Tiny Review: Catherynne Valente

I’ve been reading a lot lately.  I set a goal for myself to devour 120 books this year, 10 books per month, and I’ve been keeping solidly on track.  I’m even a little bit ahead.  

Among these readings have been quite a fair bit of work by Catherynne Valente.  A friend recommended Palimpsest to me perhaps a year, year and a half ago, and since reading it in May, I’ve tried to inhale Valente’s entire body of work.  This is no mean task.

I’ve also deeply approached Le Guin’s Steering the Craft for the first time, moving beyond the beginning exercises to come to a better technical understanding of my craft.

These two things go hand in hand, I think.   Laying side by side notions from Steering the Craft, especially on the topic of verb tense and my general disdain of “purple prose” I began thinking on why I found Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest and Six Gun Snow White so damned compelling. Valente’s prose is rich like a dessert, but her subject matter begs for it; she’s working with dreams and their peculiar juxtapositions, she’s working with myth and fairytale. Valente goes from easy past to present tense in Six Gun Snow White, and these are tricks Le Guin warns writers of.  They are deep water.  They are difficult to pull off.  And yet, coming from Valente’s pen, none of it feels distancing or awkward to me.  I think it’s because of the fairytale nature of the story, I think it is because instead of functioning like a passive filter between the reader and the story, it makes the reader aware of the third person voice narrating it, the engaging present tense of a story told around a campfire.  It suggests a narrator, a narrator that has characteristics the reader can discern based on cadence and word choice.

 I find Valente diabolically good, with a steady hand for prose that would be just terribly wrong in any other context. She has an ability to make angular words, sharp and jangly phonemes, fall right into place.  She has an ear for the rhythm of sentences that makes me-the-poetry-reader quiver in delight. I think that’s another thing with “purple prose”: most people using it seem tone-deaf to me, breaking cadences to get in a particularly ponderous bit of language, instead of sneaking them in when the rhythms ask nicely.  Valente seems to know those rhythms well, and her prose joins the dance.

So, if you’re looking to pick up something to read, I’d point you at these.  I honestly can’t think of better right now.

Wild Folk and Wildren Things

I don’t expect a lot from movies. Of late, I’ve come to expect more of video games. There has been so much shoved through the pipes of Hollywood that simply hurts to watch– things which offend my sense of decency. Now, considering that my sense of decency includes ample droppings of the f-bomb, much in the way of artful sex, and at least a good helping of balletic violence, you’d think I’d be a hard one to offend. This is not the case. Nothing offends me more than stupidity. Hard-headed simplicity, if you will. Better yet, call it vacuous tripe. I cannot stand stripped-out characters, empty husk-puppets dancing to the rhythm of predictable lines outlining a starkly contrasting divide between good and evil.

When I was little, I loved stories which made me feel like something was at stake. Something real, if not tangible. Few movies ranked among those tales then, and fewer now, but I will tell you that one of my sharpest childhood memories was watching The Last Unicorn, hiding my head under my favorite blanket, terrified of the red bull, hulking hell beast wreathed in flame. At stake? More than good and evil– a unicorn who learns regret, and then Molly Grue: “How dare you! How dare you come to me now, when I am this!” Those lines caught me up short, even as a child; a well from which I deeply drank, a poem reread until I finally understood. Nothing was simplified for me.

Now, Where the Wild Things Are was a rare taste of something bitter sweet, watching it this evening. Parents concerned it was too scary for their kids? I wonder where were they when I wet my bed at night, waking from nightmares of running down cavernous halls chased by fire, the scent of brimstone, and the the thunder of hooves herding me toward the sea? Nowhere near, thank the gods. I’d not trade those memories for the world.

Fear has a special place in childhood. There are many things to be afraid of– some we outgrow, some dog us nightly into adulthood, and some… well, some we never considered when we were small. Some fears are bitter thorns, some are waking terrors, and some exist in shadows now so that we may know what’s there later in the light. Wild things are fearful– but they live in each of us somewhere between our guts and our hearts and we are right to be afraid of them. Every child knows this. That’s why we keep telling scary stories to them. That’s why there can be comfort in those tales. There can be. There can be. There isn’t always. Where the Wild Things Are is full of those tender fears. I have never seen a film so honest about childhood– I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film so honest, period. Everything about it rests in context, and all of the action happens in the space between minds, hinges on unspoken fears and desires.

It comes down to this: the best stories respect the viewer or reader, and instead of pandering to an idealized audience with x and y characteristics, a good story unfolds itself and the audience finds in it mirrors, truths, and painful barbs. That’s why the best children’s stories are loved by adults: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Catwings. That’s why the greatest stories for adults are given to children as quickly as possible: so many of the works of Ray Bradbury. Where the Wild Things Are is an honest story for adults about children and change and how scary people are and how easily we can hurt one another. It’s a story for children that doesn’t pretend that they are innocents who need to be talked-down-to.

When I went to see this film, I expected little, and instead I was given a great gift. Thank you Mr. Jonze and Mr. Sendak. And if the rest of you don’t like that, I would tell you that you can “go to hell.”