the art of war

My strategy approaches the target from two different vantage points. First, I will examine the novel's language and culture using a critical method based in whatever I am thinking about at the time. Then, I will identify other manifestations of Uskglass-like characters in books that are not Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Also, there's a trebuchet (no there isn't).

The Uskglass parts aren't as hard as the other stuff; I think Clarke's character is such a deep-myth relic that other interpretations of it are relatively common. Uskglass has some direct (that Wikipedia image is an abomination) precursors (that Wikipedia image is also an abomination) in traditional British literature, but I'm currently pursuing antecedents in other cultures — early work has indicated possible involvement by Classical mythology, and maybe even some shady Yahweh influences. These parts are not only less than but also much different from the sum of their accumulation, of course. The transmitted object is not the clean, stable lines of some hypothetical story-symbol, but an atmosphere of mystery. Eventually the mystery usurps, and then erases, whatever was intended to be signified in the first place — and then the story itself becomes an expression of unnameable mystery. Nobody cares about that kind of thing but me, probably; I don't mind. I'm not working for tips. Vague antiquities aside, one of my favorite semi-Uskglasses appears in a recent YA novel called Archivist Wasp, in the person of a seductively nameless ghost who severs the novel's protagonist from the narrative of her own existence and initiates her transformation into the World Savior. Look at this:

The ghost was sitting in her only chair, surrounded by mismatched stacks of paper in various degrees of fire-damage, water-damage, unidentifiable staining, mildew, and general dissolution. It appeared to be reading her field notes.
“Get your boots off my table,” she snapped, and did not quite squirm under the look it fixed her with, or under the ensuing silence as it went back to reading.
Force of habit, she found herself studying it. It was all she could do not to pull out her notebook and start sketching it on the spot. Its clothing was basic and dark, something like a uniform but not one she recognized from any ghost she’d seen before. The gun and sword were in its belt. The ghost turned pages with a trained precision, a spring-loaded sort of predatory grace in which no fraction of any movement went wasted. Between its person and its clothing there was no color to it anywhere; it was all pale and dark, with those gray eyes. Its face was sharp, guarded, possessed of an icy and immaculate calm. Its posture was miles better than hers. It hadn’t moved its boots.
Usually Wasp didn’t find silences awkward and felt no need to fill them with pointless chatter, but this, this was unendurable.
“I didn’t know you could read,” she said.

The ghost cut its eyes at her, pure scorn. “I see they were mistaken.”
It dropped a mocking little bow before her and walked out, trailing what remaining bonds of salt and blood she’d not yet broken, which it had snapped at whim.
I really, really, really like Archivist Wasp. I was going to review a series of YA novels last year, which I thought would be both fun and perhaps surprising. I find the Millennialesque reshuffling of gender norms inspiring, so why not their vision of the bildungsroman? Haha, what a gullible fool I am. After attempting to survive about twenty different popular books, chosen for their genre themes from Amazon, I begged off without even really starting. The worst, most conservative, heteronormative, claustrophobic, depressing, old-fashioned writing in the world is currently happening in the realm of YA novels. All the genre's heroines are exceptionally-ordinary self-inserts who are constrictingly adored by boring (and often violent) hunks. It's hunk after hunk after sad-manbaby 1950s beefcake hunk in the Young Adult World, all rendered in a primary-color paint-by-numbers palette that would strike a frustrated mid-century housewife as uninspiring. But Archivist Wasp isn't like that! Is, in fact, exactly not like that. (The ghost's lack of a gendered pronoun is suggestive, is what I'm telling you.) It was one of two YA novels published in the last 30 years by someone not named Ursula K. Le Guin that didn't make me want to kill myself. I highly recommend it, both for the Uskglass mirror-content and for itself. Best DRM-free $10 you'll ever spend. I hope there's a sequel. (That's a joke.) (Most YA novels are half-a-book's worth of content spread out into 34876 commemorative volumes.) (I would indeed be very happy to read Archivist Wasp: The Second, however.)

Well. I've also been doing a lot of reading, for the last couple of years, that pertains (in my imagination, at least) to JS&MN's literary contexts. Probably my most favorite of the contexts are written by Robert Aickman, who until very recently I believed to be a lesbian operating under a pseudonym. Aickman was not a lesbian, it turns out, but rather a very large, fluffy British cat that, in the 1950s and 60s, gained access to, and somehow learned to operate, a typewriter. I've read nearly everything Aickman ever published; I had to import hard copies of The Late Breakfasters (favorite) and The Model (not a favorite), but I read those, too. The Late Breakfasters is much different than the rest of Aickman's work, most of which he self-identified as "strange stories" because of some German mood-word that the late Mark Fisher was also interested in, and which I don't understand at all but will try to deal with later. Breakfasters has some weird-fiction attributes in common with the rest of Aickman's canon, but I believe it's primarily intended to be a social satire (?). Like Animal Farm, maybe (?), but with people. People Farm? Maybe. It's full of political and cultural details I don't get, or even understand how to unpack, but which Aickman presents in a way that makes them seem both ludicrous and performative. So... satire, right? Who knows. I identified hard with the novel's protagonist, Griselda. I consider that my life has mostly been an attenuated escape from the Geoffrey Kynastons of the world, and a simultaneous, resolute flight toward Louise. Although, unlike Griselda, I was never privileged to actually fuck Louise; I've only ever read about her in books. Still, it's maddening to imagine that she exists in the world somewhere, and I can't get to her. I'm going to keep looking. (I do realize.)

Despite the buildup, this excerpt isn't from The Late Breakfasters. I have discovered that it's hard to excerpt the book and have it look suitably meaningful, because the story is so involved with its own conditions and symbols. This is from "Bind Your Hair," a very strange story that appeared in Dark Entries:

The next morning Clarinda had to admit to herself that she was very depressed. As she lay in bed watching wisps of late-autumn fog drift and swirl past her window, she felt that inside the house was a warm and cosy emptiness in which she was about to be lost. She saw herself, her real self, for ever suspended in blackness, howling in the lonely dark, miserable and unheard; while her other, outer self went smiling through an endless purposeless routine of love for and compliance with a family and a community of friends which, however excellent, were exceedingly unlike her, in some way that she did not fully understand.

omg it me

More when I find it.


  1. That quote from Archivist Wasp is entirely Uskglassy (Uskglassian?) I'm impressed.

    Also, this is a great point:
    "I think Clarke's character is such a deep-myth relic that other interpretations of it are relatively common"

  2. I'm impressed.
    I'm happy about that! After chasing this sort of thing around for awhile, I start to worry that I'm just talking to a sock that I've put over my own hand — & in language I've made up that consists exclusively of farting noises. It gets deep, sometimes, after the fifth or so colored-fairy collection.

    Probably my favorite part of John Uskglass as himself is his hair, no, no, not that, I didn't mean that, I meant the fact that he pisses all over the rich white privileged men who take up space in the middle of the narrative for the entire book and nobody notices. What more perfect expression of contempt is there than that? Something comprehensively dismissive that hardly anybody pays attention to? Stay perfect, John Uskglass.

    Thank you for your comment!!!

    1. I start to worry that I'm just talking to a sock that I've put over my own hand — & in language I've made up that consists exclusively of farting noises
      Ahahaha. What an image!

      Your comment re Uskglass pissing on Strange and Norrell has got me wondering how much Uskglass truly sides with the marginalised and the forgotten outside the immediate plot of the book. I had always assumed that society in the north of England during Uskglass' reign would have been based on the same stratified, feudal system as the south. Was it actually more egalitarian than that? (Or am I expecting too much from a fairy king who follows his own mysterious fairy whims?)

      (Also, ikr? He has amazing hair.)


    3. Whoops! I meant to reply to you (AGAIN) (BLOGGER) yesterday, but I got in a fight with some idiots in YouTube comments. This is the worst place ever to get in a fight with idiots, and it made me sad. Anyway!

      how much Uskglass truly sides with the marginalised and the forgotten outside the immediate plot of the book
      That's the whole ballgame! Or whatever they had instead of a ballgame in medieval England. The answer to that is, at its heart, an explanation of what magic is supposed to be inside the narrative, and what it does. One day soon, I hope to astound you with some evidence about this very issue.

      He has amazing hair.
      You are not going to believe this, but in every story I've ever found that features an Uskglass-like character, the narrator takes a detour to talk about how great the character's hair is. I found one feminist short story which had a magician in it for three seconds, and one of the character's only stated traits is their great hair. I rest my case!

      I'm very sorry for not replying earlier, also.

    4. The answer to that is, at its heart, an explanation of what magic is supposed to be inside the narrative, and what it does. One day soon, I hope to astound you with some evidence about this very issue.
      Ooh. Nice! I'm looking forward to it!

  3. Replies
    1. Listen to yourself, you're a smart guy.

      Aickman doesn't conform to any literary or cultural category that I'm aware of; like, he seems to have invented a personal, independent form of feminism outside the usual channels. This is what made me think he was a lesbian.

      Also his stories are just really, really good. Except for the weird anti-Bolshevik stuff. Not that you can't be anti-Bolshevik and reasonable and talented, of course. Just that he approaches the anti-Bolshevism in a novel and peculiar way that doesn't lend itself to being reader-friendly.

      Also he wrote a really odd story about a guy who sleeps in a train station overnight and sees a ghostly exhibition of all the "important" people who ever rode the line, and I can't tell if it's supposed to be satire or not.

      I can email you my Aickman ebooks, if you like.
      (He's been dead since the 80s and doesn't have any heirs.)

    2. You share a mind with Joanna Russ:
      I can’t shake off the impression that “Robert Aickman” is a pseudonym and the author is a woman


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