I am an admirer of difficult fictions. Not the sort that are intentionally obtuse or so intricate that a manual is required to understand them, so dense and esoteric that you need a sharpened stick of literary theory to penetrate them. Thought-experiments are sometimes enjoyable to read, but for fiction I need more than that; I need to be pulled into the story, not left outside of it scratching my head. I need a reason to engage and enter a piece of fiction, and work that is obtuse, chaotic, or bereft of recognizable, involving characters might as well be a homework assignment.
J. M. McDermott's Last Dragon starts off by making you worried. After the first several pages you wonder if you have entered into a metafictional puzzle, some sort of stereotypically-postmodern labyrinth that wants you to feel lost, worried, and perplexed. You are drawn into parallel stories of a dying, bitter empress writing to her lost lover and of the woman she was in her youth, tackling a quest that seems simultaneously foolish and impossible to fulfill. Names of characters and scenes from her past life are written in her letters out of sequence, mixed in with longing and regret and guilt. While there are two stories that emerge here, they are not the point of the novel. This is an ambitious work that wants us to reflect on how we make sense out of our lives and constantly strive to bring all of its disparate elements into a whole that inevitably slips away from us, regardless of desire or intent.
The web metaphor at the beginning is deceptive; you might think that this means a pattern will emerge, an easy narratology that guides you through the morass of memories and contrition. But that idea quickly fades and is replaced by ants, who appear not just in the words of the novel but crawl over the pages as scene breaks, and scramble over a neat grid of squares at the start of each section. Ants feasting on corpses, crawling in odd places, scattering here and there, infesting, escaping, being caught in webs, overflowing from cracks and mouths. This novel is not a web, not a latticework of supports and linkages; it is a colony of ants running about gathering all what they can find and bringing it back to the queen, who then chooses what to consume, what to leave scattered around her. By the time the narrator invokes the web again towards the end of the book, you see the metaphor as the trap that it is.
It is a quest novel, but that quest is immediately dropped on the ground like a platter of food, and the rest of the novel is an attempt to not re-assemble it, but to find choice bits and let the ants bring them back for the narrator's mnemonic digestion. The novel does not reconstruct either the narrative of the quest or of the empress' bitterness, it is an attempt to use them to make the reader ponder the process of understanding the past. It is a subjective exploration of how our attempts to impose meaning and reason are often transformed by distance and longing and guilt, how the story never ends up being straight even if we know the progression. Who we are when the story is told, who we are when we witness it, what we hope to gain from it; all of these factors shape the story, and that is as true for the reader of Last Dragon as it is for the dying narrator.
The book is intentionally disorienting and bewildering. We come to know Zhan, the narrator, both by her admonitions of her long-fled lover and by the slow assemblage of the story of the journey that unintentionally birthed an empire. As she pleads with Esumi to write back she tells him a tale that, after awhile, you realize must already be known by him. The tale is told through a gathering of recollections about Zhan's hunt for her murderous grandfather with her Uncle Seth (who is only a few year her senior) and a mustering of companions who seem both fated and doomed to be a part of the story. As the story aggregates (I would not call it moving forward) many significant moments come to light, but the view of them is hazy when seen from so far away in the future they helped to create. It is up to the reader to discern not just the order of things, but what clarity is even possible.
As the reader you are never permitted to relax or just coast through the story. You must actively attend to the words, and constantly work to make sense of what they tell you, of what the narrator tells you, of what the very form and presence of her memories tell you. It is fragmented, sometimes overly much. It is a novel that requires a lot of work from the reader, because it is disconcerting by design. Which is part of the point; the novel's narrative is broken up into a series of impressions which the narrator is trying to make sense of even as her emotions and desires and regrets keep getting in the way and making the task of strict re-assembly impossible. The depth and richness of the novel comes from the reader interacting with the effects of that task, with these disarrayed vignettes and reflections.
As we gradually learn the outlines of the story, we see the future solidify, gain clues from the quest that tell us why the empress is deteriorating in spirit as well as body. To make the story more understandable to herself and Esumi she uses "masks" and talks from the perspectives of some of her companions. But what we come to realize is that the entire work is a masque itself, an artifice of wishes and disappointments. McDermott has, to paraphrase Catherynne Valente, broken the fantasy quest novel and made it beautiful. The beauty is not in its content, for Zhan's world is merciless and filthy, built with the remains of corpses and betrayals, with no happy endings, or even bearable ones. As Zhan herself puts it:
"And when we sleep we see inside ourselves at the web of memories. The smells, and the sights, and the tastes and textures. And afterlife, this is all we have. This is all I have left. I reach for the ghosts that melt together. I try to rattle the truth of my life."
One could take away from this novel the conclusion that life sucks, that memory is fickle, that love and will and purpose all fade, that everyone is already a ghost in the minds of all around them. The novel is saturated with the roughness of life, with all of the ways that people use each other yet cannot escape the decay of existence. And it has its flaws, moments that don't feel right, some artificiality of explanation to keep the reader from feeling completely adrift or an exchange between characters that feels forced. It feels so elemental that these stand out, but are then put behind you, like a mistake in one's own life. The human truths that suffuse the novel are unimpeded by these small moments.
But none of these things are the point; we are all well aware of these conclusions. Who needs a novel to tell them that life is difficult and memory is more than a repository of facts and events? There is no pretension here that we are being acquainted with something new, from the shattered contours of a quest novel to the saudade that assails us throughout the novel. We are being reminded that we are human, we are being forced to remember that, as we try to comprehend the metaphors and dialogue and descriptions. McDermott uses us, our very ability to read and interpret and ponder, to make his point. It is not an easy point to assimilate, but that too is part of our humanity and the stories we tell.