Monday, September 15, 2014

SFF names #5: Parva 'Pen' Khan

SFF names #4: Beth Bradley
SFF names #3: Rumpelstiltskin
SFF names #2: Lucy
SFF names #1: Winnie

Perhaps urban fantasy has two kinds of foundational logic. One has to do with pre-modern myth that lingers on into modernity. By pre-modern myth I mean more-or-less Legolas.

The lingering on is done, in particular, in the cracks, the shadows, the margins of modernity. Who better to occupy the role of disenchanted private eye than a disenchanted (and probably fairly private) elf? -- that kind of thing.

Shapeshifting raccoon in Isao Takahata's Pom Poko (1994)

Part of why the elf fetching her e-cig refills in Nisa feels like she belongs to another time and place is because she belongs to another book. A great many stock fantasy conceits can be traced to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and for that reason, maybe what I'm describing here could be called urban fantasy's "post-Tolkienian logic." Alternatively you might call it urban fantasy's "philological logic," since the priority is textual lineage. Transmission, transformation: there will always be trolls, elves, nymphs, faeries etc., just a little different every time (compare TV Tropes's "Our Monsters Are Different"). The label "philological logic" also captures that sense of fragments embedded where they shouldn't be, of lost context.

But such fragmentation shouldn't be overstated. It always exists in the context of implicit, potentially discoverable continuity. Perhaps it's not about cut-and-pasting archaistic mid-C20th fantasy conceits into a contemporary background -- Gimli, say hello to climate chaos, 3D printing, drones, cut-and-paste, for that matter -- so much as it is about exacerbating the untimeliness which already exists in those earlier texts.

Discovering the anachronistic sparks and fanning them. As if C.S. Lewis's Narnia portal fantasy, for instance, was already a little bit inside-out -- the ever-burning gas lamppost in Narnia's snow-filled forest, already actually a wink-and-a-nudge about Narnia being plugged into the National Grid, about Narnia being not so much an alterity as a park.

The quintessential public good
non-excludable & non-rivalrous

Or as if Gandalf were to arrive at a Shire which is not just a little genteel -- not merely, as in Tolkien's novels, a little more suggestive of eighteenth century Europe than of fifteenth century -- but to arrive in a full-on Beijing-scale Shire: a megacity whose hobbit malls, hobbit subways and hobbit industrial parks swallow up Gandalf's cosmological struggle, which dwindles into a provincial squabble best left to run its course, or into the bathetic tall tales of an elderly, confused rural eccentric.


But I don't think such philological logic is really the primary logic of Tom Pollock's YA urban fantasy The City's Son.

Pollock's fantasy owes more to the pre-Tolkien/Lewis/Peake children's fantasy tradition of toys coming to life (see Farah Mendlesohn's essay) than it does to myths lingering on the chequered shade of skyscraper scaffolding layering up and up and up. Part of what is at stake here is an ingeniousness of vision, in particular an ingenious perception of what can and cannot be imagined as alive.

It's not a bestiary of elves and witches, angels and vampires, all agitating -- on the basis of philological precedents -- for the civil right of suspended disbelief, even outside Zara or wherever. Instead, this is a fantasy driven by its more-or-less original monsters.

Pollock's monsters owe their existence to a kind of wittily exploited serendipity. What can and cannot be imagined as alive is sometimes do with wordplay and prosody. Pollock sees scaffolding going up and can see the snicker-snacking haunches of the scaffwolf -- where a bungling monster-maker like me would obviously have seen the legs of the dreaded scaffinch.

But mostly I think urban fantasy's second logic is to do with the serendipity of the visual pun.

Grandma Caterpillar putting on lipstick
— Faces in Things (@FacesPics) September 8, 2014

This could plausibly be designated "urban fantasy as squinting at things." Or it could be called the "serendipitous logic" of urban fantasy. Perhaps the word serendipity does somewhat downplay the importance of statistical inevitability here. The corner of your eye is, after all, the tail of a bell curve . . .

A fleeting apparition of a figure inscribed in the angled clutter of the cityscape. Chalk it up to incorrigible whimsy, or no, be realistic, to unshakable anxiety . . .

Or, highly strung, you're startled by litter scuttling at you like a critter. "Oh, Kinder Bueno -- it's you . . ."

Or else it's you -- you're the one deliberately deranging your  perceptions: soliciting some tenuous, frilled personage, with your squinting, your POV-doodles, as you wait for your bus or tube . . .

Or else it's something you can't see but your friend can. It's apophenia, particularly pareidolia. It's the "things with faces" meme (TumblrTwitter).

Somewhere in all that is the second foundational logic of the urban fantasy genre. The serendipity logic of the visual pun gets all the more engrained in the genre when it can't be disconnected from a logic of layering or palimpsestThe City's Son is a tale of London town. That is, it is a tale about a city constructed atop innumerable cities constructed atop of innumerable tales about a city constructed atop innumerable cities.

Space grows scarce, relationality itself grows scarce, as the dense skein of overwritten overwriting risks filling out to illegibility. The visual pun becomes like a special kind of layering, in which precisely the same strokes are traced over many times with completely different intentions.


The City's Son translates, into text, the teeming secrecy of an intricately etched cityscape. The more closely you look, the more antagonists you can spot. It is a helpful hyperbole to consider it Where's Lord Waldo-mort? Here comes Gutterglass. Perhaps a friendly presence?
He's nabbed a tyre from somewhere and his waist dissolves into a single wheel instead of his usual legs. Lithe brown rodents race around the inside, rolling him backwards. (18)
Or perhaps not?

Anyway, chief among the antagonists in The City's Son is certainly Reach, the Crane King. I'll very likely return to the names Glas and Reach next time (late October maybe: why Glas and not Glass? That interests me), but for now I only want to mention that Crane King recalls the Fisher King of Arthurian legend.

Everyone always pigeonholes the Fisher King as either "the king with the grail" or "the king with the wounded 'thigh,'" so. I would never do that.

But The City's Son is subtly irrigated by Arthuriana, opportunistically drinking in its atmosphere of an absent spiritual aristocracy. And down the same veins, the name of one of the story's young protagonists, Pen, draws the blood of Uther Pendragon.

Uther Pendragon is an ambiguous figure, sympathetic yet associated with slaughter, substitution, and betrayal. We seldom hear Parva "Pencil" Khan's full name, but the relation of the soundscapes of Crane King and Khan is not insignificant: for much of the novel, she is the Crane King's instrument's instrument: Crane King feels like it can fold clickety-clack into Khan.

Khan itself is just a mildly paradoxical name, synthesising bland ubiquity -- there are ever-so-many Khans -- with leadership -- one of them was Genghis Khan; there is just enough echo between "Pencil" and "Genghis" (the vowels are the same) to ensure he never quite goes away. Furthermore, if Pen forever longs to have DRAGON next to it, then those implicit letters, bubbling and ghostly, also promise to more-or-less anagrammatize GOLDEN: whereupon connotations of the Khanate of the Golden Horde pour into the picture. Perhaps the POC pretender-to-protagonist-status is a smidge objectified through this hallucinated golden glow, and the hallucinated echo of pecan in "Pen" Khan. Elsewhere: a thread about food, skin, fantasy.

What's sure is this: whenever the logic of fantastic exceptionalism kicks in, it may at first be hard to work out who is its real focus. Having a best friend who is a protagonist, one may briefly mistake oneself for a protagonist.

Such an effect perhaps explains this thin aura of militaristic aristocracy which clings to Pen in The City's Son. But parva in Latin also means "small" or "lesser," as in two Latin phrases which may just appear in English: multum in parvo (saying a lot with a little), and sic parvis magna (greatness from small beginnings; compare French loanword parvenu). Parva is the feminine form. The Latin parva is common enough in English place-names, signifying the lesser of two related settlements: for instance, Thornham Magna and Thornham Parva. We have Beth "Magna" Bradley and Pen "Parva" Khan. So it is a bit like calling her Ethbay's Idekickus, really.

In Urdu -- which Pen actually speaks -- parwa may perhaps suggest care or caution. Such prudence may be healthy prudence. At one point Pen claims she's related to a squillion doctors, and Khan is indeed, the most common surname for a doctor in the UK. Caution also jives nicely with Pen's job as judiciary: Pen is the pensive one in the Beth-and-Pen duo, the one who tempers that duo's doings from reckless to merely valiant. (The Khan who looms largest in my consciousness, by the way, is Sal, so perhaps there's a suggestion of studiousness there too).

As a Sanskrit word, parva also has poetic associations: for instance, each book of the Mahābhārata is a parva.

Poetry is also the story's reason -- the diegetic reason, you could say -- that Pen is called Pen. In the division of artistic and revolutionary labour which is already becoming obsolete as the novel opens, Beth Bradley is the visual artist and Pen is the poet.

Perhaps, in line with the antique doctrine of the Sister Arts, the associations here are a little more criss-crossed: the bard of Bradley, the ink and crayon of Khan.

The sounds which comprise an author's name will often occupy a privileged position within the ecosystems of sound and affect which that author writes. One small fact about Tom Pollock may have bearing on the painterly aspects of The City's Son: he shares a surname with the well-known abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock. That Pollock's paintscapes tended to exist just the far side of figurative expressionism, but sufficiently figuratively-patterned that a watcher can feel a certain representational force, and may be tempted to see crowds, nudes, architectures, flora, texts. Such ascriptions can be indulged in, but never completely suppressed. The painting has your eye cornered.

Jackson Pollock mainly drips, pours, splatters, drags, squirts, scrapes. Beth Bradley mainly tags: paint cans and stencils. There is an affinity between some of Jackson Pollock's art and some graffiti, especially stuff towards the Wildstyle end of the spectrum.

I have no idea how deep this affinity goes, or whether there's any actual genetic influence involved, although it would be handy for this post if it were a superficial and serendipitous affinity.

(Here's Summertime 9a, BTW, which has been prominent in London's Tate Modern for quite a few years).

At any rate, this affinity allows Beth and Pen to repay their author. He writes them, so they write him. The virtual city derived from Pollock is vandalised back towards Pollock, albeit a different Pollock, after the substituting, camouflaging, punning manner of dreams. (Spoiler: this city's "son" is also a changeling, not quite the abandoned scion, but rather stolen (AKA jacked) and throne-groomed). The book is aware it involves an exchange relation with ontologically disruptive implications, and supplies it in more than one guise -- a death collected as a contractual consideration, for instance.

But anyway . . .  yeah, mostly Parva "Pen" Khan just goes by Pen.

The syllable pen is an area of natural beauty in English. Or perhaps not of beauty but of sublimity. As sometimes happens in a language, several unrelated etymologies happen to draw together senses whose logical structures are already profoundly open to one another. That is, if the urban fantasy genre can be concentrated onto this single syllable of the book, it remains an urban fantasy of the serendipitous kind, not of the philological.

That which correlates with pen is elusive: some kind of aloft, pent reservoir, partly latent, with a certain propensity or inclination, but also a fleetness which skitters away from advance determination.

From the Latin pendere, to hang or to weigh, come pendant, penduloussuspend, perpendicular. (Perhaps pentacle and pentagram also have some relation, via the pentacle-amulet, though also compare the Greek pentagrammon, a five-lined device).

Then from the Latin penna, feather, plume or wing, come the quill pen, as well as pinpennon and perhaps pennant.

From the Latin paene, almost, comes peninsula.

And from the Old English penne, a fold, an enclosure, related to pinn, a pin, a peg, come penpenned, and pent.

Pen is a syllable in which, in other words, the modes of liquid, solid and air are implied together in a moment of grace, reserve, extension, energy and fragility.

(Wait. What are we even talking about though? How can it be classed? It is not quite a concept. It is a notional infrastructure distributed across a constellation of concepts; we may think of Peer and Kate, in Greg Egan's Permutation City, the stowaway computational consciousnesses inscribed into a much larger population of like souls; or, closer to the topic at hand, of the aesthetic puns, perhaps the functional puns too, that insist during a morning commute, before a proper cup of coffee, on the dialectic play of artifice and nature, vitalising urban territory with faces, and tracks and traces of animals. Or vice-versa, forest puns: the "castle" or "factory" thrown together by an outcrop of rock and a tree-cluster. Suspended in a constellation of concepts, the ideality to which the syllable pen corresponds may enjoy some special exemptions from the mainstream dialectic of materiality and ideality in which those concepts themselves are suspended. Historical materialism is categorically less true for this than for concepts. Détournement sometimes demands this quality of official culture: what it is or is not possible to détourne must in part be completely left to chance. Glad we've sorted that out).

When approached along these paths, the pen-syllable does not only denote the physicality of the well in the sky, but also a state of social, intellectual or juridic suspension and kinetic potentiality.

From the Latin penis, penis or tail, comes penis. And from the Latin penetrabilis, vulnerable, come penetration, penetrating, penetrable, impenetrable. Words of thought as well as words of sex, as the critique of phallogocentrism reminded us.

From pendere also come pensivedependpropensitypenchant. From paene also comes penultimate. From the Latin paenitentia, repentence, come penitencepenitent and penance, and from the Latin poenalis comes penalty.

Also from the Greek penta- comes Pentecost, the manifestation of Holy Spirit in wind and gifts. From the Old English pening comes penny, which drops, or pays for the thoughts of one occasion exactly.

At the periphery is the word pint, particularly the beer raised in toast, or the pouch of blood pinned up high to help transfusion. There is also pawn, from Medieval Latin pedonem, foot soldier, particularly when it is lifted over a new square but not yet placed on it, as well as pawn from Old French pant, a possession left as a security. There is end and in particular the end of a line of poetry, as in William Carlos Williams's line, "so much depends". And there is pounce.

Is Pen like what I've just described? And/or does she meaningfully encounter it? And/or, is Pen like a ballpoint pen?

Consider your ballpoint pen, solid without, flowing within, open at the base, though if you raise it up the ink won't spill out. It is as if it is plugged by a bead of air. Still, the ideal orientation is towards the heart of the gravity well and perpendicular to the page. With pressure, the small turning ball of brass, or some other material, dissipates the flow of a thin reservoir of ink across the paper. The vulnerable pore in which the ball sits, the peninsular jut of structure into flow, the tall slender dam that cups the ink, may all be disclosed by the name pen, though they are etymologically independent, and indeed were technologies entirely absent from the birds' wings from where the first pens were taken.

A small well in the sky grasped between forefinger and thumb and put to work may well suggest a pipette -- from "little pipe" -- and thereby the way in which every pen is like a puppet.

Pen certainly is. Puppet: from Latin, girl or doll.

Pen the penned-in pen.

What happens to Pen over the course of The City's Son is completely horrible. A case can be made, on the basis of Pen's subplot, that The City's Son is not YA urban fantasy at all, but torture porn horror.

Barbed wire coils round Pen and controls all her activity in detail. Pen is penned in for the bulk of the book, powerless, in pain, and complicit. All her activity is governed from outside, but an ambiguity begins to creep in. Pen becomes pliant to the Wire Mistress who grips her. She begins to crave what she is supposed to crave. Does the Wire Mistress influence her mind directly? And/or does Pen confabulate, does Pen ascribe her own willpower to activity "really" determined by an instinctive panic to keep her skin intact? Does Pen's consciousness arise from her material practices?

Barbed wire is suggestive of detention rather than incarceration, of camp rather than prison. Iconographically, Pen's fantastical penning suggests the obscenity of Gitmo and ambiguous personhood, and of dehumanising humiliation and sexual abuse of Abu Ghraib, more than it does the prison-industrial complex and the contemporary slave labour economy.

There is one other literary character I know of called Pen. He appears in Christianna Brand's Heads You Lose (1941), where his volition is as thorny as that of Pollock's Pen. He is a murderer who does not know that he murders, and must ultimately more-or-less play murderer-fingering detective, and dashing murderer-thwarting man of action.
'I'm mad!' he thought. 'God forgive me, I'm mad and I'm murdering Fran. I did this to Grace Morland and I did it to Pippi le May and now I'm doing it to Fran and I can't stop myself'. He had a memory of those bleeding stumps of necks, of the swing of the hatchet and the sickening scythe of the train; and above all, of the body of the girl in the wood, lying so quietly with the flashy little brooch laid neatly on her breast. 'Her neck … her neck … I couldn't get it out of my mind. The thought of it, the sight of it, the terrible smell of the blood …' (212)
Pen is never referred to as a pen or a puppet. She is usually called the "host" of the Wire Mistress. The Wire Mistress's barbed wire is what moves Pen, but she also seems oddly dependent on Pen. And if the Wire Mistress moves Pen, what moves the Wire Mistress? There is sometimes the subtlest suggestion of some third principle, Reach.

How should we think of the implied hand that Reaches for the Pen? The authorial hand asserting itself is one possible answer. I don't think it's right. The thorns of wire cross like a downward sloping demand curve meeting an upward sloping supply curve to fix the price of a commodity. Pen's torture appears to be the superlative case of structure, or, more sharply put, of incentive. I think the symbiosis of Pen and the Wire Mistress make visible the movement of Adam Smith's invisible hand.

The barbs even weave around Pen's tongue. One could whimsically extend the conceit further: imagining Pen wreathed at the cellular scale by nanoscale barbed wire, tugging open the phospholipid bilayer here, jabbing and prodding the production of a protein there. The conceit begins to collapse: would Pen's consciousness be created by action potentials escorted across synapses with knives at their backs?

Incentive is the city's wittiest visual pun, a palimpsest of agency and structure. A person scraped away, preparing the manuscript for the superimposition of the same person. Because we are unshakably anxious -- be real! Because we are incorrigibly whimsical -- we cannot but hallucinate, in sidelong glimpses, feeling, wanting, human beings superimposed on market forces.

To be continued!

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