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The Anti-Lewis

I try to read everything. I do, especially if it gets good reviews and sounds like my favorite kind of literature, which is lengthy narrative (I also love ancient history, scholarly reads but that’s another subject). From The Iliad to Harry Potter, I’ve read them all. Recently, I’ve been on another reading kick (it comes in waves, bear with me) and finally got around to reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I’d heard of it and had kept it in mind to read when I got to it. On my last reading kick I got stuck at Eoin Colfer and stayed there until the kick passed. It sounded a little science fictiony to me and I don’t like that so I went with the Colfer books first. During the last week, after reading two Philippa Gregory books, I read it. So what did I think? For starters, books don’t often make me write a blog post about them so there’s a hint. But I also have some deep qualms about them.

Here’s a review on Amazon.com that I found and I think I’ll start with that. It’s by a reader Talia:

After reading the trilogy, I was left wondering what the hell happened? I have just read all 3 of the His Dark Materials trilogy and what was a strong start in book 1 and 2 is utterly demolished in this clunker.

Pullman allowed his eagerness to bash religion to completely destroy an engaging story – one of the most creative stories I’ve come across in 20 years of reading fantasy. There isn’t even a remote chance of a sequel to fix up this mess. If you look up `anticlimax’ in the dictionary, you’ll see a picture of this book. From first page to last, time is wasted on boring characters, while all the good ones are either killed off, or just MIA for the entire book. Spoilers ahead.

What about Lyra and her parents? Somehow, she never knows what happened to them and after all she has been through is supposed to be content with going back to school like a good little girl? She never even confronts them to try and understand their motivations. And Will just goes back with Mary Malone to her apartment so they can figure out how to avoid the cops. Over a cup of tea, naturally. And that’s it for him.

In addition to all that, this book doesn’t even seem to be connected to the first two. None of the characters resonate they way they used to and instead of being good friends, Will and Lyra fall in love and have sex at the tender age of 11 or 12 . . . all in the last 30 pages. What happened to the story, for cripes sake?! And what happened to the `temptation’? Was choosing not to stay with Will her way of not succumbing to it? The whole premise is just so lame to start out with. As an earlier reviewer pointed out all the windows that were opened for centuries didn’t endanger the universe, why not leave one open for 60 or 70 years to give Lyra and Will a chance to know each other. The flimsy reasoning behind this is just as contrived as their sudden and immediate love for one another. Supposedly, they had more than gonads going for them, they survived death together!
Pullman didn’t feel like thinking it through, he just wanted a gut wrenching ending. In addition to that, he wanted to mock the reader by taunting us with the `reality’ of knowing that nothing they did in the trilogy has any hope or meaning. All of Will and Lyra’s efforts are futile, kind of like – guess what? religion for the rest of us morons.

After having the reader go through endless pages on the mulefa-elephant aliens or whatever, ultimately the characters the reader wants to know about disappear with barely a whimper. Iorek Byrnison, Lee Scoresby – instead we get page after page about Mary Malone the Disaffected former Nun. Pullman all but pants in his eagerness to give the finger to anyone of us who believes in Him or anything for that matter!

This is NOT children’s literature, it’s a hate ridden manifesto that is more suitable for adults who at least have some way of maintaining some sort of perspective throughout this sloppy mess. It’s totally dishonest to sell this as a children’s book, or even as a competent work of fiction. All of the painstaking work of the first two books is undone with this one.

We never get closure on Lyra’s parents.
We never really understand what Dust is and where it comes from.
We never see Will reunited with his mother.
We get a lame battle where `god’ dies and no one even knows why or how.
Lyra and Will fall in love, but have to `sacrifice’ it so that all the windows to other worlds can be shut forever, with only flimsy reasoning behind it.
The mulefa and Mary Malone’s work together amounts to nothing, everyone just goes home. Presumably, Will goes home, although we never see it. All that yearning after his mother and so forth . . .nothing.
The major enemies are killed off too easily – and what about Armageddon? What happened to the Fortress and all the rebel angels and . . .you get the idea. It all just sort of disovles.
Mary forgot to be the Serpent, or else I missed that in one of the countless pages on the mulefa.

Another reader pointed out:
” Phillip Pullman could have written a masterpiece with this series. Instead, the story falls flat under the weight of the author’s own agendas and mockeries. What a waste of time. I can’t believe this book actually won awards. It stopped being thought-provoking and started being inane and silly.”

It would have been better if Lyra had just awakened one morning and it was all a dream. Instead, relearning how to read the alethiometer will somehow enable her to build the Kingdom of Heaven in the course of her lifetime. Absurd.

This was one of the most disappointing and infuriating reads of my life.

Yes, I had to quote the whole thing. I agree with just about every word. I’ve already expressed on this self-same blog that I hate when good coffee shops go bad. And that’s just coffee shops. I hate even more, in the deepest marrow of my being, when I see something creative that could have been so good go bad. I hate it. It’s against everything I value. And this was one of those moments, the second I read the last page of the third and final book.

There’s an Irish proverb that advises to “Never let truth get in the way of a good story” and for Philip Pullman, he does just that. He allows his story to unravel and instead become an anti-God, anti-Church, atheist diatribe. The story comes to a screeching halt just as it should be speeding up and there’s page after page of slow, boring exposition that turns out to have very little to do with anything else. If he wanted to go on about why he hates God and religion and all that, fine, but write an essay or two. He allows it to get in the way of his story and it all but kills it. I’ve heard Pullman calls C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia a Christian manifesto, but with The Amber Spyglass he makes the same mistake Lewis did with The Last Battle and allows his agenda to crush his story.

And it doesn’t stop there. He also commits some poor storytelling blunders. While in real life, some things are never resolved and not all motivations are explained and closure doesn’t happen, that’s life. This is fiction. Fiction has to make sense in some way otherwise it sounds made-up. Here it sounds made-up with plot strings and characters abandoned just to allow him more room to rant on against God and Church like a loon at Marble Arch. The things that bothered me the most was Lyra never learning in real-time what happened to her parents. In The Golden Compass the stories she tells the gypsies’ children are full of references to her powerful father and she’s lived in fear throughout the series of her mother. At the end, she simply forgets to ask about them?! Please. It’s absurd from the characters’ perspective and a massive blunder from the storyteller’s perspective. Pullman fails to show respect for one of his prime villains and who should be one of his prime heros. In the scene itself at the abyss, there’s an odd point of view problem. Neither one of the children are there and the scene is told through Marisa Coulter’s perspective. Right? If so, the narrative should refer to her as Marisa and him as Asriel, not the proper titles the children’s point of views would use. It shows no sympathy or respect, furthermore, it should be at or near the climax and instead is near page 400 of a 500 page book. Mercy, please!

The whole battle is anticlimactic and Pullman treats it as a futile aside. Granted, the battle’s already started when the children arrive and since they’re the protagonists, the main narrative must follow them. Instead of joining in the action or being near the nerve center of the action which Lyra’s own father is supposed to be spearheading, the two kids, who by this time we’ve heard to the nth degree that they’re so valuable for this, wander off to find their pets as if this were a church picnic and not the greatest moment in human history characters have been saying it is. Furthermore, the God character who by Pullman’s thought must be this great enemy just fades away without a whimper. If he’s so easy to defeat, why didn’t someone do it earlier? Why is their resistance movement great then? The villain must be great if the hero is to be admirable. It all kinds of fades into the background like it doesn’t matter, and if it doesn’t matter, why should I, the reader, care? Why did I just read 1300 pages? Give me back the 4 days of my life I just lost.

Another annoying plot thread that just kind of disappears is the knife. A witch overheard one of the cliff ghasts saying Asriel’s rebellion is doomed to failure if he doesn’t have the knife. He never gets the knife nor does the knife have any role in the battle at all. So does his rebellion fail? Does it matter? Things seem pretty peaceful when Lyra gets back home as if a war of the worlds didn’t just happen. If it just happened, things would be much different. If it didn’t happen and it was on a scale of a playground fight rather than the greatest moment in human history then Philip Pullman just lied to me and I don’t care about anything else he has to say. Dear writers, this is not what you want your readers to think. This so-called rebellion against the angel who would be God comes off like an overhyped joke and the problem with Dust appears to be some Italianesque guys getting a little overenthusiastic with a knife. That’s it. That’s IT.

The last thing I’ll pick over is the very, very end when Lyra and Will must separate forever because an angel said so. Firstly, they’re in love. That was the “temptation”? If the idea of thirteen-year-olds being in love forever and ever and ever just like that doesn’t crack you up, it must be making you cry with this feeblest of hooks that Pullman’s based his epic on and years and years of his life. If closing the doors would make the Dust not leave, why didn’t that angel Xena or whatever her name is say so in the first place. Did all those people have to die? If closing the doors is all they have to do, but that’s easy, as Sir Robin said. This could have ended 800 pages ago. And Lyra and Will are going to accept it just like that even with them being all in love and all even if they just saved all the universes. If they didn’t save all the universes, then what was the point. Asriel and Marisa should have been the protagonists, then. And leaving one more little door open after thousands have been open for centuries is going to make all that much of a difference just so Pullman can have the ending he wants is ludicrous. Actually, the word is “contrived.”

Why do I go on like this? Why do I pick over point-of-view problems in a published and successful book? Why do I write a long blog post on a work night? Why do I do these things and behave in these ways? Because it’s good. It’s only so sad and such a shame only because the whole of The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife are extraordinary in spite of their anti-God, anti-Church agenda. It just comes apart at the end and it’s a tragedy. U2 should never rerecord POP but Pullman needs to rewrite The Amber Spyglass. Someone needed to edit this. Frighteningly, Hollywood may do a better job.

The characters are strong and brave when they have to be but they’re broken only as good characters can be. Pullman’s imagination runs rampant and he has skill with turning a phrase. How good and evil coexist in a single character is profoundly refreshing, especially in young adult literature where that never happens. I loved how Lyra’s family doesn’t present as a saccharine family unit. You get the parents you’re dealt and it’s more clear here than in any other young adult book I’ve ever read. Asriel and Marisa’s freckled history and complicated relationship is one of the series’ greatest strengths. Details from Pantalaimon and daemons to the little people that attack with spurs on their heels are scattered throughout in a book world Pullman owns for two and a half books. I liked how Lyra’s world was like and yet unlike Will’s. It was an odd difference, enough so they’d have something to teach each other but similar enough so it would be believable that they’d understand each other enough to become best friends. Real sacrifices are made and felt and valued. People don’t just trip and bump and elbow. They die and fight and grieve so others might live. That’s what you do in war and covering it up like how it’s done in practically all Disney movies is a disservice to children everywhere. The books are full of real tragedy, real adventure, and real friendship. If only the problems that plague it hadn’t gotten in the way. If only!

There was too much on science and talk of elementary particles and physics, things I neither enjoy or understand (and if I did want to learn about them, I’d get myself a real journal or textbook, not a fiction book). Mary Malone and the whole stupid elephant-people story line almost put me to sleep. Reading that was almost like reading Hugo’s Les Miserables and wading through 60 pages on argot. It brought the action to a screeching halt and I still fail to see what was her use as a character and what the amber spyglass was actually supposed to do. It didn’t merit a chapter heading, much less a book’s title.

I don’t have a problem with Pullman’s position on God and religion. I only have a problem with how he beat it over the head until it was senseless and dead and pounded into the earth. He had an opportunity to open up a dialog, a discussion, a rational debate (and he claims to be so fond of reason and consciousness) and instead comes off like the equivalent of a Bible-belt Fundamentalist zealot. There’s no reason of conscious in that. It sounds foolish and quaint. He’s become what he beheld by the end of the last book. I believe what I believe and no book of fiction or rantings of a madman will change my mind. Yet, by the end of The Subtle Knife, it was disturbing me, in a good way, in a debate sort of way. The fear that nothing happens when we die and it’s all for naught is really the number one fear, isn’t it. It wasn’t long into the first book, that I felt that prickly feeling of, “What do mean by that? What do you mean?” But then it all comes tumbling down and Pullman disappears, crushed under his own self-importance. Dostoyevsky he’s not. He’s just a nutjob and I don’t argue with nutjobs. It’s only a shame he ruined a perfectly good trilogy on the way.

The first movie comes out in December, just in time for Christmas. We’ll see how they water this down for mass consumption. They’ve already cast two very blonde actors for the supposedly dark and inscrutable parents of Lyra Belacqua.

One Response to “The Anti-Lewis”

  1. 1
    Reactionary » The Month of Harry:

    [...] I just hope I don’t have to post about how much I hated the ending in two weeks, like I did about His Dark Materials. Endings can be great or terrible. I hope this one does the rest of the narrative justice. I hate [...]

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