Wednesday, May 10, 2017

THE COURAGE CONSORT, novellas in spare and lyrical prose


Harvest Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now


The Publisher Says: With his elegant prose, distinctive imagination, and deep empathy, the bestselling author of The Crimson Petal and the White once again dazzles us in three novellas. "The Courage Consort" tells of an a capella vocal ensemble sequestered in a Belgian chateau to rehearse a monstrously complicated new piece. But competing artistic temperaments and sexual needs create as much discordance as the avant garde music. In "The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps," a lonely woman joins an archaeological dig at Whitby Abbey and unearths a mystery involving a long-hidden murder. In "The Fahrenheit Twins," strange children, identical in all but gender and left alone at the icy zenith of the world by their anthropologist parents, create their own ritual civilization.

In each of these novellas, Michel Faber creates a unique, self-contained world, where the perennial human drama plays out in all its passion and ambiguity.

My Review: Inspired by my recent remembering of reading Faber's stonking novel THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS, which has been adapted into an Amazon Prime episodic series, I fished this collection of novellas from my boxes to give it an overdue review. Actually, I suspect my 2005-2006 review is on the hard drive of my boxed-up PC but I can't be arsed to get it out, hook it up, etc etc. I quite like Faber's unlabored elegance of prose. I'm a little shakier on some of his storytelling choices. I get more wobbly when we get into the nuts and bolts of an individual story's constituent bits, as there seem to me to be, unfailingly, expectations raised that are never satisfied, threads that are left to dangle like the annoying loose tag at the back of your neck rubbing you when you put on your expensive new shirt. Still looks good, yet there's that damned itchy thing.... We'll use the Bryce Method as usual, story-by-story thoughts and ratings:

The Courage Consort brings us the disintegration of people, relationships, and institutions over the course of a heavy, humid summer trip made by the five members of the titular consort to a country château in Belgium. They are there to prepare for the world premiere of an avant-garde composition by an enfant terrible composer. The piece is terrible, they all know it, but they are "serious" musicians and they sing a capella, so it's either whatever the vulture drops in front of them no matter how malodious or endless iterations of melodious but, well, shop-worn stuff like Sumer is icumen in. A person could go bonkers doing that one for a living.

Catherine Courage, our PoV character, is battling her way out of the gray, annihilating purposelessness of a serious depression, one senses not her first. She is married to the founder of the consort, she is one of the women whose experience of life is being controlled by men, and she is pretty well done with everything. We're given to understand that even her attempts at suicide are half-hearted. She's a gorgeous soprano, though, and an a capella group sans soprano is dire listening. As the Courage Consort is an avant-garde a capella group, I suspect I (and thousands like me) would find them dire listening at any time. Catherine is getting to that point herself:
Other people might think it was terribly exciting when two females singing in thirds made the airwaves buzz weirdly, but Catherine was finding that her nerves were no longer up to it. Even the way a sustained A-flat tended to make an auditorium's air-conditioning hum gave her the creeps lately. It was as if her face was being rubbed in the fact that music was all sound-waves and atoms when you stripped the Baroque wrapping paper off it.
But dig we must in this vale of tears, Catherine being an obedient consort hauls herself to Belgium for the rare luxury of two weeks' paid rehearsal time smack in the middle of nowhere much. No distractions. No shops, either. But oodles of nothingness is wonderful when rehearsing complicated music.

The thing about nothingness, as defined by city people, is that it's not nothingness but the absence of city. The country's a noisy place, usually; Catherine herself is unnerved by the silence of the country birds, where in London she's accustomed to birds shouting their fool heads off in the occasional city tree. More trees, fewer birds per tree; fewer roads, fewer pedestrians, fewer cars:
Nature meant the absence of people. It was a system set up to run without human beings, concentrating instead on the insensate and the eternal. Which was very relaxing now and then. But dangerous in the long run: darkness would fall, and there would be no door to close,
no roof over one's head, no blankets to pull up. One wasn't an animal, after all.
One is an animal, in point of fact, one is simply very bad at being a country animal. Like dogs and cats brought to the country are wildly curious and dash about sniffing before coming home for supper from the old familiar dish, Catherine begins to explore the Belgian forest. She's scared witless by a weird cry that she believes could be human; like a city cat, she's not equipped to figure out what it is in all likelihood. She and the city cat are having a lark. They're not gonna make it left to themselves, or at least most won't. Catherine wouldn't be among the survivalists starting civilization from scratch post-apocalyptically any more than Fluffy or Mittens would be in the barn hunting the rats.

But the rats can come indoors when it's human rats we're talking about. The can drive Porsches, wear tacky ostentatious clothes, and write terrible a capella music after stabbing their wife with a stiletto heel in the Milan airport. Their musical patron coming to the château to hear their rendition of his deathless opus leaves the entire consort enveloped in the choking fog of falseness. One of them, responding to the literal stink of the figurative stinker, takes action:
[He] was padding around the house like a bear, going from window to window, opening them all wide. It wasn't until he was opening the biggest, nearest window that his fellow Consort members noticed the whole château stank of the sort of perfume probably derived from scraping the scrotums of extremely rare vermin.
And that's Faber at his most Faberly. That kind of surface wit rumpled by barely concealed metaphor riding on a deeper structure of meaning is easy to read and pass by; but wait: The lumbering bear of a character, trapped inside the château to be forcibly trained to perform against his natural inclination attempts to make the miasma left by a pretentious macaque-faced poseur stop bothering him are obvious enough. Then look again. The big, fat bear-man quiet. He sings bass. His part in the composition being sung is compared often to the throaty chanting of Tibetan monks. He never does anything for himself, not cooking nor cleaning nor walking; yet he is always ready to work, always prepared in his admittedly uncomplicated part of the performance, always the one least riled by foolishness and most focused on the job. The quote above, in two sentences, is his purpose in the story's world wrapped in the Baroque paper referenced above. Faber likes doing that, giving his reader play-pretties that some will dismiss as brummagem, others will judge heavy handed, and some will see as pointers to the action to come and significators of the reason the story came to be in the first place.

The consort's process of atomizing in the wake of the scrotal scent-marking of the château accelerates; Catherine processes her depression more and more by living for her time feeding the bear-man and moving about in the woods that she still doesn't understand or trust but can't resist. She leaves her husband to his accustomed role of fixer, explainer, creator of images and maestro of the consort's musical identity. It's a desperate job of papering over cracks and slapping paint on plasterless brick walls. His contralto, previously Catherine's cicerone in the mysteries of flat paved roads leading through featureless obscure woods, focuses more and more on the primal job of feeding and tending her infant. His tenor, a raging horndog, furtles about the place seeking any distraction from his sexless state:
This morning, although she couldn't hear any identifiable television sounds filtering down into the kitchen, Catherine had a feeling it was probably still chattering away to Julian in his room, because the purity seemed to have been taken out of the silence somehow.
There was an inaudible fuzz, like the sonic equivalent of the haze from burning toast, obscuring Catherine's access to the acoustic immensity of the forest.
Julian's tenor is transmuted into the cosmic microwave background, both inescapable and inaudible, omnipresent and irrelevant to the foreground action...until he makes a discovery among the books there that is a major source of my mild disgruntlement with most of the Faber books I've read: A book of Massenet songs, pages uncut, that he finds and suggests they'd do better to sing from than the terrible piece they've been hired to premiere, is glancingly mentioned as probably containing forgotten works and never heard from again. The macaque-faced composeur (oo, I like that one), confronted at last by a technical flaw in his composition, makes what is apparently a token defense of himself and then the consort is allowed to do "whatever [they] like" for no apparent reason and without significant fireworks despite his brief appearance being a perfect set-up for a hissy-fit-throwing set piece...a few other let-downs, herrings painted reddish then allowed to swim back to the school, and we arrive at the tragedy inevitable from the moment our bear-man bass aired the place out. It's a nice piece of writing, a good story modest in scale and told with economy that would have benefited from just a bit more, or a minor bonsai shaping. Solid and attractive, like all good furniture.

The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps

The Fahrenheit Twins

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