The Sky Is Yours and genre bending

The “big five” debut novel by Chandler Klang Smith has finally been released! This is a strange, surprising book, and I am confident that it will leave a lasting mark.

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My disclaimer is that Chandler is my partner, so obviously I’m rooting for her. But I am also genuinely excited by this book, and have been since its inception many years ago. Reading The Sky Is Yours is like eating an exquisite fifteen course meal, and every page pulls you deeper into its challenging and unique imaginative universe. (For a handhold, though, think of something between A Confederacy of Dunces and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil). No matter my connection with the author, I know I would want to see it get recognized. A more relevant point for this blog: I think I can offer an interesting perspective on it in this strange semi-private public place. One of the main things I have noticed about the book, and what this post will be about, is that it takes major aesthetic risks in the increasingly fearful world of commercial book publishing. (For a summary, the link above has the jacket copy.)

The very publication of The Sky Is Yours is partly thanks to a certain luck of it getting into the hands of just the right people. Her agent took her on after championing other weird voices. And he matched up the book with a young literary imprint that also focuses on distinct stories and styles (Han Kang, Margaret Atwood, Michel Faber, and Hermione Eyre, among others).

One of the risks the novel takes is that it refuses to participate in some common tendencies in modern commercial fiction. These move toward “invisible” immersion in plot, and toward accommodating narrower windows of reading-focused leisure time. For instance, I might expect a stream of short action-oriented chapters or sections, an unmarked film treatment style, and narrative rhetoric primarily geared toward plot predictions and twists. Techniques that draw special attention to the written medium are usually to be avoided. Yet that’s the space Chandler’s novel inhabits. It concentrates on characters and their emergent conflicts, symbolic and thematic development, vivid language, formal variety, and affect.

The other noticeable risk, probably the more important one, is that Chandler crosses her literary ambitions with an equally intense desire to interrogate genre. For the most part, “genre-bending” books actually aim at a contained, non-genre-bending audience. So you might find books that a Paris Review crowd instantly recognizes, either because of the prior reputation of the author (as in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Colson Whitehead’s Zone One) or because the book itself is a traditional realistic novel with a light speculative twist (like Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude or Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists). On the other side of the railroad tracks, you might find books like Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer or All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, again where a particular audience immediately recognizes the author or book. In all of these cases, some tipping point in the book’s reception leads to wider interest. Crossover, they call it. Musical analogies might be Leonard Bernstein or Duke Ellington.

But The Sky Is Yours does something unusual. Its own asymmetry — the comfortable place from which its crossover appeal would have to begin — is clearly located on the “literary” side. But for one thing, it’s an American debut of an author who is not established with that crowd. Furthermore, the recognizable content from the cover and jacket description point to things like dragons (fantasy), a dystopian futuristic setting (SF), and young main characters (YA). Indeed, the marketing people seem to have focused on those groups of readers. In any case, its earliest pre-publication audience was genre-oriented. One pre-pub writer for a professional capsule review source has even explained, in the pages of that same publication, that she strongly prefers “trashy romance” to literary fiction.

To complicate things, the novel does not easily match the formula of “literary with a genre twist.” Large and small chunks of it play on many different genre tropes, depending on where the characters happen to be in their arcs, which emotions a given genre specializes in, and how its expectations match or clash with the novel’s themes. This fundamentally limits how comfortable readers can feel, whatever their reading background happens to be. With Station Eleven, for instance, you’re bound to think at some point, “I get it, this is a meditative book about a traveling Shakespeare company!” and then you won’t have to keep reconfiguring that view. Not so here, where there’s a Pynchonian build-up of contrasting tones, references, and narrative methods.

Here’s an example of what I’m getting at. The entire first act is modeled on an unexpected genre, the nineteenth-century arranged marriage plot. (To explain why a la Marshall McLuhan: capitalism has overheated to the point of retrieving aristocracy.) The narrative switches gears when things go wrong, but even before that we find sharp variations in tone and format (sections in plural first person, a memo, a letter, bits of screenplay…). Many early readers have proven remarkably receptive to all of this, while many also admit to finding their experience much more difficult than they normally seek out. Hence a number of positive but “well that was weird” responses on SF blogs and genre-oriented review platforms.

Whether or not they like it, though, a good many of those readers have not even recognized the marriage plot. They think the whole first chunk of the book is nothing but “getting to know the setting and the characters.” The action “starts” when that set of conventions comes crashing down. I can only imagine what they would say about Jane Austen. In short, the same people who likely think the marriage story in Brazil is digressive B-plot satire (think of the scenes where Jonathan Pryce’s mom is trying to get his life in order) will assume The Sky Is Yours just spins its wheels for the first act and that the actual “main story” has nothing to do with the main characters, named Duncan and Swanny. That’s despite the fact that in addition to being the central figures of the marriage plot, they also dominate the page count of the second and third parts. And that’s also despite the fact that their own stories constantly signal a deeper probing of familiar character types and plot functions. Expectation is a powerful thing.

That said, Chandler is not totally alone. Authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, and Susanna Clarke have gotten public recognition despite the oddness of what they were up to. But it takes work and, sometimes, time. Audiences in the age of Trump will have to be interested in finding challenging new experiences with fiction, and they will have to actively seek it out. The good news is that big risks often lead to self-selecting groups of big fans.

For a small taste of Chandler’s intellectual style, just look at one of her short interviews. She neatly conveys how her characters are thrown into roles and habits that have been shaped by a history beyond their control or understanding, discusses the difference between “dystopian” and “post-apocalyptic” fiction, points out her vast web of influences, and hints at the intense work that it took to avoid a “patchwork effect.”

It is indeed possible to fall under the spell of this novel without paying much attention to the sheer variety of its background tools. A couple important threads tie it together. One is its marked emphasis on a close third person perspective, both literally (zooming in from a plural “we” section) and in a broader sense of authorial attitude. What I mean is that the book focuses on the intimate reality of its characters’ lives: their relationships, motives, quirks, and histories. Yet it never falls into the “MFA” trap of avoiding stakes and consequences in the name of ambiguity or subtlety. Instead, it commits to the implicit energy behind its dramatic conflicts, as well as its linguistic choices, emotional ramifications, and stark, often comic juxtapositions of “high and low,” as a couple characters put it.

Nor does it fall into the genre trap of good guys vs. bad guys and world-saving adventure. Indeed, it constantly satirizes or frustrates those expectations while still giving every character their own coherent story shape. There does happen to be an important world-changing event at the end (it gets set up early as a quirk of worldbuilding and character development before it evolves into a progressively foregrounded arc). But the expected meaning of that plot point is definitively undermined for most of the characters. First of all, the Big Event takes place in a kind of seclusion. For most everyone, there just seems to be a sudden change in circumstances; nobody can understand or control it, despite society’s collective responsibility. Also, the significance of the Big Event for the main characters remains in the background to their own arcs. Third, and this is something the book announces over and over again, The Sky Is Yours isn’t about heroes on world-saving adventures. The sky has a roof for everybody. Now, if you think it ought to be about dragon slaying, cat-and-mouse action, sleuthing, and heroism, well… the oblivious reality star Duncan Ripple thinks so too. My guess is that the more like Ripple you are, the less you’ll appreciate what the book is up to.

I haven’t said enough about The Sky Is Yours, but I’m going to stop here. Anyone who gives it a read will find out for themselves that it is unlike anything they’ve read before. I am just glad to have seen it grow up and reach for something real.

 

 

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