Cupboards, Vaults and Underground Tunnels: Digging into N. D. Wilson's Fiction

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

It's been a while since I've gotten caught up in a book in a way reminiscent of my experience with C. S. Lewis' and J. R. R. Tolkien's works. Okay, it will probably still be a while before I find something comparable to Tolkien - I'm holding out for the next world. But N. D. Wilson's got me. After reading his dancing and dizzying Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, it was really only a matter of (very short) time before I started in on his fiction. And a whirlwind of a month or so later, I'm stuck having nothing left of his to read, and anticipating September when his next book comes out.

His fiction is written for children, with an imagination and craftsmanship that takes its readers seriously and thus can reach a wide audience, including those no longer supposed to be playing dress-up. Personally, I can't wait to read these books to my kids, should God so bless us, and in the meantime my husband and I have enjoyed reading and discussing them. Wilson is a skilled writer, very aware of what he's doing with sentences and imagery, and I found the storytelling of sophisticated enough craft to not only hold my attention, but spark it. And when it comes down to it, he spins a good yarn: exciting plot, seductive landscapes and quirky and compelling characters. Actually, his character portrayals and development are particularly successful. I appreciate his attention to creating secondary characters in such a way that one recognizes them to be significant; had a different storyteller chosen, the story could have been told from their perspectives with equal interest. Also, the adult characters aren't demoted to the characterization that seems to haunt them in much children's literature: irrelevant, boring, ineffective, unable to understand, or just plain oppressive. Thus, even if as a thirty year old you have a hard time following around a thirteen year old protagonist, you may find yourself invested in the story for the sake of the forty year old father trying to make a go of it by selling tumbleweed on the internet.

I started with 100 Cupboards, and knew after the first few pages that I was in the hands of a storyteller whose work I could respect. The initial description of the town of Henry, Kansas, was emotive and impressive. Granted, as an English major I'm particularly guilty of looking for ways in which landscapes interact with the characters, reflecting, subverting, creating them. But I think Wilson is fully aware of this too, and uses it in a very productive way. The main character of this particular series (which includes #2 Dandelion Fire and #3 The Chestnut King) is Henry, accompanied in many of his adventures by his cousin Henrietta. Yes, Henry and Henrietta. And it works. The basic premise: a kid with a pretty sheltered upbringing spends the summer at his cousins' farm and discovers a wall of cupboards behind the plaster walls of his room. And of course, they aren't for holding socks. As with the Lewis' wardrobe made from a Narnian-grown tree, so are Wilson's cupboards made from wood with a tendency to transport...

The only complaint I had against this series was the matter of pacing in a few sections. I felt the end of book one a little rushed - with the villain appearing and disappearing a little too quickly and dramatically. Book two produced the opposite reading experience for me as I felt it started a little slowly, with a bit too much "recap" of book one, but then accelerated in a fantastic accrual of events and characters. What I perceive as weaknesses of pacing are minor, and don't detract from the overall thrill and thrust of the books. And indeed, book two boasts one of the best battle presentations (in terms of pacing and attention to what is described and what is not) my husband claims he's ever read; I have to agree.

Wilson's Ashtown Buriel series seems to be progressing in an equally positive direction, but the book I am currently excited about is his first and shortest, Leepike Ridge. I think I had the lowest expectations for this one (not sure why), and so it turned out to be a surprisingly pleasurable experience. I read it in a day, following its eleven year old protagonist down a river and under a mountain. More than any of the books, Wilson nails the narrative pacing here - it's dynamic and contemplative all at once. Its world feels simpler than the other books, and yet, like the others, and like the events of the plot itself, it digs deeper. It draws on old stories like the Odyssey. It weaves in a counter-cultural view of history. And it does so in a way that will keep an eleven year old engaged and thinking and enjoying.

With the books back on the bookshelf (until I return them to the public library), what I think I value about them the most is that like with the Narnia Chronicles, Till We Have Faces and The Lord of the Rings, they continue on in the real world. Wilson has said in regards to his own writing that he seeks to open peoples' eyes to the wonder around them, to the magic that is woven into the world we live in. And it's true. He doesn't squirm around suffering and death. He doesn't avoid the beauty and danger intrinsic to life.

And I will never look at dandelions the same way again.

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The Magical Movement of Mr. Walker

Saturday, March 31, 2012

I saw magic a couple of weeks ago. It was beautiful. It made me actually shake my head in awe. It made look around to call my husband over to see, even though he wasn't home yet.

I sat down with my laptop, logged in to Facebook and got ready to do my daily perusal of friends' status updates, cleverly captioned photos and mildly inspiring videos. I was expecting to be distracted from whatever I was supposed to be doing, and I was hoping to be amused. But I wasn't expecting to be confronted with magic. It went something like this:

I see a video. A close friend has posted it, and it is called 'Mr. Walker!' Sounds promising (an exclamation marks always helps). And I love her posts about her son, Baby D, the firstborn within our intimate friend group from high school.

I scroll over that familiar right-facing arrow and click; the slightly pixilated home-video flicks to life. A  round little face comes into focus a few feet from the camera, blond hair whisping, smiling eyes looking beyond me, looking at the Great Wielder of the iphone. The little boy sways back and forth for an instant, rocking against his dad who's kneeling behind him. His hands are scrunched in little excited fists, and he is held up by his dad's hands wrapped around his yellow-shirted tummy.

The camera goggles, the thirteen month old flexes his knees up and down, and his dad whispers "Go see mommy!"

All this I take in within a mere two seconds. There is no further warning. I am not prepared for what will happen:

Baby D leans towards us, even before his dad has let his hands gently fall from the chubby belly. Baby D bobs. His arms are stretched up, fingers grabbing air. He steps. He is released. And he walks.

I am completely and utterly taken aback. My own delighted laughter dances with the sounds of the moment. The thwump sound as he lands on his bum after three steps. (And he doesn't even seem to notice his dad lifting him up again, just begins again with that focused, excited trot towards the camera as soon as he finds himself back on his feet). The sound of his mom bursting out "Come see mamma!" in musical, rising tones and "Woohoo you made it!". The sounds of flump, flump, flump, of baggy little pant legs shuffling back and forth against each other.

How can I describe this? Here is the little boy I first saw only just over a year ago, a tiny, red, delicate little ball of preciousness, newborn. So fragile. So helpless. And here is the little boy who I've held, who I've listened to gurgling or crying, who I've had pee on my jeans, who I've helped bundle up into the carrier on his mom's back. He's grown and changed so much. Of course, babies grow. But this? I wasn't expecting it to be like this. Here he is - bumbling and bouncing and bounding on his own two feet. Walking. Reaching the camera.

And then his mom turns him around, saying "Go see daddy!", and he walks back to his daddy with that zestful bend of newly found knees. And then he thwumps down on the ground and the adult arms reach in and pull him up again. And so, back to mommy as he takes another step all by himself. 


And it is magic, just magic, and I'm in total wonder at it.

I don't think I'm alone in this experience, in this realization of the wonder that is present within the very normal and the very human. I'm embarrassed at my failure to expect it (although in this case, it's a pleasant failure). For there are moments when I am too numb to recognize the magic. Too familiarized to notice the Divine's artistry. Too busy to see and rejoice. Or just too tired (albeit sometimes legitimately so) to wonder.

Please - splash the cold water of your comments over me, share your experiences of magic in the everyday, so that we can wake up to the magic that God has woven into the universe.

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Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl: an Author Acknowledgement

Monday, March 12, 2012

Is there a particular phenomenon which in all this wide world causes you to take notice and feel a certain way – almost entirely regardless of when you encounter it or how you are feeling at the time or who you are with? And when I say “take notice” I don’t just mean that you notice it, in which case any gaudy or unavoidably attention-grabbing thing would suffice. No, it might be very subtle, or common, or silent, or  yes, gaudy, but when faced with it, you cannot help take notice, pay attention, open up your ears to what it is saying. It ends up not being the focus of your attention; what it is saying does. For me, the it is standing in the snow, and feeling – realizing really – that it’s cold. I will often take my gloves off and grab a fistful, because the feeling of burning, icy, melting snow turning my fingers red and cold and eventually numb reminds me that I am alive. It reminds me that I am not numb, not really. It reminds me that I am not wholly calloused to the Voice that speaks through all of His creation, that I am not wholly dead to those non-lingual words that N.D. Wilson identifies in his book as “God’s Spoken World.”

Notes from a Tilt-a-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World. This book – a poem in prose, really – made my reading experience very much like picking up a handful of snow. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that one recurring image throughout the book is the vivid recollection of snow-experiences. But mostly it has to do with Wilson’s beautiful preoccupation with uncovering the Voice of the Poet, with de-numbing our senses to God’s words, specifically His spoken world, all around us. Like the medievals (but unlike the medievals), Wilson believes strongly that this world is a book, a book revealing the Author - if we are willing to become literate (which is much more an issue of the heart than of dissecting analogies). I can’t help but quote him directly here: “In the beginning… There was a Word, a Voice. There was Artist, but there was not yet art. And that Voice said Light, and extended Himself a finite canvas to paint the only thing that could be worth painting, to paint the I AM” (186 – 187).

In reading Wilson’s book, I didn’t feel like I was being taught something shockingly new, but rather being exposed to wider and stronger and more beautiful depths of the familiar. These are the whispers and shadows of light that some of us were introduced to through the writings of Tolkien (with his mythology of “splintered light”) and Lewis (who resists the possibility that a star is simply a ball of gas, that its existence consists only in its materials of composition). These are the whispers and shadows of light that we are hopefully aware of to some degree through our own experiences. And if not there, then certainly through the words of Scripture: “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2).

And Notes is steeped in Scripture. Not in the ways we may be used to (whether bad or good). There is no copy and paste of de-contextualized verses. There is no in-depth exegesis of a passage, a phrase, a word. But the Written Word of God pervades: it forms the base of Wilson’s theology, it permeates his assumptions, it sweeps through his anecdotes, it colours his perspective with an irrevocable dye. The fear, for some of us, is that a book which insists on God’s effectiveness to speak through every created thing will crumble into diverse mantras of  “god is whatever you understand him to be through whatever you discovered him in.” Fear not. This book is anything but flaky. And it is anything but tame – there are no half-hearted convictions here. This book insists on God’s sovereignty, on His power, on His goodness, on His holiness, on His Incarnation, on His humility in coming “to live in a trough and die on a pole,” on the reality of Hell, on the gloriousness of God, on the joy that is ours to come.

"But what kind of book is it?" you may ask
It is a book of very big ideas and very small details. There are many lists in the book. In sentences, mostly. Juxtapositions. And all are carefully crafted. The chapters start off with a scene, a recollection of the author’s, with a deeply visceral connection to the landscape or some creature therein. And there the chapter returns in closing. In between, however, the images shift. We are in places confronted with the voice of a philosopher (Plato? Nietzsche? Annie Dillard?). We are introduced to a butterfly. We are told that there are shellfish fossils in the Rockies. We are privy to lists like: “A single world combining galaxies, black holes, Jerry Seinfeld, over 300,000 varieties of beetle, Shakespeare, adrenal glands, professional bowling, and the bizarre reproductive patterns of wasps (along with teams of BBC cameramen to document them), precludes easily palatable explanations” (4-5). These lists are marvelous. They de-familiarize the familiar; that is, they prompt us to think of common things in new ways; that is, we must put some work into it. But it is invigorating work. And Notes is ultimately cohesive – it is a fitting embodiment of the paradox we see around us of the diversity and unpredictability of life, and of its unity under the creating, sustaining, reigning Lord Jesus Christ. Notes is a story, with a kind of plot, with an accrual of force and emotion, with a point. Like life.

Life. Wilson weaves within the book’s pages a provocative and humbling account of life, of this created life, and he does not hold back from dealing with the hard stuff: death, the (so-called, but much felt) problem of evil, pain, decay, Hell, Heaven, bodies, souls, laughter, language, wonder, worship. Of what is. Of what will be. Oh yes, of what will be! There is a quote on the last page (before the acknowledgments section) that I wish I could read to you, but it is on the last page and so I don’t want to read it to you. You must read it yourself. I think you’ll know which one it is.

There are so many other passages I want to share too. In fact, when I first drafted this post I had worked up my own juxtaposition of something from Barthes’ purposely provocative short essay, “Death of the Author” with one of Wilson’s statements regarding the Voice of the Author. I've obviously since discarded that idea, but I’ll end here with the quote from the latter: may its reminder of your created-ness and God’s creative authority provoke you to go find the book and read it.

“You are spoken. I am spoken. We stand on a spoken stage. The spinning kind. The round kind. The moist kind. […] The magic is real, and I stand blinking on the stage because of it. I’m real. I’m heavy. I’m matter. Cut me and I’ll bleed. But I’m not made out of anything, and if the Magician, the Poet, the Word, if the Singer were to stop His voice, I would simply cease to be” (24).

If you've read Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, what are your thoughts on it? How did it impact you? And have you read any of his children's fiction yet?

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