(Small Beer Press, 232 pages, softcover, US$16.00; 2002.)
Set on an Earth conquered by an effete, parasitical race of aliens,
the Hoots, The Mount is the first-person tale of a young man
named Charley who lives in a stable and wears a bit, training to carry
on his broad shoulders
the next leader of the Hoots. The diminutive Hoots depend upon human
beings to carry them in Earth's gravity, apparently heavier than that
of their native world. The enslaved humans serve as mounts or runners
or laborers; the free humans live in the hills, waging low-intensity
guerilla war against their alien oppressors.
The Mount is not a successful novel. It sits uncomfortably between
naturalism and fable but fails to effectively use either mode, never
quite striking the right notes. Its themes and storytelling strategy
brought to mind unfavorable comparisons with Kazuo Ishiguro's 1988 novel
Remains of the Day, which I first encountered in an undergraduate
class on American colonial literature, sandwiched between Benjamin Franklin's
autobiography and an early slave narrative.
Remains of the Day is the story of an English butler named Stevens
who lives his whole life in service to others. The reader never leaves
the manservant's inner narration, as he focuses obsessively on the details
of his duty to his employers. And yet an unsettling dissonance grows
as Stevens' interpretation of events gradually diverges from the reader's.
Stevens lives through his masters, his imagination colonized by desires
that are not his own. In the end, we understand that Stevens has wasted
his life. Stevens does not. The realization is devastating.
Despite a plot in which the narrator experiences far more violence
and growth, The Mount is pale in comparison.
Like Stevens, Charley never questions his servitude -- not at first.
He looks forward to his days spent running around a post, and accepts
the discipline and social order imposed on him by the Hoots. He wants
to be a good mount, and he loves his "little Master," the
whimsically titled His-Excellency-the-Ruler-of-Us-All. When Charley
encounters his long-lost father, a former champion mount who is now
the leader of the human resistance, it starts him down the path of mental
Emshwiller strains to replicate the effects so seamlessly achieved
in Remains of the Day, trying to show the growing dissonance
between Charley's colonized, unreliable narrative and the harsh reality
of his world. But unlike Stevens, Charley is saved when he closes the
gap, breaking through his conditioning to full consciousness. Where
Ishiguro's first-person narrative subtly reveals the concealed longing
of the colonized and the hidden fear of the colonizer, trusting to the
reader to discern the fissures in Stevens' narrative, Emshwiller beats
us over the head with Charley's graduated epiphanies. From the first
page, we know that the Hoots oppress the humans, and that the human
cause is just. Charley's awakening, which proceeds along a predictable
trajectory, is only a matter of time.
There are some nice naturalistic touches in describing the culture
of the Hoots (I particularly enjoyed their speech patterns and curiously
poignant rituals), but there is something plain in the way Emshwiller
describes Charley's world. The mundanity diminishes the book's power
as fable, and without that framework, The Mount suffers from
straightforward problems of plausibility. With only cattle prods and
lethally loud voices as weapons, for example, it is never clear how
the Hoots are able to keep the stronger and more numerous human beings
at bay. Perhaps at one point they managed to conquer humanity by convincing
us of their superiority, but that is not explained and seems unlikely
in the context of the story.
The real problem with The Mount is that it takes no risks. It
is an entirely conventional coming-of-age tale that never surprises
or deviates from form. The Mount would have been more effective
if it made us believe Charley's early, colonized point of view, which
could have been achieved by making him less heroic. What if Charley,
like Stevens, had failed to comprehend his condition, even if others
perceived it clearly?
What if, instead of the wishful reconciliation that closes the novel,
Charley's awakening had unleashed the terrible violence that nearly
always accompanies such uprisings? There is violence in The Mount,
but because it occurs to fulfill Charley's archetypical, Freudian desires,
it appears as wish fulfillment. The novel's climactic death fails to
provoke a real sense of loss. I found myself asking: What if the Emshwiller
had explored Charley's doubtlessly dark subconscious? What if she had
allowed Charley's fragility to breed weakness and corruption?
These are possibilities, not prescriptions. I am not saying that Emshwiller
should have told a different story, only that she could have looked
more deeply into the characters and story she choose to tell. There
is tragedy concealed in stories like The Mount, but Emshwiller
is interested only in the triumph. How much more beautiful and true
a book The Mount would have been if its author had been able
to encompass both.
Review by Jeremy Smith.