. Check out Weird & Wonderful info, and many more events, at City Lit's website.

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