January 21, 2008

Book review: "by George," by Wesley Stace

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by George
By Wesley Stace
Hachette/Little, Brown and Company / ISBN: 978-0-316-83032-4

Within long-form fiction, there is a particular thing that I happen to really love, something maybe a little difficult to explain but that I bet a lot of CCLaP's readers enjoy too; and that's when an author will pick a seemingly quirky topic, something that doesn't appear at first could be tied to a number of different periods of history, and then proceed to precisely tie the topic to a number of different periods of history, accidentally telling a Grand Story about society in general while along the road of the Quirky Story you originally thought they were going to tell. Maybe the best (or at least most well-known) example I can think of is Alan Moore's 1985 comic series Watchmen; the way he takes a supposedly niche subject like masked superheroes and instead tells a sprawling saga that lasts from the 1930s to the 1980s, showing how in fact each of the generations in those decades has had their own unique way of looking at the so-called "niche," which in turn says something unique about each of those generations and each of those time periods as well. The reason people go so nuts over Watchmen is not for the surface-level action-based plot of the story's latest generation of characters (although it is awfully inventive and entertaining, don't get me wrong); it's because Moore paints such a deep and incisive portrait of America itself through the various past generations of superheroes in his fictional world, tying together their similarities and differences into one giant uber-plot-engine that propels the story along as explosively as it does.

by George, by Wesley Stace

And hence do we come to by George, the second and latest novel by celebrated author Wesley Stace (Misfortune), who for those who don't know has already had an entire other celebrated artistic life as a musician under his stage name John Wesley Harding. (A cross-media genius; ah, how I do love featuring people like that here at CCLaP!) It is one of these stories like I'm talking about, in this case focusing on the topic of ventriloquism; a story you're led at first into thinking is going to be a quirky "indie-lit" one about an individual strange child, but then elegantly expands into a grand saga over the course of its plot, eventually reaching back into the footlights world of the Victorian Age itself. It's a book that holds untold complexities, a plot filled with sly cross-references that only slowly reveal themselves, an infinitely smart thriller which doubles as a deep character study which then doubles as a historical drama; a book I'm eternally grateful now that I picked up, in that this was yet another in a recent string of completely random novels I've recently checked out from my friendly neighborhood library, done for no other reason than because of simply liking the cover art (and in this case, the music of John Wesley Harding as well).

And indeed, this is probably the best place to start; that unlike someone like, say, Ethan Hawke (whose books in my humble opinion mostly get unfairly maligned, but that's a whole other essay), Stace is a cross-media artist who doesn't stick out as one, who doesn't need excuses from his fans like, "Yeah, but you should hear him sing!" In fact, you could leave Stace's stage name off this publication altogether and still be left with one of the most smartly-written books I've read in the last year, a complex jigsaw puzzle with a thousand little pieces that all need fitting together, all of which Stace does long before you've even realized you should be noticing in the first place. It is essentially the story of the mighty Fisher family, almost all of whom have been British on-stage performers at one point or another -- from the mysterious and dramatic Valentine Vox of the 1800s Brighton circuit, to his flamboyant and controlling granddaughter Echo Endor, all the way to her grand-grandson George in the 1970s, with another dozen people thrown in along the way and a dozen subplots for good measure.

It is a dense story when all is said and done, a layered story that weaves in and out of itself numerous times over the course of 380 pages, but one that always seems deceptively simple under the talented hands of Stace. It is the story, for example, of Echo's son Joe Fisher, a henpecked closeted adherent of mysticism, brow-beaten by his mother into an unwanted career as a ventriloquist himself, while personally only interested in the occult-like edges of so-called "pure magic;" it is simultaneously, though, the story of the aforementioned George (Joe's grandson), whose own dysfunctions regarding 1970s-era British boarding schools leads him tangentially (and at first unknowingly) down the same roads as Joe half a century before. It is the story of secret loves and secret lives; an examination of power dynamics within strong families; a look at the way the term "popular entertainment" has been defined in the UK for the last hundred years. And in being all of these things, it is also a look at the UK itself over the last hundred years, and of the way you can examine its entire society in general based on the various ways over the decades it's reacted to the concept of a wooden dummy sitting on the leg of a voice-throwing stage performer.

Yeah, I know, I'm being awfully flowery and vague today; and that's because to spell out the plot of by George in detail is to do a real disservice to those who haven't yet read it, in that I would not only reveal a lot of spoilers right from the beginning but also do a terrible job at recounting its hundreds of brilliant little moments. I guess I can say this, though, and in fact is probably an important thing to point out; that you shouldn't be fooled by the semi-eerie vibe to which this book hints at the beginning, including not only that creepy cover art but also the fact that half the story is narrated from the point of view of the multi-generational dummy itself (the "George" of the novel's title, to be precise, not to be confused with the human George of the 1970s). This is no slasher tale, nor does anything beyond the realm of everyday physics take place here; indeed, the otherworldly tone turns out to be more about developing the characters than anything else, in that an obsession with the occult is one of the shared traits that runs through all the Fisher family members over the generations, as is a debilitating shyness that leads so many of them to living their lives through their dummies in the first place.

That's the real reason to read by George, to be frank, is to watch Stace's masterful handle over this intriguing and multi-branched family tree; to see him pick up family traits like it was genetic material and then have them manifest in slightly different ways from person to person. As the 1970s George examines all these family trails over the course of the novel, as he digs into the greater and greater mysteries at the core of the Fisher travails, not only he but we can see all the various ways these long-lost relatives have shaped the boy we now know; how he can be controlling and demanding like his great-grandmother, intense and antisocial like his grandfather, meticulous and inventive like the secret father he never knew. And by the end, we realize that the story we've been following is both the story of a particular boy, a particular family, and the country that shaped them all in general, a literary feat that is difficult to pull off but that Stace does here naturally and gracefully. It's a truly exceptional read, a truly surprising delight as well, a book I have hardly any caveats regarding other than the usual one that it's not for everyone. Wow, I'm telling you, just look at what pleasures there are to be had by occasionally taking random chances at the library or bookstore!

Out of 10:
Story: 10
Characters: 9.9
Style: 9.4
Overall: 9.7

Read even more about by George: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:28 PM, January 21, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |