Escaping a Genre.
The Owl Service 1967 and Red Shift 1973.
Reading the novels backwards in chronological sequence, Elidor marks a boundary that’s hard to cross. I can still read the first three books as excellent examples of a genre, but they are books for younger readers, no matter how well written. The Owl Service and Red shift, though aimed by their publishers at ‘Young Adults’, work for Old Adults as well.
If Elidor feels like an ending, what came next was astonishing. Two books, first The Owl Service and then Red Shift. The early books had divorced the fantasy world from reality, there were portals or spells to get you through to ‘the other side’. In the first books he wrote after Elidor he seemed to be trying out different approaches to the technical problem of how to present the idea that myth is integral to reality and exists here and now.
'The Owl Service is set in Wales and is about three teenagers and a set of dinner plates'. I remember the physical experience of reading it. I began complacently. I’d climbed Welsh mountains in Welsh rain. I knew the Mabinogion. I had a festering dislike of anaemic well-off English people which made me initially sympathise with Gwyn.
But Garner had broken free of fairy land. The Owl Service was set in the world, with its problems of class and race. The book works on the premise that we are not free, that we inherit the consequences of our parents’ decisions, and that thought reaches back as far as there are children and parents. There are patterns we are born into, and our attempts to negotiate them are complicated by where we have to start, where we try to go, and where others think we should be. ‘She wants to be flowers but you make her owls’….Hugh Kenner said the mind fondles words not ideas, and the words stick. It’s not a fully worked theory of destiny or individuality, it’s a line in a story opening a space for reflection.
I read a lot. As a teenager I was indiscriminately chain-smoking books from the library. Reading was intense living. I was the protagonist in the story: living an exciting adventurous half-life between the covers of a book and erasing, temporarily, the one I was plodding through.
This didn’t mean I was only reading what my dad would have described as ‘trash’. The great advantage to reading anything that looks remotely interesting, is that it’s impossible not to develop an awareness that some books were much better than others and different books serve different needs. I’d been through Hemingway’s novels before that memorable meeting with The Weirdstone . I was working through Solzhenitsyn’s novels and I’m fairly sure I’d already read The Magus. But The Owl Service was the first book that shook me into realising there was another way of reading fiction. Why that particular book did that remains a mystery.
There was an element of trauma to the experience. There is no cosy ending, no reassurance that effort would be rewarded or the good guys might triumph. But more than that ‘the real world’ was being revisioned. Garner was beginning to map a level below the rational. The divisions between myth, metaphor and 'reality' weren't so much being dissolved as being shown to be illusory. The surface was being quarried to reveal the strata that supported it.
One of Garner’s greatest assets is his understanding that the world of linear time and day to day ‘reality’ includes the mythic and irrational, that dreams and age old stories are just as much a part of daily life as cars and phones.
The Owl Service was a shock: Red Shift was more like an earth quake.
It’s the first book of his I owned. Marketed to a ‘Young Adult’ audience it has a reputation for being ‘difficult’. On the surface, it’s fairly straightforward. Three stories, all revolving around relationships and the same stone artefact. The modern story concerns a highly intelligent adolescent boy whose parents don’t really understand him. The other two are set during the English civil war and sometime during Roman Britain.
It was the latter story that rattled me. Garner had been stripping down his language. Red shift feels like it has been excavated or quarried, rather than written. The reader has become an observer who must work at observing. Large parts of the story are told in untagged dialogue. The minimalism was powerfully attractive. He made those Roman soldiers going native seem real. I may have spent years trying to write the early middle ages, but I have scrapped so much because I still compare every attempt with my memory of Garner’s Romans.
Red Shift builds its patterns by moving from one story to another. The layering of episodes was a format Garner would carry forward into his last two novels.
It felt right that Tom’s relationships were complicated. ‘Love is all you need’ is a lie, but it haunts so many stories. So many stories pretend that relationships are effortless and we are all unembarrassed sexual heroes. Tom’s first ‘love affair’ is an awkward complicated mess. He’s far too intense. His parents are an inherited obstacle; his father well-meaning but helpless, his mother unpleasant, trying to preserve standards while living in a caravan. There is no happy ending. I was not Tom. I was not any of the characters in the novel. But after the initial trauma, the book felt liberating and reassuring.
Years later, Bunting’s, ‘Words!/ Pens are too light./ Take a chisel to write’, evoked Garner first and Bunting second. The chiselled minimalism reaches its apogee in The Stone Book Quartet (1979). I don’t remember when I read this but it was much later and out of sequence. Four stories about four generations, but the stories have been stripped back to bedrock. I am sure that I discovered Modernist poetry after I read Garner, and after his prose a lot of poetry seemed flaccid.