This is not a post about Elizabeth Hand's novel, Illyria. It is a post about her prose.
Because if I wrote about Illyria, you would glimpse a self-conscious novel, like one of those thin, early ventures into young adult fiction from the 70's, replete with open-ended characters who smoked a lot of drugs, swore prolifically, used archaic sexual terms, and left the reader wondering, what was the point? and, what does it prove?
But to write about the prose of Elizabeth Hand, ah, now there is a topic worthy of your time.
Prose that paints a chair "meat red."
That describes a woman buying up, "one by one, all the houses surrounding her own. Her children ended up living in those homes, like hermit crabs scuttling into empty shells..."
"A harlequin pattern of sunlight filtered through the trellis..."
Prose that knows how to trip along the tongue: ""Unforgettable." That was the word attached to Madeline throughout her career, in every torn clipping I ever read, every review of every performance, every stagy publicity photo that appeared as ancient and remote to me as a stone tablet. Madeline's Unforgettable Cleopatra. Her Unforgettable Viola. Her Unforgettable Series of Unforgettable Triumphs, Never to Be Forgotten."
With prose like that, the first ten pages of Illyria were purple velvet.
She can paint a scene, paint a novel's entire tone, in just a few sentences:
We retained theatrical superstitions, as well, unmoored from their element and thus meaningless. Peacock feather were banned from all our homes. It was considered lucky for a cat to sleep on one of our parochial school uniforms. In the carriage house where Madeline once stored her tattered scripts, and where Aunt Kate now lived, a ghost light burned in an upper window, a forty-watt bulb in a floor lamp without a shade. Our attics were full of ruined costumes, tattered moths'-wings of burned velvet and lace that had been court gowns; crinolines reduced to hoops of whalebone; black satin that, when smacked upon a cousin's unsuspecting head, burgeoned into top hats; lady's gloves that still smelled like the ladies who had last worn them; sinister puppets and jointed dolls used as models for the wardrobe mistress; old photos of Fairhaven, the island in Maine where Madeline had kept a summer home.
Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant prose.
I wish I could leave it at that, but prose cannot be dissected from story, like so many internal organs. Illyria is a corpse--still warm, yes, a few blood cells still glittering ruby red--but dead all the same.
At first, it's difficult to tell whether the novel was written in those early years of formal young adult literature or if the author allowed her setting to overwhelm her novel. The characters scream, we are Young Adults! Notice our dashing recklessness! Notice our exessive absorbment in drugs, sex and casual profanity! We are Young Adults!
Call me low-brow, bourgeois, but what is the point of this novel, and what does this novel prove?
The prose proves wondrous talent. But in the end, the author's choices create a story that, unlike Madeline's Cleopatra and Viola, is completely forgettable.
On a separate topic, I find it interesting that so many everyman readers have had such strong, sickened reactions to the "kissing cousin" element of the novel. My question is, who are they to judge romance between close relatives as taboo? Yes, yes, they know about DNA and genetic evidence and all that. But they also know that other, formerly stigmatized romances produce their own set of health problems. Whence comes this almost moral repugnance on the part of readers who, on any other day, accept all colors of sexual orientation? Just wondering.