Friday 9 September 2016

Review of Boneland by Alan Garner (2012)

Overall rating Two Stars (from a maximum score of five stars) - Note: This review contains multiple 'spoilers', because I do not recommend reading the book.

Alan Garner wrote two of my favourite ever books - The Moon of Gomrath (1963 - which I will be re-reviewing soon) and The Owl Service (1967) - ostensibly written for children.

But, I have considerable reservations - varying in strength - about the bulk of Garner's work. This reaches the maximum for the book under review - a novel called Boneland of 2012 (pp 149 - which retailed for £17, which runs at more than a pound for ten pages - steep!).

This seems to be Garner's final book - in the sense that he was in his seventies when he wrote it, and in the sense that the book tries to include references (some explicit and others coded) to all of his previous fiction, and to aspects of his autobiography (which can be found in the worth-reading, albeit very irritating, essay collection The voice that Thunders, 1997).

Boneland is supposed to be, in some sense, the final part of a projected trilogy which began with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath - albeit in my view Gomrath ends superbly, perfectly, with - indeed - one of the best endings of any novel ever!

In one sense, Boneland is  indeed a third part of the series, because it (sort of) contains the child characters of Colin and Susan at a later stage in their lives. In another - more realistic - sense this is not the end of a trilogy - because this is hardly a novel at all and written for adults not children.

Indeed, at 149 pages and not much written on each page; Boneland is actually a novella not a novel; and despite its terse-to-the-point-of-incomprehensibility form, Boneland is actually not a tightly written novella, but rather a padded-out short story - since it is full of linguistic repetitions, sprawling doggerel and song lyrics, and a feeling of dramatic redundancy and slackness of plotting.

On the positive side, I did read the whole book (in about three or four hours, not hurrying - and I am a slow reader) - so it had enough to keep me going to the end. But having struggled throughout to understand what was going on...

(Since he wrote Red Shift in 1973, ostensibly for teens, Garner has been deliberately telegrammic; and the novels and stories consist mainly of short sentences of unattributed and unamplified dialogue - often with untranslated dialect words - so it is very hard to know who is speaking, what is happening, and what they mean. Garner - just about - gets away with it in Red Shift, given a reader's willingness to put in extra research and multiple re-readings it has raw power; but not since. In other words, post Owl Service, Garner is deliberately hard work - presumably on the basis that he believes it makes the writing deeper and more poetic if you cut out all 'inessential' words, and then a few more... This places later Garner as a very late example of the Imagist and experimental tradition of Ezra Pound and Basil Bunting.)

And having spent the whole novel setting up the final encounter...

When the end actually comes: it is lame.

In a nutshell, Boneland amounts to one of those 'clever' kid's stories which end "And then he woke up and it had all been a dream!"

As the final line of Boneland puts it: "It is a true story, said the other. It is a true Dream. Sleep now."

This means the book is not fantasy; and not only not-fantasy but actually anti-fantasy because it retrospectively re-frames and falsifies both the Weirdstone and Gomrath as happening only in Colin's 'dreams' And then claiming this makes them 'true' stories - presumably on the basis that these dreams effect his healing and individuation, or personal growth.

What Boneland actually is then - is a novel of psychotherapy, of Jungian analysis. The book accounts the inner story of a self-cure achieved via the ultimate self confronting autonomous archetypes of the collective unconscious - which present themselves as a full-blown psychosis of hallucinations and delusions (these psychotic phenomena including the previous two novels).

Thus: Colin finally, climactically (i.e. on page 147) meets his twin sister Susan and they embrace - she appears as a blank shadow; and he asks "Who are you?" to which she replies "You." And when 'Meg' (the psychiatrist who also, apparently, does not really exist - despite taking-up most of the middle half of the novella) afterwards asks where Susan was; Colin replies "Here".

In case we don't know our Jung; Meg explains that Susan "is the shadow that Shapes your light". Susan is merely Colin's shadow-self, his unacknowledged, suppressed, disapproved-of, private and shameful Self. And then Meg gives the typically psychotherapeutic advice to "Forgive yourself. Accept." to which Colin agrees: "Yes".  

I call that a shallow, clichéd and nihilistic cop-out of an ending.

Therefore, my advice to those who value Weirdstone and Gomrath is not to read, but instead to avoid, Boneland.


Anonymous said...

Thanks - and how saddening! I bogged down in caution, having (in many ways) liked Wierdstone, Moon, and Elidor a lot, but finding The Owl Service... dark? harsh? - and Red Shift sounding more so. (Why not the Stone Book Quartet? - I don't remember.) I was glad to hear he had written Strandloper, but shy of trying it when I read reviews (etc.).

Do you know R.C. Zaehner's account of Jung in Mysticism Sacred and Profane? If so, what do you think of it? It gives me the impression that the Jungian whole is less than some of its parts.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DAvid - I don't know that particular persepctive on Jung, but I have read many others. If you word-search Jung you will find several posts about the man and his work.

Certainly, I agree that the Jungian perspective is significantly (fatally) incomplete - partly this was due to the faults and flaws of the man, and partly becuase Jung was himself very religious - an unusual kind of Christian (as am I) - while his followers are not.

Jung was someone who I tried hard to build my pre-Christian life on and to use as a basis for finding purpose and meaning in life - but it is not enough and it does not work.

Nonetheless, I do return to re-read and reconsider his ideas from time to time - and he made a vital contribution to modern thought.