Brust, Steven, and Emma Bull: Freedom and Necessity [re-read]

In my re-read of Freedom and Necessity, by Steven Brust and Emma Bull, I’d been stuck about forty pages from the end for a week or two. I knew that I’d want to read the rest all at once, but I didn’t feel able to justify taking even that much time to read fiction. (I have been taking non-study time, just mostly with Chad; among other things, providing minor technical support for his new weblog, Uncertain Principles. Go read it.) Monday, though, I promised it to myself as a reward for cleaning the bathroom, and I assembled most of this post in spare bits of time since.

Freedom and Necessity is another of those books it’s oddly difficult for me to write about. Unlike The Last Hot Time, I know why I like it so much; but I also know that some of those reasons are nearly irrelevant for these purposes (the extent to which I do or do not identify with certain of the characters being of no use at all to those of you who are, well, not me). Other reasons are more objective but hardly universal. If you’ll pardon a slightly silly anecdote as an analogy: I won’t let Chad read A.S. Byatt’s Possession, because I’m virtually certain he wouldn’t like it, and I don’t want him to actively dislike a book that’s important to me. (Not that I could actually stop him from reading it, of course. But he really wouldn’t like it.) Similarly, I hesitate to praise F&N too highly here, in case someone reads it as a result and doesn’t like it (and then complains). So, if I sound strangely subdued for someone talking about one of her favorite books, that’s why.

F&N opens in England, in 1849, with a letter from James Cobham to his cousin Richard:

My Dear Cousin,

I wonder how you will greet these words; indeed, I wonder how you will receive into your hands the paper that bears them, as I think you cannot be in expectation of correspondence from me. . . .

In short, I have been given to understand that I am believed dead by all my family and acquaintance—that I was seen to die, in fact, or at least, was seen to sink beneath the water a last time, and my corpse never recovered, though long and passionately sought for. You may imagine the fascination with which I heard this account, though you will imagine, too, that my fascination is accompanied by horror, which is far from the case. I cannot tell how it is, but though I know the thought of myself as a corpse should by all rights cause me distress, I find it holds only the interest, raises only the feelings, that such a thing might in verse or fiction.

What should distress me yet more, and what may, as my sensibilities recover somewhat from the curious flattened state they are now in, is that, for all I can recall, I may indeed have drowned. I have no knowledge of any act, any word, any thing at all that occurred between the conclusion of that pleasant luncheon on the lake shore, and my discovery—rediscovery—of my wits and person at the bottom of the garden behind this respectable inn at an hour when almost none of the respectable inhabitants of it were conscious. I have read, I suppose, too many fables and fairy-tales, for the first thing I asked of the good landlord, upon gathering my straying thoughts and finding my voice, was the month, day, and year. How relieved I was to find I had not been whisked away for seven times seven years, but for a scant two months! And yet, how and where were those two months passed? For anything I could tell, I might indeed have spent them happily in Fairyland, but for sundry signs about my person that it might not have been an unalloyed happiness. . . .

Finding out what happened to James, and what is going to happen to James, is the core of the rest of the book.

I tend to think of books as having both a plot and a story (ideally, that is). There are probably more technical terms for that, but to me, the plot is what happens in the book, and the story is what the book’s really about. For example, in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Memory, the plot is that Miles screws up royally, gets fired, and then finds himself playing detective when his old boss is disabled. The story is that Miles grows up (somewhat). I tend to think of story as being mostly character-based, though in some cases it’s mixed with theme; to me, the story in the Sarantine Mosaic is learning (or not) to live in the world of time and change, love and loss, intellect and emotion, and art and history.

Apropos of the Sarantine Mosaic, the plot of Freedom and Necessity is in some regards not far from byzantine. Its form contributes to its apparent complexity; it’s an epistolary novel, and the letters and diary entries are virtually note-perfect as letters and diary entries, which ought not to surprise readers of Brust’s Agyar, a perfectly brilliant novel-as-journal that everyone ought to go out and read, now. But for quite a while its components are being written by people who only know part of what’s going on, or are keeping things from each other, or are talking about things that they expect each other to know about, so they don’t bother to explain them to us. Eventually large chunks of the plot do get revealed, though Brust & Bull usually give the reader a chance to figure it out for themselves, which is nice. However, because of the form, a number of smaller questions stay unanswered, which can be a touch frustrating. (For the longest time, none of the plot would stay in my head; every time I would re-read, I would be wondering again who the man with the ginger moustache is and the like. It appears to have stuck now, but the characters and the prose have always been more important to me.)

Some of the questions that stay unanswered would help resolve the perennial question of whether this is a fantasy novel or not. Some people get very exercised over the whole issue—either they think it’s definitely one thing, and thought they were getting the other, or they want to know which it’s supposed to be. The closest thing to a definite word on the subject is from one of the authors, who said that it depended on which character you asked. I don’t really care; it’s a damn good novel and I’m happy to leave it at that, but if such things matter to you, be warned.

Really, because of the epistolary form, I feel that saying almost anything about the plot would be an unfair spoiler. So I shall talk about the story instead, which is hardly a spoiler because it’s right in the first letter: the book is about the resurrection of James Cobham. Oh, okay, it’s also about means and ends in one’s political and personal life, and there are other characters and other events of importance, but at core it’s about James in the same way that Dunnett’s Lymond books are about, well, Lymond. (Not a comparison generated at random. Can’t you just see Francis Crawford of Lymond, being asked to pick one word to describe himself, coming up with “agile”?) I’ve had James taking up space in my head for nearly a month now, along with a number of his relatives; it hasn’t always been comfortable, but their taking up so much space for so long should indicate how vividly complex the characters are.

I appear to have rambled my way to a close, or at least to a point where the only things I have left to say are spoilers of the worst sort. (I shall post those to Usenet and put the link in a comment, for those who’ve read the book already.) I remember the time I was re-reading this on D.C.’s Metro on the way home from work; my deep absorption was apparently so obvious that the stranger sitting next to me felt moved to comment on it, observing that I was reading very fast and had not looked up once. I muttered something about re-reading and put my head back down; he, undeterred, added something about how it must be really good, huh? I wanted badly to point out that if it was, did he think I would thank him for interrupting me? (I have no idea what I said—or how I looked—but he did get the hint after that.) Even during the miserable days of studying for the bar (please don’t ask me how miserable, or I might tell you, and then neither of us would be happy), Freedom and Necessity can still generate that level of absorption in me.

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