Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

‘Of Dawn’ by Al Robertson – 2011 BSFA Award Short Story Club

with 9 comments

‘Of Dawn’ was originally published in Interzone #235.

From the second paragraph of this story, I knew ‘Of Dawn’ wasn’t for me: “A bus rumbled past outside, and the floor shook gently. For a moment, she imagined a god passing by – a drift of shadow that might have been wings; a soul borne away, to cross a dark river.” That is Sarah, letting her imagination run wild as she arranges her brother Peter’s funeral. He was killed in Iraq but absolutely nothing is made of this except to position him as a modern soldier-poet. Not only is Peter a poet but Sarah is a musician and ‘Of Dawn’ is one of those depression works of art about works of art:

Peter returned obsessively to early twentieth century composer Michael Kingfisher, to the aftermath of warfare in the former Yugoslavia, to Salisbury Plain and the deserted village of Parr Hinton; to images of a skinless man, walking through the nearby woods, at once leading him into knowledge and foreshadowing his own future. “An angel satyr walks these hills,” Peter had said, quoting Kingfisher.

Kingfisher is Michael Kingfisher, a Twentieth Century composer of Robertson’s invention. The angel satyr – horrible phrase – is Marsyas, a figure from Greek mythology. You can probably guess where this is going. Sarah develops an obsession with Kingfisher and discovers that Marsyas may be more than a just myth. Thankfully Robertson at least makes no attempt to play this ambiguiously, although there is a painful low point where Sarah unconvincingly mistakes a man in a red tracksuit for a flayed satyr.

In some ways it is the classic Interzone fantasy story of the pre-Andy Cox era: a lot of depictions of the English landscape, the intrusion of a fantastic figure, a supposed focus on psychology, hints of madness. Robert Holdstock and Ian R MacLeod were suggested as examples of the type on Twitter and there are many more. In the Nineties, it seemed like Interzone used to publish a story like this every month.

So they are overly familiar and Robertson’s is not even a good particularly good example. It is too long, is further slowed down by clods of research (real and imaginary) and is told in strained, overblown language throughout:

Verdancy suffused the television screen as the programme built to a climax. The camera explored ash-grey Stonehenge. Red ribbons shook and bells jangled as six men danced together. Sunset blazed through trees, a fire in the deep woods. Tumuli humped like whales in the green. Between each shot, colour bloomed across the screen like so much spilt paint.

Written by Martin

10 February 2012 at 09:55

9 Responses

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  1. It also resembles David Herter’s Jancek trilogy, which uses music to explore myth (or vice versa).

    Having said that, I’ll grant you that the story is over-long, but I thought the poetic language effective and the research gave it an authenticity the story needed in order to convince.

    iansales

    10 February 2012 at 10:12

  2. “An angel satyr walks these hills,” Peter had said, quoting Kingfisher.

    And Kingfisher in turn is quoting from the diary of the Rev. Francis Kilvert, a nineteenth-century clergyman who lived at Hay-on-Wye. From memory, as I don’t have my copy to hand, Kilvert’s comment is rather mysterious but may refer to earlier adjacent entries in which he expresses a presumably unvoiced but definitely unrequited infatuation for a young servant girl.

    Maureen Kincaid Speller

    10 February 2012 at 10:23

  3. And Kingfisher in turn is quoting from the diary of the Rev. Francis Kilvert, a nineteenth-century clergyman who lived at Hay-on-Wye.

    Which highlights the problem for me. Robertson relies on a huge amount of allusion – Kilvert, Marsyas, David Jones, Paul Celan, Vaughan Williams – to attempt to give the story a weight it wouldn’t otherwise have. The referencing of iconic landscapes is more successful but is still strike me as a substitute for subject matter; it is as written as if Robertson is baking a cake. Contra Ian, I don’t see how the research can be said to give it authenticity or what authenticity might mean in such a story.

    Martin

    10 February 2012 at 11:20

  4. I probably meant “authority” rather than “authenticity”. The problem with far too much genre fiction is that it’s plain the author has made up stuff they should have researched. Consequently they either get it wrong or fail to convince the reader that what they’re describing is in any way an accurate reflection of the world embodied in the story. Robertson convinces re Kingfisher’s existence and career – there’s enough detail in the story to persuade the man could have been real.

    As for the service to which that authority is put… that’s an entirely different matter. And I agree that ‘Of Dawn’ carries too light a payload for its length.

    iansales

    10 February 2012 at 13:17

  5. I haven’t yet read this story, so I can’t comment on the use Robertson makes of this stuff (though the precis does suggest echoes of the second section of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas); but there was a time when references to Kilvert and Vaughan Williams and David Jones would not have raised an eyebrow in any reader. In fact they would almost be expected as evocation of a certain sort of (conservative, backward-looking) Englishness, authenticity as Ian rightly puts it. In a sense I find it rather sad that we as readers no longer automatically pick up on such references, it seems to be a limit on how we read rather than a limit on what the author can write.

    Paul Kincaid

    10 February 2012 at 13:43

  6. Well, no one’s raised an eyebrow, have they? The question is, what is there apart from the references?

    If you are suggesting that the inability to identify the source of “an angel satyr walks these hills” places a limit on a reader’s ability to comprehend the story then I’m not sure what is added to the story by this knowledge. Maureen’s suggestion above is that the quote is used entirely context free.

    I also wonder, as a more general point, if there is a list of references that should be considered universal, when references are added to this list and when, indeed, they drop off?

    Martin

    10 February 2012 at 14:19

  7. [...] ‘Of Dawn’ by Al [...]

  8. Finally had a chance to revisit this story. Actually, the more I read it, the more it irritates me in terms of the way it relies on references and allusions to do the work for it. This may be because it touches on things I am interested in, like folksong-collecting, English composers of the early twentieth century, folklore, the abandoned village of Imber (which is the model for Parr Hinton), that interest that so many English writers, past and present, have with finding myth archetypes in the English landscape, and so on. And there are, as I noted, references to Kilvert the diarist, with his angel-satyr, and to The Wind in the Willows (Sarah’s reference to Portly the otter, which comes from the chapter ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, which contains Grahame’s summation of his perceptions of the pagan nature of the countryside, and so on.

    For me, reading this story too easily becomes a box-ticking exercise. Michael Kingfisher is an amalgam of composers like Peter Warlock, George Butterworth and, most pertinently, Ivor Gurney, poet and composer, who was driven mad by his wartime experiences. But how much insight into the story do I gain by identifying them? I gain a warm fuzzy feeling about my own cleverness at recognising the influences but what do they actually do? And the answer is clear in the response of the people who don’t see with the same amount of detail, or who see different details: not so much. Martin is as comfortable with referencing Vaughan Williams as I am with Gurney and for the same reason; it’s a piece of early-twentieth-century composer-does-folksongs window dressing, designed to evoke a particular mood. And as I said on Twitter earlier in the week, what this does is to link this story very specifically to Rob Holdstock’s Mythago Wood stories, while also more vaguely referencing people like John Cowper Powys and, with a bit more of a punt, people like Alan Garner (I’m mostly thinking here of Thursbitch and the notion that a Mithraic cult persisted in an obscure valley in the Peak District into the eighteenth century).

    In effect, all these references co-opt other ideas to do the work for them, but they aren’t hints or digested influences so much as stumbling blocks in the path of the story-telling, through knowing or not knowing. Ian talks of ‘authority’ and it may be that he is this story’s ideal reader in that there’s enough detail to satisfy him. Paul says “I find it rather sad that we as readers no longer automatically pick up on such references, it seems to be a limit on how we read rather than a limit on what the author can write” but I think reading the story will demonstrate to him that this is not about getting references so much as grappling with research that hasn’t fully been digested. I take his point but I don’t think it applies here.

    As to the story itself, it seems to be conducted as a series of rather gusty and self-conscious sighs. True, everyone mourns in their own way, but I was puzzled by the nature of Sarah’s relationship with her brother (odd little hints of something that seemed almost incestuous), the rather obvious dichotomy of his creativity even in the face of death while Sarah struggles to maintain her musical abilities in the safety of the civilian world. There is something that smacks faintly of Derrida in the choice between words and music, a dichotomy that is clearly supposed to be resolved by Kingfisher’s attempt to combine them (and the words/music thing is why I think Gurney is the model for Kingfisher, though the outward appearance of the character seems to be more Warlock).

    Marsyas, the flayed man, the pagan musician to Apollo’s classical performer – this seems to me to very very clumsily handled, lacking nuance and subtlety. It feels more as though Robertson is moving around chunks of story, looking for the best fit. The scenes in which Sarah ‘finds’ her musical skill were really unconvincing as was the folkie/morris-dancing window-dressing.

    The sad thing about this story is that on one level I should like it because it does press so many of my interest buttons, but that in itself is a bad reason to like a story, that it has managed to pander to my personal interests. What I would have liked to draw from this story is some sort of fresh insight into things and ideas that I take pretty much for granted, and I got nothing of that from this, just a tired story of dark things going on in the English countryside, and a feeling that this story is surprisingly old-fashioned.

    Maureen Kincaid Speller

    13 February 2012 at 11:15

  9. I suspect if the story tackled a subject which interested me, and whihc I knew something about, I might feel dissatisfied with it. Part of the problem, of course, lies in the fact that the research used presents only a small window on what is plainly a very large and tangled topic. There seems to me to be enough present for the story, but not knowing more about the subject I can’t say whehter it is the “right” information or if there are more interesting areas within the subject that Robertson might have explored. Which does a little bit unfair as a criticism, given that all we have is the story.

    iansales

    13 February 2012 at 14:34


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