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Tolkien, Todorov, and Thousands of Demons

juni 1, 2010

Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney

There are one thousand five hundred and sixty-seven known demons. Precisely. Okay, I know that Fraser in his study claimed to have identified a further four, but it’s plain that he’s confusing demons with psychological conditions.

Thus begins one of the most intriguing novels about demons that I have read in a good long while, and it’s not even the demons that intrigue me. The first-person narrator is William Heaney, the person whose name is also given as author on the cover and as copyright holder in the edition notice. The actual writer is Graham Joyce, a very minor secret indeed, but a subterfuge I will have reason to return to below.

Most of the book is told in Heaney’s voice, and since it is such a great voice, it fascinates by itself. It balances on the edge of sarcasm and the contempt that frequently creeps into it is just as often contempt for self as for others. Only gradually do I realise that this is not only the protagonist, he is actually a good guy. It is a clever trick, and I love it. Had it the story been absolute rubbish, it would still have been worth reading for the voice.

It isn’t absolute rubbish, however – not even a little bit rubbish. Heaney can see the demons that assail most of us most of the time. Only, he cannot tell anyone, because, honestly, who would believe him? But the demons are there, and he does what he can to avoid them. Instead, he drinks an inordinate amount of fine wines, hangs out with his two friends, and, with them, makes, and purveys forged copies of antiquarian books. But since you’d be easy prey to the demon of greed if you kept the dosh, they give it away. And then two people, two random encounters, turn Heaney’s comfortable, and rather empty life upside down. One is a charming young woman, the other a homeless ex-soldier.

With a first-person narrator, you never know what’s really going on. They are notoriously untrustworthy, giving the reader only what they know and what they believe. It quickly becomes clear that Heaney might claim that there are 1,567 demons, and that Fraser obviously is of a different opinion, but it also becomes pretty clear that no one else can see these demons (the footnoted reference on the first page notwithstanding). As a reader, you begin (at least if you are a suspicious reader like me) to wonder if these demons do in fact exist. Despite the narrator’s conviction, what evidence is there?

In his often cited book The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, Tzvetan Todorov defines ”the fantastic” as the hesitation experienced by reader and protagonist alike about whether what happens is a natural or a supernatural event; whether it is marvelous (the supernatural accepted) or uncanny (the supernatural explained). Did it really happen or was it just a dream/illusion/drug-induced vision/trick? Very few works actually manage to balance on the edge of the Todorovian fantastic, even if we accept that the hesitation need only affect the reader. Sooner or later, there is confirmation one way or the other. But there is a certain effect to be won from balancing on the edge for a while at least.

It is a certain kind of fantasy that performs this balancing act, and for some reason, it seems to be more accessible to non-fantasy readers. My favourite example is del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno), where you need to be attentive to find the evidence that others than Ofelia experience the fantastic events. Joyce also balances for a while, but his aim is never to make it al the way. Instead, the novel is an exercise in seeing how far he can lean to the marvelous side and still have the reader hesitate. In the end he even pulls a rather dirty time-shift trick to postpone the certitude a few pages more.

This is a fantasy novel, though, and Joyce never pretend it is not. Demons are not to be confused with psychological conditions, as we are told right at the beginning. The story wriggles its way past the various problems, enriched by the flashbacks and the additional voice – different from Heaney’s yet clearly related to it – but as the end begins to loom on the horizon, it follows the good old Tolkienian fairy-story structure.

In his ”On Fairy-stories” (a must-read for anyone interested in fantasy criticism), Tolkien introduces a term for the sudden, good turn of events, the good catastrophe: the eucatastrophe. In much fantasy, things look bleaker and bleaker; Aragorn’s army is overwhelmed outside the Black Gates and Frodo falls to the power of the Ring as the lip of the Crack of Doom. At that point, suddenly, things turn to the better. The timing is impeccable; it really is darkest before dawn, and it is a tropical dawn where the sun shoots up into the sky. Eucatastrophe!

There is, unfortunately, a eucatastrophe in Memoirs of a Master Forger, too. This is a brillian read until just before the end, when its problems suddenly unravel with alarming speed. If this book has any weak point, that is it. In a high fantasy in the Tolkien vein, I can somehow accept it. The fairy-tale structure is what I expect. In today’s London, with a voice that always holds some acid, I lose patience. Too good, too quickly. The eucatastrophe is a typical feature of much fantasy, but it needn’t be. Honestly.

Still, that’s a minor point on the whole. This is a wonderful book, and it doesn’t get worse for its sneaky attempt to fuzzy up the border between truth and fiction. Using the protagonist’s name as pseudonym and adding the footnote on the demons doesn’t fool anyone, but it does change the feeling of the book, offering a slightly unusual perspective. I’m glad it wasn’t maintained throughout, however; when I read fiction, I don’t want someone in the text constantly insisting it is true. That’s what the honest-to-God alien encounter stories are for – well, that, and throwing at door-to-door salespeople.

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