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The Mount

by Carol Emshwiller

(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 cover scanshoulders 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 de-colonization.

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.

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