Thursday, November 25, 2021

The Escapement by Lavie Tidhar

Is there a term for stories about places like the Dreamlands that aren't Dreamlands? Portal fantasies make the transition matter: it's an important, transformative moment, and getting back to the other side of the portal - if the traveler even wants to - is usually long and complicated and difficult.

Dreamlands stories sometimes have complicated transitions - and here I'm thinking of Lovecraft and the Steps of Deeper Slumber - but those are generally metaphors, and clearly so. A traveler can be trapped in Dreamlands, but the transition is usually almost automatic, as waking up from sleep actually is.

So what do you call a fantasy that takes place in two worlds, where characters move back and forth, sometimes unconsciously, often without meaning to - at times even back and forth within a single paragraph? Is it a portal if one of the worlds is clearly our own? Is it a Dreamland if the other world is surreal and possibly constructed by the needs and history of our main character?

Or is it something else - something that may or may not have a name?

The Escapement is a book like that. Whatever you call it: it's like that. It's the most recent novel by Lavie Tidhar, whose work may have some repetition in it somewhere, but I haven't found any yet. Then again, I've only read the novels Central Station and The Violent Century so far; he's got four more I haven't made it to yet.

In our world, or a world as similar to ours as makes no difference, a man is in a hospital for a bedside vigil: his young son is there, hooked up to machines, unresponsive. Probably dying. The book never says that, but we recognize it. The rest of their family situation is unclear: the boy had a mother, and there is a woman the man talks to, once or twice: that may be her, they may even still be married. But the man is alone with his dying son. No matter else who may be near him in this world, he is alone.

In another world, a Stranger searches for the Plant of Heartbeat, the flower of the Ur-shanabi. It can stop time, the rumors say. He intends to find it and save the boy. He is the same as the man in the hospital, or the version of the same person in that other world. He will move back and forth, as between sleeping and waking, throughout the short novel, though all of the major events take place in that other world. In the Escapement.

The Escapement is mostly a wilderness, with a small area colonized by men. It's been a wilderness for eternities, and was colonized by other things long ago. It's also the occasional battleground for two groups of at least mildly godlike creatures: the gigantic Colossi and the more mutable pupae umbrarum. The battle between Colossi and pupae is called the Titanomachy, but don't let that lead you astray: there's no sign the Colossi are Titans, or pupae gods, or either of them related to the other. They are powers beyond human understanding, and when they fight, reality starts to dissolve around their battles in surreal ways: human bodies find parts replaced by glass jars full of beers, or elongated violins, or stranger things.

But the Escapement is mostly a wilderness: a huge wild land, like the idea of the American West, with vast vistas that have to be traversed, massive bits of scenery and huge stretches of badlands and forests and scrub and mountains and everything else you can image. It does have natives, though, but those are as surreal as everything else about it. The Escapement's natives are clowns: possibly non-verbal, divided into tribes of Augustes and Whitefaces and all the others, frightening as clowns can be frightening and never funny as we all know clowns are not really funny. There are other powers in this land, too: the Major Arcana walk among the humans, and some others who seem to be human have strengths and abilities hard to square with that origin.

The Escapement is the episodic story of the Stranger's journey, from one side of the map of the Escapement to the other, down a railroad, through the Doinklands, to the great town of Jericho and out again, all the way to the Mountains of Darkness and his eventual goal beyond them. He has companions who join him for a while and move on their own paths. He drops back to be the man in the hospital room and returns to the Escapement, over and over again.

His journey is to cheat death. Not for himself, if that helps. For his son.

The Escapement's models and precursors are from folklore and retold tales, across a dozen traditions. Cheating death is never a great idea, in any of them. But maybe the man, the Stranger can find what he's looking for and get something he didn't expect.

This is a weird book: you will have guessed. New Weird at a minimum, quirky and smart and precisely written and full of its own very specific and very odd world. It has influences but not precursors, if that makes sense: you can trace ideas into The Escapement but not point to any other book actually like it.

The clown thing may be too much for some readers, one twist of the willing suspension of disbelief too much. But I found it brilliant, distancing in the best way, a graceful sidestep of the essential racism of most frontier stories - who better to be "those savages" in The Escapement than clowns? And we do get strong hints that the structure of the Escapement - perhaps how this Stranger perceives and lives in the Escapement - is deeply based in the shared history of that man and that boy, in their lives before that hospital room.

The Escapement is like nothing else you've read. I'd recommend it entirely on that basis, but it's also beautifully written, thoughtful and deep, and resonant for anyone who's been a parent, or a child.

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