And here we are -- what follows is the first installment of a wide-ranging discussion about Nicola Griffith's Always, the third in a series following the riveting exploits of Aud Torvingen. Even if you haven't read the book yet, I encourage you to follow along. Nothing here will spoil the book(s) for you and the discussion is truly fascinating, because everyone brought something of themselves to their reading...and that's a good thing.
I think you'll understand what you're in for when I reveal the list of participants. Note that I didn't ask them for bios, but I swear the following is true (mostly):
- Matt Cheney: Helms The Mumpsimus, writes wonderful short stories, and serves as the series editor for Best American Fantasy. Has been known to keep irregular company. (I asked Matt to participate because he had some issues with the voice in the novel.)
- Kassia Krozser: The mastermind behind the one and only Booksquare and a founding partner of Medialoper. She leaps genres with a single bound.
- Meghan McCarron: Writer of excellent speculative&literary short stories; she blogs about books, suburban creepiness, and a whole lot more at Some People Think It's Okay.
- Colleen Mondor: Needs very little introduction, but she can be found at the fabulous Chasing Ray, reviewing for Bookslut and a bunch of other places, and whipping the litblogosphere and the kidlitosphere into shape.
- Dave Schwartz: Writer of amazing stories and and a debut novel, Superpowers, that'll be out next year from Three Rivers Press; he blogs about nothing and everything at Mumble Herder. No, he's not the weather guy.
- & me. I choose to be inscrutable. Go here if you must know more.
I threw out some questions to get things started:
I'm interested in hearing whether you've read any of the Aud books previously -- if so, how did this one strike you in terms of progression of character? If not, how did this work as an introduction to the character and this world for you? What do you guys think about Aud? Would you want to meet her in a crowded bar or a deserted hallway? What makes her so damn fascinating?
Matt: I read Slow River years ago, right around the time it won the Nebula. I hadn't read any science fiction novels for a year or two at that point, and wondered what was going on in the field. I loved it. I loved the characters, loved the story, loved the writing. Honestly, I wanted to be Nicola Griffith, because I figured anybody who could write such an awesome book had to be pretty awesome herself. (Many of my weird suppositions are generally wrong, but all of the evidence I've seen since then is that my hunch on that one is pretty accurate.)
And then I didn't read anything else of Nicola Griffith's until Always. This is a personal failing, and an inexplicable one. Well, maybe not totally inexplicable. I think what happened is that I had loved Slow River so much that I was afraid of reading anything else by her for fear that it couldn't meet my expectations.
Which brings us to Always. It's a remarkable book, I think, in many ways. Rich, vast, full of both entertainment and provocation to thought.
But I have a problem that I've only occasionally admitted to people. I find what I can only, and inadequately, call the "hardboiled voice" almost unreadable. (Raymond Chandler, I honestly find truly unreadable. I've never made it more than 20 pages into a Chandler novel, despite trying every single one of them.)
I made it through Always okay. I have to admit I skipped some parts, mostly the ones about training for violence. I couldn't bear to have the voice in my head then. Which is weird, I know, because I really support people learning to defend themselves, so it wasn't some sort of weird political objection or anything. I mean, I grew up in a gun shop. Really. When I was born, I wasn't christened, I was given a lifetime membership in the NRA. Still have it, less because I like the organization than because I've never bothered to resign. (I've got a collection of American Rifleman magazines just waiting to be mailed to Gavin Grant, in fact.)
I think because I grew up around so much machismo, and because I am one of the least masculine people I know, I have some sort of weird allergy to any sort of macho posturing, and that's what the hardboiled voice signals to me. Regardless of how it's employed. I can think of all sorts of perfectly justifiable and, indeed, laudable ways to use it in a story. I just can't get past it, though. It all sounds like Hemingway to me. (I can read, and even appreciate, some of Hemingway's 5-page stories. That's about it from him. Having to read The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms in college was one of the most miserable experiences of my academic career, almost as bad as math.)
So you see, none of it has anything to do with the book. It's all about me. It's all my fault.
You probably shouldn't use any of this for the roundtable. (Just write, "Cheney's weird." Meghan can give long testimonials.) But I'll pose some questions, because I'm curious about a few things from people who didn't have my hang-ups about the voice:
How do you perceive Aud? What are her vulnerabilities? What does she fear, and what does she desire? How does that affect how she expresses herself? (Yikes, too many years writing essay tests...)
What do you see when you watch yourself reading Always? What do you notice in your reactions?
Kassia: My amazing superpower is Picking Up Series Midstream (I wanted to be invisible, but, you know, things never quite work out the way you expect), so this is my first introduction to Aud. Given that my superpower is quite refined, I often judge an author's skill based on my ability to understand what's going on despite my lack of prior experience with the story. This really speaks to excellent characterization and world-building -- which is something I want to discuss...but, first, voice.
I'm getting to your other questions in my own sweet time. However, if
we agree that you're weird, we have to agree that I'm weird. I found
myself very much attracted to Aud's voice -- which, due to the intimacy
of Griffith's first-person style, I cannot separate from the author.
Though my pacifist mother is a former member of the NRA (and, yeah, I'm
so never going to let her live down her misspent youth), I have never
been exposed to real-life violence (heck, I've never even touched a
real gun). So maybe it's part of a tough-chick fantasy that draws me to
the noir voice.
Or maybe it's because my natural cynicism precedes me into the room. The hard-boiled voice makes me, the reader, feel like the character sees the same world that I see. To me, however, it is rarely a voice employed by female characters. I think we tend to associate the hard-boiled, world-weary, noir narrator with males. I think I was especially drawn into this world because it's an appealing voice coming from a member of my own gender. It's rare to find an author who immerses herself so unapologetically into this world.
So I didn't skip anything <g>....
Final thought on this point, one thing that really struck me about Aud was her vulnerability. It wasn't done in a sentimental, overwrought way -- very matter-of-fact. Early in the book, she's staring out a window and thinking about how easy it would be slip into the water and let go of all her troubles forever. Then she snaps to and gets to work.
Dave: I've read all of the Aud books, along with Nicola's other novels and much of her shorter fiction. In some ways the Aud books read like a series of Do-It-Yourself books; "How to Become Human," with Aud as the exemplar. She's Goofus and Gallant both, really -- helping people by bringing the bad guys to justice, but making lots of mistakes along the way. It's been a while since I read The Blue Place, but I remember Aud in the beginning as cold and remorseless; a borderline sociopath in some ways. Fighting back, fighting for herself, but so protected emotionally as to be untouchable. Not someone you'd want to get in the way of. She falls for Julia despite herself, and it saves her. I think we really come into Aud's life at a crisis point; if she hadn't met Julia, it seems possible that she would she have just self-destructed. Julia opens Aud up just enough for her death to be devastating, to Aud and the reader both. There's a very real danger of Aud breaking, or relapsing in a scary way. But Julia tells Aud to "Stay in the world," and Stay is all about struggling to do that.
Again, Aud learns by example; just as Julia showed her that
a woman could be strong and successful and emotional, the fact that
Dornan needs her help shows her the dangers of her lone-wolf approach. It's not easy for her; she can't help but see
this as weak. She rescues his fiancée, Tammy,
but despises her for being a victim. It's only gradually that Aud realizes that we are all victims, and it's
how we respond to our traumas that is the telling thing. The child which Aud eventually adopts, Luz, is
also a reflection of Aud; it's a cliché to say they are both learning from each
other, but because of Aud's upbringing she doesn't really know what being a
child is like. Luz's love for her
insular adoptive parents and her solicitude for her disabled brother Button
force Aud to question the way she handles her own relationships.
The Aud of Always is in some ways light-years ahead of where she's been, but she's still puts practicality ahead of sensitivity in maddening ways: her insistence on having Kick's old cherry tree cut down sticks out as one instance of her being unable to make the emotional connections that other people take for granted. She is confused by her feelings; her attraction to Kick comes out as suspicion and annoyance. She defaults to protection as her way of showing people she values them. The self-defense sections show Aud grappling not just with teaching principles to women conditioned not to think about fighting, but with learning herself how her own thinking about violence differs from the societal norm in ways she's never examined herself. In some ways she's an idealist, in that she doesn't actually see many of the obstacles that prevent women from keeping themselves safe. In some ways reading those sections made me feel uncomfortable, because I didn't like being faced with the way that "man" mapped to "aggressor" in the women's experiences and/or imaginations. I was struck, too, by Aud's contention that most American women don't even know how to make a proper fist, something that we boys learn by elementary school. But none of it rang false -- the negotiation between Aud and her students, the way she saw trouble coming but wasn't able to stop it, the exhilarating/transgressive quality of the learning.
Check back for the next installment!