It’s been said that this is the age of the mash-up: of art formed from the fusion of other works of art. A film like The Avengers blends together characters from five other movies. Fan-fiction interrogates texts we thought we knew, crossing characters from one tale over into another. At an extreme, a work like Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen imagines a world where every character derives from some other source, comes from some other story; imagines a world where all stories overlap and so make a strange collective setting. In fact, though, this is really nothing new. Crossovers, it has been said, date back to Homer writing of heroes coming together to fight the Trojan War. And League of Extraordinary Gentlemen-style mash-ups have precedents as well; I have not read Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld books, nor have I read John Kendrick Bangs’ Associated Shades novels, which date back to the 1890s, but I have read John Myers Myers’ 1949 novel Silverlock, and came away from it with a few thoughts.
Silverlock imagines a Commonwealth of Letters inhabited by the world’s great fictional characters. Into this Commonwealth comes one A. Clarence Shandon, gifted with a white streak in his hair from which he’s nicknamed ‘Silverlock.’ A former business student, Shandon’s completely ignorant of books and literature, so does not fully realise into what sort of land he has fallen: a land where every character, every name, comes from fiction or mythology. The book follows Shandon through the Commonwealth, as he is forced to learn and grow in the course of a three-part journey.
The book is greatly beloved by some. My copy has essays by Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, and Jerry Pournelle praising it to the skies. For myself, I enjoyed it, with reservations. It’s a fun book, but I couldn’t help but feel that Myers bit off more than he could chew — or, perhaps, that the idea was setting up greater expectations (as it were) than he or anybody could fulfill. Still, the book did seem to me to be worth writing about, because whether or not it’s wholly successful in itself, it raises a host of interesting questions about the nature of fictional characters, and how they work, and how we read them, and how these things may change in time.
A few more words about the book before going on. It begins with Shandon shipwrecked in strange waters. Bobbing about in the waves, he meets a man named Golias — named many other things as well; Golias is a kind of universal bard, named for great singers from across a range of cultures. Together, the two men are washed up on an island, then make their way to the mainland, where they’re separated. Shandon finds his way, through a series of misadventures, back to Golias, who is waiting at the hall called Heorot. That’s the first section of the book. The second follows Shandon and Golias as they try to help a friend of Golias’, Lucias Gil Jones (a mixture of Lucian, writer of The Golden Ass, with Gil Blas and Fielding’s Tom Jones). That turns into a strange picaresque adventure; by the end, Shandon’s been charged by an oracle to go to a spring called Hippocrene, the source of poetic inspiration. To reach it, he has to make a voyage through the underworld, which turns out to be a moralising and somewhat didactic passage.
From the outline, you can tell that the story owes something to Dante. It’s in three parts, like The Divine Comedy, and it’s about a soul’s growth in spiritual understanding. Characters tend to represent stages in that growth, or at least are taken as such by Shandon. Shandon himself is 35 at the start of the book, exactly halfway through a life of threescore years and ten. And Golias, a more-or-less constant companion in the first two parts of the book, like Virgil, essentially leaves Shandon for the third.
It’s a casual resemblance, though. Golias does make a climactic return, as is the way of these things. You could say that the resemblance to Dante is just another aspect of the book’s insistence on references — it’s not just that the characters all come from other places (sometimes combined in odd portmanteaus like Lucius Gil Jones), but events are shaped by the rhythms of story. Events begin in summer, and follow the seasons back around to spring. In the Commonwealth, “everything always comes from the east and goes west,” Golias tells us. It becomes difficult to tell where the allusions stop. When Golias and Shandon, washed ashore, kill and eat a goat, is that a reference to tragedy, which takes its name from goat-song?
This all may sound complex, but the tone of the book is nothing of the kind. It’s smooth postwar commercial writing, not unlike good genre fiction. It’s easy and efficient, if occasionally clunky due to a straining after-effect. At best, though, it’s genuinely epigrammatic: “‘A man,’ he observed, ‘can carry almost everything he really needs in his mind except food and pants.’” Shandon’s voice is sometimes almost aggressively of his time:
As I took stock of the wilderness by daylight, I was all the more impressed by what she had done. With no observable equipment she had come into the woods and made herself at home like a sourdough. Then she had deliberately set out to sift big timber for her man.
Amusingly, not just Shandon, but all the characters he meets speak in that same voice. It points up one of the real pleasures of the book: the incongruity of it. That’s not just a question of style, but a function of the characters he runs into, one after another, making odd juxtapositions: stumbling across the Mad Hatter’s tea party before finding Heorot. Having Faustus point out Anna Karenina in hell.
There are limits to the book’s inventiveness, though. To start with, Myers avoids bringing most modern literature into his Commonwealth, which mostly seems pre-industrial — eighteenth-century, say, so feeling like something out of Swift or Voltaire. There’s an interesting passage in which Shandon sees a modern city from a distance, identified by Golias as the “New Purchase,” filled for the moment by squatters, some of whom will become permanent residents after “Annexation Day.” It’s a nice implication, suggesting that the Commonwealth is in a constant process of expansion. But it also points up the old-fashioned feel of much of the rest of the book.
If the incongruity of tone at its best creates a distinct feel for the book, that same tone sometimes fails the story. Much of the book is concerned with Shandon’s development as a character, from a deadened, insensitive lout to something very like a poet. The last third of the book is explicitly concerned with his moral development. But I found myself unconvinced that the development the book described was the necessary way to Hippocrene (as it seemed to imply). Surely the Commonwealth is large enough to contain a variety of perspectives and points of view; but as depicted by Myers, it’s under the control of a godlike figure, the Delian — Apollo. This is odd, insofar as Apollo’s counterpart Dionysus is not mentioned, that I could see.
There’s an odd tension in the book, too: Shandon’s built up as a character in the first two parts, then is broken down and rebuilt in part three. There’s a point to that: the first two parts create him as an adventurer, while the third must recast him as a poet. But the whole process suggests an implicit conflict: the wandering in the woods, and the free and easy picaresque of part two, in contrast with the stricter, narrower way of part three. I think the book’s more at home with the picaresque, which fits more neatly with the tone of the book; much of part three is cod-philosophy and a series of undramatic exhibits, as if the book itself resisted the need for Shandon to be mechanically ‘built up.’
It probably doesn’t help that the characters in the book generally are simple, often allegorical. Even Shandon feels too simple to be credible. He changes too easily, and for reasons too easily articulated. The images of life and literature are broad and easy, suggesting that these things are not really understood, that their depths have not been plumbed. The real values of heroic literature — of Beowulf or Gawaine and the Green Knight — are used in facile ways, almost nostalgically, presenting facile answers to implied complexities. The book’s own morality is confused in its implications. Shandon and Golias help Lucius Gil Jones get his girl; but Jones is no faithful lover, cheating on her, then blaming her for driving him to the cheating. It’s fine to have a story of scoundrels on the road, but it’s pushing things to take a scoundrel’s claims of love at his own evaluation. It’s even more difficult to square the picaresque with the moralising bildungsroman; how do you go from wastrel to austere poet? And why? It’s not as if scoundrel poets have been unknown.
As I say, the book feels more at home on the road, following rogues (or figures like rogues) on madcap adventures. The third section lacks the art to make its flat philosophising feel convincing. When Shandon meets Job, for example, Myers’ skill with words fails him; the prophet spouts doggerel. The bracing irreverence Shandon displayed earlier in the book deserts him here, and that change is not convincing. It’s necessary for what Myers wants, though, so that when Shandon’s shown the Void, the source of all things, he doesn’t brush it off. In fairness, there is a point to that; Shandon doesn’t turn away from the Commonwealth, does not return to mundanity. He’s changed that much. But the change doesn’t feel organic. It’s a contrivance, and if contrivance is inherent to fiction, good fiction still hides it.
It’s not that the contrivance doesn’t serve the theme. The problem is that it states the theme too directly. On his way to Hippocrene, Shandon’s guided through hell by Faustus, who has himself become a tempter, Faustopheles. The temptation is to abandon hope in meaning, to accept the nihilism that is the enemy of creation; the story slows down as Faustus shows Shandon a variety of tableaux to try to make his point about the meaningless of the world, until at the very bottom of all things, in Milton’s Pandemonium, Shandon finds salvation. It appears the rebel arch-nihilists are still bound by some code of law, which isn’t really a counter-argument so much as a statement of unsupported belief. Much as Myers seems to be grappling with the issues animating modernism and modern literature, his solution’s a cheat — which is acceptable for a fiction if the cheat’s done well. I don’t find that the case here. There’s an absence of sublimity, which anyway would be out of keeping with the rest of the book. Shandon moves on his way, his beliefs whole.
Silverlock ends up as an enjoyable book, but one that can’t really pull off its implicit promise. It’s not a bad effort, feeling at its best almost Swiftian in its invention. Oddly, part of the flaw is itself a kind of archetypal literary flaw: an author attempting to impose a morality on his work, an excess of consciousness.
But over and above the book’s worth as a story, I think it suggests a few interesting things about the nature of story, and what it is we read for. It’s possible that I’m not the book’s ideal reader, in that these days I find I tend to read less for character and more for the sake of language. Silverlock, by its nature, is about the experience of character. It’s not unlike fan-fiction, playing with characters as though summoning spirits. There’s something almost talismanic in the way Robin Hood and Don Quixote and all the rest appear; as though in themselves they ward off the ennui of the Void.
But if that’s true, I think it’s also true that the book is less interested in the complexities and contradictions of great characters than in their best-known actions and aspects. That word ‘iconic,’ lately much-overused and abused, is perhaps applicable here. The book is interested in that mythic aspect of character; implicitly, its argument is that what makes a character distinctive is not its contradictions, not its subtleties, but its superficialities.
I think the result’s a mixed bag. Mythic or heroic characters come across clearly and well. More detailed characters, like Becky Crawley née Sharp, are given minor roles and never really come alive. That’s a reasonable choice, given what Myers is doing and perhaps given the limitations of the awareness of his narrator; but it does impose a limit on the book, a cap on the variety of the Commonwealth. It flattens out the land of literature.
And Myers’ depiction of the Commonwealth is already flattened by his use of a single voice to present it. Now, on the one hand, depicting characters by that one voice is appropriate, in that books are read by a single reader and so mediated by one consciousness. On the other, characters are made out of words; to have Hamlet speak in modern English is not to have Hamlet. But then, not all the characters are English. Again, Myers concentrates on the mythic — on that which translates, across times and language and cultures.
Which brings up the question of the selection of stories Myers uses. It has to be said that it’s more multicultural than one might have expected from the time. There are mentions made of Chinese and Japanese and Indian stories. But it’s also true that the core of the story, and the majority of the references, derive from the Western and Anglophone tradition. So the Commonwealth feels narrower than it might. And with the stories come, frankly, a certain amount of baggage. You can see it in the way Robinson Crusoe’s cannibals are depicted and loathed not only by Shandon, but by the ostensibly cross-cultural bard Golias. Or in the use of Barabas, Marlowe’s Jew of Malta.
There are few writings by women in the Commonwealth, too. And Shandon’s view of women is especially shallow. It is true that none of the characters are given a sophisticated depiction, but the roles allotted to the females Shandon meets are not terribly varied. And his perspective on women doesn’t seem to mature through the story.
One can of course argue that the depiction of women, and the lack of depictions of non-Western cultures, is a function of the book’s being written in 1949. It’s an issue, though, in a text that seems to be trying to claim universality. As I say, to me it ends up feeling narrow. The book seems to be aiming at narrative diversity, at gaining a certain tone from mixing in as many different elements as possible, and so this lack of cultural diversity impairs the story.
It’s also true that the book is a product of its time in the choice of books it does include. Some texts that it refers to have become obscure. Others have receded from what was once a prominent position. That’s fine; not all references are equal, and even in 1949, some of them would have been difficult to get. Broadly, I think it’s true that it’s a different experience reading the book today, with an open Internet connection to track down names.
Which brings up the question of how to read the book. Without knowing all the references Myers makes, it’s an odd, unpredictable, almost misshapen narrative. Knowing some of those references (and some are obvious to anyone; an excellent resource for the book is here), you’ll be able to see another level to various incidents. In a way, though, I suspect it’s better not to know everything at once. I wonder if catching some of the jokes but not all results in a feeling of strangeness, of dislocation, that may be Myers’ point: that there’s always something more, something unpredictable, within the Commonwealth of Letters.
What then of non-readers who come to Silverlock? Is the whole thing a smug condescension to those who do not already know the glories of the Commonwealth? Or, given the way it develops, is it a puritan view of literature as a means to self-improvement? How, in short, should one read the joke? The obvious answer is “any way you like.” But then, does the joke come off if you’re not already in the know? There’s a sense in which the book is written for initiates, about the experience of initiation into, not just reading, but the experience of learning about literature. It is, I think, designed to elicit a feeling of recognition.
Which tracks with the feel of the book — to me, a feel of nostalgia. In a way, it’s a repudation of literature, which tends to live through the breaking of new ground. Silverlock perhaps can’t help but be nostalgic, though; it’s writing about a tradition, and celebrating that tradition rather than critically examining it. When Shandon meets some new incarnation of a book, it’s not the book that gives way. Which sounds like a validation of the power of literature, but in fact raises questions about how the Commonwealth works; books are often in conflict with other books, and some books really don’t last. Shandon’s Commonwealth is oddly ahistorical. Perhaps, again, that’s appropriate. This is perhaps less a book about fiction than it is about myth; about a myth of fiction, a myth of literature. The mash-up that we imagine to be a product of the modern age is here an expression of mythic imagination, a myth of myths. Silverlock is far from a perfect book. But in its flaws I think there are hints about how books work, how fictions work, how we read and why; and for bringing these things out it deserves its place, however equivocal, in its Commonwealth.