Monday 9 March 2020

On Reading Slumps and Aegypt

This blog has been very quiet recently and that's because (mainly) there's not been a lot to input. Dear few and faithful readers, yours truly has been in a reading slump. And I figured I'd talk about it because... well, why not? I'm bored and have nothing better to do. And don't actually feel like reading, despite having picked up a book to read moments before.

I was going to talk about reading slumps but realised I've little new to say there. So I'll talk about the book I've read most this month - John Crowley's Ageypt. I asked for it for Christmas in attempt to broaden my knowledge. Famous, well thought of author (if little mentioned these days); a fantasy work drawing from real world occultism and a form of fantasy in the modern world that was more the average urban fantasy. It's not the only book I've been reading (and I've been doing a lot more writing than reading anyway) but its the main one.

And if its the main book I'm reading in a reading slump, do I really like it? I mean, I saw it lying on the bedroom floor and didn't even bother putting it in my bag this morning.

Yes and No.

Let us cover some of the Yes. I was talking recently with a friend (the wonderful Bea, mod at the Fantasy Faction forum) about why we gravitated towards Fantasy rather than any other genre and summed it up as stories are usually more interesting for a dragon or two in them. Crime, Spy Thriller, Historical Fiction... have you considered putting a dragon or two in there? But it's not just that for me. What Aegypt has helped me realise and remember is I started to fixate on Fantasy because I found books where ordinary modern people lived ordinary modern lives deeply boring. Particularly the slower, more literary ones, driven more by sharp prose and acute character observations than any plot. As a part of the dish I can enjoy it but as the whole I struggle. The Fantasy genre more or less excluded those books at the door and that is why I love it.

Except for Aegypt.

I'm past the halfway point now and most of Aegypt has been taken up with a few days worth of life (there's just been a time elapse to jump to the next few). Most of its about a young-ish, not particularly noteworthy academic fleeing the indignity of not being offered tenure and a rough patch in life in which he spent all his money financing his girlfriend's ambitions as a cocaine dealer. The rest is about a housewife who's divorcing her husband out in some rural spot. It is the embodiment of the type of fiction I have always had least use for. And while I grow and change, it's not been by that much.

The barest hint of expanded reality has just crept into the book at the point at which I am. There's some segments lifted from a fictional book that the housewife is reading in which John Dee is being John Dee. There's the historian's book idea, a book looking at all the alternate histories of the world and how they came to be (like why do people think Gypsies can read fortunes?) that his agent wants to expand into something more occult. There's a very accurate fortune teller using astrology. That's it. This wouldn't matter too much if the book skipped along with a captivating plot. It doesn't. Aegypt is dry and long-winded and almost ostentatiously short of drama and action.

What it does have though is very sharp prose and observation, written from a place so deep within the character's psyche you feel like you're learning about them just from the way they talk. I might wish there were more hard choices for them, more lights thrown on the contradictions of their selves, but there is still enough there that I feel the need to know what happens to them. The gradual unveiling of the idea that maybe there is something to the characters' Age of Aquarius beliefs does also leave me with a definite need to know. I've written a few times on this blog about stories that work on the slow accretion of detail and constant redefining of what we and the characters know. This is one of them. And I love it as much as I hate stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things.

Which puts me in a pickle. Here is a book I feel compelled to see to the end (not just because me mum brought it for me) and yet really struggle with reading. It is a book almost designed to produce a reader slump (especially when combined with other events). The current top review on Goodreads helped crystallise my thoughts about this book a great deal, in which the reviewer cites her husband (whose favourite book it is) as admitting that it's not a particularly fun read. Bingo. It's not. I could go on a long time listing all the various ways this is not a fun read.

But it is engaging. It is challenging and clever, a pleasure more akin to a good crossword than most books. It might seem madness to read a book that's not fun and I'm not sure I can really argue with those who say so but there's enough non-fun enjoyment there for it to work. I have been considering for a while the idea that some books are more fun to remember than to read (and vice versa) - ever since I read The Poppy War. I think that Aegypt will be one of those books. I certainly hope so, as it'll be the only time I do. But I do definitely want to do it.

Even if it is part of my slump.