Thursday, March 7, 2013

Black

One of my relatives recommended this to me a few years go, and I'm glad that I finally got around to it. I've read some of Dekker's work before and had mixed opinions, so it was interesting to go back to one of his best-known works.



Rating: 2 stars
Length: 408 pages in trade paperback
Publication: February 11, 2004 from Thomas Nelson
Premise: Thomas Hunter has been living a normal life as a coffee shop employee when his past catches up to him and he's chased by several gunmen. When a bullet nicks his head, he wakes from unconsciousness into a dark forest....but soon manages to leave it behind for the glowing and peaceful world across the bridge. Whenever he falls asleep in one reality, he wakes up in the other, and two worlds may be leaning on his actions.
Warnings: no-gore civilian deaths, quite a few people getting shot
Recommendation: If you love the Narnia series in part for its allegorical look at goodness and Christianity, you might enjoy this as well. If not, the unsubtle nature of the narrative may make it difficult to finish.

 What makes this complex and full of potential:

Ted Dekker's real strength here is in his novel's premise. Thomas Hunter in many ways ordinary, though he borrowed money from the wrong dangerous people a few years ago to help his family and has been trying to hide ever since. When his moneylenders catch up to him, he's shot and falls off a building, only to wake up in Rainbow Narnia a world where good and evil express themselves in concrete and visible ways. This world is divided by a fast-flowing river: on one side lies the black forest, filled with the Shataiki (giant evil bats). On the other, people live peacefully in the colored forest-- the trees glow like gems, their fruit has amazing healing powers, and no one has to know sorrow or fear. Whenever Thomas falls asleep or is knocked unconscious in one reality, he wakes up in the other. The timelines are spaced well, since the same amount of time doesn't pass in each world. If he takes a one-hour nap, he can spend a few days in the other reality before he falls asleep and returns only an hour after his waking mind left. The constant mental effort starts to exhaust him in both realities, but it's a great narrative mechanic, especially when Thomas starts to realize that the realities are woven together in ways that aren't obvious at first.

People in one reality sometimes mirror people in the other, and events seem to lean on each other. In one reality, Thomas is trying to contact Monique de Raison, representative of a pharmaceutical research company, prevent the release of a deadly virus that could wipe out most of humanity. In the other, he's told to ignore his dreams of his own time-- to the people of that world, his dreams are the histories, events from many years ago that led to their current blissful world, and they can do nothing but upset him. Billions of people died in the Great Deception and the ensuing wars, and now the world is divided into the green forest and the black forest, visible good and evil. Our own earth is distant to them, either an ancient memory or another part of reality, and they're reluctant to give Thomas information about how that world ended. He, of course, is determined to save innocents and loved ones from the disease, even if it means seeking information in the black forest. The Roush, white bats who serve and represent Elyon (creator of the world), warn him to stay away from the deceiving Shataiki, but they also refuse to give him information that would help him understand the nature of the threat. Thomas ventures close to the Shataiki and thus to the potential doom of the world: if a human ever drinks the water in the black forest, the Shataiki can ravage the whole planet.

This balance of temptations could be used to better effect, but the way the realities play off each other is often interesting. Objects obviously don't transfer, but Thomas can take skills and information between realities; as he tries to learn thing to solve the problem, he begins to realize that his own actions are playing into the very crisis he is trying to prevent. Furthermore, his knowledge of his own world, particularly weapons and wars, stands to harm the green forest. Tanis, firstborn of the innocent human race in the green forest, has long cherished dreams of making war against the Shataiki to cleanse the world. The green forest, however, is so safe that he does not even truly have a conception of what weapons ought to look like-- this goal been mostly restlessness until he meets Thomas, whose knowledge of the histories might make them actually possible. It's interesting to watch the way Dekker portrays the characters in both realities as being largely well-meaning despite their mistakes-- villains in one reality want to spread a virus, and in the other the Shitaiki want to destroy the world, but people outside those small groups tend to be petty at worst. Dekker does a strong job of making his characters suffer the consequences of their actions, regardless of the intention behind those actions. It draws the plots together, making the characters simultaneously innocent and complicit in their own ordeals.

The red pen:

Some of the tension between realities fades because the reader is a little too aware of the lies. The Shataiki, not to put too fine a point on it, are giant mindless black bats who introduced themselves by trying to chew Thomas's legs off. Their leader, Teeleh, has beautiful blue and gold wings and speaks deeply persuasive words-- he's full of lies, but he claims to just want to give people knowledge. Pat yourself on the back when it becomes obvious that by offering tainted fruit and water, he's a dead ringer for the snake in the Garden of Eden (for some readers, this may be before he actually gets to talk). This makes the whole subplot about amnesiac Thomas (he can't remember his past life in the green forest) allegedly actually being from a spaceship....kind of moot. Thomas agonizes over it a little and Teeleh tries to sell the point, but it's just dead space; when the reader is given puzzle pieces like "he is the deceiver," it's hard to do anything but ask why characters keep giving self-congratulatory internal monologues about how they and they alone can resist Teeleh's lies while pulling information out of him.

The world of the green and black forests had the potential to be an intriguing place. Good and evil find material expressions, but that concept isn't explored as well as it could be. Thomas observes that these people seem to feel desire without dissatisfaction, and that removes the possibility of them having impulses that could manifest with physical consequences. Half of the world is dark and black and tainted, half the world and green and glowing and pretty, and it seems to end there. Yes, it's a fairly obvious Garden of Eden parallel, but characters express frustration or jealousy in ways that could easily spill over into evil if left unchecked. Since the Roush (white bats who are the clear angelic parallel) are ordered not to interfere, it seems like people might have edged themselves closer to temptation of the centuries. Instead, they practice the Great Romance, which is without a doubt the aspect that led this book closest to being pitched at the nearest wall-- this whole theme is dull at best and hideously awkward at worst. 

At first, it's not bad: people express their love for their creator, Elyon, by imitating that love in their romantic relationships. Women choose a man, and that man pursues and rescues her as a form of courtship. The problem is in the execution, which consists of things like playing elaborate games of fighting imaginary bats and putting on faux-archaic modes of speech that seem Shakespearean but originate from nowhere because this world has never had an Elizabethan era and everyone speaks bland modern English. Thomas courts Rachelle, a woman who finds him injured near the black forest and pours healing water on him because being in love with an unconscious stranger is romantic or something.They're both encouraged by Michal and Gabil, members of the Roush who seem determined to pile on ever-more-melodramatic dialogue about Thomas's need for love. People in this world love easily and painlessly, which....sounds nice, but love tends to find it strength by being tested and strained over time, and these people have literally no adversity or obstacles. They sing and dance and eat fruit, worship Elyon every day-- they are happy, unquestionably, but they seem so half-formed as people that it's hard to care what happens to them.

Thomas himself is about as subtle as the romance he tries to embrace, and hits a problem that's unfortunately common to fate-of-the-world fantasy books: I've addressed it before in regard to The Warded Man and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. In short, telling the audience that the main character is wise, noble, appealing, and seriously respectable on a worldwide stage is no substitute for showing it. Thomas is undeniably quick at thinking on his feet and dedicated to helping his sister Kara as they try to stop the virus, but he can also display the maturity of a small child when he's talking to people who he needs to listen to him. If people put up roadblocks, he resorts to things like shouting at secretaries and insulting powerful people-- there's sometimes a place for his methods, and it's hard not to applaud some of his distractions, but once he has a foot in the door, he seems to see himself as naturally belonging in a position of power even when he has minimal understanding of the situation.

I was going to get somewhat unkind unkind concerning Dekker's utter lack of allegorical subtlety and borrowing of Narnia imagery; then I wrote three paragraphs and realized that things were getting incoherent. This is not due to dislike of Christian fiction, but rather a childhood love for C.S. Lewis's gentle-but-sincere way of writing interesting books that also conveyed his beliefs. The book might do better if it was explicitly marketed in Christian fiction and Thomas had a more fully-explored struggle with faith in our own reality, but I keep finding it in the fantasy section, and the religious-teaching aims tend to sap the tension or over-steer the plot in places that don't work unless you're going into it specifically for the spiritual overtones. Lewis is extraordinary for blending the two, normally dropping the heavy "hey look I was a lamb a second ago and now I'm Aslan the lion again, try looking for me in your world" hints right at the end of a volume and keeping them brief. Dekker, by contrast, insists on slamming them down throughout the book. Elyon's first appearance is as a sad boy with his hand on a giant white lion.

When Thomas talks to Elyon and asks which reality is real, his response is "Is the Creator a lamb or a lion?" followed by some rambling about how they're both true and both metaphors. It might be excusable if this was a more adult quest to seek Elyon's elusive presence, but the green forest is centered around a giant lake full of glowing healing water-- when Thomas dives in, Elyon sings about how he loves Thomas and asks why he doubts. This isn't elusive: if anything, the raw emotional overload feels like coercion to believe. Thomas is sobbing with the intensity of it, and the conversation pretty much goes "I'm Elyon, and I made everything, so why do you doubt me?" One conversation with Teeleh features the narrator for that section going on about how cunning and logical Teeleh is after he's just made a specious argument about how he can't be using trickery: he just has more knowledge, and thus more truth. It's difficult to not shout "HELLO HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF LIES" at the book at this point; this level of lazy conversation does a disservice to crises of faith, not to mention narrative integrity. The Satan-figure can't triumph via actual arguments, so he has evil hypno-music and fruit that makes his arguments seem actually credible to anyone over the age of four, and that's honestly a little depressing given how tense the book can be in flashes.

None of this even touches the aspects of the story that straight-up do not make sense. Tanis knows elaborate martial arts kicks and moves because he invented them, despite never having fought the Shataiki or even done more than light sparring with a few of his students. Thomas decides to try to warn the CDC about the virus, which is sensible, but then he tells the truth: in short, "some bats told me about it in a dream." He is trying to prevent the death of billions and still chooses that truth over a halfway convincing lie like "I heard two guys in a shady bar, and one of them said that he had taken bribes to weaponize a virus-- please look into this just in case it's real?" And stop me from going on about the ridiculousness of Thomas not practicing martial arts for five years and then deciding to defend himself against a knife fighter by launching a roundhouse kick to the man's head. Hint: at that level, your leg is fully extended out and your thigh is right up next to your opponent. This means that your femoral artery is right there at....call it elbow level, maybe, while your opponent has a knife and is flailing around with that hand untouched to defend against your strike to his chin. To put it gently, this is not smart, particularly when your fighting reflexes have five years of rust on them. That rounds up the three most blatantly bizarre ones, but rest assured that there are more.

All in all, Dekker takes a good idea and some strong source material via C.S. Lewis and manages to flop around in extra details and adulation of the main character until it's fairly difficult to care whether any of the characters live or die. A few of Dekker's other books have been all right, so I may keep an eye on what he does next, but I'm not paying for it-- luck of the library draw will have to do here.

Prospects: This is the first book in the Circle series. The final book, Green, came out in 2009.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Just go back and read C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and proceeding in the original series order, not this newer chronological rubbish. Lewis makes the allegory and choices charming rather than heavy-handed.
~If you enjoy Dekker's style specifically, his novel Blink hits several of Black's strong points without getting quite so bogged down in religious truth. There is one deeply awkward scene of characters praying to Allah and then to the Christian God to see who's real/helpful, but for the most part, the pacing and mechanic of seeing many possible futures at once carries the plot forward beautifully. 
~For an actually persuasive Lucifer figure, trying Diane Duane's Young Wizards series. Her Lone Power is arrogant, smooth, and beautifully flawed-- this series is technically aimed at middle- or high-school students, but it does a more mature and graceful job of addressing ethics and sacrifice than Dekker's adult work possibly can.

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