A Heroine of the World

First off, please comment if you have strong feelings one way or the other about this idea: a narrated version of my blogs, available in both audio/video (vlog style on YouTube) and/or simply audio, in podcast format.  One added bonus of going back and reading prior blogs is that it would be irresistible for me to comment on what I think about them now.  For instance, I remember feeling pretty unimpressed with the pandemic per se — like, not fearing for my life or health for even one second, this entire time, because why would I — but being more willing, early on, to be bullied by the social pressures and consequences of that narrative.  I’ve gotten braver as I’ve blogged more, let’s just say.  

I don’t have the resources to start on this now, but probably could this winter.  It sounds like a fun experiment to me.  The whole endeavor, from my point of view, is to do something creative that revolves around my favorite core ideas and questions, and which allows me the sort of engagement with other people and the world that I most prefer.  

I had this great chance encounter with a guy at the local laundromat the other day, in fact, who’s a rope access tech for wind farms but a writer in his heart, and he said one of his fave authors was pretty unwavering on the question of how to master the craft.  “Write 1000 words a day,” says that guy.  It’s always convenient to hear that the thing you need to do is the thing you’re already doing, right?  

Anyway, I’m always just a big fan of fluency for the sake of fluency, and then who knows what you’ll choose to do with it.  I’ve experimented with video blogging before in an intentionally rambling way, because newsflash: it’s just a shock to see yourself on video, and an underestimated skill to simply function in front of a camera.  One thing you gotta give the talking heads, they can deliver that largely bullshit commentary with aplomb.  I always wish there was a ticky-tape at the bottom of CNN with an actual transcript of the anchor’s inner dialogue, in real time.  I would watch the shit outta the news in that case, and the electrodes strapped to Don Lemon’s head would only be a perk.

One added perk of seeing me video blog would be that I probably, frequently mispronounce words that I’m otherwise using correctly.  That combo of growing up backwoods but reading a lot translates to having a great vocabulary I don’t even know I’m saying wrong.  

My favorite fiction author of all time is Tanith Lee, a Brit (deceased), and I’ve devoured everything of hers I could get my hands on, over the years; read and re-read thoroughly.  In fact I can’t wait for fire season to be over so I can look at my shelf and see which book I remember least, so I can resume re-reading her.  In grad school creative writing, my advisor goes, “Why do you use British versions of spelling so often?”  I was like, “Huh?”  I had no idea I was doing that.  

Actually, now’s a great time to shout out to Tanith Lee, which is something I haven’t blogged about before.  Most of her books were out of print even decades ago when my brother and I discovered her, and we’ve made sweeps of used book stores both IRL and via Amazon to acquire what we can, which is a treasure, and will be worth whatever amount of money to have moved to Hawaii with us.  

So, the typical Tanith Lee novel, if you can even find one, will have the sort of cover art you’d associate with old Swords-and-Sorcery pulp.  And maybe that’s what they are — I have no objectivity when it comes to things I love.  They’re just the best thing on earth which I can’t even discuss intelligently.

But, like, here’s an example of why this author has earned my undying fandom, 1000x over — one of my favorite books is called A Heroine of the World.  It’s a story of a gal, growing up, set in a fantasy world that is dialed the fuck in, socio-politically because that’s what Tanith Lee does.  You don’t even feel like it’s a fictional world she created; it’s more like being transported to a construct that has all the momentum, inertia, tedium, history, and confusion of an actual place in time.  Nevertheless, the limited first person POV of the young female protagonist is ignorant of nearly everything, and so you experience these terrifying intimations of unrest and fomenting war from her mostly sheltered perspective.  

Her parents sort of dump her off with her wealthy-ish aunt, intending to come back and get her, but they never do.  Some handsome soldiers stay overnight on one occasion, and stay up talking in low tones with the aunt after the girl is put to bed, and she creeps out to listen but doesn’t understand much.  There have been runs on food and a sense of scarcity, tension, and dull fear grips the city.  But the aunt is fairly circumspect with the girl, while seeming politically well-connected and, as an older beauty, much admired besides.  The girl is taken with one of the soldiers, with a quicksilver first impression, and she remembers his name.  

Later, food is even more scarce, the house and others like it are forcibly occupied by the brass of the opposing army — men with large dark beards and black and red uniforms.  Decorum is maintained, the aunt’s and girl’s propriety is respected, but the alarm of this event is definite.  The bearded soldiers are subordinates to a head honcho whose comfort and status is the main point of having seized the house to occupy, as is happening all over the city for other head honchos.  The flow of food into this particular household resumes, which is a relief.  

This head honcho is older and stout, more of a scholar than a soldier, and seems to be important to his command as a wealthy land-owning asset primarily.  He’s kind and mild mannered, based on what the girl can judge despite the language barrier, and he takes an interest in the her.  It’s difficult to tell the exact nature of this interest, perhaps even for him — he treats her as a pet, somewhat.  

She sneaks in and discovers documents in his keeping (his security is lax) which, among other things, identify a list of rebel leaders to be executed within a matter of days.  Some names are scratched off as potentially still useful, but it’s a long list.  The girl recognizes the name of her soldier crush and, in a quiet panic, scratches his name from the list.

The initially successful occupation seems to then fail, and a retreat is in order.  The aunt falls by the wayside, probably not good — just doesn’t make it home one day, I think.  As the head honcho’s vague pet, the girl is absorbed in the retreat, which is at first relaxed.  It’s hard winter, now, and she is comfortable in a carriage with some highborn ladies who threw in with various other occupying head honchos, and who are now beginning to regret that decision, but who firmly maintain a frivolous feminine bravado and are mostly bitchy and dismissive with the girl.  Elaborate dinners on the road, in nicely accoutered tents, are common.  But soon the retreat becomes more ragged and desperate, and these social niceties disintegrate.  Outriders of the retreat are picked off by the increasingly bold “rebels”, those soldiers who represent the girl’s actual countrymen, and the consorts of the brass are left more and more to their own devices, freezing and whoring themselves for basic necessities.  It all falls apart.  

The girl survives, mostly intact, making it to the enemy’s homeland, where she’s taken in by a sort of social matchmaker.  Rather than being abused, she’s given an education in language and charm, and a pretty intense makeover from which she emerges quite lovely.  She’s debuted to this foreign society, then, and is stunned to encounter her soldier crush cavaliering at a party in a large mansion.  He doesn’t recognize her.  A marriage is negotiated between her and the stout, landowning head honcho who originally took her in as a pet, and is now enamored by her as a woman.  This all feels entirely out of her control, but represents a substantial return on the matchmaker’s investment, of course.

The marriage is accomplished by proxy, as the scholarly head honcho is about his government affairs, and she is transported to his estate with her trousseau.  Her new husband, still absent, is apparently beloved by his staff, and the estate is phenomenal — orchards, lands, farms, and a large, luxurious manor house.  

The old, scholarly husband is killed in action, and never makes it back.  The entire estate has been left to her, and she’s all set to live comfortably and do whatever she likes, a rich, young, beautiful, virginal widow.  You’re only halfway through the book, by this point.  

She gets on a fuckin boat, immediately, and leaves it all behind, because she’s discovered that her soldier crush, who still doesn’t even know she exists, has ventured overseas, in some further interest of the military cause.  This is why I love Tanith Lee.  It seems like the whole point of the story has been accomplished, now, but then it turns out that wasn’t the point of the story at all.  You still don’t know, yet, what the point is, or what theme even represents the expected arc.  

The girl travels to a new land, which is gripped by a reverberation of this same military power struggle.  Back to being mostly penniless, now, she tracks down her soldier crush and shoots her shot with him.  A brief honeymoon interlude occurs, in which they live in a little house by the ocean, where she prepares food for him and feels mostly happy.  He’s an action junkie, though, and is maneuvering politically with the people in power here.  She’s introduced, somewhat haphazardly through his machinations, to the consort of the main guy, who is a strange Asian-y woman named Sydo or something like that.  The girl and Sydo are left to their own devices while the males crusade around doing whatever they’re up to, and Sydo is a magnetic but upsetting presence.  It’s unclear whether she’s slept with the girl’s soldier crush — this is implied — and she seems unconscious of anyone outside of herself.  She’s sort of a cat, or almost reptilian, beautiful in a disturbing way.  

The girl’s aspirations seem futile — she’s abandoned everything, is regarded with only mild interest by not only her apparently unfaithful lover but his allies, and pretty soon the tactical situation turns to shit here, too.  The girl is captured as a war criminal by some, like, nuns who live in a series of caves in a cliff face by the ocean, and the boyfriend isn’t even around when it happens.  She’s kept in a cell, in this cliff face, and interrogated.  The head lady is a psychopath who executes everyone but in a fetishistic way.  She hangs people, and then has a plaster masque of their post-strangled faces made, which are then displayed.  The head lady shows the girl her gallery of these masques, their facial death contortions preserved for all time, and promises her the same fate.  

More time passes, and the girl falls into a dull despair, but then discovers she’s pregnant.  This shocks her out of her funk, and she decides to live.  She begins praying and practicing, in her mind, the knowing that she will survive.  She has no plan and no power and no weapon and no escape, but she tells herself over and over again, I will survive.  I will not die here.  

At this point in the book, it’s really just like ‘jesus take the wheel’ as to what the story is even about.  You just have no idea.

The day of her execution arrives, and she’s led down to the beach, where the gallows stands.  She knows, she knows she knows, that she will not die today.  She’s been practicing and practicing that knowing, but is still almost immobilized by fear at the sight of the gallows, the unlikelihood of any salvation.  She’s led up the steps, the rope is put around her neck, her attention is drawn to the batch of plaster being mixed up, to immortalize her posthumously contorted expression in just a few moments.  She chants to herself over and over that she will not die today, fighting a hopelessness that feels total.  She feels very connected to her unborn child, also hopelessly, but she tells it they will survive, somehow.    

In the distance, down the winding sea road, a uniformed emissary of the king dismounts to first verbally, then physically, assault the guard, and gallops on to the congregation of nuns around the gallows.  Some papers are served to the head nun bitch, who objects (the fresh plaster is hardening); the emissary responds by removing his gloves and slapping her across the face with them.  The girl can see by now that the emissary is her soldier crush, in a stolen uniform, playing the part of the vicariously and royally enraged flunky to perfection.  The noose is removed from her neck and she’s led back down the gallows steps, plunked on to the back of his horse, and galloped away.

At this point the book is over and instead of any explanation as to what to take from it, you’re left to figure it out for yourself.  It’s not about any of the things you expected, and seems instead to be about agency.  The girl’s future, and even her situation with this lover, seems as fraught as ever before, but at the same time — not.  None of her circumstances have improved except her delivery from imminent execution, but none of it matters because she’s settled within herself in a way that hadn’t occurred at any other point in the book.  

So that’s considered “genre fiction” — the title, once again, is A Heroine of the World — and not as legitimate as literary fiction.  This is why I’m hooked on Tanith Lee, regardless of how pulpy and unimpressive the covers may appear.

Tanith Lee is a big reason why I personally focus on simple fluency, over relevance or commercial viability.  She wrote her entire life, longhand in a notebook, from the time she was fifteen, and never made much more money than what she required to simply survive and not have to work stupid jobs.  She did work a series of stupid jobs, as a young woman, prior to her first publication (The Birthgrave — she wrote her first novel, Eva Fairdeath, when she was fifteen, but wasn’t able to publish it until after financial respite earned from publishing The Birthgrave.  Eva Fairdeath is easily as strong as her other books — she wasn’t ever *not* a brilliant writer, apparently.)  

Commercial success is a wonderful thing, but I think the outpouring of someone’s life’s work, in perfect inner focus and total outer irreverence for expected conventions or themes, is a much more durable monument.  The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but I really doubt Tanith Lee was trolling for attention at the bar, locked and loaded with a silly hat, some dumb affectations and a bunch of opinions about “publishing these days”.  (I sort of love writers and I sort of hate writers, which is something I probably have in common with writers, who knows.)  Nope, Tanith Lee was just writing her ass off, decade after decade, being an absolute master of her craft, and otherwise letting the chips fall where they may.  1000 words in a day was probably, like, her day off.  

It’s been said that all writers are really just people attempting to say one thing, well.  It takes an enormous amount of exploration and cultivated fluency to even discover what that one thing is, and then much additional focus to say it well.  I don’t know if that’s true or not.  I’ve huffed more Tanith Lee than the average fan, and if I had to verbalize what one thing I think she’s saying, for instance…I don’t know.  She’s published in fantasy, sci-fi, horror, erotica, historical fiction, and young adult genres, but even that doesn’t seem calculated on her part.  She just wrote, and let other people figure out what fucking shelf to put it on.  In all her books, in all her worlds, a protagonist is faced with the stifling and absolute mediocrity of other people in the world, at some point, or at many points.  There’s often not a “villain” per se, but rather an antagonist who personifies this crude, lowest-common-denominator thinking.  Her male protagonists, and antagonists for that matter, are as brilliantly rendered as her female examples of each archetype, and luminaries and allies are found in the strangest places.  People’s souls shine out, despite the drudgery of whatever situation, rarely but distinctly, and this quality is by no means reserved for the protagonist.  I suppose I’d regard Tanith Lee as a thematic cousin to Ayn Rand, but a far more sophisticated one.  If she’s saying one thing, over and over, perhaps it’s an identification that being in the world, but not of the world — in the common thought form but not of the common thought form — is an alienating endeavor, but worth it, and anyway unavoidable, for certain people.

I always meant to write her a fan letter, and was dismayed to have procrastinated all the way up until her death, in 2015.  Well, better late than never.                                             

2 thoughts on “A Heroine of the World

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