Sunday, November 21, 2010

An Unusal Beginning

It’s weird how many different ways there are to read things. If I had picked up Greg Egan’s first novel An Unusual Angle just on a lark, I may not have finished the first chapter. That said, reading it in the context of researching Egan’s fiction for a critical book, I found it fascinating. I mentioned that I was reading it and someone asked me if it was “good.” I didn’t even know how to answer that question. The way I was reading it, “good” wasn’t even something I considered.

Here’s what Egan says about this novel when asked about it in his first interview in Eidolon:

For the benefit of those readers who have no idea what the book is about - most of them, I hope - An Unusual Angle is a kind of eccentric teenage loner story with surreal elements. The narrator literally has a movie camera inside his skull. I wrote it when I was sixteen, although I revised it slightly just before it was published, six years later.

It was very big-hearted of Norstrilia Press to publish it, but it didn't do them, or me, much good. They blew their money. I laboured under the mistaken impression that I could now write publishable fiction; it took me a while to realise that that simply wasn't true. Quarantine is the eighth novel I've written, and the first publishable one. That An Unusual Angle was published at all was really just a glitch.
He’s not wrong about that. Here’s a paragraph from the first page:

I’ll track-in from darkness, that’s a good way to start; isolate the school in a frame of blackness, cutting out all distractions. And then what? It’s too late to make more plans, here comes the vital (fatal (unexceptional)) corner.
He’s got nested parentheses, italics, and single-word paragraphs all on the first page, and the narrator even calls himself out for “melodramatic crap” in the fourth paragraph. So yeah, it’s not “good.” But it is interesting.

This is Greg Egan we’re talking about. The guy who can dramatize general relativity and talks about sex between digital entities. He’s the hardest hard sf writer since the 80’s. But in An Unusual Angle, there’s very little sf. In fact, if you wanted to be a little quirky, you could categorize this story as slipstream.

At first I thought that the ‘camera in the head’ angle of the story was purely metaphorical--that the narrator was using that as a mental technique to distance himself from his unpleasant and boring school days. But the narrative makes it clear that it has physical reality, so that pushes it from kind of mainstream over to slipstream. I think it works rather better as metaphor than it does as a concrete reality. Certainly the info-dump segments that explain (rigorously) how the camera came to be and how it operates were less than 100% convincing.

Most of the touchstones of this story are from film: counter-culture films from Britain in the 60’s and 70’s feature prominently (such as “if...”), as well as TV, movies, and sf. There’s a surreal and sarcastic rabbit that may or may not be an alien, and may or may not be a projection of the narrator’s self.

But mostly there’s a kid in high school (the story covers four out of five years of schooling), way too bright for his classes, bored almost literally out of his skull. There are no characters other than the narrator; some of the teacher’s get names but they’re just archetypes. None of his classmates even get names. There’s no real antagonist here except “the system,” probably another reflection of those counter-culture mainstays. The (unnamed) narrator is disgusted by criticism and depicts in-class lit crit as an act of disgusting vivisection. He often uses scientific imagery, and he’s always way more precise about it than your average writer: he specifies that someone’s enthusiasm is “1000 watts (RMS),” and if you don’t understand what that means you can at least see that for most people it’s enough to say “1000 Watts” without specifying the measurement system.

In interviews Egan mentions that his first love was film. He even made a student film and was admitted to film school before abandoning it. Presumably this manuscript derived from that period of his life. Reading it from the perspective I did, I have to say that I thought that this “wasn’t bad”--certainly I expected rather worse after reading that interview snippet above. Once the narrative settles down into the middle bit you can see some of the smooth and introspective style that characterizes his later work. Thank goodness by the time he published Quarantine (with Century/Legend press in 1992) he’d done away with nested parentheses. Given that I’m going to have to err on the side of brevity in my analysis, I suspect that I won’t be able to give much time to this particular work from the author’s cannon. He probably won’t mind. But I’m very glad that I read it. It’s a rare glimpse into the mind of a developing proto-author.

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