The needle moves across her, through her, and she feels it in her thoughts, in her memories, as the shape of what she is - or was - is remade, reformed, a new line here, an arc there. Her soul is wet clay, a tablet held in the hand of a priest as he presses a wedge of reed into it, scripting a myth in cuneiform. It's soft wood carved with runes by knife-point. It's animal hide painted with ochre, canvas marked with oil paint by candlelight, wet plaster in a cathedral stained with dazzling indigo powder mixed with egg-white on an artist's brush. Her soul is a tale retold in ink and gilding, in the illumination of a medieval manuscript of vellum.
It is difficult - to put it mildly - to know where to begin when talking about Vellum. Released in 2005 with considerable fanfare (even the ARCs were things of beauty: signed and numbered editions with that satisfying heft that only comes from really good paper), Scottish writer Hal Duncan's debut novel is an utterly exhilarating reading experience. It soars with confidence, with great ideas, with luscious prose, above all with a joyously unbridled celebration of human imagination and its expressions through the ages: all the stories that have gone before, all those yet to come, all those that might have been.
Just don't approach it expecting to have a bloody clue as to what's actually going on...
Vellum - the first of two volumes collectively called 'The Book of All Hours' (the second, Ink, has just been released) - certainly doesn't have the sort of plot that can be usefully summarised. What it does have is gloriously, bewilderingly manifold creativity: Sumerian myth mixed with near-future cyberpunk, rank-and-file life in WWI explored via the speeches of Prometheus Bound, Paradise Lost loose amid dusty small-town Americana, Indiana Jones by way of HP Lovecraft - all bound up in a narrative and stylistic structure that reads something like Michael Moorcock meets James Joyce (and also like something else entirely - Duncan is a genuine virtuoso when it comes to switching storytelling register; more about this below).
In brief, then: there's a war going on in heaven, or in something even bigger and older than heaven; its combatants are engaged in a power struggle over the shape of reality, or the fate of humanity, or both. This struggle is fought through, or around, or over, something called the Vellum:
But eternity, the Vellum, is like... the media of reality itself, the blank page on which everything is written, on which anything could be written. The Vellum isn't the absolute certainty of some city-state of Heaven; no, it's the vast wilderness of uncertainty, possibility, the fucking primal chaos itself.
All this makes the Vellum a dangerous battlefield, however; what is done there affects everything, could potentially rewrite past and present and future, because "one little scratching in the Vellum can stain the whole of history with blood and ink." The combatants are creatures of the Vellum, the various factions of the "unkin", supernatural beings who are both human and not, and who live many lives, in many different times and versions of reality:
Thomas lays the card down on the table. [...] It fucking screams unkin. He can hear it in the bones of his fingers when he touches it, the way it resonates inside him, simpatico with his soul. Thomas is one of them, you see, unkin. One of what they call angels, or demons, or gods. The birdmen who sing the morning world into existence with their Cant. He found it out three years ago and he's been running ever since.
The unkin are like living archetypes, endlessly transferrable elements of Story who exist as multiple - and often quite divergent - manifestations of themselves within the narratives of the Vellum. All the main characters of the novel are unkin, and we encounter each of them in various versions and contexts. Sometimes these versions are aware of their true nature, sometimes they are not; sometimes they are angels, sometimes they are demons. Often, their experiences are broadly analogous, allowing for differences in circumstance. Phreedom, a young computer programmer in 2017 running terrible risks to try to save her brother Thomas' life, or follow him beyond it, is also the goddess Inanna (and Ishtar) descending to the Underworld and mourning the passing of Tammuz; she is also pregnant Anna, estranged from her lover when he returns from WWI, but her brother does not. It is she, too, who is undergoing the "graving" I quoted at the head of this post, a sort of extreme-tattooing means of getting in contact with her eternal Vellum-self, her Story-self - a process, we are told of being "written out of history and written into myth".
All these different types of story are told in their own registers. Phreedom-as-Inanna, for example, is steeped in the rhythms of Sumerian legend:
From the Great Beyond she heard it, coming from the Deep Within. From the Great Beyond the goddess heard it, coming from the Deep Within. From the Great Beyond Inanna heard it, coming from the Deep Within.
Or another strand, in a pulpy cyberpunk future:
It's the dark world of the Kali Yuga, out here on the edge, the Gnostic prison-world of a mad, blind creator, a world of lies, truth hidden in the silky veils of Maya. You may not see it that way, but trust me; I'm the archon of anarchy. I know what I'm talking about. Reality's got more diseases than a ten dollar whore, only this kind of sickness doesn't come from getting down and dirty with too many johns.
I tear the skybike into a 180 and open fire on the last of the thopters. One banana, two banana, three banana, four. One of the pilots actually makes it out of his fireball, spinning through the air. [...] And with every bone in his body broken, including his watermelon skull, there's still a little bit of the astral puppet-master flickering in his brain. Fucking mindworms.
Often these different registers sit directly alongside each other, as variant strands of a character's archetypal story bleed together. Thus, a chapter detailing Seamus' WWI court martial contains within it a brutal interrogation by powerful unkin, who fear he knows a secret that contains the seeds of their downfall; this, in turn, is commented upon - in the manner of the Chorus from Prometheus Bound - by the "bitmites", tiny, mysterious AI creations who turn up repeatedly in other story strands. In other chapters, Duncan uses different techniques to build up the picture of a single offshoot story, like the tale of two linked expeditions - one in the 1920s, one in the 1940s - in search of a lost city in Central Asia. Told through letters, diary entries, and the transcript of an interrogation at the hands of a Nazi officer, it expertly builds tension, creates suspense, evokes character and setting (time and place), and it's an exercise in the fine art of unreliable narrators (several of them, in fact).
This blithe freewheeling between styles and stories is breathlessly enjoyable; the scope of Duncan's invention is, truly, dizzying in a way that's all too rare. Whether it is also the novel's undoing is a question that has been debated since Vellum first appeared. Some readers, arguably more perceptive folks than me with an eye to the bigger picture, have found it all too ambitious: intermittent wonders that are ultimately lost in an incoherence of execution. (John Clute is one). On a chapter-by-chapter basis, Vellum is dazzling; but does it hold together as a novel? Is there an overall vision binding it together, some plot or thematic pay-off by way of conclusion, or is it just dilettante dabbling, beautiful but pointless?
I'm not sure this is a question I can properly answer until I've read the second part, Ink (again, early impressions elsewhere are mixed). One thing I can offer without hesitation is that part of me honestly doesn't care even if it is just dabbling without any particular purpose - it was such a compelling, challenging, and outright fun novel to read that I don't feel in need of any larger pay-off. And it is, after all, a book about the diversity of human stories; appropriate, then, that it should be in some measure cacophonous. But then, a novel with passages like this was always going to enchant me:
From every time, from every tomb, Tammuz escapes. But still we weep for him; we weep for the lost deus of Sumer as we weep for all the lost days of our summers.
And still he runs, he leaps, he bounds, still, caught in the moment and unbound in the myth, through the fields of lost days, far from the road of all dust, and down the river of crows and kings, the river of the voices and the visions of the living and the dead, and all around him grow the buds and the rushes, and the grass and the bushes and the trees, and the poppies.
On another level, I think there is (some) unity and coherence at work here; it's just not always easy to see amid all the narrative fireworks. It's far from easy to tell how things join up, or even if they do at all; at times the narrative is so intent on inventiveness and sly allusion that it is needlessly, punishingly opaque in its treatment of the characters and how they are connected (in particularly, it can be a headache working out which of the central trio of Carter, Pechorin, and Thomas, or their various alternate selves, is narrating at any one time; Seamus and Phreedom are more distinct). This is problematic, since it seems that much of the overall plot rests upon the significance of these connections: the past histories, the alternate versions. It does feel at times like we're seeing into Duncan's head without sufficient guiding or mediation.
For one thing, as Duncan pointed out during his BSFA interview a few months back, the chaotic jump-cutting scene breaks are actually more strictly regulated than they at first appear; each part of the novel has seven chapters, each of which is divided into 12 sections, each of which is further divided into 4 sub-sections. Furthermore, connections and deepenings do become apparent, if not always until much later. The aforementioned hunt for the lost city, for example, while apparently quite self-contained and tangential, is also the story of a character who may be a forebear of one of our narrators (or may be an earlier version of him); and the hunt turns up a book containing - the reader must realise mostly by allusion - a written form of the Cant, the secret language of the unkin. This is "a language that sent information like a gun sends bullets, direct to the heart" (of which the bitmites are a version - I think), and which may(?) be intended to represent imagination itself:
I'm afraid even to speak because I wonder if that language so pure, so precise that it rewrites the thoughts of those who hear it, might rewrite reality itself.
Another strand running through much of the novel is the sorrow attendant on the death(s) of Thomas/Tammuz. It's a meta-story: he is the beloved youth dead before his time, the summer god sacrificed at the harvest, and in one case the innocent victim of bigoted violence (through a moving allegorised version of the story of Matthew Shepard). It comments both on the general unfairness of the universe, and on how the pain of any specific version of the tragedy never dulls, however universally repeated it might be.
[A]ll but one solitary page were blank, and on that page there was only a single simple sentence, an equation which captured the very essence of existence. This, he said, was why all those who'd ever looked upon the Book had gone insane, unable to comprehend, unable to accept, the meaning of life laid out in a few words of mathematical purity.
After what happened to Thomas, I remember thinking that I knew what that sentence was. Two words.
Finally, and only just surfacing towards the end of this first volume, is a theme about humanity growing up, and taking responsibility for its own fate: the child with the potential to become greater than the parent, to overthrow the parent and remake the world in its own image. These stories, after all, are the products of the human imagination, and live there; humans have the power to change (or destroy) their gods, their angels and their demons, if they wish. Again, it is a tale with strong roots in mythology - and this is where the mingling of Seamus and Anna's WWI story with the concerns of Prometheus Bound (with its themes of rebellion and humanity reaching beyond its divinely-appointed lot) really comes into its own. Anna's pregnancy represents that which can overcome all the unkin's plans. As Seamus puts it:
--So what if it's Achilles' mother that can have a son that's greater than its father? What if it's Io, too? What if it's any girl, every girl? Any woman? Every woman, Anna. Sure and can't the son be greater than his father? Isn't that what it's all about, what makes us all go on? Ye can't look at the sheer bloody-minded defiance of a wee babe screaming its lungs out at the terrible injustice of the world and not have hope. Every generation of us, all born kicking up a racket, rebels every one of us. So who's the son - the child - that's greater than its father? I'll tell ye who it is, Anna.
So there we go. As I said at the start and have demonstrated repeatedly, I've only the vaguest idea what it's about or what happens. But I loved it anyway. Probably in part because of all that, actually. So, one for myth-geeks and literary masochists, then? ;-)