Monday, February 23, 2015

Review of M.P. McVey's Plod On, Sleepless Giant (2015)

“Could the Maker have underestimated his own creation, Tyriano pondered. Could it be that Temelephas has learned to feel? Could it be, simply—that over time—this great elephant has taught himself to break his own nature? Tyriano’s face brightened as he
continued to explore all the possibilities.  “What could this lead to?” he asked.

All great fantasy/science-fiction novels must ask a question: that question could be simple, dismissed in a mere handful of pages, or it could be complex, requiring volume after volume to ferret out.  As the quote above suggests, M.P. McVey asks a big question in his first book, Plod On, Sleepless Giant.  What is the nature of the world as its been handed down to us?  Do we truly know why we know what we know?  Or even who we are?  By exploring this question from multiple perspectives (both semi-divine and painfully human), McVey not only presents us with a fabulous tale, but he makes us question the nature of stories themselves.  For to read is to come closer to knowing your place in the universe, however large or small; each book is a step closer toward the most profound knowledge of all.  This book might actually count for two or three steps, particularly if the reader takes time to savor the small details hidden along the way. 

Not surprisingly, McVey’s novel defies easy categorization, almost demanding its own subgenre of the science fiction/fantasy genre.  Without resorting to clichéd magicians speaking in hushed tones of Armageddon, McVey has created a truly magical world which teeters on the edge of disaster.  Though it combines elements of stories you might have heard before, with characters that seem (almost) familiar, McVey is able to weave his influences into a new garment that will fit every reader’s tastes.  It is a thinking man’s novel without sounding philosophic, yet the characters and ideas will stay with you long after you finish the novel (and ideally, read it again). 

The novel concerns our own world—or rather, the very “normal” world of Colmbus, Ohio—with people going about their daily lives and loves, unaware that beneath them all, the mighty elephant Temelephas  keeps the earth spinning through his prodigious labors.  The elephant was set in the motion by the Maker himself, and is dutifully overseen by the Watchers, along with their helpful assistants, the Minikins.  Temelephas is the perfect automaton, capable of enormous feats of strength, though unable to think, reason, or feel as a sentient creation.  As Tyriano, one of the Watchers recalls,““He feels nothing,” Tyriano’s teacher had told him then.“That was how the Maker designed him … to feel nothing, to know nothing, to remember nothing … he isn’t really alive at all.” Yet in a classic science-fiction twist, Temelephas’ ‘humanity’ is tested when the most incongruous interloper appears in his realm: an infant named Franklin.  His appearance sets the Underworld astir, even banishing Tibil, the Milikin blamed for Franklin’s intrusion, to live among the humans in disgrace.  There, like Temelephas, he begins to question his own personality, where “instead of being a spur to life … he could
simply be a part of it.” 

Without betraying any more of the plot, McVey cleverly interweaves the world of Columbus with the fantasy of Temelephas until each one resembles the other.  In many ways, the novel is reminiscent of a work like Gaiman’s American Gods, where sharply observed portraits of Midwestern Americana assume the power of myth, and the mythic elements seem all the more personable and homespun.  McVey has an intuitive understanding of character, finding a subtle way to make each of his creations express their unique inner life.  When Temelephas, for example, first encounters the infant, Franklin, McVey notes: “[Franklin] was asleep. Temelephas found himself feeling
something he had never felt before. It was an urge that suddenly came into being within him as he thought what only women are compelled to think in such situations. I just
want to hold it!”  It’s a touching moment when the machine, dismissed by Tyriano as a mindless automation, sees the intruder as something delicate rather than threatening.  There is no distinction between a “fantasy” character and a “real” character in McVey’s universe: each one speaks as we do, thinking our thoughts and exploring their world with the same frightened wonder that we behold a solar eclipse. 

His novel also borrows something from H.G. Wells, who was a master at balancing sharply observed, realistic characters in a world that was ever so slightly off.  In The Invisible Man, an uncanny visitor appears on the doorstep of a quaint, English village.  For McVey, his village is the various locales of Columbus, which he knows intimately yet makes his own, distinct universe.  The familiar lore and landmarks he evokes makes the story seem distressingly real, even when a Watcher or a Milikin ambles by.  His ear for dialogue, too, seems lifted straight from the streets of his hometown, making it hard to shake the spell that the fiction—for surely it must be fiction!—doesn’t have a small germ of truth in the center.  For example (a little spolier here), in the following passage McVey offers a unique interpretation of one of humanity’s most beloved and sacred mysteries:

“But, he was the Maker! Who could say no to him? He took off on his sabbatical, but was only supposed to be gone for a short while. He was to live one life here on Earth, then
straight back. That was the plan.”
“You mean Jesus?” Lily asked.
“Yes, that was the Maker,” Tyriano smiled. “But in the end, one life was not enough for him. He had to live more …live longer, do great things, and see the beautiful world he
built. From death to another birth … over and over again. He became an addict.”
“He never came back?”
“Not yet,” Tyriano said with a wink. “Not yet …

Fantasy?  Certainly.  Fiction.  Of course.  But it is delivered so artfully, and in such a dramatic point of the novel, that we find ourselves seduced by the seemingly impeccable logic of the idea.  Jesus was an addict!  In another work this might be a cheap conceit; in Plod On, Sleepless Giant, it knocks you over the head with its sincerity. 

A word of warning, however: this isn’t a “page turner,” or a “beach read,” or a “swashbuckler.”  It’s a work that demands to be read slowly and thoughtfully (though it is neither slow nor verbose), and approached on its own terms.  Allow the first few chapters to sink in and surrender yourself to the rhythms of his prose and fantasies of his imagination.  True, it lacks many of the familiar hallmarks of the genre, but upon closer observation you’ll find them all, hidden discreetly in the background.  Yet most important allow yourself to ask the questions the book asks itself, and which all great literature poses to the world.  In its small way, McVey’s novel is a philosophical odyssey, one that will lead younger readers to an entire world of possibility, and reward older readers with many hallmarks of previous literary expeditions. 

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