Enigmatic. Pyschotic. Brilliant. Disturbing.
Chaotic. Thought provoking. Engrossing.
Vellum by Hal Duncan.
Publishers Weekly describes Ink, the second half of The Book of All Hours, of which Vellum is the first, as “new-Joycean,” and if that is an apt description I may now be inclined to read Ulysses. Vellum, in its grandiose schizophrenic ambition, has the most astounding portrayal of a multitude of coexisting realities I think could ever be put to paper. From the multiple lives of the various incarnations of the major characters, of which it seems there are many, but in fact are only a few, to the multiple worlds, or aspects of our world, traversed, Duncan unequivocally succeeds in creating a view of all possible realities, which despite this tremendous success is actually just a gimmick for something much more interesting.
If this was not enough, it is a horribly thrilling story that, if it was not so convoluted, could easily be the stuff of popular film (or dare I say a comic book or graphic novel…which would indeed be a amazing format for this book to be adapted into). Part Constantine, part Blade Runner; part Da Vinci Code, part 2001; part Highlander, part The Red Violin (yes, The Red Violin), and several other stories and films of both high and low artistic merit. Vellum thrives in both the popular and high-minded , the lay and the initiated, the idiosyncratic and the mundane. It’s as obscure as it is familiar, though far more fresh than rehashed.
I just finished reading this novel literally three minutes ago and I absolutely needed to post about it. While perhaps not as moved as I was when I finished Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (my favorite book), I was ultimately profoundly altered by this novel and quite in awe (a similar reaction I had with Focault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, a novel which Vellum shares many glorious similarities with in my opinion).
Vellum isn’t a book I read in one sitting, though the last quarter kept me riveted this evening. Instead it is one that I have read on and off over the past month and a half due to being busy, but also because as a reader I really needed such breaks to wrap my head around the text. It starts out so trivial, almost another of the many post-Da Vinci Code pseudo-intelligent occult mumbo-jumbo wielding adventure novels. A college student with a family history linked to some mythical tome seeks said tome admist conspiracy and such. Within twenty pages such comparisons to prurient attempts at “writing” and “literature” are smashed to pieces and what emerges from the wreckage of those faulty notions is, if not a masterpiece, a damn wicked piece of fantasy, science fiction, speculative fiction, philosophical rambling, literature.
Vellum is, above all else, a study of humanity; of good and evil, of angels and demons; and of the history of such things. But it is how Duncan engages this study, through a reworking of universal myths from across the spectrum of human history, and drags them into a new light, a new purpose, or perhaps, their original purpose. To go into this deeper would be to ruin so much of the sheer power and joy of reading the novel, so I will leave the myths for you to explore on your own. It is enough to say that there are vicious cycles at play within the novel, and as a reader (once you begin to understand Duncan’s mischievously genius style of writing) you can see those cycles and make the connections across time and reality that Duncan is proposing. Fascinating.
And the narrative structure! Returning to the idea of being awestruck in the creation of coexisting alternate realities…it would not have been possible, or as successful, if Duncan was not so wonderfully skilled at writing. One scene could be described in several different existences and times, with wholely different settings and narrative voice, and you are left feeling that you’ve actually seen nearly the whole picture (because you understand that there are many more realties and reiterances of this scenario taking place simulatenously and throughout time and space) in a way that, for me, was unlike anything I’ve ever read before, but definitely captured perfectly a sense of the world Duncan has created. The Vellum: the fabric upon which all of reality is written.
I think it easy to say that I recommend this book. It’s not an easy read, but a rewarding one. I feel altered having read it, my graving changed.
Oh, and Jack Flash rocks. Keen.