Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Works of N D Wilson

Well, I haven’t been around much for the last week or so, because I have been having a bit of a rest and reading Anna Karenina. I’m enjoying it, and looking forward to writing the review, but as I’m only about halfway through the book that will have to wait for now!

Instead I’m going to do something rather unusual and talk about a contemporary author.

Classically educated, a lecturer on the forgotten art of rhetoric, and the son of a Presbyterian minister and theologian whom I’ve been reading for years, N D Wilson was one novelist I was always going to be interested in.
In this story, the sun moves. In this story, every night meets a dawn and burns away in the bright morning. In this story, Winter can never hold back the Spring... He is the best of all possible audiences, the only Audience to see every scene, the Author who became a Character and heaped every shadow on Himself. The Greeks were right. Live in fear of a grinding end and a dank hereafter. Unless you know a bigger God, or better yet, are related to Him by blood.
Leepike Ridge: In this standalone book eleven-year-old Tom, facing the grisly prospect of having his widowed mother marry a skinny man with no chin, takes a midnight ride down the nearby river on a Styrofoam raft. When he wakes up, he’s in a black cave underground with a man who’s been living on crawdads since he got trapped there in the same accident that killed Tom’s father, except that it was no accident, and now even Tom’s mother is in danger as well. A great read, and a lovely riff on the Odyssey and Tom Sawyer.

100 Cupboards/Dandelion Fire/The Chestnut King: Henry York’s parents get kidnapped bicycling in Bolivia, so Henry goes to live in Henry, Kansas with his Uncle Frank, Aunt Dotty, and cousins of whom the most important is named Henrietta. Before too long, Henry discovers a hundred cupboards in the wall of his attic bedroom, all leading into strange and sometimes terrifying places. Then Henry accidentally releases the terrifying Witch of Endor and uncovers a family heritage far stranger and wilder than he could have imagined.

Notes From the Tilt-A-Whirl: This non-fiction book—but by the end you’ll wonder if there’s really any difference between fiction and non-fiction, or whether a better name for the latter might be “literary criticism”—is a whirling stream-of-consciousness meditation on the nature, glory, and terror of creation and creation’s God.
Do not resent your place in the story. Do not imagine yourself elsewhere. Do not close your eyes and picture a world without thorns, without shadows, without hawks. Change this world. Use your body like a tool meant to be used up, discarded, and replaced. Better every life you touch. We will reach the final chapter. When we have eyes that can stare into the sun, eyes that only squint for the Shenikah, then we will see laughing children pulling cobras by their tails, and hawks and rabbits playing tag.
The Dragon’s Tooth/The Drowned Vault/(To be continued): Wilson’s current Ashtown Burials series, projected at five books, tells the story of siblings Cyrus and Antigone Smith who unexpectedly find themselves drafted into the Order of Brendan, a secret society of dominion-taking explorers, scientists, and scholars. Then Cyrus loses the powerful weapon left to him by a renegade member of the Order, wakes a terrifying evil, and uncovers a family heritage far stranger and wilder than he could have imagined.

Although I was disposed to like Wilson’s works, it took me a number of years to finally cave in and become a fan. His books never quite grabbed me, though I enjoyed them, until he started the Ashtown Burials series and kicked into high gear. By then I had a better handle on his writing style and main concerns; possibly it was reading Notes From the Tilt-A-Whirl, his authorial manifesto, that helped me understand his work.

There are some things I dislike about N D Wilson. He includes plenty of gore, vomit, and squids, usually with a boylike appreciation for them. The language in The Drowned Vault surprised me—it was pretty strong, even for a YA book, and it’s officially classified as a “children’s book” I believe. His characters sometimes have bad attitudes, and I didn’t feel they were very clearly dealt with. Finally, on the technical side, I feel like Wilson tends to include more characters than he knows what to do with, and there were some missed opportunities in the 100 Cupboards series.

But how about what’s good about Wilson? Oh, so much. For one thing, Wilson is a writer’s writer. This is kiddie lit fic, a bit more ornamented and conceited than I like, but when it’s good, undeniably so.

One thing Wilson does well, and nobody else, is to write strong masculine characters. While his female characters, especially in the Ashtown books, are a little bit too similar to the guys, the books are—all of them—stuffed with wise male authority figures and young boys and men learning to be men themselves.

Another thing Wilson does very successfully is point readers toward the strangeness and adventure of the world they inhabit. G K Chesterton breathes out of every book, especially the 100 Cupboards books. I believe the very purpose of fantasy is to remind people that they live in a fantastic world. Wilson constantly does this in everything he writes.
All the normal noises of life were gone, leaving behind the secretive sounds, the shy sounds, the whispers and conversations of moss disputing with grass over some soft piece of earth, or the hummingbird snoring. 
But he does it through the fantasy elements of his world as well. When reading The Dragon’s Tooth it hit me that the Order of Brendan is a big old metaphor for…the Church. Divided, confused, and weak, the O of B is nevertheless the communion of saints, the storehouse of the wisdom of the ages, and the nourisher of its families and members. At the same time, casual Christianity peers out of the pages:
“Desperate for my life, I cast prayers into the sky, to the one who wove the world. And my prayers were heard. For the first time, spiders came to me. They were my loom and my silk, and as I wove, holy power flowed through me, a touch reserved for creatures outside this world. What I wove shimmered like a pond at dawn, and in it a sun rose and set, and men and women moved as if alive. I wove them voices of holiness to curse Minerva and her kind, and to sing of the beauty that once was in the world and that would come again like morning…That day, Minerva died. Now I never can.” 
Finally, two major themes twist into everything that Wilson’s ever written. The first theme is fathers and father hunger. The second is death.

All Wilson’s characters start out with dead or lost fathers. All of them end up discovering and taking on their father’s work. All of them find their fathers again or find father figures in friends of their fathers. Older brothers grow up to become the protectors and guardians of their younger siblings. Unlike just about every other book on the marketplace, Wilson’s books celebrate and encourage not just responsible masculinity but actual fatherhood. Along the way Wilson touches on related matters: baptism, the passing on of a vision from one generation to another, family heritage, ancestry, uncles and cousins. To a generation that largely despises or doesn’t even know its parents, Wilson depicts the beauty of faithful and loving father-child relationships.

Death may turn out to be Wilson’s favourite theme. And don’t think of this as a morbid fascination. Like Tolkien, Wilson knows that death is double-edged, and is a gift as much as it is a curse. It is our curse, but for those of us who do not fear the second death—the eternal death of body and soul together—death is gain; death ushers us from the endless toil of this world. All Wilson’s books are full of death and resurrection; mortality, immortality, and the other side of death:
She glanced at Nolan. “We two still feel like mortals, like death was stolen from us. We are like you, the dying.”
George Livingstone adjusted his short blond bulk on the ground. “So…you want to die?”
Arachne nodded. Her ancient blue eyes were lightless and still. And then, slowly, a sun rose within them. She smiled at George. “Just not today. See, I am like every other mortal.”
Nolan climbed to his feet, watching loose pine needles slide off his trousers. His face and body still belonged to a boy, but to Cyrus, he seemed as burdened as the oldest man. When he spoke, his voice was low. “There are things on the other side of death that we may never see. Thirsts we may never quench. Tastes these mouths cannot consume. But down here, under the sun, there is nothing new.” 
The same theme lies scattered throughout Wilson’s other works. Notes From the Tilt-A-Whirl is almost a book-length meditation on it. His next non-fiction book, Death By Living, sounds even more so. And always the same theme:
Caves and darkness can't hold you when you die, they can only hold your bones. 
I’ve now read all six of ND Wilson’s Random House books, as well as his hilarious little parody, Right Behind. From humble beginnings misbehaving for Credenda/Agenda magazine, Wilson has emerged as a powerful writer in his own right, and he’s improving. God willing, the trend will continue, and by the time he’s done, Christian letters won’t know what hit it.

NDWilsonmutters on Twitter. Rare sightings occur on his blog. In 2009, Kevin Swanson lured him onto the airwaves in a discussion on whether Christians can write good stories. But if you’ll be guided by me, you’ll run off to Youtube and download ND Wilson’s session, “Trouble Makers” from the 2012 Grace Agenda Conference.


P. Baehr said...

Love this post.
Thanks Suzannah for writing it!

Jane said...

Have you read 'Empire of Bones' (Ashtown Burials 3)? I, literally, was crying at the climax. Wet tears running down my face. Cannot remember the last time that happened.

Suzannah said...

Yes, I have read EMPIRE OF BONES! I am rather heartless, though, because it didn't affect me quite so much. I'm looking forward to giving the whole series a leisurely re-read when the last book comes out. :)


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