Friday, December 07, 2007

The Golden Compass

I finished reading The Golden Compass last night. I'm going to make some comments here on things I did and didn't like about the novel, so I'm doing something rare and warning you that, if you want to read it, do not read this post. I'm going to talk freely about plot points and such. There; I'm absolved of all wrongdoing. If you read this and the plot is spoiled for you, it's your own fault.
So, The Golden Compass.

Things I Didn't Like About the Novel:
1. For all the talk that this is a novel that promotes atheism, I didn't see any evidence of it. In fact, there's so much talk of fate and destiny and higher powers and prophecy that I don't understand what people mean when they say Pullman is arguing for atheism. Maybe there's more in the next two novels, but it's not here. There's a firm and unwavering order to this universe. Which leads me to...

2. Some of the symbolism is so heavy-handed as to be somewhat embarrassing. So, everyone's daemon is an outer reflection of their inner soul. And, when people die, they become a ghost, which makes the human body a shell of the spirit. So everyone is a trinity unto themselves. And the idea that the daemon is a familiar (which, really, it is) just harkens to an older religious tradition. So does the presence of witches (and even the witch Serafina speaks of a "most high"). Even the armored bears, I assume, since we're told repeatedly that their armor is a reflection of their soul. Maybe I just don't think of these same concepts the same way other people do, but it all seems very religious to me. Doesn't Lyra at one point say you have to be baptized to have a daemon?

3. Lord Asriel is nothing but an uninteresting plot device. He's nearly poisoned, a plot development which isn't really explained satisfactorally; then he sits out the entire novel until the end, where his treachery is telegraphed in advance and not surprising or especially dramatic. There's nothing to him except that we're told he's intimidating. I didn't feel it.

4. The entire first third of the novel seems barely related to the rest of the book. It's not a mark of good writing that the entire undefined, clumsy, and shallow first third of the book isn't even set-up. It's just there while Pullman tries to find his footing. And really...

5. I don't see anything to justify anyone's opinion of Pullman being a very good writer, even on a technical level. There were a number of sentences that just, as a writer and editor, made me cringe. His lack of style, I guess, seems solid to some people, but it just seemed characterless to me. The Golden Compass was, I found, muddled and hard to follow. There were times when I was tempted to just give up the entire book.

6. The idea of the Dust isn't explained very well. I'm assuming that it represents some sort of larger consciousness, but since there is no world depicted beyond Lyra's immediate circle, I don't know what there is to be conscious of, exactly. This is a problem I really had here. We're told repeatedly of the dealings of the Church and the larger design behind Mrs. Coulter's plans, but there's really no sense of a larger world out there. It's like reading C.S. Lewis again: every person involved is simply there to propel the plot forward, and there's no sense of discovery as a result. Which is a shame, since there's no ending.

7. There's no ending. The novel stops, but it doesn't end.

8. Mrs. Coulter is also unsatisfying as a character. She's only interesting in the potential of what she's capable of, but we don't get to see her being evil or hard or mean. There's one scene, the first scene that remotely pulled me in, when her daemon threatens Lyra's daemon, when I got a real sense of her chilling side. But otherwise, she just appears occasionally as a plot device and little else. We don't get to know her at all, and the motive for the incision is disappointingly shallow and simplistic. It's not dramatic.

9. The revelation about Lyra's parentage is also pretty obvious.

10. Farder Coram and John Faa are interesting potential characters who are unceremoniously dropped when they stop being useful to getting Lyra to the bears. Any character who is not immediately useful is forgotten. Lee Scoresby is also a potentially neat character who just drops out of the narrative (quite literally, almost). And he has future action foreshadowed that never comes into the story.

11. The hot daemon on daemon action at the end of the novel comes off as silly at best.

12. Lyra's final summation--that Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter hate the Dust, therefore the Dust must be good--is depressingly simplistic for such a smart character. I see what Pullman's setting up--the conflict between the Church and the full consciousness of existence--but he's not doing it well. His arguments against the Church are ultimately childish; he might as well say that the Church is bad because they want to stop you from masturbating and thinking freely. Okay, but is it more insidious than that, or is that it? It's not an argument, really, so much as a statement.

Things I Liked About the Novel:
1. Lyra. She's a great lead character; she's resourceful, she keeps her wits in times of great fear, and even though she lies (I assume her name is meant to sound like "liar"), she's fiercely loyal to the people she loves and trusts.

2. The whole concept of daemons is, admittedly, pretty cool.

3. The alethiometer is also a very cool concept, and I love the scenes with Lyra figuring out how to use it, as though she has some sort of psychic connection to it.

4. I like the way Pullman has obviously thought out a sense of custom in this world when dealing with the daemons; that it's taboo for anyone to touch your daemon, for example, and the pure revulsion Lyra has to hers being touched--as well as the thought of someone being separated from theirs--is quite visceral. There are also ideas of honor, loyalty, and trust. I like that Iorek Byrnison won't break his word because of his honor.

5. I loved Iorek Byrnison. He's a great fantasy creature. Even the idea of a panserbjorn is pretty freaking awesome. Armored polar bears; how can you go wrong?

6. There are some scenes which are genuinely emotional and which I genuinely connected with. When Lyra and Iorek find Tony Makarios and discover his daemon has been cut from him, I really felt Lyra's sense of revulsion and anger. Pullman depicts Lyra's love for Pantalaimon and Iorek and her sense of wonder and discovery very well; it's too bad that she doesn't really effect the outcome either way. At the end of the novel, she's a witness and not a player.

7. The whole episode at Bolvangar is really exciting, tense, scary, and compelling. It's the best part of the book.

8. There's a flying balloon. Awesome.

9. Pullman isn't afraid to introduce complex ideas, such as the daemons and the Dust and the idea that the bear king, Iofur Raknison, wants to be more human and is therefore subject to vanity, greed, and deception. But it's only in Iofur that there's any real meat, because the religious ideas are so shallow.

In the end, I don't buy the atheism argument. I see where Pullman is very definitely against the idea of an organized Church, but there's so much other spiritualism going on that there's definitely a sense of a guided and organized universe. But like I said before, I think the presentation is just very shallow. It comes down to this: the Church wants to destroy free thought, and they do more harm than good by essentially lobotomizing children, and that's bad. There's really not a whole lot else going on, no matter how much Pullman tries to distract with side trips. How did this unsatisfying, unwieldy thing win so many awards? I found the whole thing frustratingly vague and I don't know if I feel the need to read the next novel or not. I think I need something else to cleanse the pallette before jumping back in.

Now, again, these are opinions subjective to myself. If you disagree or think I missed the point or simply don't get what I'm talking about, I'd love to hear why. I'd just like to hear why in a civil manner.


flasputnik said...

Pullman always gravitates toward the strong Pagan, pre Christian elements of Roman Catholicism which are ancient,mysterious, and insanely cool. The assertion that there was order in the universe long before everybody's favourite fictional invisible friend showed up and died on the cross (to great acclaim)seems to be his crime.
And yet...every Sunday(Pagan name for "Sunday"), thousands participate in rites that predate Jim Caviezel. I think Pullman should come clean and change his status from "Atheist" to "Proto Pre Catholic".
(Sorry about the Bunker Buster I dropped on the Quote Factory.)
When are you going to weigh in on
the Medieval Gothic Burgundian court poets of Northern Italy and
their masterpiece, THE RING OF THE NIEBELUNGEN??

flasputnik said...

Correction on one sentence......
Millions, not thousands, of Catholics unwittingly participate in rites that predate that guy in the Mel Gibson movie......thanks.

SamuraiFrog said...

I've written a lot in my past about the pagan origins of Christianity. If anyone takes a look at history, it should be painfully obvious. My observation was more that Pullman's novel, at least this first one, is anti-Church, not atheistic, which I'd always heard it was. As an atheist, a number of people have told me to read this book because it promotes atheism, but I don't see any evidence of that. Skepticism, maybe, but not atheism. It's pretty damn spiritual. I appreciate that Pullman goes more towards an earlier sort of paganism, but he does it in a kind of ham-fisted way.

Removed from that is my opinion that Pullman's not a very good writer.

That fucking Mel Gibson movie. I know people who became active Christians again because that stupid movie shamed them into it. Another look at religion that was artless and clumsy.

flasputnik said...

I did enjoy the book as an adventure story that I could read to my kids.
I can't even think about that Mel
Gibson movie. It reminds me that
the Age of Reason never really took hold, that the Scopes Monkey trial was a defeat and that the unwashed masses are really medieval peasants dressed in modern casual clothing.

John said...

I find the books to be much less in the realm of radical atheism than Pullman himself - he's very outspoken in his atheist beliefs. In England, he's on equal standing publicly with, say, Dawkins. I am a staunch atheist as well, but that doesn't mean that I am incapable of using aspects of spiritualism, religion or the supernatural in stories I might write .

Anyhow, I've read loads of Pullman besides His Dark Materials and his books are meant for the 10-13 set - somehow this series got sold as a teenage series, which I think is a mistake. It's very much a pre-teen book, with complicated concepts boiled down to simple presentation. It's no different than, say, George Lucas uses the Empire or Gene Roddenberry uses the Klingons - simplistic constructs of evil that stand in for the wider concepts that the authors are addressing.

I think some of your concerns are answered by the end of the trilogy.

Pullman, to me, is in the same vein as the wonderful Natalie Babbit, or perhaps Jane Yolen.

Anyhow, even though I disagree, your review is well reasoned - good job! Judging from this and from what I hear, I can't imagine the movie will hold much interest to you!

flasputnik said...

Thanks for the Natalie Babbit mention. I'm off to the library.

Chance said...

The reverence for authors of books like this is easily explained. People who have not read real books --- like Catch-22, Moby-Dick, Pride & Prejudice, Frankenstein, Great Expectations --- books that, aside from whatever plot considerations, show consummate skill with the workings of language itself --- confuse an imaginative story with good writing.

You know what good writing is; therefore, you're not fooled by the showiness of imagination. But the sad truth is that most people read nothing, and so they make no such distinction.

Anonymous said...

I suggest reading the whole trilogy before you comment on just the first book. I'm 63, and I loved the entire set of books..... I couldn't put them down, and read the whole thing in a little over 8 days

SamuraiFrog said...

Flasputnik: There's far too much evidence of that, really.

John: I'm not incapable of using or enjoying a story using any of those aspects, either, but, like George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry, I just found it very simplistic and shallow.

I do like Jane Yolen.

Chance: God damn, that's a great distinction that I'm going to steal from you in the future. And that's a perfect way to describe Pullman's novel, really: imaginitive, but not well-written (or structured, frankly).

Anonymous: But a novel not being able to stand on its own is also an example of bad writing. There are lots of series books (Harry Potter is a good example, actually) that stand on their own while also linking together in a larger sense. In The Golden Compass, nothing exists outside of Lyra's immediate needs, and for her to be only a witness to the finale and not a participant is one disappointment among many.