The Narrator, by Michael Cisco
Posted December 17, 2016on:
published in 2010
where I got it: received free e-book, and then purchased a new print copy
It’s the atmospheric beauty of Sofia Samatar’s A Stanger in Olondria, combined with the dense verbal wordplay and visual magic of China Mieville’s Embassytown,and gilded with the lyrical poetry of a Catherynne Valente, Michael Cisco’s The Narrator is a very special book for a long list of reasons.
I don’t gravitate towards military fiction. I don’t even like military non-fiction. Neither does Low, the protagonist of The Narrator. As he says on the first page of the novel:
“An army is a horror. It’s a horrible thing. They say you might change your mind about that when the country is invaded and your people are suffering wrong, but for me this is all just more horror, more army-horror.”
He’s a student, he shouldn’t ever have been drafted. But drafted he got, and off he went to a war he knew nothing about in a place he never wanted to go. Why didn’t he just run, or hide, you ask? Because he fell under the view of a Edek, creatures who need a human handler to function in our societies. Once an Edek sees you, you will never be unseen.
This novel is solid prose poetry and literary experimentation. That makes it sound uppity I know, but The Narrator is a surprisingly easy book to read for how dense it can feel. Every page is illuminated with metaphor and alliteration and grammar that shouldn’t work but it does and words that sent me to the dictionary, words like ambuloceti, velleity, clayx, and quiring. Choose any page, any paragraph, and you’ll find a miniature work of art surrounded by a million other miniature works of art.
As a trained narrator, Low’s profession is part biographer, part translator, part bard. He speaks many languages, and knows the unique linguistic quirks of each. He has even been trained in the arcane arts of creating personal alphabets. He’s a scholar, not a soldier. This forced journey he is on will make him, or unmake him. Or perhaps a bit of both.
On an almost Gene Wolfe Severian-esque journey to the muster site, Low finds himself on the death-worker side of the city and has a strange affair with a mysterious woman who has been accused of horrible crimes. Once he joins up with his unit, they end up at a mental institution / prison to recruit what functioning adults are left who can be made into soldiers. And then, into the war zone and towards an island with a mysterious interior that outsiders never return from. Every minute, Low wants to run. He wants no part of this war that makes no sense. This is a story of Low’s misery, of his coming to be comfortable with the inevitable.
Jeff Vandermeer wrote the introduction to this edition of The Narrator, and it was through Vandermeer’s Shriek: An Afterword that I learned of the literary trick of describing the grotesque via the sublime while at the same time leaving seemingly important details purposely out away in the periphery. As a lover of metaphors and adjectives that are not known for working together, Vandermeer was and Cisco is speaking my language. That is to say, if you like Vandermeer, you’ll really like Michael Cisco.
There is so much more to this novel than just Low and the friends he makes in the army. There is an undercurrent of nervous race relations, the fluid sanity of Captain-Adjutant Makemin, and something “other” that takes a few turns to narrate it’s own story.
I freely admit to feeling a little lost near the end, and honestly I think that was due to overdose of the sublime. I’d been reading this book for nearly a month, and damnit I just wanted to finish the darn thing. But like a peaty whisky, I couldn’t read this novel in large doses. 20 pages at a time or so what about how much sublime writing my piddly brain could handle in one sitting.
I’ve make this novel sound hard to read, hard to understand, and hard to enjoy. Believe me when I say the truth is the opposite – The Narrator is a book you can fall into, and fall as deep as you want or stay in the shallows. The plot is incredibly easy to follow. The dialog is funny at times, and rather Catch-22 at other times. Nothing I say can do this book justice. If you have an appreciation for beautiful prose and unforgettable characters, give The Narrator a try. Not so sure if literary experimentation is your thing? Give this novel a try anyways, because this is the good kind of literary experimentation. Let me give you one more taste of what’s in store:
“More digging reveals many other graves are in the same condition, their tenants having burrowed or perhaps digested their way through the ground, drawn to each other by an overpowering desire of the mind. Where they converge, we uncover – with an eruption of stench that scatters us rethching and snickering – a massive startfish hump, leprous and trickling with spermy ooze. . . .
. . . That pungent smell is less and less like decay, and more and more like the must of a living thing, like a stable or pig wallow”
Shortly after I finished reading The Narrator (and it took me an embarrassingly long time to read this book), I heard a story on NPR about the Army discharging soldiers for mental health reasons. I am grossly simplifying the situation and there is a lot more to it than I or any journalist can touch on in a few sentences or a few pages, but my brain was connecting the veterans in the NPR article, and Low. If The Narrator and Low were superimposed on a novel about modern warfare, would he be risking his future for his mental health? Is Low’s experience a metaphor for anyone who has ever seen action?