in the loneliness of winter imagination
becomes reality in the mind
It's taken me a little while to collect my thoughts on Sarah Emily Miano's Encyclopaedia of Snow (2003). This is down to a variety of reasons. One is, admittedly, the disproportionately-high number of parties/football matches/BBQs that have cut into my blogging time over the past few weeks - life is full such trials. Another might, conceivably, be time spent working on that whole PhD thing that's currently paying my bills, or the fact that 30 C heat is hardly conducive to a meditation on winter. The real reason, though, is that I'm still not entirely sure what I think about the book.
The verdict that begins to emerge is, tentatively, an underwhelmed one. The Encyclopaedia has a great deal going for it: there's a lot to love in this miscellany-cum-scavenger hunt. Purporting to be an edited form of a Swiss alchemist's notes, it takes the form of a series of short stories, poems, observations, mood pieces and vignettes - real, fictional, and/or excerpted from other writers (even God gets a look-in). There is a great range of styles and settings on display, from coming-of-age in suburbia to historical flights-of-fantasy to romantic mysticism. Miano juggles the different voices well, on the whole, whether she's channelling disaffected teenagers:
The following week Brian went away to visit friends in Cleveland, three hours from Buffalo. He sent me a postcard that said, "No fun without you. Be home soon. Love, Bri." True, not eloquent prose, but his script was calligraphic.
...Or star-crossed lovers obsessed with the sound of their own poetics:
Simply listening to the woman was like dying from too delicate a delight, an overwhelming joy that rendered me powerless; and for the first time, the snow was anything but forgetful: this memory will be beautiful even in death.
Each entry is 'signed' by its author (in the case of God, "YHWH, Omnipresent" :-D); a glossary at the back provides more information about them, in some cases giving tantalising glimpses of the future of the characters. The entries are arranged alphabetically by (often eccentrically-chosen) title, all loosely-linked by the theme of snow - and, as becomes apparent when one digs deeper, by a host of internal connections (shared characters, phrasings, etc.), plus the meta-conceit of an alchemical love-story. My misgivings concern the last part.
Several of the entries are wonderful little worlds all their own. I particularly enjoyed the linked stories 'Frigid' and 'Naked', the first a teen-diary style piece concerning a bulimic girl, the second a touching first-person narration about a youthful lesbian relationship:
There had been so many moments like these, with Libby, since we met two years before: moments when the space between us diminished to hardly nothing, so that I didn't know where I ended and she began.
There are also welcome touches of cheeky and ironic humour. This one made me laugh out loud:
...Hello, hello, hello...
Is anybody out there?
...out there, out there...
Capt. Oates, South Pole
One thread that carries through much of the novel is the tale of a pair of lovers, whose relationship is variously explored, reflected and shadowed in a number of different entries - sometimes more happily, sometimes less. In one, a passionate (and somewhat pretentious, it must be said) letter exchange between 'Moth' and 'Butterfly', this parallelism is signalled explicitly, when Moth muses that Butterfly's fiction-writing presents a series of variations on the same characters in "alternate realities". Elsewhere, they are made into representations of alchemical thought:
You need her because male and female, butterfly and moth, alchemist and poet are complementary parts of the same cyclical whole - meaningless without one another. It is the basic truth of alchemy: things which may differ from one another in time, space, material, nature and many other characteristics can possess and exhibit the same essential quality.
This notion of finding connections between apparently disparate elements clearly pervades the novel, and to some extent it is successful. Links turn up in the most unexpected places; close, careful reading is definitely rewarded, and I frequently found myself flicking through the book to remind myself of a previously minor character in an unrelated poem or suchlike, or following the encyclopaedia's suggested pathways (entries often contain cross-references to others; some useful, some not). Once you start to look for parallels, you see them everywhere: the title to this post was inspired by the 15 or so pages where I seemed to find myself spotting a 7 in every other line...
Despite all this - and I must emphasise that I did find a lot of it fun, moving, and occasionally beautiful - I remain unconvinced by the novel as a whole. For all the attempts to forge connections between the pieces, much of it doesn't hang together (or, indeed, say much about snow!). I could never quite shake the impression that Miano had the pieces before she had the idea for the book, and that the overarching conceit was employed to stitch her various experiments and completed stories together, rather than giving rise to them.
Furthermore - and I accept that this could simply be authorial irony at play - the notion of linkages is sometimes carried to absurd and pointless lengths. This is particularly the case with the footnotes, which can be tangential and/or pretentious in the extreme:
There was a GALE so fierce that sparrows resting on the window ledges of the Sun building could not fly against it. Every few minutes they started out to stand still, wings fluttering in vain, or attempted to fly with the winds but were hustled along like stones thrown with great force.*
*Virgil compared the ghosts of the dead to thronging birds.
This sort of thing had me rolling my eyes on more than one occasion; it adds nothing of substance to the entry in question, and seems to be there mostly as an excuse to show off the author's breadth of reading. Whether it's supposed to create further layers of meaning and symbolism, to reflect the unnamed Swiss alchemist's rather meandering mind, or simply to be a mischievous send-up of her own concept (which I'd rather like it to be), is a question quite beyond me...
For all its thematic pretentions to depth, then, Encyclopaedia of Snow felt alarmingly lightweight at times (not unlike snow itself ... see how this linkage thing grabs hold and won't let go? ;-)). I'll leave you with Miano's random footnote on Eve, which I hope gives some indication of how simultaneously intriguing and irritating this tic of hers can be:
EVE is a palindrome. Another example is: No, it is open on one position. E is 'the letter of light' and its number is seventy, according to Pythagorean mysticism. Arthur Rimbaud associated vowels with colours, linking E with the colour white and "the glaciers' insolence". Ernst Junger in Lob der Vokale states that E has a "shimmering quality, of vapours and tents".