oops/weird literary bias

5 March 2006, 11:11 am

Once upon a time (in the 1940s), Mssrs deCamp and Pratt teamed up to write a series of short novels about the magical misadventures of one Harold Shea. The tales had a proto-post-modern spin to them: Shea would get transported into myths and pre-copyright stories like Spenser’s Faerie Queene. The Shea stories have an absurdly complicated publication history which found them in omnibus editions with titles like The Compleat Enchanter and The Incompleat Enchanter.

A month or so ago I was flipping through a book rack and spotted The Incompleat Nifft by Michael Shea. My brain registered the variant spelling of “incomplete” and the presence of “Shea” and I checked the book out of the library under the presumption that it was some sort of latter-day sequel. (I’ve made similar mistakes before — once I brought home one of Robert Parker’s novels about the detective Spencer when I’d been looking for one of Donald Westlake’s novels about the detective Parker. Oops.)

In fact, Shea’s collection of loosely-linked long short stories/short novels bears no relation to deCamp and Pratt’s creation, but evinces instead a remarkable resemblance to another fantasy series which originated in the 1940s, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are two of the original cornerstones on which the “sword & sorcery” subgenre of fantasy was built (for better or worse). They are best appreciated today with a liberal dose of historical perspective. Leiber’s duo encounters tropes that have long since become dreadful “Dungeons & Dragons” clichés (the fabled temple treasure that turns out to be a monster, the mysterious shop with mysterious goods which mysteriously appears and vanishes, etc), but which were fresh when the stories were first published. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were a bit like the French Connection car-chase scene of sword & sorcery, if you’ll let me stress a metaphor. The stories were short on character development, thematic content, and even on sophisticated plot constructs. They were long on dense prose with a rather 19th-century quality — “lush” or a bit “purple,” depending on your disposition to it. Arguably, the central “character” of the stories was really Leiber’s imagined world of Newhon itself, which was richly and vividly imagined.

Michael Shea’s Nifft the Lean and Barnar Hammer-Hand follow this template in virtually all particulars. Shea mixes in a touch of Lovecraft’s xenophobia, and is more explicitly grisly than Leiber, and there are sadomasochistic overtones, particularly when Nifft and Barnar go to Hell (which they do with some regularity). Shea is perhaps a better prose stylist than Leiber, which I think is the root of my strange reaction to the book. Like a “real” work of literature it takes more effort to read than most books which offer simple escapism. But I don’t think it offers commensurate rewards. Its characters are too shallow to offer any insights into human nature, and what thematic content it holds can be reduced to truisms like “pride goeth before a fall.” There’s nothing to learn from it but the details of a geography that is exotic, but wholly imaginary.

I found myself resenting not only the time I wasted reading (roughly half of) the book, but the time that Shea wasted writing it. He has an undeniable ability to write evocative prose and conjure memorable (if frequently nasty) images, and it seems to me that he ought to be able to write much better (and less derivative) books.

What bothers me about my response to The Incompleat Nifft is that I find myself making some of the same arguments that people make against the worthiness of fantasy/science fiction genres in their entirety. It has nothing to teach us. It’s decadent and valueless, a waste of time.

And I don’t feel the same way about the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories themselves. The same arguments apply, but Leiber was at least doing something that hadn’t been done before. I think what offends me about The Incompleat Nifft is the combination of its extreme derivativeness from a single template; the narrowness of its literary scope; and the amount of craft, care, and talent expended in its construction.

Which leads me to the odd conclusion that if The Incompleat Nifft had been written less well, I might have been able to enjoy it as a simple escapist lark. At any rate, I might not have felt compelled to excoriate it at (probably tedious, sorry) length.

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