At intervals of about a year, I’ve made it an inadvertant habit to return to fiction by Charles De Lint, drawn by the idea of what the author is trying to do and repulsed by his execution. His novels Moonheart and Someplace to Be Flying start from the attractive notion that beneath, behind, orthogonal to or six inches in the fifth dimension from modern reality lurks some ancient and powerful parallel reality, one governed by bonds of feeling and connection rather than by strictures of law, resource exploitation and electric technology. What if the first, unrecognized world came slicing through the second world we take for granted with a sharpness that really cuts flesh, casting a darkness in visible shadow and shining a light that gives everything we’ve seen before a new hue?
Ever since I read A Wrinkle in Time as a boy I’ve had a soft spot for novels in which the face of reality is torn aside, only to reveal… well, something interesting and thought-provoking. Something like Philip Pullman’s varied iterations of Earth, or John Twelve Hawks’ pervasive surveillance. Not the shallow characters of Moonheart, who are differentiated by “Nom de Tout” or their “Jesus H. Christ!” and not much else. Not the utterly banal and adolescent revelation in Someplace to Be Flying that each and every ramshackle, countercultural character has a special and magic place of destiny in the universe. Not the foreshadowing with a hammer in both books, with characters “somehow just knowing” “it was as if” it were “quiet… too quiet!”
These features of Charles De Lint’s books are repulsive to me, but I’ve been pulled back to his books nonetheless because beneath that I’ve gotten hints of a richer vein of mythology that might be lying beneath the clumsy characterization. I’m also just plain curious about the fate of people (okay, fictional people) who get caught in the intersection of worlds.
And so I picked up De Lint’s short novel The Wild Wood, and this time I really enjoyed myself. Rather than being flashy and showy, the book is spare, and not just in its mere 200 pages. This book really just has one character, the artist Eithnie, with others only orbiting around her at a distance. De Lint has the courage here to place her in the wilderness, apart from other people physically and emotionally. After failing in her work, Eithnie is trying to reinvigorate her painting and in the process re-examining her own past and place in the world. When it becomes apparent (yep) that her place in the world and her source of artistic inspiration are not what she thought they might be, her main task is not to figure out what the implications are for the mana-goat-sucker-ankh-wearing-Manitou-chakra-love-force and the Fate of the Universe. Really, she has to figure out what this change means for herself. She has to figure out how this reorienting change in the world fits in with her past, with her idea of herself, and with her choices about what to do.
De Lint’s fantasy novel succeeds not because of its magical elements, veering into sappy self-referential “we create the world through our art” conception of Faerie, but in spite of it. The main character in The Wild Wood really isn’t the special savior of the universe, although at times she fancies herself to be. She is alone, in silence, reaching for others, but more than that reaching for a place in the world as a creator. When De Lint allows her to be alone, when Eithnie plucks up the courage to enter a place of silence, The Wild Wood takes on a glow.