Hal Duncan’s great big Book of All Hours

Hal Duncan. The Book of All Hours:
Vellum (Macmillan 2005).
Ink (Macmillan 2007).

Okay, I somehow missed these when they first appeared, to almost universal acclaim. All of which they deserve; indeed, some are probably already writing theses on them. Let’s just say that Duncan has fashioned a fascinatingly complex narrative collage of ancient mythology & contemporary popular culture, making The Book of All Hours a demanding as well as exhilarating lofty entertainment. So I’m not going to go on about how good they are, but will offer some impressions, notes, you might say, on these books & their effects.

One has to read these books in order, & will have thought about Vellum by itself before moving on to Ink, but they make up a single ‘book,’ of four ‘volumes.’ Although we don’t see it right away, one of this highly formalized & deeply mythological work’s core narrative movements is the most basic one of the seasons: the ‘volumes’ in this order: ‘The Lost Deus of Sumer,’ ‘Evenfall Leaves,’ ‘Hinter’s Knights,’ & ‘Eastern Mourning.’ The puns here are instructive; punning is a major narrative trope in The Book of All Hours. Ancient myths & their repetitions throughout history, as well as every genre tale going & legends, fairy tales, ballads, & other iterations of all of these work their way into the narrative mix. Duncan’s imagination, his knowledge of all the stories, both ancient & new, he can take & collage, is multifarious & generates new possibilities at every turn.

Published a bit earlier than Robson’s first Quantum Gravity novel, The Book of All Hours shares with it, or Duncan shares with Robson, an almost obsessive fascination with traditional stories & their many adaptations throughout history & with 20th century pop culture (which for both these British writers shifted from Great Britain [huge in the 19th century] to the USA). However, Duncan also focuses one of the many narrative strands he weaves together in The Book on World War I & its aftermath, a thematic interest he shares with some other writers of the late 20th & early 21st centuries.

There’s no way to simply summarize the palimpsestic narrative(s) of The Book: it is a maze of intertwined stories, which some of the characters (who appear in various avatars throughout the various tales) may be writing. Or they just participate in all these retellings, written somehow into repetitions of some of the most ancient stories of gods (& God) in which some few actors (& one of the big questions the novel keeps asking is: are they doing good or evil?) keep trying to break out of their inherited structures (so The Book can be read as a post-structural fantasy, an examination of the very structures of inherited story).

One possible beginning: March 2017 (so it’s SF). Another: ancient Sumer (so it’s mythological fantasy). There are many others, as The Book opens up many times, many myths & legends, many tales told. In these, a small group of figures appear, again & again, usually unaware of their earlier (or later: the whole concept of linear time is deliberately thrown out of whack here) versions (although occasionally a couple of them begin to catch glimpses of these past ‘lives’ in a kind of fugue state. especially when suffering traumas, like being tortured.) These ‘unkin’ include the first rebel, a goddess gone against the grain, the friend or lover, among others. All have been ‘graved’ at some point, the ink of a kind of spiritual tattooing marking them no matter what changes they go through. And then there’s the ancient & ongoing war among the gods, or angels, or whatever they may be, to save the world (from chaos of course) or destroy it (via anarchy of course). Metatron, once scrivener to the gods, then God, now leads his forces on the side of good (& God) & is therefore sometimes forced, he would say, to let the end justify the means. There seems to be no leader of the other side, & sometimes no other side, really, except poor humanity, also the battlefield. And I haven’t even mentioned the bits of ‘Errata’ at the end of each chapter, in which The Book offers glimpses of the Vellum, the realities that underlie ‘reality,’ perhaps the place or archive of all the dead since the beginning of time.

Duncan has done a masterful job of salvaging core stories from both the ancient past & the near past (World Wars I & II, the Spanish Civil War, & what could be the ongoing war(s) in the Middle East), overwritten, fading & falling into each other on the vellum of history. His central crew of reappearing figures assume different guises throughout, even sometimes changing into one another in a fascinatingly confusing manner with their multiple & exchanged names. Thus, he constructs The Book’s characters in a most post-realist way; they seldom stay around long enough to gain any realistic depth, though they reappear in the folds of the vellum that is the book we hold. Yet though on one level they are simply ciphers they do gain our readerly trust somehow. In his own way, then, he has written a kind of nouveau roman fantasy which demonstrates that what really counts in terms of gaining a reader’s complicity in entering the realm of story is not so much a compilation of mundane facts & details about a character’s personal past & present as the force of the writing at any moment in the telling, the power of style. Even though the central figures shift into many different guises & activities, he makes their behavior at any particular moment feel right. He partly manages this through a fine ability to replicate forms of narrative & voice from different literary-historical periods: this is parody as homage & compliment (although, in Ink, a series of parodies, presented as excerpts from published books, do, both lovingly & harshly, satirize the most conventional effects of these genre works).

Of course, some of the power of the gods (angels, unkin, whatever) lies in their mastery of language (& of writing), & of making sure that their story gets told (& retold). All this lies in & relies upon their unique language, ‘the Cant,’ which the novel demonstrates comes to all who wake to their unkinship, so that the rebels use it too. Still, by the latest time of Vellum’s story(ies), Metatron, that old copier & artificer, is using the latest technology including nanotech machines, his bitmites, designed to bring the proper message to all unkin (& to humanity). But what if they can listen as well as speak, what if they read instead of merely writing what they’ve been told to? In the final pages of Vellum, this happens, & an apocalypse always already in process prepares readers within & without the book for Ink.

Always more than what any summary can encompass, Vellum is only the first volume of The Book, & although it ends on a kind of positive note for one pair of avatars, little has really been resolved. At various times & in various places (on or in the Vellum) both Covenant & Sovereigns have won & lost, not to mention what has happened to those who refuse to join either side. If the Vellum is both a map & a territory of everything ever, & if The Book of All Hours is a kind of guide through it for some but also what we are reading, the convolutions of narrativity readers give themselves up to in reading The Book finally reinforces the not so simple power of story as such.

At the end of Vellum, in a place called Haven, Thomas & Jack escape from this place constructed it seems after the apocalypse (of 2019 perhaps). Ink takes us to many Havens, in the Hinter that followed the moment when the bitmites sided with Jack or Finnan & revolted against Metatron. Or that’s one version of the story. This all seems to be happening about 20 years later, & in the various narrative threads of Ink, various avatars of the seven central figures attempt to escape these Havens, small imagined worlds within the Vellum constructed by surviving unkin. And the whole mad crew of seven, sometimes together, sometimes in smaller groupings, enter different havens in order to destroy their glamour & often to rescue others of their band. Indeed, in ‘Hinter’s Knights,’ Volume Three, in one very long thread, based on The Bacchae, five of them, as players, set out to save Phreedom, serving as the Princess in that little world. Throughout the novel, they never connect as the full seven, but do sometimes get to six.

In the fourth volume, ‘Eastern Mourning,’ a major thread plays out in an alternate 1929 in the Mid-East. In this world, ink rather than oil, is what the Turks, the Russians, the Futurist (not Nazi) Germans, & the British fight over, & Jack Carter, not yet aware of his unkin power in this fold, is at the centre of the adventure. The relationship of Jack & Puck (or Thomas, Tammuz), central to their many narratives, plays out in these novels in glorious technicolour eroticism. There’s another narrative, in which most of the crew battle in a future Britain to somehow get back to that 1929 & find the Book before the Covenant angels do. And in the Errata sections, Finnan, cut off from the rest, fights his own battle to get out of the already written version, & to save Phreedom from locking herself into a never-ending war. In all these fragmented tales, the end is always near, has always already happened, is but a beginning, as always. The Book appears to argue through its complex mechanisms that this is just the nature of story.

Duncan’s imagination, his knowledge of the possible narratives he can take & collage, is multifarious & generates new possibilities at every turn. Toward the end, The Book offers some possible explanations, all of which make sense while simultaneously implying their own uselessness, especially when placed beside the others: they do, & do not, inform our reading experience. I’ll give just two examples. In the Prologue to ‘Hinter’s Knights,’ a writer’s (one of the recurring figures both inside & outside the main narrative[s]) uncle tells him: ‘A story doesn’t just start at the beginning and trundle onward in a straight line to the end. The same story can be – and is – told in different ways by different writers, each one taking their own path, branching the story out from one dimension to two. The same story can be – and is – retold in different ways by different generations.’ And so on (here, the explanation introduces the concept of time having its own three dimensions; which puts the novels’ severe anachrony into perspective). Quite late in the novel, the notes of Jack’s scholar-friend tell of ‘A Hidden God, a Dark God, split into seven souls. Bound in the Book and in the flesh of all of us, waiting to be released.’ This plays off an earlier insight by the organizing intelligence of the crew, Reynard (who is also that writer around the edges of the book), has figured out: ‘that there’s a deeper connection between them – Jack, Puck, Anna, Joey, Don and himself . . . Finnan too, wherever he is. The seven of them, seven souls, but maybe only one . . .identity.’ And near the end, in one more variation, that scholar adds: ‘The Egyptians talked of seven souls: Sekhu, the dust of the corporeal bodies that we leave behind; Khaibit, the shadow of our past which follows us though we run from it; Ka, the mirrored surface; Ba, the guardian angel; Sekem, the pure force; and Ren, the secret name’; & then places the figures of the story as each of these. Great scholarly fun, this — & Duncan has great scholarly fun throughout The Book, as well as providing some fine comic scholarly turns within some of its tales – but it’s as much misdirection as direction. By the time the novel offers up these explanations, readers will have figured these connections among the central figures out: these arcane bits of information (bitmites of information?) simply provide some mythological/literary underpinnings for this particular narrative structure.

Vellum & Ink present a stunning mix of fantasy & SF, with heavy additions of all other popular genres & great dollops of high literature. If Vellum seemed to play a lot off 20th century American popular culture, Ink seems more preoccupied with European & British Empire history, especially World War I & its aftermath in Europe’s turn to fascism & the troubles in the Mid-East. The Holocaust becomes the great human disaster the protagonists attempt & fail to erase from the Book (which is the Vellum & all its worlds, which is the reality readers know & bring as knowledge to their reading). Still, because the Vellum is all worlds, all stories, it is also the multiverse, so that the various narrative threads can be read as alternate histories as much as anything else. Writing what’s been marketed as a major work of fantasy, Duncan proves himself a delirious bricoleur, a late Modernist (or postmodernist) master of literary collage.

Of course, such a wild gathering of multiple tales cannot be brought to a neat conclusion. Although it seems our heroes have found a way out of the Book’s fixed fate, they all seem to be still starting off to do something more – possibly beyond the already written pages, but can they ever even get into the margins let alone out of the text? (As an aside, Derrida’s aphorism, ‘il n’y a rien hors du texte’ could be taken as a core conceptual engine driving this one: The Book of All Hours may be the deconstructionist fantasy. It certainly accepts endless displacement & deferral of meaning, inherent contradiction, & plurality of significance.) Nothing is sure, then, but the Epilogue offers us the eternal promise of art: that the imagination’s figurings remain – ‘in a poem or a memory or a novel or a song, leaving them in a place and time we can return to because it is as unreal as it is real, and therefore as eternal as it is ephemeral . . .’. And Vellum & Ink are among those works we will want to return to, they are that good.

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