Hal Duncan

Several year ago when I was getting back into SFF, I remember dipping into the community on the interwebs looking for the newest, brightest stuff coming out. At the time, if I recall correctly, Hal Duncan’s name was being thrown around with Joe Abercrombie, and later Patrick Rothfuss, as a Hot New Voice in fantasy. I noted this, then forgot it. During a recent trip to a library branch I usually don’t frequent, I pulled out Vellum (along with Heavy Planet), vaguely remembered the name, and decided to give it a shot, expecting a “gritty” fantasy similar to the other fantasy books out their that have whipped the readership into such a frenzy. I was in for a bit of a surprise.

I am still trying to make sense of Duncan’s vision. I’m not sure I ever will. Vellum is a polarizing book that I don’t think I’m qualified to judge. It is what might happen when Snowcrash and Dhalgren are joined by, I don’t know, Finnegan’s Wake maybe, in a hallucinogenic drug-fueled, ill-advised hookup and produce an offspring to a U2 soundtrack. If this makes sense, I probably don’t need to write anymore. If not, well, I will try to clarify. As I have said, though, because Vellum is, shall we say, experimental, I feel uneasy giving it a yay or nay. I am not well equipped as a reader to deal with books like that (I distinctly remember wishing that The Sound and Fury would just get on with it when I read it for college lit class), so it is entirely possible that I what find to be rambling drivel is actually quite profound. So for today’s post, I will attempt to be Fox News: I will report and You will decide.

Funny that I should mention Fox News, considering the twin axes of socialist revolution and gay acceptance that Duncan grinds away at. Though I risk putting thoughts into the author’s head, these two topics appear to be close to his heart and are generally about as subtle as Bono on an overwrought afternoon. Overwrought is a good word for the whole book, in fact, because while I compare it to Snowcrash (more on that later), it has absolutely none of that book’s irreverence. I am struggling to remember a single time I laughed during Vellum and coming up empty. It’s not quite eye-rolling, Dawson’s Creek-esque angst (James Vanderbeek!), but that is mostly a combination of dizzying narrative shifts and Duncan’s virtuoso style, rather than content.

What Vellum has going for it, and it goes in spades, is a mind-blowing setup. Some of it has been done before, connecting legends and archetypes through time, our reality being one of many on some master recording of the multiverse, good and evil blurring the lines between each other, true names and words of power, etc., but Duncan succeeds in putting things together in his own inimitable way. Much of it connects originally to Sumeria, thus the Snowcrash connection. (There is even a moment where a character starts ranting about memes and thought bombs originating in Sumeria that was probably lifted directly from Stephenson’s crazy book.) He tells his tale, however, in perspective hopping, dizzingly nonlinear fashion that jumps in and out of first and third person, skips through a number of genres, and tells three or four separate stories that I assume are connected at some level besides shared character names. The experimental tone is where the Dhalgren comparisons take hold, along with the rampant homoeroticism. Where Dhalgren is an aloof, disengaged narrative though, Vellum is emoting on all cylinders.

But like Dhalgren, the author has taken and intriguing premise and given it over to literary experiment. I am accustomed to untangling political economy tracts and the like, so this sort of fiction holds no fear for me. It wasn’t too difficult to keep up with the different eras, interconnected characters, and overall themes in Vellum, though I confess to probably missing a few bits while trying to read over the deafening rumble of snow chained bus tires on the freeway. Duncan doesn’t go as far as stream of conscious or other such narrative nonsense, so any attentive reader should be fine. However, and again this reminds me of Dhalgren, I’m not convinced that there is a reward for the reader’s hard work. Every time the story finally got going, Duncan would tease a resolution and jump onto another track, forcing me to start all over. Momentum picks up on perhaps three separate occasions, but it takes a long while to get there and is over all too soon.

I will give the author two means of escape. First, there is a second volume in this series. Vellum‘s payoff is partial at best, nearly non-existent at worst; this may be because a lot of the fun is waiting in the second book. Second, the whole book may be oozing greater meaning and I, somewhat insensitive literalist that I am, may just be missing it all. If this is true, fine. I never claimed to like this sort of literary hoo-haw and am happy to leave it to those who do. I won’t condemn the avant-garde, because everything needs to have its boundaries pushed, but I probably won’t buy it either.

So do I like Vellum? I don’t know. Will I read its follow up? I don’t know. I’m curious what happens, but not sure I can slog through another 400 pages of the stuff. If it was a straight up read, I’d be all in, even if I don’t particularly care what happens to most of the characters. I’m curious how he chooses to resolve the craziness he’s set up. If it’s more of the same obtuse storytelling and sincere pleas for the gay and downtrodden, I may stick with exploding spaceships and deny my vague curiosity. Do I recommend the book? Give it a try, if it sounds interesting. The reader needs to be prepared for the road ahead, though. Also, I don’t think there’s any shame in quitting 50 pages in – this one doesn’t get any different as you go.

Rating: Considering the lack of avant-garde soccer play, this is tricky. How about a cubist painting of a match, simultaneously showing all aspects of the sport from all angles?


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