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Beagle's Song

From Chris Wayan's journal, 1994/1/18


I'm feeling strange. I just read Peter S. Beagle's new novel "The Innkeeper's Song" page by page, admiring the writing (especially the fox, and the stories within stories, but ALL the voices are so nicely, subtly different)... yet I ALSO kept hearing a buzzing little overtone like one loose guitar string: Beagle muttering "I'll show them I can do realistic rounded characters!"

Odd, because all his books, no matter how bizarre their worlds, always had real characters. Not realistic, just... real. Archetypal embodiments of ways that beings CAN live, even. Yet they're individual too. It's his greatest talent--to simultaneously write realism, fantasy, and spiritual allegory. That's rare! Dante, Shakespeare...who else?

Yet Beagle doubts himself, doubts his own power, worries about plots and stories... At one point, facing death, Lal the storyteller thinks "I can still do it, still tell a story..." And it sounds dangerously autobiographical. All those years of doing film scripts to pay the bills, facing the studio ogres--did Beagle pay a price in doubt?

I dunno. Maybe I'm just a grumpy junkie deprived of my Beagle fix for a decade, not sure I wanna start up my habit again, now that my dealer's out of economic prison. How long before he's back in?

Something else "Innkeeper" brought to the surface: I notice a motif in his stories recurring over thirty years: the pale, unearthly woman with odd talents but memory loss from having been in the other world! Amalthea in "The Last Unicorn", filling old Haggard's halls with light even as she forgets who she is... And Lukassa, returned from death, memory lost, filled with white light... And even the young witch who wants to be included in the Society for Creative Anachronism, in "Folk of the Air"... at the end, she forgets it all, her battle in the other realm, to become a blank, worldly teen.

Strange. I wonder if I notice this because I'm afflicted with memory loss so much now myself. Forgetting my dreams, my spirit-life...

And trying, as long as we're being honest here, to forget much of my waking life. Because, like King Haggard, if it doesn't make me happy, I drop it back on the ground and walk away.

Even if--especially if--what doesn't make me happy is me. Sketch of a girl in a red dress on all fours, with wolf tail and claws.

INTERLUDE WITH A WEREWOLF

Well. It's a month or two later, and I just reread Beagle's short story "Lila the Werewolf"--about a deteriorating relationship. It's a fantasy full of 60s New York cynicism, with this astonishing, downright guilty, disclaimer at the end:

"This story was written very long ago, in another world, by a young man to whom the idea of equating womanhood with lycanthropy, sexual desire with blood and death and humiliation, seemed no more at the time than a casual grisly joke. I would write "Lila the Werewolf" today, but not for that reason, and not in that way."

I've never seen an author OK a reprint of his work, yet say he's so ashamed of it, distance himself so clinically from his former self, yet re-expose that self. And "casual"? I always sympathized with Lila and thought her lover Farrell and his buddy were intentionally portrayed as calloused, stunted by sexism and the need to be cool--merciless skewered, painfully true to the era. It never seemed casual.

Silly me.

He doth protest too much. Does Beagle need to be seen as sensitive, nonsexist, noncynical? Though his much later novel "Folk of the Air", in which Farrell has supposedly grown up, has an equally cruel portrait of a young girl as a monster--like Lila, an object. Not a sex object, but a meanness object, an adolescent shallowness object, deliberately contrasted with the older woman who turns out to be a goddess. Instead of madonna and whore, we have Goddess and Barbie, spirit and plastic. Can't a girl be ordinary flesh? Too?

Heh. Like other writers have this little problem allllll sewed up. Yeah.

INNKEEPER'S SONG

I'm rereading this, fascinated. Only this time I'm looking at the bones not the skin. Or fur, in the fox's case. Innkeeper's starting to look like an oddly formal experiment: how to create a world that'll let you present a dreamlike sexual image as literal and real. He's said the book grew from a song he wrote--but I still wonder if that song grew from a dream. More than any of his other books, it hinges on a handful of vivid tableaux--and Beagle's never relied on visual images before--it's sound and feeling that drive him. Mood and music, word and voice. I've spent so many years dressing up dreams as stories before learning to send them out naked, that I'm probably just seeing myself in him. But right or wrong, I hear an undertone in "Innkeeper" as if he's trying to justify their foursome, morally or emotionally, as love, as magic. Well, no, not morally, but fictionally. Beagle starts with a mysterious crystalline image, and forges a setting, an explanation--as if he couldn't just show that strange jewel with no setting. As if he's a bit bewildered by the floating image himself.

Yeah, of course I'm guessing, projecting. This struggle to "set" inexplicable but unforgettable images is just what I face in telling dreams as stories. No wonder his work affects me so! We've lived very different lives, but we share underlying issues. A sensitivity, but also a need to be seen as sensitive. Like political correctness, yet not quite. Head of a green-eyed unicorn. Gold coat, dark mane, set in a slate-blue oval.

Hmmm....

Okay, it's six months later now. I just reread "Innkeeper's Song." Still simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. Beagle's experiments (like Jonathan Carroll's) feel like my own work (though far more worldly and sophisticated, of course). What brought me back to wrestle with "Innkeeper" is that I suspect I can learn how to focus my own dreamtales better, if I can see why Innkeeper simultaneously pleases and bugs me.

What's the focus? In a way, I think it's the old wizard, if only because he's the only character never narrating or named (or he'd have to confirm or deny the green-eyed rumor he's Schmendrick). But that doesn't TROUBLE me. Nothing wrong with it as an experiment. It's something else... Oh!

Lots of us writers create a sketchy physical world, a mere backdrop for emotional dramas. Figure and field! The lack of a coherent physical world was no problem in "The Last Unicorn" because he had such a sharp philosophical focus--the importance for mortals of magic, unearthly beauty, the perspective of immortality... and vice versa, for immortals. Im/mortality transforms Molly, Lir, Amalthea, Schmendrick, the old men, even bends Haggard himself, almost, almost... Beagle grabs an almost science-fictional premise, the catalytic effects of immortals on mortals and of mortals on immortals, and won't let go.

Yet in most of his other books Beagle acts like it's immature for a writer to be a moralist or metaphysician... he sprinkles passages (or characters) that are moral or comforting with little landmines of amorality. As if amorality is inherently sophisticated, or grown-up, or true.

Maybe I don't mean amorality--science may lack an explicit morality, but it sure has a worldview! Does Beagle practice acosmology, is that a word? Either the lack of clear notions about existence, or the refusal to commit to a picture! A writer can stick to the material world, or write of spirit worlds, but if neither world feels true... "A Fine and Private Place" has a vague, rather silly picture of death and the spirit world--ghosts are real, yet tightly bound to their graveyards, yet slowly lose interest in the world and go to sleep at last. Makes little sense, and you wouldn't build a world that way, whether you're Darwin, Blavatsky, or God. The ghosts feel emotionally real given their world, but they seem trapped in a rigged game. In "Innkeeper," Lukassa describes death as even worse, and she should know. The other version of a ghost, the griga'ath, is worse yet: all that power, but full of an oddly impersonal malice. It seems to lack an "I". Can you retain high-level abilities without a sense of self? How? Why? And why turn mean?

There's a casual cruelty in Beagle's work, not just the early, but the late, too. Not that his characters are cruel: it's his worlds' STRUCTURAL cruelty, and his characters' resignation to it. The cruelty of being spiritually cheated--universes where magic and spirit worlds are attainable, but the other world is a bad acid trip, and society seems unable to teach its magicians how to use their gifts for anything constructive, and death is like a Motel 6... granted, that's subtle in a world (and genre) full of brutality... it's a subtle despair, but it's analogous to the crumbled landscapes and morality of cyberpunk or film noir. "Unicorn" is timeless; "Innkeeper" feels 20th Century. "Unicorn" excepted, Beagle's bones are scientific under the fantasy skin: you're all alone in an impersonal world, and wishin' don't make it so. It reminds me a bit of Jonathan Carroll's world. You may get one inadequate, ambiguous warning, or none... but then you're spiritually abandoned, doomed. Carroll specializes more in guilt... but the worldview's the same. A unicorn with cream coat, black mane & tail.

Yet if there's one thing I've learned in the dream world, it's that mind and spirit do matter, wishes are horses (and horses aren't always), transcendence does happen, you get more chances to get it right, and the other side is a pretty friendly place--unless you step into that astral bar looking for trouble. Like cypunks and noir fans, lots of folks are decay junkies. It's comforting. No need to live up to much, if you expect the world to be shit. Speaking from personal experience.

Beagle orbits around this question of "spirits in the material world" in every book. It's always there, but he rarely goes face-to-face with it, except in "Unicorn," and it's the most satisfying for me precisely because he does. In fact I think that's part of the explanation for its famously inexplicable appeal. He had the nerve to write from an immortal's viewpoint, and the skill to pull it off. And her view endorses a love of life, of mortal life, that leaves an aftertaste of joy. That joy is shakier in the other books, and I don't think it's Beagle's mood. I think it's intellectual--his assumptions about spirituality. They're different in his other books (as they have to be--the limitations of the ghosts in "A Fine and Private Place" for example are central to the plot) and that constrains something that in "Unicorn" and very few other stories--in very few lives--is so gloriously free.

Why such gloomy, stilted, griga'athy metaphysical assumptions? Is it just that he doesn't know enough firsthand about that world to make it ring true? I'm a dreamworker, I spend time in that world, I have strong opinions. Beagle writes news reports on my home town, so I bitch when he blows the details. I'm much more tolerant of loose renderings of the material world, a place I've traveled much less in. I know the place poorly, so it doesn't disrupt the story for me to have a New York dialect slightly wrong (as John Gardner complained about another "realist" writer), or a shaky view of academic feuding (Leguin's "The Dispossessed" got dissed for this). Do I care? It's all Mars to me. I haven't been to New York, or the anarchist world of Anarres. But I've dreamed, oh have I dreamed! I know the customs, the dialects, the territory.

Hmm. What ANNOYS you may say more about your spiritual home-base than what you LOVE.

Beagle annoys me subtly and deeply and often--because he has the courage to tackle an issue that's subtle and deep. Often. And I'm grateful. It's easy to bore me; but annoyance? Now that's rare--and useful.

FROM TAMSIN TO EMILIA (a note added 2002) A dancing cat; clay sculpture by Wayan. Click to enlarge.

Beagle's recent books have been facing metaphysics more directly than he has since THE LAST UNICORN. "Tamsin" and even, in a way, "The Unicorn Sonata" show newer models of afterlives and spirit worlds that feel less limited by Western materialism; going furthest of all is "Dance for Emilia", a strange novella about a dancer Beagle knew who dies but apparently returns to possess a pet cat, and then reincarnates as a child and again stubbornly sets out to dance... it explores the emotional consequences of reincarnation on others, not just on the self... a theme Ian Stevenson's nonfictional classic "Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation" showed (in its quiet, dry way) is a huge issue for the living, and not in the wishful ways most skeptics think (families of kids who say they recall a previous life are often upset and try to hush it up). Having dabbled so much in psychic dream research, I know firsthand how uncomfortable mere telepathy or prediction can be for some people. Beagle tackled something very awkward for Americans to face, and I'm glad he took the risk.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I see a steady move in his recent work toward wrestling with the intellectual assumptions West and East make about consciousness and spirituality--a deliberate approach now, not the intuitive leap of his early books, especially "Unicorn". It means to me that Beagle may have something profound to say in the next few books--even if he himself doesn't think so. Because he's returning to his lifelong theme, but consciously, with mature powers--and it's a theme giving everyone the willies. Fantasy, sure, dress it up as fantasy... but exploring in full seriousness the possibility we construe life wrong, death wrong, reality wrong?

Ouch.

Ouch is good.

I look forward to ouch.



LISTS AND LINKS: Links lists a Beagle fansite with a good booklist - an epic dream riffing on "The Last Unicorn": Black Magic- a dream of a descendant of "The Last Unicorn": Bastard Unicorn - writing and writers - unicorns in general - sex dreams - gender issues - focus! - reincarnation - other rants

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