Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Lev Butts Top Ten (Part IV)

The hits keep coming and we're counting them down!

I'm just like Casey Kasem, only younger and 80% less dead.
For those of you just joining us, this all started when a friend and former student challenged me to a Facebook status game where I was asked to list the top ten books or series that have "stayed with me" (whatever that means). I took it to mean the books that have meant the most to me. Since a simple list with no explanations seems boring, and since I am essentially lazy and am always looking for ways to spread my Authors Electric posts out, I decided to take them two-by-two and month by month:

Part 1 can be found here.
Part 2 can be found here.
Part 3 can be found here.

... and 100% less hip, jackass.

4. The Parsival Series by Richard Monaco

Possibly the best book covers ever to grace bound wood pulp.
If you've been following my posts from the get-go, you all know that Richard Monaco is the writer who has had the most influence on me.

I've spoken elsewhere about how I came to meet Monaco and how he came to be one of the most important writing mentors I've had, so here I want to talk about his book series and why it's set apart from other Arthurian fantasy novels.

Monaco's Parsival series tales as its starting point the Perceval legend as set down by Chretien de Toyes in Perveval, the Story of the Grail and by Wolfram von Eschenbach in Parzival.


And, yes, they are about as riveting as you might expect.
In both these versions, the young protagonist has been raised by his mother in the wilderness, far away from all the killing and bloodshed normally found in civilization. His mother hopes to protect her son from all the evils of men: the aforementioned killing and bloodshed, as well as other evils such as adultery, abuse, politics, and in general all the various types of cruelties, petty and great, that mankind tends to take so much delight in.

Her plan seems to work well until the boy comes in contact with a group of Arthur's knights in their shiny armor on their way to hunt down some other poor sod who's crossed the king in someway. Parsival takes these knights for angels, and when he learns that they are in fact noble knights, he is told he can go to Camelot and Arthur will make him a knight, too. Parsival leaves, and on his way to Camelot meets the Fisher King, has a vision of the Holy Grail, and completely fails to understand what he is experiencing.

For the first third of the book, Monaco pretty much retells the traditional myth with subtle changes: Its fairly clear the knights are having a laugh at the foolish Parsival's expense when they tell him to go to Camelot. Once there, Arthur seems far less noble than traditional legends portray him. Not corrupt or evil, though, just fairly mundane and petty. He sends Parsival on a quest that would surely get him killed, to destroy the evil red knight who is terrorizing Camelot, without so much as a buckler or sword, all for a laugh at the foolish boy who would presume to be a knight.

Once Parsival leaves Camelot, though, Monaco leaves his source material firmly behind, and we are presented with a grim depiction of life in the Middle Ages, a life which seems suspiciously like our own. This is where Monaco's version of the tale shines. These books deal with far more than just a retelling of the Holy Grail story. They use the Percival legend to examine man's conflict between his duty to his family, his country, and himself. The relationship between Parsival and his wife, Layla, brings up questions of marital fidelity, both physical and emotional, and Parsival's estranged relationship with his son Lohengrin (which reaches its climax in later volumes) becomes a frank look at how even the best of us can, through our own self-absorption, fail as parents despite all our best intentions.

Monaco’s genius lies in his ability to masterfully take archetypal stories and mold them into metaphors for modern dilemmas. Pick a book at random and you will see it, though I recommend Dead Blossoms: The Third Geisha and his 1987 novel Unto the Beast as the next best examples after the Parsival books.

One final note for those of you who, like me, are obsessed with narrative chronology: Besides the original Parsival trilogy (Parsival, or a Knight's Tale, The Grail War, and The Final Quest) there are now two other Parsival books: Lost Years: The Quest for Avalon and Blood and Dreams: Lost Years II. These last two make a duology of interquels to the original series, and both books take place during the lost years between the first two volumes of the trilogy (hence the name of the duology series). The Quest for Avalon begins immediately after Parsival or a Knight’s Tale, and Blood and Dreams occurs some time shortly before The Grail War.

These covers aren't too bad either.

3. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonegut

Another cover that just makes you want to pick it up
Kurt Vonnegut has a keen sense of the absurdities of modern life. Where Richard Monaco uses historical fiction and fantasy as metaphors for these things, Vonnegut uses science fiction and comedy. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut turns his absurdist, satirical eye on everything from war to middle-age, from death to the illusion of free will.

And he does it hilariously. In this novel, Vonnegut sets out to write the memoirs of his experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden. He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and ultimately sent to Dresden, Germany, where he was held as a POW in an underground converted slaughterhouse and witnessed the firebombing of Dresden (at the time, one of the least known firebombings of World War II and one of the most tragic).

Pictured: Comedy gold (above), Uncontainable jocularity (below)
The entire first chapter, in fact, is essentially Vonnegut apologizing because he can't write firsthand about the horrors he witnessed. he can't write about the battle, his capture, the dysentary, the firebombing, or even the killing of an American soldier afterward for stealing a teapot (seriously, this guy is funnier than the love child of Patton Oswalt and Steve Martin).

He keeps trying, but he just winds up getting hammered and drunk-dialing old girlfriends. Finally, the wife of his oldest friend explains why he can't write about the war:
"You were just babies then!" she said.
"What?" I said.
"You were just babies in the war — like the ones upstairs!" 
I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.
"But you're not going to write it that way, are you." This wasn't a question. It was an accusation.
"I — I don't know," I said.
"Well I know," she said. "You'll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you'll be portrayed in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them. And they'll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs."
So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn't want her babies or anybody else's babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies.
So I held up my right hand and I made her a promise: "Mary," I said, "I don't think this book of mine is ever going to be finished. I must have written five thousand pages by now, and thrown them all away. If I ever do finish it, though, I give you my word of honor: there won't be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne.
"I tell you what," I said, "I'll call it The Children's Crusade."
She was my friend after that.
He begins his story proper in the next chapter, but he is no longer the protagonist (though he is an extra, appearing in the background of several scenes, but never part of the main action). Instead we have Billy Pilgrim, a middle-aged New England optometrist and survivor of Dresden, who has come unstuck in time.

He flip-flops higgledy piggledy through his timeline: one minute he's a little kid, the next he's getting assassinated; after that he may be in the POW camp, or he may be in the earthling exhibit in the zoo on the planet Tralfamadore (whose inhabitants experience past, present, and future simultaneously). He experiences horribly tragic events, he experiences beauty as well, and boredom and mundanity.

Seeing these things helps him come to grips with death, as he tells his fellow earthlings when he returns from his time on Tralfamodore:
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is "So it goes."
What Billy (and by extension, Vonnegut, and by extension, we) learns is that the best way to live this life is to focus on the nice bits and try to ignore the bad.

It is because of this theme, that I think Slaughterhouse-Five makes a good companion piece to The Great Gatsby. They both deal with the moral shortcomings of humanity, one in times of war, the other in times of peace, and together they provide what I think is the best advice for living: Don't leave messes for others to clean up and concentrate on the happy times while trying to ignore the bad. Both are hard (if not impossible) to do, but they are at least worth the effort.


Next month, we finish this.



6 comments:

Susan Price said...

I love Slaughterhouse 5 too. I was put off reading it for years because I thought the title was stupidly macho. Then my brother explained what it meant - so I read the book and absolutely loved it.

Though I think Vonnegut's 'Galapagos' is perhaps better.

Reb MacRath said...

Finally, we get to Monaco. And you've whetted my appetite still more. But, I say this in the kindest way: he needs to up his ebook game. Once again, I tried to read the sample of Parsival on Kindle. Impossible. Eensy-teensy type in an unattractive font. I know this leaves me the option of ordering a hard copy. But as a reader, and fan, who wants to read and review Parsival, I feel the book should be reformatted. Second issue: I really wanted to give The Beast a try. But--there is no product description. We need something to go on, as readers!

Fine writing there, Lev, on Vonnegut.

Leverett Butts said...

I love everything Vonnegut wrote. One day I'll have to share the time I accidentally had dinner with him and Joseph Heller. One day when I'm not typing in an iPhone.

Leverett Butts said...

Unfortunately, the rights to Parsival as an ebook are owned by another company.

As for Beast, it's out of print, so the sellers of it on amazon are used booksellers. He and I are working on doing a re-release like we did for Blood and Dreams as our next project after we get a new book out. We want to alternate new books with re-releasing old books. So then we'll have control over the product description.

Bob Newman said...

Controversy, anyone? I'm a big Vonnegut fan, but I found "Slaughterhouse 5" disappointing, and by no means his best. "Mother Night" is a better book about the war; "The Sirens of Titan" is a better time-travel story; "Galapagos" will probably survive longest (because of the way it keeps appearing in the bibliographies to science books and papers); and "God Bless You Mr Rosewater" is my personal favourite. Maybe it's time I re-read "Slaughterhouse 5" - but my urge to re-read "Player Piano" is stronger.

Susan Price said...

Maybe I should re-read Vonnegut, Bob!