Friday, August 27, 2010

Phillip Pullman: The Amber Spyglass

Where is Lyra? Having escaped the long arm of the Magisterium in "The Golden Compass" and met with the boy Will in "The Subtle Knife," Lyra is suddenly missing. She had been snatched from the cave where she hid, kidnapped by her own mother Mrs. Coulter. Yet Mrs. Coulter no longer acts as a servant of the Magisterium, nor as head of the General Oblation Board. She acts alone, having killed her Magisterial companions. Thus begins "The Amber Spyglass," the third entry of Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy.

Through the first section of the novel, Lyra fades in and out of consciousness, drugged by her mother and dreaming of her best friend who had been killed by her father at the end of the first novel. A fine Hamlet-esque drama, this! We soon learn that Mrs. Coulter is merely trying to keep her daughter in hiding, away from the epicenter of a war prophesied to define her. Fortunately for the story, they are soon discovered. After all, hiding in a cave doesn’t make for a compelling plot.

Lyra awakes, and informs Will that she has lighted upon a quest: to travel to the underworld and cut a hole through it, to let the dead souls escape to a peaceful eternal union with the Dust. (The atheist Pullman sounds suspiciously like a Buddhist here….) But the Magisterium has a secret weapon: a bomb that they can target Lyra even while she's in another world. Fortunately, Lyra is warned by a rather obvious deus ex machina immediately before the explosion, and she manages to escape the blast... but not before it tears a hole in the fabric of space, a pit beneath the foundations of hell.

Will and Lyra escape to join Lord Asriel's forces on the eve of the battle. God's regent Metatron has directed the "Clouded Mountain" (the city of Zion, re-imagined as a cosmic tank) towards their location, and the battle between the forces of good and evil is joined. Lyra and Will sneak onto the Mountain, bent on killing the Authority with Will's subtle knife. They are surprised to find their quarry is but a feeble spirit, kept alive within a crystal prison. Will takes his blade and cuts off the shackles, a mercy killing for a senile God. Meanwhile, Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter find common cause in their hatred for Metatron, and join together to drag him down into that great abyss beneath the worlds. God is dead, his Voice is damned, and the Church is powerless. Whee.

Inexplicably, the saga continues, as though Pullman were remiss to let his novel end of its own accord. Having mined for inspiration from other fantasy works, Pullman borrows from the Lord of the Rings films: this saga refuses to bow out gracefully, and nearly collapses under the weight of its marathon-like ending.

So Lyra and Will run off to meet Mary, whose promised role as “the Tempter” has been a severe letdown. For the entirety of the novel, she has been stranded in the world of the Mulefa, strange elephantine creatures who ride herbaceous bicycles. Thus far, Mary had picked up the language and -- perhaps out of sheer boredom -- built the eponymous 'amber spyglass,' which enabled her to see the Dust and track its movements. When Lyra and Will finally show up, she tells them the story of how she met her first love and lost her faith in God (atheism is so romantic). Mary’s story sets Lyra’s heart aflutter, while a shared piece of marzipan sets Lyra's eyelashes aflutter, mostly in the direction of Will. Thus the children fall in love in this paradise, share their first kiss, and change the fabric of the universe. Yeah, that sounds about right. The kiss (signifying Lyra's entry into adulthood) is Pullman’s idea of “original sin,” a deed which alters their interaction with the Dust.

Alas, Pullman isn’t content merely to turn this fantasy epic into a romance; no, he must make it a tragic romance. Mary’s amber spyglass lets her see that the Dust is dying, escaping through the windows between worlds that the subtle knife had created. Will must close all these windows, and each must return to their own universe. Many tears are shed, but such is fate. The novel closes with a single image: Lyra sitting on a bench in her Oxford at a prearranged time each day, knowing that her true love Will sits in another universe on the same bench beside her.

This novel drove me nuts. It’s loud, it’s long, and it has no sense of its own genre. More broadly, Pullman obviously has the imagination for a fantasy epic, but lacks the narrative prowess to put his gift to good use. After the grotesque imaginative failure of the second book, he creates a spectacularly original world of the Mulefa, a paradise in which he places his Tempter, Mary Malone. Is there a more promising set-up for Mary’s story? But if the wind-up was inspired, the pitch is wild. He does nothing with the world until after the primary story is over. The secondary story that ends the novel is almost unutterably lame, both from a theological perspective but more decidedly from a literary perspective. A traditional tragic romance places the “falling in love” at the beginning, prefiguring the final tragic separation. If it were a romantic comedy, Pullman could be forgiven for placing their first kiss at the end, but it isn’t a comedy. Pullman is trying to compress a story like Tristan und Isolde into these few final chapters, and it simply does not work. The final image is perhaps the only thing about the novel (certainly about the ending) that actually works. It is a powerful image, of lovers separated by entire dimensions yet still finding consolation in each other’s presence. It rises to the level of the great tragic romances, and if Wagner had depicted it, it should not have been out of place.

There isn’t much else to say that hasn’t been said in previous reviews or implied in the summary above. The tone is at times almost unbearably preachy, as though Pullman cannot help himself but criticize Christianity every other page. His beef isn’t with God; it’s with those who act in His name. Pullman’s vision of God is a cripple, a withered face with hollow eyes, for whom assisted suicide is a more appropriate response than veneration. The villain is Metatron (the traditional name for God’s chief spokesman, the “voice of God”) and the Magisterium that represents the Church. Pullman sees Christian faith as something antithetical to goodness, grounded in hatred for the reality of the world (signified by the Magisterium's loathing for Dust), for childlike innocence (signified by their attempts to cut children away from their daemons), and even for love itself (signified by their attempts to prevent Lyra's “original sin”).

And yet, try as he might, Pullman cannot hide the fact that he is wordsmith, a mechanic and artist whose canvas is language. There are beautiful images, stunning for their simplicity and innocence, buried beneath the sediments of his philosophy. The fundamental image of the story – the interaction of creatures and their souls – reverberates throughout the tale, and there is great virtue in this image, particularly in reflecting that divine word: “It is not good for man to be alone.” The redeeming image of the story – the final glimpse of Lyra sitting alone yet near her love all the same – makes its presence felt long after the novel is closed; it is a worthy end for an epic romance. These remain despite the flaws, and for that reason alone I would recommend this series to others.

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