Saturday, July 21, 2012

Fool on the Hill

"On a windless summer day in an uncertain year, more than a century after the founding of Cornell, a man who told lies for a living climbed to the top of The Hill to fly a kite..."
- Opening lines

              Just so we get the illusion of objectivity dispelled, I typed those above lines almost completely from memory. This, for the few of you who read this blog regularly (all three of you) is one of those books I keep talking about, one of the five books that moved me in a way nothing else seems to. And I discovered it completely by accident. 

              Way back in the dawn of time (okay, so it was more like Sophomore year of high school), we took a trip every summer to Montclair Book Center to get books to read when I went to summer camp. I'd discovered the bookstore the previous year, and it had quickly grown into a favorite of mine. I'd found a copy of a book called Sewer, Gas, and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy by Matt Ruff this time out, and when reading through the science-fiction book ads in the back, I found another book by the same author, a fantasy novel called Fool on the Hill. It wouldn't be until the following winter that I finally remembered the book and ILLed it, settling down to read it that Saturday on the bus to and from the Quiz Bowl tournament I was going to.

              Sweet Hell. That is all.

              The book hit all the right notes, and it hit them so well it was like they'd always been there, just waiting to get out. I laughed, I felt sad, I even whispered "no..." when the story reached its darkest point and things didn't seem like they could go very well for the heroes. Which, as we all know, is something only reserved for the books that really get their hooks in me. It is now, and will probably forever be, my favorite book of all time. It's the book that started me thinking that I could become a writer, of all things, and it will hold a place for me in my head and in my heart.

              The story goes like this: Stephen George goes up a hill in Ithaca just outside Cornell to fly a kite. Around him, storylines are just starting to emerge...a father in Wisconsin worries about his collegiate daughter missing out on the fun of life, the fairies of The Hill go about their daily life and speak in hushed tones of ancient evils and the cemetery known ominously as "The Boneyard", a dog and a cat set out to find Heaven, the most beautiful woman in the world sets out to find her next target and inspire him, and a colorful group of anarchist artists and non-conformists known as The Bohemians come back to Cornell for another semester to once again circle warily around their enemies-- a fraternity of degenerate preppies known as "The Rat Frat". Slowly, the various threads criscross and interact with each other over the course of the novel, but self-contained. All of it seeming to revolve around Stephen, the central character of the piece.

And then things get weird.

             Because, you see, there's another very important character, a Greek "original" going by the name Mr. Sunshine. And he and his (not quite) infinite army of monkeys with typewriters are hammering out a capital-S Story involving the various plot threads described above. He's been manipulating the Story for longer than anyone could fathom, and it's his job to create something interesting, something worth reading, for his own amusement. While he starts out slow to act, he quickly meddles around with the threads, and soon plot points collide, ancient evils are resurrected, rivalries and tensions start to flare, and the Forces of Good and the Forces of Darkness line up for a final confrontation on the Cornell campus. And if the Story is to have a happy ending, the damsel to be rescued, and the day to be saved, Stephen George (our protagonist and possibly an author avatar) has to unlock a very rare ability and step into the role of a hero-- or everything may be doomed. 

            Which sounds kinda like a stereotypical take on the usual fantasy story. I mean, there's a damsel in distress, a hero, fairies, magic, a group of new-wave knights...not much new-sounding here. But it's the way it's presented that makes it special. Matt Ruff has a clear control of his language and work, and it shows. The various storylines are handled in a very tight way, and when they start to connect and collide, the characters still remain unique enough that the plots are never confusing or off-the-rails. Even in the final climax, everything is kept very tightly-wound, and each subsequent payoff simply drives home the impact and closes the storyline without many loose ends. You're not left feeling particularly unsatisfied or left hanging, there's a definite sense of closure and everyone getting what they deserve, and it's nice to find a book that does that.

          Another good point of the book is the world it takes place in. Ruff's Ithaca and his Cornell are very strange, but well-realized places. The school and The Hill are characters in their own right, and really the centerpiece of the story. And they should be, as the story is just as much about them as it is about any of their various inhabitants. By the time there are blatantly magical elements to the story, they feel organic, like they've occurred naturally. Of course Tolkien House would exist in that form in Ruff's world. It can't possibly  exist in any other form. And that's what makes the book so brilliant. Despite all the contrivances, the world makes sense and follows its own internal logic to the letter. And between that and the descriptions, it creates a world that, actually, I'd want to live in, a vibrant place where anything can happen-- and does. Which does the book a great credit.

             However, in the interest of clinging to my remaining shred of objectivity, I do have to point out a few minor points. First, the book does have certain points which, when taken in a more modern context, would raise small flags. Also, there are some points, like the entire arc with The Rubbermaid (though frightening and creepy she may be), where the contrivance wins out over the genuine emotion in the story.

              And it is that genuine emotion that finally wins me over in the end. Because for all its faults, for all the high-handed language I could throw about why this book is well-written, in the end, it comes down to this: Fool on the Hill is a very sweet book, generous in spirit and genuine in its emotion. It's about love, death, stories, free will, and the nature of what ties our world together. It's one of the sweetest and most optimistic books I've read, it never truly telegraphs the ending, and it has one of the best final lines during its last desperate struggle between Stephen George and the forces of good, and the dark forces that have menaced The Hill throughout the story.

               Everyone should read this book. Some of you will not like it. Some of you will openly mock and deride it. Some of you are just too cynical to accept something like this, or maybe it's got too many characters, or hell, maybe you just think everything's one-note or contrived. But some of you, some of you will find your was into Matt Ruff's world, into what he calls his "Shadow Cornell", and find a place for you waiting there. I certainly hope you do. This book is barely known (and everyone thinks it has something to do with The Beatles because of the title) when it should be lauded, neglected when we let people like this mope climb the bestseller lists. 

           So I beseech you: Read this book. Buy this book. Even if you don't like it, this is a book to be experienced. It's my favorite book of all time, for Gan's sake! It even warms through to a cynical bastard like me. I can't force you, of course. But I can strongly suggest it's a good idea.

Next Week: Another all-time favorite with The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker. And in two weeks: The Town that Forgot How to Breathe, as well as articles on seeing The Batman Trilogy, and when I can work out a good angle, my ANEXT 2012 article!


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