Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What House of Discarded Dreams Has Taught Me About Writing

When I started reading House of Discarded Dreams, I did not know what to expect. I had not read any reviews and all I knew was that I liked Sedia's previous novel Alchemy of Stone and that it had gotten a nice blurb from The Guardian about "pushing the boundaries of fantasy writing." What I discovered was in a number of ways unexpected, and while considering the novel's effect on me as a reader I began to see that it has something to tell me about writing as well. The thoughts are still rather tentative, but let me try to articulate them.

First, this novel demonstrated to me that confidence in the story trumps consistency. This is not to say that the novel is chaotic, but there are many strange and fantastical elements that are not rationalized or that make complete sense, and much of that is intentional. I know intellectually, and have enjoyed as a reader, many stores that refuse to submit to rationality and that challenge linearity in many ways. Sedia's book reiterates that the power of a story is not in clockwork progression, but in the ability to create a symbolic terrain that impacts the perceptions of the reader. While one can argue that the plot is neither intricate nor speculative in this novel, the plot is not really the point. What makes this story work is a combination of curiosity, confusion, and a desire to follow this parade of strangeness to see where it leads.

Second, I gained a new appreciation for the protagonist as not just a participant in the narrative, but as a shaper of its texture and aesthetic. Vimbai is not just the focus of the novel, she is its perpetrator. Initially (as noted previously) I felt that Vimbai was too passive and accepting of what was going on around her, until I realized that without her presence, imagination, and particular history, there would be no novel. Vimbai essentially conjures much of the stuff of the novel, and it is her journey of self-understanding amplified and brought to life by the house. She is not an action hero, not a genius or an ace or some other type of (generally implicitly masculine) hero. She is not an archetype, and only gently a mirror. The story is generated by the life she comes from and the one she is moving towards. When she becomes explicitly engaged later in the novel much of this becomes obvious, and I found myself flipping back in the book to see how Sedia builds the world and infuses Vimbai with humanity and brings her fully into the novel, revealing that she is the story.

Third, while I always appreciate great writing, I found myself picking up ways to set a scene, describe something weird, and link elements of the novel throughout the book. I tried to apply some of what I learned in yesterday's post, and while I don't think that I succeeded terribly well, I felt a deeper appreciation for Sedia' creation by trying to make something like it. Again, this is not mechanistic assembly, but a combination of impressionism, psychological tweaks, and cultivated dissonance in imagery and placement of elements. The relationship of images and discoveries in the novel are sometimes direct, sometimes subtle, and often open to debate. But they are woven together into the central theme of the book, and the character of Vimbai serves as the center of the strands. This anchorage is common, certainly, but there is something rare being fashioned here as well that I cannot yet put my finger on. But this is a book to return to again and again, to see what more you can discover. All of these ruminations thus far are just suggestive reflections of that.

1 comment:

Alice Keezer said...

This is a lovely post, and I couldn't agree more. I wrote up a top 10 of the books that made me think a couple of weeks ago, and this made the cut, because it got me thinking in so many ways about story structure, characterization, and traditional storytelling. All for reasons you write out so well here.