Difficult Reading

In the past few weeks I have been taking the trains a lot, visiting different cities. While riding the rails I have allowed myself a bit of lighter, leisure reading. For the past few years I’ve drifted towards classical history, philosophy, and a bit of political theory in my reading, as well as critical & literary theory. I’ve moved in this direction not out of any distaste for fiction (that would be a bit rich) but rather out of a desire to educate myself a bit more. I went to University and learned how little I knew. However, a train ride, with all its attendant interruptions and discomforts, isn’t too great a place to concentrate on a theory reader, so I switched to my e-reader and downloaded a few e-books.

Of the ones that I started to read, I finished two. When I was a child I never abandoned a book, no matter how bad, because I considered there to be a virtue in finishing what I had started. As I’ve gotten older I’ve given up on that notion: there are many books, and I do not have the time to read them all. The two that prompted me to press on were Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and James Smythe’s The Explorer. Both well written, it was a moment of dissonance that prompted me to keep at them rather than put them aside for a crossword puzzle. Spoilers to follow, please proceed with that in mind.

Neil Gaiman is, obviously, the more famous writer of the two, and needs no introduction, least of all by me. Stardust is a novella originally published in 1999, telling the story of the slightly hapless Tristran and his star-crossed lover Yvaine. Normally, I’d say there’s more to it than that, but in the case of Stardust that really is the whole of the tale, barring some witchiness and Tristran being heir to the kingdom. It was also adapted to a film in 2007, which I mostly liked. I have read a few Gaiman stories (American Gods, Anansi Boys, Fragile Things collection) but I’m hardly an expert. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Stardust was something of an experiment by him. The prose read to me as quintessential Gaiman: the junction where fairy-tale poesy meets modern prose.1 Gaiman is very, very good at this style, I’d even go so far as to suggest that writing in a pre-modern fantastic idiom is his lived in home when it comes to words. He weaves in touches of the fantastic, invoking mythology to make a magic that feels everyday but not precisely commonplace. I particularly like the fieldmouse that “was a prince under an enchantment” eaten by an owl “herself under a curse”, the potential “Nut of Wisdom” then falling in to a river to be eaten by a salmon, evoking the bradán feasa eaten by Fionn mac Cumhaill. The commonplace binding chains are of Norse origin; even the reference to stars falling and never rising evokes Milton and Paradise Lost. Gaiman is a writer who knows much, is not afraid to show it, yet does so deftly and with a light yet commanding touch. His agility with language is reflected as he describes an opened body as with “vital organs like wet jewels” or a rakish character “a foppish assassin from a minor Elizabethan historical play.”

However, Stardust imports something a bit unpleasant, a bit of unthinking that it never really resolves, and which dogged my reading experience. To put it simply, Tristran is quite the creeper. He initially goes in search of the fallen star (Yvaine) because he is attempting to win the affections of Victoria Forester, described in this way:

Every boy in the village was in love with Victoria Forester. And many a sedate gentleman, quietly married and with grey in his beard, would stare at her as she walked down the street, becoming, for a few moments, a boy once more, in the spring of his years with a spring in his step.

When I read this, my heart went out to Victoria. I do not know, personally, what it is like to be scrutinised on the street, but I have spoken to enough people who have that Victoria immediately had my sympathy. She is a young woman who wants a job, is impeded in this by convention, and at every turn is ogled by men and boys. She comes across rather well in light of this.2 Tristran is, of course, in love with Victoria, though he is “painfully shy” for which he overcompensates. This is presumably a set up so that we don’t judge him too harshly but… there follows a scene where Tristran forces Victoria in to conversation, invites himself to walk her home, asks to kiss her and is rebuffed, asks to kiss her again and doesn’t understand why she won’t kiss him now when she did before, proposes to her while ignoring what she is saying, then finally gets her to agree to marry him3 and then struts off in to Faerie where he finds Yvaine, a star incarnated as a woman, ties her up in an unbreakable chain4 with the intention of taking her back through to Wall5, his cruelty to her justified by his desire for Victoria:

every time she winced or flinched Tristran felt guilty and awkward, but he calmed himself by thinking of Victoria Forester’s grey eyes.

We never see Tristran develop or question how he behaved to Victoria in the first place, nor how he treats Yvaine. It is particularly galling since the fictive world of the book supports a perspective of Victoria as the trouble-maker, and the appropriate response being to:

tell her to go shove her face in the pig pen, and go out and find another one who’ll kiss you without asking for the earth.

Where Stardust is a fairy-tale, and embraces fairy-tale mores. I don’t know whether it was in adherence to this, but it felt as if the latter part of the book was quite hurried. We get Tristran and Yvaine’s adventures reported to us in a brief, almost cursory paragraph. To some extent this is in adherence to the demands of the genre, to not stay overlong once the tension of Yvaine and Tristran (and the witches) is resolved. However, because so much rests on believing that not only could Yvaine forgive and even love Tristran, I find that being told rather than shown damages the conclusion of the story, as does having Victoria only free to marry who she wants by Tristran’s largesse. I was disappointed by the time I had finished Stardust, given the obvious care and thought that went in to the language and the mythological grounding that was not applied to the development of the characters. I don’t know, obviously, but I sense that the reluctance to interrogate this stems as much from love of the inspiration as anything else, and to question the assumptions underpinning a fairy-tale work is to scare away magic.6 It also might be said that it is simply ‘not that sort of story’ but it at least implicitly draws on the ideas of bildungsroman, but does not actually execute them. I think in a post Angela Carter/Bloody Chamber literary landscape, though, this just isn’t the case.

The Explorer is narrated by Cormac Easton, a journalist on a once in a lifetime journey in to space. He’s separated from his wife7 It is a science fiction narrative that at first one might be forgiven for thinking of as in the vein of Star Trek, boldly going where none have gone before. That is indeed part of the premise under which the characters operate. It even includes this about the pursuit of exploration:

And it inspired people; it made others do the same, and that led to countries being discovered, populated.

Reading this, I had to pause and consider the implication there. Exploration, in the tradition being discussed, is that of western sailors going to already populated places and declaring them ‘discovered’, usually resulting in colonisation and lots and lots of suffering. “This is about man, and what we’ll find out there” we are told. It put me on edge, but this was merely the set-up.

The Explorer sets up this expectation to explode it. It is not about discovering new places, but rather about discovering the self and, unlike with the tradition of explorer narratives such as She or Heart of Darkness, the blank canvas upon which this exploration is undertaken is not just of an existing space white-washed, but rather of absolute blank space. The events of The Explorer take place within a time-loop on board a sabotaged space exploration. Cormac is forced to watch himself over and over again, living through the same series of accidents and murders. Cormac realised about himself that he “can’t deal with knowing I’m here with no purpose.” It is an interesting comment on the idea of the neutral observer, how Cormac’s initial experience differs from how he observes things that the story returns to:

the faces of the dead as they tell us about themselves when they were alive – not who they really were, but who the public perception of them was.

Cormac, in being able to see himself, come to despise himself. It is most succinctly described by Emmy who, following Cormac Prime’s murder of another member of the crew, tells Cormac Other that he is “a man… who thinks that the world revolves around him. That what happened is because of your choices, not hers.” Cormac never considers himself not at fault, or not instrumental, even when he considers himself ‘just’ part of the circuit that makes up the timeline.

What The Explorer does with its time paradox is a reflection of the particular capability of science fiction in a meta-textual sense. As science fiction allows us to reflect on ourselves at a remove, so does Cormac do so. Yet it is quite bold in that, despite being aware of his failures, Cormac acknowledges that he

can berate him [the other Cormac] doing it [staring at pictures of his dead wife] as much as I like but, truth be told, given the opportunity, it’s what I would be doing as well.

And he does indeed go back to stare at her pictures when the other Cormac leaves the terminal open. The Explorer is about personal growth and change, the difficulty of it, that is requires “hindsight, and even then I’d be suspicious.” Like Stardust, The Explorer does miss out a long period of time in Cormac’s subjective timeline: we know he has repeated this experience many, many times, but not a particular figure. Yet it does this to illuminate how hard change and growth are. Yet it does offer Cormac the tantalising, painful opportunity to change, having lived this loop so many times he has lost count. Just at the end, he can either return to the loop or reach out to the potentially destructive unknown.

As I have written before, I believe stories are as much tool for empathy and self-reflection as they are entertainment. These two books proved to be difficult reading for similar reasons – concerns about the characters and where the narrative was going – with two quite different outcomes. Yet even though I was disappointed with Stardust and surprised by The Explorer, I think being able to identify and consider the good and bad, contrasting how they operate in their particularly niches, embracing them as they do, helps to a more full understanding of the text.


  1. “it [the star, Yvaine] said ‘Fuck.’ And then is said ‘Ow,’ once more.”
  2. Unlike in the film which, because of reasons, she was rewritten as rather horrible.
  3. An agreement that, we learn at the end of the book, Victoria intends to honour, even though she does not want to!
  4. Of the same sort used to bind Fenris, naturally.
  5. This will kill her.
  6. “each land that has been forced off the map by explorers and the brave going out and proving it wasn’t there has taken refuge in Faerie.”
  7. We later learn that his wife had committed suicide just before he boarded the spaceship.