Our library recently has started a transition to RFID tags from bar codes, so instead of the librarian scanning the books that you hand over, the librarian simply watches you as you put your books on a mat and they scan themselves, and takes about as long. I’m not sure if the librarians themselves decided on this plan, or if there was some sort of shadowy cabal that decided this was the next step in library management. What I do know is that I still needed a librarian to scan this one, since it was an interlibrary loan, all the way from the exotic city of Plano – which may very well have been closer to my house than the actual library in the town where I live. An exciting life I lead and no mistake.
Anyhow, in talking about The Steel Seraglio, I feel like there’s an angel on one of my shoulders and on the other one, the Satan. Not the modern Armani-clad one with the binder full of deals, or even the solipsistic monster in Carey’s own Lucifer comic book, but rather the old-school Adversary, the one that never quit but is grim faced and charged with pointing out all of your numerous sins. The story in The Steel Seraglio is rambling and expansive; the frame story itself doesn’t take up all that much space as much as the various sub-tales, discursions and examinations do. But the frame of the plot is this: the Sultan of the city-state of Bessa has 365 concubines, and following a violent revolution they are tossed from the city into the desert and then condemned to death. But they don’t die that easily.
And the story is accordingly disjointed, says the Satan. You know very well that this sort of story structure works just fine in fairy tales or in something like The Thousand Nights and a Night, but in a modern type of novel the “story about stories” only works if your name is Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett. I don’t mention those names frivolously either, since you’ve read a bunch of Carey’s work, and it’s at his weakest when he’s trying to be Neil Gaiman, which no one but Gaiman can really pull off and even he screws it up sometimes.
The angel counters, but you sure tore right through it, didn’t you? Some of the stories were surprisingly poignant and many were beautiful in both execution and form. Many of these vignettes couldn’t have necessarily supported an entire novel on their own, and they brought the atmosphere home in a way that other sorts of structures couldn’t have accomplished. And if you have to write a collaborative novel, this is a great way to give everyone their voice without the general problems that collaborations are prone to.
But isn’t that a gentle way of stating that some of the stories are correspondingly weak? And while I wouldn’t say that any of the writing is not ready for prime time, as it were, it’s clear that not all of the voices match and that some of the sections are much more strongly written than others. For that matter the characterization isn’t so great either – you’ve got the 365 concubines and their servants and hangers-on and really only explore maybe a dozen of them, and fewer really because of the non-core characters that the narrative has to focus on as well.
But aren’t some of those great? It was genuinely surprising when the story of the dancing girl turned out to reference one of the characters, wasn’t it? And the villain of the first book, Hakkim Mehdad, is a truly wonderful character, scary and evil. Here’s a man who isn’t that far off too many real figures, who preaches a doctrine of abnegation of the self on the grounds that most of life’s real pleasures aren’t to be trusted. And while his speeches are convincing, he’s gone the extra mile to learn to kill those who he can’t persuade or who are especially persuasive to his opposite.
Ah, but isn’t that also a weakness in the plot? He could be a great villain but here he is a preacher without a doctrine (except he doesn’t eat meats or spices). Even though the story takes place in a seraglio in an Arabian Nights-esque fantasy land, they don’t practice any kind of real-world religion, and so it’s hard to understand what impulses exactly Hakkim is tapping into. In our world this story would make sense, in this one it’s just understood, but that understanding requires the use of out-of-context referents that might not even apply. And he’s really no threat once he’s taken Bessa; he dreams of spreading his particular cult of ascetics throughout the world but if so he’s going about it in a terrible fashion and there’s no indication as to why his doctrine takes off in Bessa and not anywhere else. And in the end he frankly goes down like a chump.
But, says the angel, defeating Hakkim wasn’t exactly the point of the book. The new society that the women manage to raise in Bessa is a paean to human rights and gender equality. And the story of the former Sultan’s youngest son is fantastic; in other stories he’d be the hero and would fight to restore his rightful rule. Here it’s clear that his rule wouldn’t be rightful and so begins his disappointment. It’s telling that in a story about stories the ultimate danger would come from someone like Jamal who fundamentally misunderstands the sort of story he’s in. And it’s done with such a light touch that it never comes off as preachy or heavy-handed.
Right, says the Satan, it’s got such a light touch that it can’t even make coherent sense in its own universe. In what situation exactly is a modern pluralistic democracy going to exist in a despotic city-state where there was enough support for a Taliban-like regime not two weeks earlier? It’s so implausible that one suspects the reason the details are not explored are that no details would be sensible. It’s certainly not more plausible for lack of explanation. And Jamal actually is a potentially interesting character, but his motivations are all over the map and his level of competence varies so widely that he’s just a plot device. When it’s time for the women to win, they win despite impossible odds; when it’s time for them to lose, they lose to insufficient ones given what we’re told about how well things had been going for them.
That may be true, says the angel, but you were moved anyway, weren’t you? Besides, there’s an added poignancy in the fact that they end up ultimately screwed by not always killing their enemies. And admit that the story of how Zuleika got her first four kills is worth the price of admission all by itself.
Hmph. Why don’t you admit that the second half of the book is almost entirely unworthy of the promises made in the first half, and that there’s so much subtext there’s hardly any room for the text?
And then they go on for a while like that. The angel thinks that this is a really good book, with some serious flaws in it, but the Satan believes that it’s a seriously flawed book, with some really good bits in it. Since I can’t decide which one is correct, I am forced to agree with both.