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June 7, 2014 11:01 PM   Subscribe

A-hind of hill, ways off to sun-set-down, is sky come like as fire, and walk I up in way of this, all hard of breath, where is grass colding on I's feet and wetting they.

Acclaimed comics writer Alan Moore has published one novel, 1996's Voice of the Fire. The first chapter, "Hob's Hog," is the tale of a Neolithic simpleton unable to tell the difference between the waking world and his dreams. The chapter is written in a dense, idiosyncratic style somewhat like that of Russell Hoban's post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker. Anecdotally, many readers put the novel down a few pages into this difficult yet rewarding chapter.

Art Turner Jr. has translated the unnamed narrator's tale into modern standard English and partially annotated the chapter to boot.
posted by infinitewindow (35 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Before the cut quote reads weirdly like Burns to me.
posted by maryr at 11:07 PM on June 7 [2 favorites]


To A. Moore, On Turning Him Irate with a Prequel
Great, hairy, rantin', vol'ble beastie,
O, what outrage's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I beg thee not to rin an' chase me,
Wi' murd'ring pattle!
Hmm. I don't quite see it, mysel'.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:41 PM on June 7 [5 favorites]


"All lone set I by mother's foot. I's people is not by I now, and far ways off is they, neath trees and cross of hill, and go, and come here back no more."

He's alone. As long as his mother was alive, she took care of him but she has just died and his people have abandoned him. I will be glad of the 'translation' but it's not actually impossible to understand this chapter. This novel is very intriguing in that the author is telling this part of the story in the voice of a virtually incoherent character. The reader is learning what his world is.

After getting into this difficult chapter, I just had to put it on the Kindle. Thanks, infinitewindow
posted by Anitanola at 12:44 AM on June 8


It's been a few years now, but from the reactions I remember to this chapter, it wasn't so much the difficult language as the horrifying scene where Hob's mother dies and he tries to revive her, that really put people off.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 4:10 AM on June 8


This is such a good book. It's one of my favorites.

The first chapter is supposed to be a fight to get into. Part of what Moore is doing with the book requires that initial struggle; the first thing you do when reading his novel is learn a new language. You won't use it again, but it stays with you.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 4:28 AM on June 8 [3 favorites]


I had a weird experience with "Voice of the Fire". I actually managed to make it through the first chapter. It took a while to crack the language, but after sticking with it a bit, suddenly it clicked and I was more or less able to follow the internal logic of it. It was somewhat like the experience of watching a production of Shakespeare...for the first 5-15 minutes, I can't understand what the hell anyone is talking about. And then it clicks and I'm fine.

However: after getting through the first chapter, I was worn out and didn't continue...so I actually missed all the easy chapters. I keep meaning to go back to it.
posted by Ipsifendus at 5:56 AM on June 8


I realize that this is just me, but "dense, idiosyncratic style" and "supposed to be a fight to get into" are pretty good prescriptions for books I'm not going to read. So if you're an author who doesn't want me reading your books, there you go.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:00 AM on June 8


Very similar to whatsisname who wrote Trainspotting etc. The first chapter is hell to get through, after that it suddenly makes sense. I may need to find a copy of this book.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:00 AM on June 8


Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks would be another example. One of the relatively few M. Banks books I’ve only read once.

(A pet theory of mine is that Banks spelled “lammergeier” correctly in that book, because otherwise nobody would know what bird he was talking about).
posted by bouvin at 6:20 AM on June 8 [1 favorite]


This sounds like fun! I read Nick Cave's And the Ass Saw the Angel forever ago, and it sounds like a similar challenge (and reward). I wonder if the local library has a copy...
posted by spacewrench at 6:40 AM on June 8 [1 favorite]


I was just going to mention And the Ass Saw the Angel in terms of challenging reads as well!

Yeah, Irvine Welsh's novels are sticky going at first and then when you can hear the Scottish accent in your head as you read, you're good.
posted by Kitteh at 7:06 AM on June 8 [1 favorite]


Irvine Welsh! Thanks!
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:13 AM on June 8


That's supposed to be the voice of a Neolithic simpleton? The most flowery and ornate and intelligent Neolithic simpleton ever, I guess.
posted by koeselitz at 7:59 AM on June 8


KG: I realize that this is just me, but "dense, idiosyncratic style" and "supposed to be a fight to get into" are pretty good prescriptions for books I'm not going to read. So if you're an author who doesn't want me reading your books, there you go.

So you probably gave Chaucer or that Shakespeare guy a miss, then?
posted by Artful Codger at 8:16 AM on June 8


I dunno, I think both Chaucer and Shakespeare (and Miller, my personal bete noire) have both been around long enough that their major themes have seeped into the public consciousness.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:20 AM on June 8


Metafilter: The most flowery and ornate and intelligent Neolithic simpleton ever, I guess.
posted by CynicalKnight at 8:32 AM on June 8 [3 favorites]


This was done long before Moore, Banks, or Cave. (And if you like "that initial struggle"—not to mention great novels—I can't recommend The Sound and the Fury highly enough.)
posted by languagehat at 9:25 AM on June 8 [5 favorites]


So you probably gave Chaucer or that Shakespeare guy a miss, then?

Hey, he admits it's just his personal taste. And besides - more for us.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:33 AM on June 8


This book is the only Moore I've ever read, because I really can't get into comic books graphic novels, and it's brilliant, not despite this chapter, but because of it. Moore needs to write more.
posted by Jimbob at 10:00 AM on June 8


I love this book, and also think Moore should have continued his foray into prose.
posted by mwhybark at 10:07 AM on June 8


The final entry in that blog, from 2011, features an interview with Alan Moore in New Statesman that starts off by talking about Jerusalem, the next book Moore has been trying to write. let me just... let me just quote a bit of that here:
I was telling him that Jerusalem, when I'd passed the two-thirds mark, was already over half a million words. He said: "You know, that is bigger than the Bible." I was quite pleased with that. I'm just hoping everybody else will confuse quantity with quality. It's undoubtedly a very big book. ...

It's the longest chapter in the book. It ran to about 35 single spaced pages and it's all completely unfathomable. It's all written in a completely invented sub-Joycean text. I read it through again and I can understand most of it . . . No, I can understand all of it. It is the only way that I could have written that stuff.
Now look. I read Ulysses cover to cover and loved it. I didn't understand why people thought Infinite Jest was difficult or difficult to finish. Riddley Walker is a masterpiece and a favorite. My point is that I'm not the type of person who runs in fear from difficult, long or linguistically tricky books. But fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck that shit. (Note that Moor anticipates the book being over 750,000 words long at this point.) Life is too short for me to actually climb inside Moore's asshole to read a book. I need to save the candle wax for when the actual apocalypse happens. Either that or I use this book for fire.
posted by shmegegge at 10:43 AM on June 8 [1 favorite]


damn you, Metafilter Book People! I have a life to lead and a business to run. I don't have time to get spirited away to other people's linguistic playgrounds. Why can't you recommend titles by [your favorite popular author on the NYT or Oprah's list]? Things that, yeah, are probably okay, and if I read them I could talk to everybody else about them, but ... yeah, I'm gonna give those a pass.
posted by spacewrench at 10:54 AM on June 8


The function, as it seems to me,
O’ Poetry is to bring to be
At lang, lang last that unity ...

But wae’s me on the weary wheel!
Higgledy-piggledy in’t we reel,
And little it cares hoo we may feel.

Twenty-six thoosand years ’t’ll tak’
For it to threid the Zodiac
—A single roond o’ the wheel to mak’!


— Hugh MacDiarmid, 'A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle'
posted by Haruspex at 11:04 AM on June 8 [1 favorite]


riddley walker is a very good book. it may be nominally set in a post-apocalyptic future and written in a made-up future pidgin-english spoken by cruel and violent barbarians, but it's actually mainly about the spiritually transformative power of finger-puppets.
posted by ennui.bz at 11:59 AM on June 8 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: it's actually mainly about the spiritually transformative power of finger-puppets.
posted by jokeefe at 2:39 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]


This book is the only Moore I've ever read, because I really can't get into comic books graphic novels, and it's brilliant, not despite this chapter, but because of it. Moore needs to write more

There is a LOT of prose work in his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books - The "travel guide" is a wonderful pastiche tying together every single fictional place setting on the damn planet and his Wodehouse homage WHAT HO, GODS OF THE ABYSS? Remains the only Wodehouse pastiche I can stand.

He also does a fairly good Wilde pastiche in Lost Girls at one point. Like enough that I wanted to read an entire book of Moore-doing-Wilde*

*minds out of the gutter kids.
posted by The Whelk at 4:41 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]


tying together every single fictional place setting on the damn planet

Speaking of fictional place settings, I wonder who else of you read John Myers Myers' Silverlock as an impressionable youngster. I know it was responsible for me reading a bunch of classics, same as Laurie Anderson is responsible for making me read Pynchon (thanks, Laurie!)
posted by spacewrench at 6:40 PM on June 8


So you probably gave Chaucer or that Shakespeare guy a miss, then?

No. Neither of them deliberately wrote in an idiosyncratic dense style or deliberately made their writings a fight to get into. Authors who do that are making a choice. I am making a choice, too. I'd rather spend my time and money on authors who pander to my preference for clear exposition.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:00 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]


I keep reading the samples from Moore's book presented in this post in a Jamaican accent. Is I racist?
posted by Mister_A at 9:23 AM on June 9


Neither of them deliberately wrote in an idiosyncratic dense style

This is going to sound pedantic and/or condescending, for which I apologize, but Shakespeare and Chaucer both wrote in an indiosyncratic style that was far removed from the spoken English of their times or any other time.

Of course, they didn't invent a broken-down fake neolithic English, which is a considerable difference. But just like Homer, Aeschylus, Virgil and Dante their language was unlike anything spoken.
posted by shmegegge at 12:09 PM on June 9 [1 favorite]


Art Turner Jr. has translated the unnamed narrator's tale into modern standard English

Eponysterical!

Voice in the Fire is genuinely good, honestly. If you can put aside gratification for a couple of hours you'll probably enjoy where the challenges push you to. Sometimes this sort of thing really is just an intense exploration of the author's arsehole - my most recent bad experience was Blood Electric, a compressed jumble meant to represent the birth of a machine consciousness but really just an 'edgy' novel-length word salad that goes nowhere, does nothing and says nothing.

The same can't remotely be said of Voice in the Fire, which when you get into it really does have all of the normal business: plot, characters, dialogue, purpose, meaning. On top of that, any obscurity here isn't done for pretentiousness' sake but is actually justified and necessary because of the theme-structure of the novel - in fact it couldn't be done any other way. But I won't say any more for fear of spoiling.
posted by forgetful snow at 12:11 PM on June 9


"Hob's Hog," is the tale of a Neolithic simpleton unable to tell the difference between the waking world and his dreams.
Nope. The narrator clearly exists within a neolithic society, but I neither agree that he is a simpleton nor that he is unable to tell when he is dreaming.

While recounting a dream to another character, the narrator tells us: "Say I, it as like they queer-whiles that I shagfoal see, and mother see. It is a seeing that is come by dark and shut-of-eyes. At this is she shake head, now fore, now back, and sign that there is right in say of I." Although the narration runs all observations together without explicitly marking out waking time and dream time, the narrator makes it clear that dream-time ("by dark and shut-of-eyes") is different when speaking to another person. The woman he is speaking to agrees, and adds that "as we is shut eyes, there by is go we to an other world." The narrator doesn't challenge this and instead focuses on the discussion about human sacrifice that they are having.

Further, the narrator is shunned by the tribe for unclear reasons. They call him lazy, but that seems to serve as a connection to modern teenagers. After he is nursed back to life by a woman with healing knowledge, she is able to explain the project to build roads and the role of human sacrafices in these projects to him. He expresses disgust at human sacrafice (a practice not shared by his people), but very clearly understands what is going on. Far from a simpleton, the narrator may have a better understanding of neolithic society at large than most of his peers, by the end of the story.

When I read a passage to a friend, the comment I got back was that this isn't an example of simplified language - it is a demonstration that limited vocabulary demands complex grammatical constructions. The words are easy to pick up, since they are mostly ordinary English words or their roots. The only difficult part of making sense of the story is applying the proper grammatical transformations to the words necessary to translate into modern concepts. But you get the hang of that after a few pages.

Incidentally, I found this easier to read than Stephenson's Anathem.
posted by b1tr0t at 3:07 PM on June 9


Holy wow, I love this so much. Thank you for this post, infinitewindow - wonderful! I need to go read this book RIGHT NOW. I really love narrators who are difficult to comprehend at first glance as a story element, personally - you have to want to understand, and the struggle makes it worth more when you get it.
posted by po at 8:34 PM on June 9


the comment I got back was that this isn't an example of simplified language - it is a demonstration that limited vocabulary demands complex grammatical constructions.

I think that the text is an act of speculative linguistic archaeology on Moore's part. He's not having the guy narrate in this odd manner just for the sake of it...he's suggesting that this is what actual proto-languages must have been like. Just in the excerpts that have posted in this discussion, you can spot two instances of phrases functioning as precursors to what will actually be words in their own right:

A-hind of hill, ways off to sun-set-down

...giving us an origin for "sunset", and

as we is shut eyes, there by is go we to an other world"

...giving us the precursor to "another".

The other oddity is that in his use of pronouns he has only the subjective versions, sort of indicating that he (and possibly humanity as a whole) hasn't arrived at subject/object differentiation yet.

And while he can differentiate between dreams and waking life, note that his understanding of dreams still grants them "reality". They're not illusions...they're experiences in another world.

There's a passage in the story where, from a distance, he mistakes a scattering of white boulders for a herd of pigs. He's hungry, so he approaches the "herd". When he gets close enough to see that they're just rocks, he concludes that the pigs have changed shape out of malice, and walks away. Looking back from a distance again, he's irritated to see that the rocks are pigs once more.

This inability to differentiate between true and false, subjective and objective, is what makes the pretty devastating ending to the chapter possible.
posted by Ipsifendus at 9:01 PM on June 9


And while he can differentiate between dreams and waking life, note that his understanding of dreams still grants them "reality". They're not illusions...they're experiences in another world.
That may just be Moore-the-Magician's voice coming through, though. Moore will make extensive use of the dream-reality duality several years later when he writes Promethea. (which also makes use of a time-hopping narrative structure)

The use of "world" here is an interesting anachronism. It was probably too complex to try to render a more appropriate construction without reference to modern concepts.
When he gets close enough to see that they're just rocks, he concludes that the pigs have changed shape out of malice, and walks away. Looking back from a distance again, he's irritated to see that the rocks are pigs once more.
This same transformation happens again when the woman tells the narrator that she will blame the lost food that she is giving him on rats, and the narrator asks why he is being turned into a rat. But in this case, we have a fairly typical modern relationship argument being projected 6000 years into the past. So I'm not so sure that the narrator is entirely trustworthy in his expressed confusion. ("why won't you tell your parents about us?" "They think I'm going out for coffee with friends" "so, what, I'm just coffee to you?")
This inability to differentiate between true and false, subjective and objective, is what makes the pretty devastating ending to the chapter possible.
Part of what made the ending so effective to me is that the narrator starts to reveal increasingly sophisticated reasoning in the run-up to the climactic event.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:12 PM on June 9


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