Victoria University Press, $29.95,
From the first paragraph of Elizabeth Knox’s previous novel, Vintner’s Luck, the reader enters as complete and rich an alternative world as exists in contemporary fiction. It is a world whose shapes are precise and faithful in the clear moonlight, whose sounds are as delicate and vivid as the crunch of an insect underfoot, whose taste the reader can savour as Sobran uncorks and drinks his new wine in tumescent misery. And when Sobran swoons and falls against “a warm, firm pillow of muscle” that turns out to be Xas, his wing “pure sinew and bone under a cushion of feathers” and smelling of snow, the reader shifts from inhabiting the young Frenchman’s consciousness to feeling his bodily contact with the world. Rendered in particularly beautiful sentences, it’s an experience that takes your breath away. If any good came out of the preoccupation with angels that swept through Western culture in the 1990s, Vintner’s Luck must certainly head the list, a list itself elevated by the novel’s presence.
Readers drawn to Knox for her rare ability to so thoroughly transport a reader to an alternative reality in such a pleasurable way won’t be disappointed in Black Oxen. But they will find themselves on a very different sort of journey. While the main challenge to the reader of Vintner’s Luck is the relationship that develops between the young man Sobran and the male angel Xas, a relationship that crackles with an electricity generated by the confluence of spirituality and forbidden sexuality, the challenge to the readers of Black Oxen is of a rather different order. It is a challenge in the texture of the narrative itself.
Where Vintner’s Luck told Sobran’s story in straightforward third person, Black Oxen is a collection of texts in different voices, a set of stories presented by the novel’s central female character, Carme Risk, to her “narrative therapist” in northern California in the year 2022. Her purpose is to understand and recover her unpredictable and mysterious father, Walter Risk, also known as Abra Cadaver, also known as Ido Idea, a character who, like Carme, moves through the many worlds of the novel. “My story is that my father kept disappearing on me,” she tells her therapist. Carme presents the collected narratives – stories she’s reconstructed, journals and memoirs of her own authorship as well as her father’s – in an effort to “find a more hopeful interpretation of her story”, more hopeful than the loss, sacrifice and catastrophe contained in two drawings that she includes during her first session, a drawing of a sailing ship in flames and a drawing of black oxen being led to sacrifice, images that weave through the multiple worlds of the novel.
The first world the reader encounters is Eden, an alternative reality hidden in the contemporary English countryside. This is accessible through a “Shuttling Wood”, a copse of trees on an island that appears only during certain phases of the moon near the estate of an RAF pilot, Carlin Cadaver, who has been grounded by repeated blackouts. The Shuttling Wood has been discovered by a precocious and perceptive foundling, whom the pilot has taken on as ward and named Abra – Abra Cadaver – for luck. Abra finds Eden to be a world of bows and arrows and hooded hawks and horses and horns and flags, a land which uncoupled from the rest of England in 1968, rejecting ballistic weapons and mining companies, food additives and machine noise, rejecting, in short, contemporary civilisation.
The foundling Abra will become Carme’s father, and in her reconstruction of his youth, his discovery of this secret world leads to his absorption in it. He becomes one of Eden’s leading citizens before he disappears. Though firmly rooted in the fantasy tradition – the House of Ulaw which takes him in exists in a world of courtiers and Queens – Eden is not without its dangerous sexuality. Carme herself, in fact, is the product of one such liaison. There is a rare poetry in this section, a timeless world vivid in physical detail.
Eden turns up in later sections of the novel as the setting of some of Carme’s memoirs and her father’s development into manhood, but most of the texts that make up the novel are set in an imaginary South American country, Lequama, during the 1980s. Poor and dusty, racked by a left-wing revolution in 1983 and by long-standing traditions of sorcery, Lequama will be familiar to readers as Marquez territory. A variant of magic realism pervades the scenes set in La Host, the capital city founded on an ancient tribal site, and in the Taosclan jungle. Carme’s father goes under the name Ido Idea here, in part because, when we first encounter him, he cannot remember who he is or how he’s come to be in Lequama.
Under the protection of the Ambre Guevera, the healer/sorcerer and former prostitute who first discovers him wandering near the Democracy Wall and names him, Ido takes up with the passionate and somewhat mad young leaders of the recent revolution. These include Ambre’s daughter, Madlena Guevera, Colonel Maria Maria Conchita Conchita Godshalk, and Fernando Sola, the brooding chief of the Taoscal Indians and a revolutionary hero. The La Host of the 1980s overlays the ancient Taoscal sacrificial site, overlays a tradition of ritual cannibalism and primitive forces that affect the revolution and contemporary life. Carme’s father becomes important to this world too, a world into which, we learn, he brings Carme when she is ten.
Because Abra Cadaver, aka Ido Idea, aka Walter Risk, has recurring amnesia, this section of the book will initially prove the most challenging for readers. But alertness is rewarded as Knox spins the novel’s surprisingly broad thematic web in a way that captures and illuminates Carme’s father as an enigmatic figure of great power.
The third main setting the novel develops is the upper-middle class, bright, flat world of northern California in the year 2022, the setting in which Carme presents her fictions and memoirs to Sean Hart, the narrative therapist. This last world in particular raises some interesting questions about the nature of Black Oxen and Knox’s strategies. As it’s set 20 years in the future, and as events and landscapes unfold in ways that are decidedly out of the ordinary, is Black Oxen a work of science fiction?
Fantasy and science fiction are, of course, related categories. They are both varieties of speculative fiction – that is, fiction that takes place in settings contrary to known reality, in worlds that have never existed or are not yet known, in worlds strange and familiar at the same time. Fantasy and science fiction are often marketed together, but down in the trenches of pulp fiction where the genres live, fantasy and science fiction readers will tell you that there is a firm distinction between the genres. If the story is set in a universe which, though contrary to known reality, follows the same physical rules as known reality, the same natural laws of physics and chemistry as we subscribe to, the story is science fiction. If the story is set in a world which, though familiar in many aspects, does not follow our rules of physics and chemistry, it’s fantasy. In other words, it isn’t the date in which the action is set or the landscape that determines whether a piece is fantasy or science fiction, but rather how the world of the story deals with the laws of nature. Science fiction respects physics as we know it (with two conventional exceptions, time travel and faster-than-light travel). In the world of fantasy, anything goes, though good fantasies limit the magic that’s possible, and define their species of magic as a whole new set of natural laws that cannot be violated during the course of the story.
Knox’s evocation of tropes that suggest she wants her novel to work as science fiction as well as fantasy won’t make science fiction readers comfortable. Science fiction and fantasy are contradictory genres on the most fundamental level. When Knox tries to explain a healer’s magic through blood chemistry and sympathetic DNA reconstruction, or when she invokes Quantum Theory to explain tribal magic, the scientifically literate will scratch their sceptical heads. It’s as if she wants the novel to be everything – and it almost is. But it’s not science fiction.
Instead Knox’s strength is her intuitive respect for the protocols of fantasy, particularly in Eden. She writes the signature iconography of the genre, the rainbows and whalebones, the hooded hawks and magic rituals, with an elegant hand. And in the best traditions of the genre, the magic in La Host has firm rules and elaborate sources in a nexus of tribal sorcery. The magic is neither arbitrary nor free. Indeed, in fantasy, it is often the cost of magic, the price the sorcerer has to pay in blood or life force that convinces us of its weight and consequence. The magic that weaves through the novel has links to forbidden sexuality and the power of sacrifice and produces a system that seeks to come to terms with the darker forces of life. In addition to serving as a vehicle for all the great themes of literature – birth, death, separation and transformation – fantasy has all the elements Knox needs to tell a profoundly psychological tale, one that edges in and out of reality like the Shuttling Wood of Eden.
But of course understanding what genre the book belongs in is only a small part of the reader’s experience. The other part is how the texts assemble to produce the story they tell, and it’s here that the audience will have to do its work. Knox herself has warned readers to pay attention.
Combined with the persistent themes of amnesia and recovery, the way in which the stories interleave and comment and fill out one another affects the reader’s understanding even as it affects the characters themselves. It’s a bit of a tricky business, especially in face of the breadth and variety in the book, which takes in ancient worlds and modern ones, fantasy and magic realism, tribal conflict in the jungle and life in urban America. Where Vintner’s Luck is particularly well-focused – it tracks the unity of a man’s life, turns the reader repeatedly back to one story through telling details such as chapter titles all describing wine –
Black Oxen takes a wide-angle view; and in its deepest dynamic, where Vintner’s Luck is centripetal, Black Oxen is centrifugal, generating large multiple universes, which reflect the openness and possibility the narrative therapist sees in Carme’s first story. With so much going on, it’s like keeping track of a small shelf of novels.
And yet that difficulty, for readers willing to pay the price, produces an extraordinary result that only those who reach the final chapter will discover. As the texts interleave, they mirror and comment on one another; they speak to one another and produce a story beyond any single narrative. The result is a whole which is more than the sum of its parts. Something happens here that I’ve never seen before in a book: in the way the stories speak to one another, and in the consequent alterations in the epistemology and ontology of the text, yet another story, both inevitable and surprising, emerges. Black Oxen shows us how the millennium has left us with supple and powerful tools. I certainly don’t want to give away the story, but suffice it to say that this is a book that must be re-read, one whose very nature changes once the reader has processed its technique. It really is extraordinary.
And Knox hasn’t lost her touch as a writer of elegant sentences, ones in which physical detail is rendered in passages of great beauty to produce an evocative result. Even minor passages rise and fall to a deeper rhythm that pervades the book. Diving in tropical waters, Carme sees a lone fish pass her face, “eyes full of light, seemingly hollow”, while others “fan themselves from below, clean and sturdy” or display “livery yellow and indigo and fluorescent white”. As she surfaces from her dive, she follows her rising bubbles:
I watched the sky grow a little less blue beyond the bright, scaled membrane of air on water. I didn’t see the silver lookdowns until I split their school, and they were below me, visible, air in the shape of fish and suspended in the sea.
Knox’s talents are considerable. Any writer who can step us through the looking glass by having us watch a school of fish is a treasure. With its interleaved and interconnected stories, this process suggests what Knox is doing on a larger scale. If you’re not averse to swimming in these challenging waters, you can join her in her buoyant and otherworldly ascent.
Robert Onopa is a fantasy writer who teaches in the Creative Writing School at the University of Hawaii.