The Completist: Margo Lanagan

I’m back with another installment of The Completist, in which I take a look at the complete YA works of one lucky author — in today’s case, Margo Lanagan. Lanagan presents a somewhat tricky case for reading her complete works. If Wikipedia is to be believed, Lanagan started her career by writing a stunning nine teen romance novels in three years, all under various pseudonyms, followed by a number of novels for children under her own name. Since the teen romances are under different names and the others are too young (and since they are all unavailable in the States), I’m excluding them from this particular installment of the Completist.
Her “complete” work, then, encompasses two early YA novels (The Best Thing (Allen & Unwin, 1995) and Touching Earth Lightly (Allen & Unwin, 1996)), two much later novels (Tender Morsels (Knopf, 2008) and The Brides of Rollrock Island (Knopf, 2012)), and three short story collections (White Time (Eos, 2006), Black Juice (Eos, 2005), Red Spikes (Knopf, 2007)) in between. She has also published a new short story collection called Yellowcake (Allen & Unwin, 2011) in Australia, which should be making its way to our shores in 2013. I wasn’t willing to pony up the $40 to get a copy, so I’m excluding it as well. We’ll call this article “the Complete-ish-ist.”

Of the seven books I got my hands on, only four have been eligible for the Printz Award (the two early novels were before the award and The Brides of Rollrock Island is eligible for the 2013 award), and amazingly, two of those four were awarded Printz Honors (making Lanagan one of only five authors to have been recognized by two Printz committees), and the other two made Best Books for Young Adults (in 2007 and 2008).

When I started rereading Lanagan’s works, I immediately became aware of two somewhat competing feelings which persisted through all of her works. The first was the overwhelming relief of being in the hands of a master. As a book reviewer, I read a lot of bad books, and even good books that are somehow lacking. With Lanagan, from word one I always know that she will take me somewhere interesting and, more importantly, say it flawlessly. The other emotion I immediately identified was an indeterminate sense of unease. At first I put this feeling down to two seemingly obvious aspects of her writing: her uniquely strange style of prose and the relentlessly depressing SF and fantasy worlds she creates.

I have just said that Langan’s prose is a relief to read, and I have referred to her elsewhere as “the greatest prose stylist in YA litearature,” but when I first encountered it, I thought that it was a bit convoluted, making her text difficult to understand. But as I reread her, I realized that much of what I found confusing at first was not twisted syntax or overuse of dialect but simply Lanagan’s desire to omit everything that wasn’t completely necessary and sometimes just a bit more — requiring the reader to concentrate on every word to figure out what exactly is going on in the story. The prose itself is actually quite graceful, and when Lanagan does resort to dialect, it is not just to create a background setting, but almost always to focus the reader’s attention on the meanings of words.

What’s more, when I was able to get my hands on her early novels, I found that they evoked exactly the same emotions, despite being entirely in the tradition of contemporary realistic fiction and told in a surprisingly straightforward fashion. So if it is neither her prose nor her SF and fantasy trappings, what is it that makes Lanagan so unique?

I think that what holds almost all of Lanagan’s stories and novels together is a relentless obsession with questions about the animality of human nature, specifically focused on female sexuality and the general frailty of the human body. The Best Thing and Touching Earth Lightly are both largely about teen sex and pregnancy. In The Best Thing, Lanagan juxtaposes her narrator’s pregnancy with the story of her boyfriend’s career as a boxer, and threads throughout the novel snippets of non-fictional material, sometimes describing the development of a fetus, sometimes the degeneration of the body and brain from blows to the head. In Touching Earth Lightly, meanwhile, one of the two main characters has given a child up for adoption and exhibits a fiercely carnal sexuality that manages to threaten even the men she sleeps with and seems directly linked to her menstrual cycle. In the story collections, nearly all of the stories have something to say about sex, pregnancy, motherhood, or an incredible number of ways of punishing the human body. Obviously, Tender Morsels — which starts with incest and rape and moves on to a man transmogrified into a bear — and The Brides of Rollrock Island — about a whole island of men who pay a “witch” to create perfectly beautiful women for them out of seals — are concerned with exactly the same issues.

So that’s the connection, and it certainly explains (to me) my sense of unease: I’ll admit to being like many people in being made uncomfortable by too-graphic reminders of my animality. But Lanagan herself is anything but uneasy about these themes, and it’s a good thing, because her obsessive focus on these themes would get redundant quickly if it were not for her ability to draw a seemingly endless supply of memorable characters and emotions out of them. Take the example of the story collections: with their color-coordinated titles and uniform format (ten 15- to 25-page short stories per collection) and Lanagan’s idiosyncratic diction and obsessions, the collections should be hard to distinguish, and yet I never had a doubt which collection I was reading; each collection, and indeed each story, holds its own fierce identity.

Roughly speaking, I would classify them as collections about the mind; the body and the emotions; and the soul. White Time is almost clinical in its approach to science fiction. Each story poses a simple “what if” question and sets out to answer it in a direct(ish) way. Black Juice, meanwhile, seethes with raw energy, from the two opening stories, which set out Lanagan’s feminist credentials, to the emotional desperation of “Yowlinin.” Finally, Red Spikes comes around again and again to metaphysical questions about sin, religion, and the afterworld.

A simple comparison among the three books is the story in each told from the perspective of an animal. In White Time‘s “The Queen’s Notice,” the animal is ants, and the question is a simple one: “What if ants could describe their own existence?” Certainly there is a full story, but Lanagan seems primarily interested in probing the details of the ant colony. In Black Juice‘s “Sweet Pippit,” Lanagan is still interested in how animals — this time elephants — interact and behave, but the main thrust of the story is the elephants’ yearning to be reunited with a former human master. Finally, in Red Spikes‘s “A Feather in the Breast of God,” the budgie narrator has become an agent of God, seeking to intercede with one of its owners in time to save her from a life of drug addiction.

The novels are similarly unique. The two early novels, for example, each create amazingly distinct characters and emotional resonances out of the same basic premise of examining teenage pregnancy. In the first, The Best Thing, Mel is faced with two unplanned pregnancies” the first she has already decided to terminate before miscarrying; the second she decides to keep with her new-found boxer boyfriend. Having Mel face all three of these possible outcomes — abortion, miscarriage, and young motherhood — opens a tremendous range of emotions — guilt, shame, joy, love, relief, terror, and more — for Lanagan to explore and gives the reader tremendous insight into her character and ability or inability to handle her life.

In the second novel, Touching Earth Lightly, we have significantly more distance from the teenaged mother, Janey, seeing her almost exclusively through the eyes of her best friend, Chloe. This technique gives precedence to Chloe’s thoughts and emotions as she tries to comprehend the actions of Janey, who is mostly magnetic, sometimes repugnant, but always inscrutable, while at the same time offering her support and friendship.

And finally we come to the most recent novels, Tender Morsels and The Brides of Rollrock IslandTo paraphrase Robert Christgau: here’s where she starts showing off. Suddenly, giving herself a long format for the first time in 13 years, Lanagan exploded with creative energy in these two novels, combining all of the unique language and fantastical settings of the short stories with first novels’ concerns with teen pregnancy, abuse, and death, bringing forth two extraordinarily expansive stories.

In Tender Morsels, she does not so much retell the fairy tale “Snow White and Rose Red” (as, for instance McKinley’s Beauty* retells “Beauty and the Beast”) as she uses it as a structuring technique to hold her flights of fancy together. Chapter 6, for instance — in which Davit joins in Bear Day, accidentally stumbles into Liga’s fantasy world as a real bear, and eventually comes back to his own world at the exact moment he left — could easily have been a short story in Black Juice, but in the context of the “Snow White Rose Red” story, it becomes a crucial building block to the novel. The same could be said of many of the set pieces in the novel. So it is this fairy tale structure which holds together the pieces and, in fact, makes each of them rise even further above their own greatness to create a unified whole.

In The Brides of Rollrock Island, Lanagan tries for almost the opposite technique. There is a clear through line to the story — a young girl discovers her power to create Selkies, making a man for herself; she is persuaded into making a woman for a neighbor; she is slowly corrupted by her power and eventually corrupts the whole town so that every woman in it is a Selkie; her power unravels and the Selkies are sent back to the sea. And yet, Lanagan does her best to avoid telling the story in such a straight line, dissociating it into discrete chapters that do not seem to build from each other but jump through years and geography. The result is a novel told almost around the real story rather than about it. It is a strange but captivating experience.

Is it clear enough that I love Margo Lanagan? I think so — let’s move on to the ranking:

Masterpieces

  1. Tender Morsels: A masterpiece beyond masterpieces. I may not love this as much as a very few other favorite YA novels, but I continue to believe that it is unequalled as a piece of literature.
  2. Black Juice: The lead story, “Singing My Sister Down,” has rightly received heaps of praise, but the emotional center of this collection is the second story, “Mullord,” about a valet who cannot understand his lord’s forgiveness of his wife’s animalistic tendencies.
  3. The Brides of Rollrock Island: Closer in some ways to the story collections than the novels, this one has a strange calmness about it, even as it delves deeply into dark human emotions.

Minor Masterpieces

  1. Touching Earth Lightly: The first half a gorgeous love letter to friendship in the face of hardship, the second a heartbreaking elegy of a kind rarely seen in YA literature — that this novel is still only available in Australia is a crime against literature.
  2. Red Spikes: Especially not to miss are “Baby Jane,” “Winkie,” and “Mouse Maker.”

Almost Masterpieces

  1. The Best Thing: A tremendously assured “first” novel that makes me desperate to get my hands on Lanagan’s slightly earlier children’s novels.
  2. White Time: Probably my least favorite Lanagan because it lacks the emotional center of her other works. Nevertheless, “White Time,” “Tell and Kiss,” and “Wealth” are masterpieces in their own right.

— Mark Flowers, currently reading Dying to Know You by Aidan Chambers

*EDIT: This post originally named McKinley’s book “Beastly,” which is the title of another retelling of Beauty and the Beast by Alex Flinn

4 thoughts on “The Completist: Margo Lanagan”

  1. Thanks for this, Mark! This is a really wonderful write-up of Lanagan’s work. After reading TBORI I’m really starting to think she’s the best YA writer around right now.

    1. Thanks Tess. Have you read the two early novels? You should really try to track them down – they’ll just cement your opinion. I can’t wait until the Printz conversation heats up a bit so we can talk Brides of Rollrock.

      1. I didn’t even know she’d written the earlier books until now, but I’m definitely going to try and get my hands on them! And yes, me too. I’ve found this year’s books a little lacking, but Brides really delivered.

  2. Thanks for this great and detailed post. Tender Morsels hit me so hard that I’ve considered paying the money to get Yellowcake sent over, but as of now decided to wait. It’s almost my turn on the waitlist for Brides of Rollrock Island!

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