Monday, April 07, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #96: The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg

There's a kind of story that delights in its own telling; that's about storytelling more than it's about any of the stories that it actually tells. Those stories are usually from young creators, giddy at their own inventiveness and the vast possibilities ahead of them -- sometimes their enthusiasm is infectious and their works engrossing, and sometimes not.

Isabel Greenberg's first book is the graphic novel The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, which ticks off all of the boxes on the young-creator, celebration-of-storytelling checklist. The main character is a storyteller -- he's called Storyteller, and otherwise is just "the boy" -- and the vast bulk of the book is an extended flashback of his journey (and the stories he tells along the way, and the stories other people tell him along the way, and other, somewhat related, stories that Greenberg sticks in there as well). There's also a whimsical cosmology that doesn't get explained until an Appendix, a squabbling family of gods, and a sequence of stories that will be very familiar to anyone raised in an Abrahamic religion (even though that echo really doesn't make sense, given the whimsical cosmology).

It shouldn't work, honestly. But it does: Greenberg's enthusiasm and energy and joyfulness at her own inventions lifts Early Earth above all of the stop-and-start storytelling and all of the roadblocks she throws in the way of her own creation to succeed both because and in spite of itself.

So she begins with a love story, in this world she won't explain until the story is over: a boy from the North Pole and a girl from the South who meet, instantly fall in love, but can't touch each other, for mysterious "magnetic" reasons she also doesn't explain until the end as well. (There's no sense that she's forgotten any of these details -- no backing and filling as the narrative goes on -- so it may just be that she considers those details interesting enough to be stories in their own time but not necessary for the main story.) Greenberg then begins the flashback that takes up nearly the entire book: the adventures of that boy, the Storyteller, from his eventful birth, division into three boys and reunion in adolescence, and his journeys across the world in pursuit of the lost piece of his soul.

The girl gets no such story: she's just the person who found that lost piece. Even in the flattened, deliberately fabulistic style Greenberg uses here, that can be a surprise, when the reader reaches the end and realizes she won't get any story or fantastic events or even a Homeric epithet like her magnetically-divided lover. Perhaps that fits that fabulistic style, but it's sad to realize she's just another interesting event in his life, not a life of her own. One might have hoped a female creator would give what should be her heroine a bit more agency.

But Early Earth is what it is: a set of nesting dolls of story, fractally nesting, so that this story is within that one, but that one is continued later a level or two up, and on and on. Greenberg's models are ancient fables of oral tradition, and she strikes a very familiar tone and tells her stories well within that framework.

We can hope that she'll settle down, perhaps tell just one story at a time, and maybe even let her women take more part in that next story. But Early Earth is a very impressive debut, so good that it paradoxically calls attention to its few flaws. It's closest to Anders Nilsen among Greenberg's contemporaries, in its love for scope, multiple voices, and storytelling, but Greenberg's concerns are far from Nilsen's -- universal in a very broad, all-encompassing way. What she's done here is create the mythology for an entirely separate Earth -- a younger, smaller world than our own, though very recognizable in large and small ways -- and that ambition should serve her well in her works to come.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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