Saturday, May 20, 2017

Patricia A. McKillip

I've always had a vexed relationship with Patricia A. McKillip -- I go back and forth on how much I admire her novels. Originally, I'd gotten into her because she's a favorite of Stephen R. Donaldson. Much as I love Donaldson, though, I could never quite make out what he saw in McKillip. Part of that, I think, is that McKillip works so much with emotional abstractions that it was hard for Young Me to get a handle on her. To date I've gone through:

  • The Riddle-Master trilogy (2 out of the 3)
  • The Cygnet series (on which I wrote a bad narrative theory paper during my MA program)
  • Fool's Run (loved it)
  • Winter Rose (couldn't finish it)
  • The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (intriguing)
  • several short stores (loved them all)
Actually, here's a story about my general cluelessness. I've known forever that McKillip had been a World Fantasy Award winner -- but I couldn't figure out which of her books had won the award. (And no, this was not in the pre-Google days, hence the cluelessness.) So I picked up The Riddle-Master trilogy thinking that it must have been the winer. Nope, which is just as well, since I couldn't finish the series. Just too over-wrought. Although clearly showing The Hobbit's influence, it didn't even have any riddles in it.

Finally, though, I've just read McKillip's World Fantasy Award-winning novel: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Now that I'm older and wiser, I can see what Stephen R. Donaldson liked about it -- both he and McKillip have intensely melodramatic imaginations. McKillip practically hits you over the head with an intense lyrical Romanticism that emphasizes the Self (at least certainly portions of the self) above just about all other concerns. Now, such melodrama doesn't always bother me, but it does perhaps explain why I wax hot and cold on McKillip. When it's working, the melodrama can be effective. When McKillip misses, well, ouch. 

Anyway, it works with Forgotten Beasts, but I'm more intrigued with something I only just realized about her work. She gravitates to the operatic like a moth to light but, while this opera-quality focuses on human emotions, she examines a very limited set of human emotions. The biggies, in other words: love, hate, death, fear. The first half of Forgotten Beasts examines change, the fear of change, and restlessness (which is an impetus to change). The second half of the novel focuses on Love and Hate, beauty and destructiveness being corollaries to these. Although McKillip finds a lot of nuance to examine within these biggies, her tendency to melodrama basically elevates these biggies to the status of Platonic Ideas. Heightened by the lush lyricism of her prose, these biggies overwhelm all the other elements of human experience that can't be rendered operatically -- basically, everything humdrum, quotidian, ambivalent, etc. 

Here's another thing Donaldson certainly likes about McKillip: they're both hardcore humanists in that the Individual is the highest good. In McKillip, as it is in Donaldson, politics or sociology or economics exist, but only as means of heightening the themes they wish to explore about the individual self. That used to be my taste until the late 2000s or so, but alas, no more.

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