Saturday, November 11, 2006

And then I said, 'Pullman, you twathead...'

I just finished reading Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials'. It took me a week - I found the books for sale second-hand at the Christmas bazaar of the United Church down the road. I know I'm late to the party, as these books have been out for a few years, but I'm never very up-to-date with popular culture. I only got around to seeing 'The Sixth Sense' this year, and if you can believe it, I'd managed to keep myself ignorant of the trick ending all this time, so that I was actually able to enjoy it!

I wish I could say as much for these books. The first one I liked a lot - it was a good, exciting adventure, and the main character, Lyra, was quite believable. It was a nice accomplishment to make her rather obnoxious, and yet I was interested in her, and I wanted her to win, even though I could easily imagine wanting to avoid her in real life. The different "cultures" had a feeling of depth behind them - we don't know all the history of the gyptians, but I can imagine that it's there, because the characters seem to be carrying it around with them all the time. The villains were dangerous and a satisfying threat, especially Mrs. Coulter. Lots of narrow escapes from her, and Lyra went up in my estimation for being able to outwit such an opponent. 'The Magisterium' and the sinister clergy - well, of course I couldn't take that very seriously, but it wasn't really necessary to, at this point. It was laughable, anyway - the CHURCH is engaged in Mengele-type genetic engineering. Riiiighht. As far as I was concerned, they were just "the bad guys", and they could as easily have been "The Empire" of Star Wars - I tended to think of them like that, anyway. The ending was exciting and shocking, and I was interested in seeing how Lyra would go on to make things right.

Book 2 wasn't bad - I liked the eeriness of Cittagazza, where only the children were alive, and the adults had all fled. A bit like 'Lord of the Flies'. I was never really certain what the Spectres were doing to the grownups - Will said that something similar happened in our world, but what would this relate to? Growing up and becoming robotic wage-slaves? I don't know. I thought Pullman was pretty good at describing extraordinary things happening in the midst of the prosaic and the ordinary - visitors from another world, walking around Oxford and trying to figure out how to blend in. Meanwhile, ordinary life is just flowing around these alien occurrences like a river, not exactly knowing how to react, but keeping on in the normal way as much as possible. More explicitly anti-religion stuff here, and it was getting harder to ignore. All the endless descriptions of Will's unhealing wounds and gushing blood began to grate on me, too, but I realized that this was just the beginning of Pullman's fascination with bodily effusions of all kinds.

Book 3 was a real dud. Far too long, for one thing - I think the Rowlings-effect kicked in, and nobody dared to edit this thing. Five pages, to describe reforging a knife? Another five to describe all the moving parts of the Intention Machine? I started skipping pages. Plus the anti-religion theme took over, and when the didacticism is in, the wit is out. It just became boring, especially as the speeches became almost as long as the descriptions. Pullman stopped telling a tale, and became obsessed with proclaiming a message. At one point, Mrs. Coulter launches into a diatribe about nasty, celibate priests wanting to paw her daughter, and I thought, "Wow, I bet he's waited a LONG time to say that to a clergyman!" It sounded so rehearsed.

I never believed in Mrs. Coulter's maternal nature suddenly springing to life, and both she and Lord Asriel became like a pair of Ayn Rand heros - strong and powerful, swept by passionate desires and destiny, blah blah blah. And of course, being heros, they have great sex - this is always an important aspect of anti-Christian obsessives. They seem to think that sex is the great Secret Weapon that one day will...well, things get a little hazy about just how this is supposed to work, but trust me, it's the answer to EVERYTHING, and the Church will crumble before it. It's how Mrs. Coulter tricks Metatron, after all - God just can't resist a trim ankle.

Then there's Mary Malone, the ex-nun who discovered all that Jesus-stuff was bunk when a man flirted with her. That's the only thing that shocked me in this book - that Pullman actually dared to refer to Jesus directly; it was like dropping a piece of kryptonite on the kitchen table. Anyway, Mary ends up living with some creatures that are like alien native Indians, living in perfect harmony with the elements and the beasts of the field, and it was like having to live in a Greenpeace commercial.

Well, after the big battle and the death of God, we ended up with Lyra and Will in the Garden of Eden, eating a fruit and kissing, and this was somehow the key to the cosmos, but to me it seemed very puerile. Then, just as Fr. Gomez is about to shoot them, they are saved by the angelus ex machina, Balthamos, and I lost it. The character we'd last seen about 250 pages earlier, when he turned as white as his feathers and fled into the sky - that guy. The Moping Angel. I could see Pullman going through his list of Loose Ends and Requisite Symbols and methodically checking them off.

By the end, I was thoroughly bored with Pullman's endless complaints about God and religion. I felt cheated, as if a man had lured me on a date with a promise of whitewater rafting, and I'd ended up spending the whole evening sitting in a dingy living room, listening to him bicker with his mother.


Blogger Andrea said...

The spectres in the second book were supposed to be physical representations of mental illness -- which seemed to be a sort of obsessive-compulsive schizophrenia, as Pullman described it. Just as in Lyra's alternate earth our consciences have physical representations (the daemons), in the alternate earth of Cittigaza insanity manifests itself physically, or semi-phyisically. I don't think the spectres in the second book were as brilliant a metaphor as the daemons were; Pullman should have stuck to one clever device instead of trying to pile on another.

I agree with you on the assessment of the trilogy: great, if questionable first book, mediocre yet with occasional good passages second book, and waste of pulp third book. Pullman said in interviews that he was inspired to write his book by his hatred of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series, which struck me as a sad and petty reason to write a book.

8:13 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

The spectres in the second book were supposed to be physical representations of mental illness Aha - thank you! Now I see what he was getting at. But you're right, it doesn't have the same logical coherence as the daemons. It makes sense that children would have changeable alter-egos, which would then solidify into a single form once their personalities became established. But people don't similarly go insane when they reach puberty, so I couldn't figure out what sort of catastrophe would overtake anyone over the age of 13. It's bizarre to imagine mental illness coming over someone just like a mysterious cloud, and furthermore, as something that nobody can combat. And why could Will's mother intermittently fight it off, while the adults of Cittigazza seemed to have no immunity at all? Not really a successful creation.

9:01 pm  
Blogger Ellie M said...

If Philip Pullman hadn't been so snide and scathing in his criticisms of C.S. Lewis, I'd cut him more slack. But he gets no quarter from me.

Simply put, PP is an idiot.

He writes competent prose. But his mind is ugly and small and completely free of logic. In short, he's the quintessential liberal, and his many literary awards for HDM have mainly been rewards for having the correct politics IMO.

His 3rd book actually contains the line "Christianity was just a very convincing mistake." I have seen this line repeated approvingly by reviewers. Unbelievable. If the line had said "Islam" instead of "Christianity" those same reviewers would be shrieking like harpies about how bigoted and intolerant PP is to write such things -- in a kids' book yet! Far from garnering literary laurels, he'd probably have been charged with penning hate literature. But in Liberal-land (which is most of the arts world) you can say/do anything about Christianity and get away with it. ("Piss Christ", anyone?)

PP's thesis is that the Church has traditionally taught a theology of transcendence which values the soul more than the body, and that leads to negative views on sexuality. We must free ourselves from the domination of the Church and learn to love our bodies and celebrate sex, etc etc blah blah blah. He isn't the first to have had this idea: it's been raised many times, inside and outside the Church. But my question is, just where the hell has this man been for the past 30 years?! The western Church has never had less power over human lives and thought than it has now. And if there was ever an era utterly obsessed with the flesh, this is it. Since the Sexual Revolution, promiscuity has been widely practiced (resulting in the deadly AIDS epidemic). North Americans think constantly about their bodies, their looks, and every kind of fleshly pleasure. Is there a single rising starlet who hasn't posed buck naked on a magazine cover lately? But for goodness sake, people, let's elevate and worship our carnality, cuz we totally haven't been doing that lately!!

Honestly, if this author and his admirers were any dumber, they'd be living in a zoo.

7:54 pm  
Blogger Kasia said...

So PP thinks that Christians are Albigensian??? I thought they were the ones who were all spirit-over-body...

Anyone who slags the Chronicles of Narnia OR C.S. Lewis is automatically suspect in my book. I've loved the Narnia books since I was a munchkin, and Mere Christianity is one of my favorite books.

1:52 pm  
Blogger Ellie M said...

The funny thing, Kasia, is that PP attacks Lewis for things he himself does. He charges for instance that the Narnia books are too "violent," yet his own Dark Materials books are full of cruel and sadistic violence, including sickeningly graphic scenes of disembowelment, mutilation, and torture. He says Lewis is "in love with death," which is rubbish, yet PP writes long rapturous passages about people's souls and bodies disintegrating into atoms and finally utter nothingness (PP despises the notion of an immortal soul). Who's really in love with death here?! He says Lewis is preachy, but HDM itself is just one long-winded relentlessly tub-thumping screed against everything PP disapproves of. He really needs to take the two-by-four out of his own eye before talking about the motes in other people's.

4:19 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Another reason offered for cutting PP some slack is that this is a fantasy; it takes place in another world, and so it's permitted to make the Magisterium as villainous as he pleases, because the rules of real life don't have to apply. I might have gone along with that argument if he'd been content to set the whole story in another world, but he extended it into our everyday world too. And it was clear that Christianity/The Church/The Magisterium was exactly the same thing, no matter which world you went to. It was just a question of degree or circumstances, but you just KNOW that the Vatican would do exactly the same thing the fictional Magisterium does, if they just got a chance. So the whole fantasy flew apart, as tends to happen when unreality meets reality. Pullman destroyed his own story by being too greedy. He wasn't satisfied with arranging the reality of his fantasy world, he had to try to extend his reach into the real world too, and the disconnect was too obvious.

9:43 pm  
Blogger Ellie M said...

Dr. Mabuse, if PP had used words like "Umma," "Imam" and "mosque" in his story, and made all his villains Muslims, and said Islam was a "mistake," the fantasy argument wouldn't have washed no matter how fantastical and distancing it was all meant to be. PP would have been DEAD MEAT. And I refer not to the reaction of Muslims, but his white liberal cronies, who would have demanded his head on a platter for being so intolerant and insensitive!

But use the words "Church" and "Christianity" and all is okey-dokey. They'll even give you literary awards! This is called "acceptable bigotry" -- believe me, it exists, in the book world and elsewhere.

6:27 pm  
Blogger little gidding said...

the CHURCH is engaged in Mengele-type genetic engineering. Riiiighht.

Actually, it's Pullman who's the Albigensian/Gnostic. And it's because the flesh, to him, is not a good gift, but one that has to be controverted in all its forms, penetrated and blown apart from the inside, using this ecstasy to free one from the limitations of the flesh, which has the "evil" of particularity for him. This is why today's Gnostics are obsessed with sex while also using it to seek their true desire, which is annihilation, by dropping the body. It is today's Gnostics--certainly not the Church--who are enthusastic for the "transhuman" project, and who treat the forms of nature as bonds of oppression which they need to break by melting them down and refashioning them into images of our own, and thus it is they who are pushing genetic manipulation, cloning, embryonic stem cell research, etc.

But they do tend to project their own darkness onto their opponents, don't they? Reminds me of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, which displayed the ludicrous conceit of having the big bad Christian conservatives take over society and institute a program of eugenics. Bizarre reversal, to say the least, since it is the liberals of today who are most likely to bring that about.

And, for a reversal, a projection of one's own darkness, how about The Matrix, in which our Gnostic hero Neo discovers that the overlords are secretly and massively growing humans from embryos in order to use them to power their own schemes? To me, it merely sounds like what Reagan's boy proposed from the platform of the last Democratic Convention--i.e., let's let scientists create Mini-me's for all of us through embryonic stem cell research and cloning, so that when we have to go to the hospital, we can all bring out own individualized "replacement kit" (or whatever it was that he called it) with us.

6:25 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

A review on zeroed in on Pullman's seeming admiration for raw, ruthless power throughout this series, and detects a vague Nazoid vibe to the license given to the "good guys" to break any rule simply because they are superior. I accepted this in the first book, because I expected that we'd see some change and development later by the end of the series. But nobody changes. Lord Asriel is to be admired because he's daring and ruthless and will do anything in pursuit of the ultimate ambition - to overthrow God. The fact that his "great enterprise" started off with the human sacrifice of a child is just forgotten, even by Lyra. Nobody has second thoughts that maybe a cause that requires such an abomination to get it started could be flawed; no, a murdered child is just one of those broken eggs you need to make an omelette, and no one has the bad taste to point out any problems in that. I think Pullman is a little uneasy about how this sort of callousness looks on his heroine, so he tries to cover it up by inventing a sentimental trip to the Underworld, so she can "say she's sorry" to Roger. But Roger obligingly tells her that he'd have died and come down there at some point anyway, so that's all right then. Scruples are satisfied, and we can go right back to the exciting pile of armaments being stockpiled in Asriel's fortress. The more I think of it, the more I feel irritated about this stupid trilogy. Dean is reading Book 2 now; I'll be interested in hearing what he thinks when he reaches the end.

9:08 am  
Blogger Ellie M said...

HDM is like a window, not just into PP's mind, but into the secular-liberal psyche itself. This is why I believe all Christians should read it, on the principle of "know thine enemy." (Though ideally one should find a way to read it, like Dr. Mabuse, without paying a cent to the author! I borrowed my copies from the library.)

But the self-contradictions are laughable. C.S. Lewis always thought through everything he wrote: he had an admirably logical mind. Not so PP. For starters, he complains that organized religion encourages mindless obedience. Yet when his heroine Mary Malone receives a mysterious communication on her computer that purports to be from the fallen angels, she immediately proceeds to do their bidding without question, and without even having laid eyes on them! Talk about blind obedience! Where is her scientific skepticism, or for that matter her common sense? And if PP is making a plea for rationalism through Malone's character, then why does he have her rely on the I Ching to decide what to do?! It's just the same old leftist mantra of "Western culture bad, Eastern culture good!" We're not dealing with a deep thinker here, but a born follower who parrots the party line.

The contradictions just get worse as the story progresses. PP gushes about the two gay angels whose Troo Luv is so sweet and pure, yet forbidden by the Big Bad Authority. But the doting duo are utterly callous when Will loses his father, not even giving him time to grieve. Then Balthamos loses his lover. At this point I thought, "There, you S.O.B., now you'll understand how that poor kid felt about his dad." But no such epiphany occurs: Balthamos just sobs and wails about his own loss. There is no compassion or empathy in PP's universe. It's a cold and ugly place.

"I think Pullman is a little uneasy about how this sort of callousness looks on his heroine, so he tries to cover it up by inventing a sentimental trip to the Underworld, so she can "say she's sorry" to Roger." I agree that's probably PP's intent, but Lyra spends so much time on that trip sniveling about how she "hurts so bad" over what happened to Roger, it's clear the whole thing is just an exercise in salving her conscience, not helping anyone else. I heard author Gregory Maguire critique HDM some years ago, and I was very gratified to find that he agreed with me completely on this. It's all about Lyra and her poor wittle feelings...

Even PP's most ardent supporters admit he botched the ending. Having put the two kids together, presumably to demonstrate the primacy of Troo Luv over all other things (from the over-wrought Harlequinesque prose I gather we're to assume these two children are enjoying a "roll in the hay" -- PP, you sick puppy you!!) he then separates them. Forever. Uh, what was the point again? Oh yeah, love conquers all. But apparently you're not supposed to STAY together. And all the doors to all the other worlds are closed. Forever. So what was all that about cultivating our curiosity to explore our universe? Oh, forget it: keeping up with the multitudinous contradictions of PP is a full-time job, and certainly not one I have the patience for!

1:08 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Oh, those ruddy gay angels! I didn't mention them because I thought they were a minor problem compared to the bigger problems in the book, but they started everything off on a ridiculous footing right from the beginning. If Pullman had to have gay characters, why did he have to make them so stereotypical? Bitchy, cowardly and tasteless (making out in front of a 12-year old boy, who somehow doesn't find this all embarrassing, unlike any boy I've ever encountered in my life). They could have made Balthamos like Mark Bingham, the rugby player on Flight 93 - bravest of the brave. But no, he had to be a soppy, emotional mess, who runs away when he's needed. You know, there was a moment (I think in Book 1) where I thought Pullman WAS introducing a homosexual character - he mentioned of some person who just passed momentarily through the story, that, unlike everyone else, he had a daemon of the same sex as himself, not the opposite sex. I thought that was an admirably subtle way of alluding to homosexuality, and very suitable for a kids' book (if one is determined to have such things in a book). It was understated, and just an interesting background detail which nobody made a big deal about. But Pullman wanted to make a big "up yours" statement to Christianity, so this low-key treatment was abandoned for something more blatant.

3:45 pm  
Blogger Ellie M said...

That is so true about the angels! The only worse stereotype was the Russian peasant in Book 3 who was, naturally, fat and ignorant and smelly, and drank vodka by the gallon. Gee, a vodka-swilling Cossack, who'd a thunk it? Someone described that character as borderline racist, and I couldn't agree more.

Ye gods, I loathe these books! But I'm sure you guessed that by now... ;)

11:09 pm  

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