Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Briar Around The Slide

Sooner or later this increasingly irregular series of posts is going to come to an end.  Eight or so more and I'll have polished off the whole of Lucifer, and be casting around for something else to discuss at tedious length.  The obvious choice is Carey's latest series, The Unwritten, and indeed that's exactly what I'm going to be looking at.  When we get there, an awful lot of time and space is going to get used up talking about the nature of stories, which is great for me, as it's just the kind of meta-commentary I like doing.

In fact, I like it so much that I'm going to start now.  In my defence, that's because this is the point where Carey started as well, or at least where he brought it to the surface.  Lucifer concerned itself with many themes over the course of its run - hence why this series of posts exists - but as the Morningstar began to set more and more time was dedicated to the meaning stories have upon our lives, to the point where it's difficult in the extreme not to conclude Carey realised what he was going to write next once it started bleeding in to what he was doing at the time.

Essentially, the intertwined "Stitchglass Slide" and "Wire, Briar, Limber Lock" represent the stage at which Carey stops merely telling stories, and begins to pull them apart and reassemble them.

(Spoilers below)

The most obvious evidence that structural tomfoolery is afoot here is Carey's decision to alternate between the two two-part stories, starting with the first part of "Stitchglass..." and following on with the first part of "Wire, Briar...".  The obvious question here, then, is whether this interweaving is necessary.  What is lost by reading the two stories separately?

The quick answer here might be to say: not a great deal.  Whichever way you do it would result in spoilers for the other story, admittedly (though if one started with "Stitchglass..." this problem would be minimal), but for most of their respective lengths the storylines seem to be essentially separate until they converge at the end of the second part of "Stitchglass...".  After all, one story concerns itself with Lucifer's proclamation that all immortals are to hit the inter-reality highway, and the resulting hunt for shut-ins and stowaways.  The other focuses on the adorable spider-thing Thole, with his loose grasp of English and his burning desire to start a family.  Aside from a thematic nod to Thole's abilities at spinning interlocking patterns, are we getting anything from the structure on display?

That's not the easiest question to answer, given my bias here. I may as well tip my hand immediately, and confess that "Stitchglass Slide" is one of my favourite Lucifer stories, despite the fact that on first glance one could be forgiven for thinking it's even more throwaway a tale than the three-parter that preceded it, with the tumbling snowballs of plot being found in its sibling story.  It's certainly true that these two issues could be removed from the run without anything else being damaged - a few lines rewritten in "Wire, Briar..." and the job would be seamless.  This would be a huge mistake, however, for at least three reasons.  Firstly, you would lose the story's narrator, Thole, one of the most wonderful characters Carey came up with throughout the entire comic.  Secondly, the tale does at least offer some thematic links to its partner.  A single fictional story told from two different perspectives isn't going to win any awards for originality of structure, but it's one more way in which Carey is fiddling with the way he relates stories.  Finally, and not unrelatedly, you'd miss the beginning of Carey playing around with a theme that will form the spine of The Unwritten, the extent to which representations of objects are the objects themselves.

In The Unwritten, the focus of this idea lies in the way stories can overwrite truth to such an extent that it's meaningless to consider them false or fictitious in any useful way.  Put a settlement in the wrong place on a map and sooner or later a settlement will spring up there, because when enough people believe a lie you may as well make it true.  We are, as the line goes, stories in the end.  "Stitchglass..." doesn't quite go that far, living instead in the spaces between emotion and colour, and colour and ink. This then leads to the space between ink and story, and between story and author. 

Thole is a stitchglass spinner, you see, a creature that consumes emotions and uses them to spin out glass.  Each emotion has its own colour, and so creates a different shade of glass.  These shades retain the emotions they're constructed from, which is interesting.  Many stories are basically vectors for transferring emotions from author to reader.  The stitchglass makes this literal by being artwork that actually retains the feelings used in shaping it.  This serves a dual purpose here; it provides the first strand of messing around with representations that will provide the bedrock of The Unwritten, but it also reminds us of an important fact: our lives and our stories are really the exact same thing.

Well, yes.  Absolutely.  Consider what "Wire, Briar..." is actually about.  Moreover, consider the structure it itself takes.  It forms one half of an interlocking narrative, which is then broken down into five smaller tales - three of them titled as such - each of which deals with a separate attempt by Elaine and her allies (her dead friend and Guardian of Hedgehogs Mona, the fallen Cherubim siblings Gaudium and Spera, Lilim head honcho Mazikeen, and Elokim Shaer, a tiny man on a dragon I don't remember seeing before) to evict an immortal being.  The first two of these tales are broken down further still by having stories within them.  

First we fly east to find Teatro Crepusculo, a malevolent puppet show which tells tales to those it plans to eat, feasting on their despair as they realise the futility of their lives.  It even tries to do this to Mona herself, relating her life story in the space of three horribly brief and cynical scenes (including one where her soul is used as bait for Elaine because "certainly it has no other discernable function").  Essentially, the creature describes people's stories even as it ends them, and keeps doing so right up until Gaudiam kills it.

In the next tale, we head west with Spera and Elokim.  In their story, they themselves describe a tale in order to end it when they come across a group of children's ghosts who have imperfectly recreated the tale of the gingerbread house and the witch so as to scare away those who might disturb their rest.  Spera lectures the ghost-hive on the cold truth; they are not the predator but the victims, and their time has just run out.

So if this story is supposed to contain an echo of the crafter's emotions - whether that be Thole's or Carey's doesn't seem a question worth the asking, really - what are we supposed to take from it?  The overwhelming sense here is one of loneliness.  Thole is desperately trying to build a nest snazzy enough to attract a mate so she can fill the eggs he's stitched together (spinners are weird).  In the process he's been spitting out the emotions which can't be used productively and which hurt to keep locked in, but he's been spitting them into a gate which leads to a home on Earth, with the end result being a small boy named Martin driven mad by the resulting slop of negativity (which may or may not be a Cradle of Filth album).  He lacks Thole's ability to spit out damaging emotions, and it's killing him by inches.  It's also costing him the love of his increasingly desperate (though intentionally unsympathetic) family, which means he's awash with loneliness as well, for all that he can't recognise it amid the various other second-hand feelings rocketing around his being.

The suggestion here is clear: negativity is to be converted into a drive to succeed where possible, and jettisoned otherwise.  The problem here is that Thole, with his glass saliva and haphazard way of speaking ("I will eat you and kill you and bite you many times!"), is clearly utterly impossible.  No-one can do what he does, not at the speed he does it.  Martin's parents make this very clear when they unknowingly attempt to replicate the process by inviting the most obvious flim-flam artist possible into their home so he can realign Martin's chakras.  

But is Thole really doing any better?  For all his ability to purge his emotions, he's still clearly pining for a mother to his children.  He's so blinded by this need for companionship that when Martin runs through the gate to escape his family and finds himself at Thole's home, Thole is horrified.  What if Martin scares away females with his "jagged brown sorrow?" Thole spends the whole day trying to scare Martin away, but each attempt basically involves him shouting "Go away so I don't have to be alone!"

This is not just a tale about loneliness, then, but about finding companionship in unlikely places. About, in fact, building your life out of the best materials to hand, and the best emotions available.  When Thole relents and befriends Martin, he not only builds a structure to help the boy (the titular slide), he finds his own loneliness lessened by companionship.  His story has become
their story - one reason Martin takes over narration duty in the second part.

And then one day, a female stitcher arrives, the corpulent and foul-mouthed Uuna. At which point, it's clear Thole and Martin are both in trouble.  

The third story kicks off when Mazikeen and Elaine fly over the cuckoo's nest , following a signal flare from a recently revealed immortal.  A cuckoo is a bird that tosses an egg from another bird's nest and lays one to take it's place. In a metaphorical sense, it steals futures, or perhaps overwrites them.  But what else is Elaine doing here if not stealing futures from the immortals?  Whether by evicting them or killing them, what should have lasted quite literally forever has been removed from the realm of the possible.  Elaine is now the story-killer, and once again we're confronted with a tale that ends other tales.

The best way to describe Uuna might be as a cuckoo.  A cuckoo is a bird that takes your young and destroys it so as to make use of the space they filled.  When Uuna shows up she makes the state of play very clear: this stitchglass house ain't big enough for the three of them.  If Thole wants to get laid, he's going to have to put on a buffet with Martin as the centrepiece.

Choosing his proven friend over an ungrateful, violent creature who might just be prepared to let him fuck her, he sends for help by removing the circle of forgetfulness that he had stitched around his house - a move as good as a signal flare with Lucifer's eviction specialists on the prowl.

This is why the two stories need to be interwoven.  "Wire, Briar..." is explicitly about traipsing around Lucifer's Creation interrupting the stories of others and tossing them aside.  This is not just bad news for the immortals themselves (especially since the coming apocalypse over in the original Creation means their stories are liable to reach a rather fatal conclusion sooner rather than later), it's bad news overall for Lucifer's domain, for all that the man himself doesn't care.  It means the world is losing something, being robbed of all the fascinating stories the immortals can give to us are being carted off and dumped elsewhere.  Lucifer has no time for stories, but this is not true of the rest of us.  

So it's important that we see a complete story that Elaine and her team are interrupting and ending.  It didn't have to be Thole - though obviously I'm glad it was - but it had to be something, so we know just what is being given up.

It is on the battlefield where Mazikeen slays Uuna that Elaine finally figures out the least harmful way to carry out Lucifer's instructions: not to kick out immortals, or to kill them, but to render them mortal.  Not to interrupt their stories, in other words, so much as to impose a word count.  The point of stories is that eventually they end, and the reason for the narrative hand-off from Thole to Martin is specifically so he can describe Thole's story as it does just that.  There's probably no more affecting moment in the entirety of Lucifer than Martin's thoughts as he buries his friend fourteen years after he gave up his immortality.  Thole has taught him to be a spinner, in all the ways that matter.  We're all supposed to be spinners, holding our grief and loneliness in balance until we can spin it into something new.

These interlocking ideas of lives as stories, the way both must and should end, are excellent ideas, and are executed very well.  The structure here does leave us with a problem, though, namely that after Thole's fate at the end of the third issue, the story doesn't really have anywhere else to go (hence why the "Stitchglass..." paragraphs in this post outnumber the "Wire, Briar..." ones by a factor of two).  It's delivered the pay-off already; we know that there were tens of thousands of Tholes out there, and all are now dead, or gone.  The tale of tracking down the guardian spirit of Lucifer's forests feels tacked on. Moreover, it reduces the power of Elaine's resolution to the Thole problem.  Finding a spirit who initially resists but then chooses to end its own existence renders our protagonists little more than observers, which isn't very satisfactory, reinforcing the feeling that we're just killing time until we reach the conclusion, as Mazikeen tracks down the last immortal left.

In fairness, as conclusions go, it's a great one.  Mazikeen's mother, alive and well.  Hiding, as Mazikeen notes, in the most ostentatious manner possible.  The aim of Lucifer was to remove the stories of the assorted immortals who took shelter in his realm, but the effect here is quite the opposite; Mazikeen's discover has unlocked a whole new story - new to us at least - that sets up Lucifer's final act.

It's time to go all the way back to the beginning...

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