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Diana Wynne Jones: Archer's Goon and Dogsbody [Feb. 12th, 2017|03:38 pm]
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I had just finished reading Hisham Matar's The Return, a good book but a sad story of a lost father, an unhappy country (Libya) and crushed hopes; the final chapters spiral down and down into darkness. What to read next, to restore some balance? I had been wanting for some time to reread Archer's Goon, and since durham_rambler was there, I asked him to reach it down from its high shelf, and Dogsbody too while he was about it.

I had remembered Archer's Goon as extremely funny: it starts, after all, with that wonderful decalogue, the ten facts which the author undertakes to prove, and does, though not in any way you'd expect. Only, that turns out to be - to my taste - the funniest part of the book. There's plenty of clowning, almost slapstick, as the powers who run the town try to exert control: the Goon sits impassive in the kitchen with his long legs extended, and everyone else tries not to fall over him while rushing about and throwing blankets over things. Just not so much of the particularly clever, verbal humour of that 'Author's Note'. Meanwhile the narrative makes its way dutifully from Archer to Torquil and from Shine to Erskine: I almost said 'laboriously', and while that isn't fair - Diana Wynne Jones is never dull - it did remind me of the way Eight Days of Luke makes its way methodically through the days of the week (another one I need to re-read).

What struck me on this reading, though, was that those seven siblings, the Powers who control the town, each with their own appropriate attributes, have a lot in common with Neil Gaiman's Endless: there's even a missing sibling to be identified and tracked down. I've found a couple of references to this on the internet, pretty much in passing: has Neil Gaiman ever commented on it? Archer's Goon did it first, of course, by several years, but very differently: although the family there are long-lived, they are by no means eternal; their attributes are assumed not inherent; and they are, in their way, a real family of squabbling siblings, with DWJ's trademark absentee parents.

On this occasion, though, she counterbalances those missing parents with the much more traditional Sykes family: father, mother, two children.I'm not overlooking the fact that SPOILER, but it really doesn't matter. More relevant is the extent to which Howard feels responsible for sorting things out, as if he were the adult and Quentin the child. Resident student Fifi gets a raw deal, I think, being rather transparently nothing more than a plot facilitator, neither family nor not-family, named as casually as you might name a cat - it's evident from the ending that we don't care about her one way or the other.

Talking of the naming of cats brings me to Dogsbody, in which namong elegant, mostly white cat 'Tibbles' is yet another black mark against her unsympathetic owner: Tibbles is "worthy of better treatment" and worthy of a better name too (and the book ends with a puppy unnamed: names are important). My recollection of Dogsbody was as an adequate (of course!) but not exceptional book, mostly, I suspect, because I am prejudiced against books with animal protagonists. There's no justification for this, it's just a prejudice, but there it is. Somewhere I had come across the suggestion that Dogsbody was a device by which to conceal the fact that this is a book with a female lead, and that seemed grounds for a reread. I don't remember where I heard it, and anyway, I don't think it works out that way: whatever the author's intention, it is more Sirius's book than Kathleen's.

Perhaps, I thought, I'll find it more approachable because, after all, Sirius isn't 'really' a dog, he's the Dog Star banished from the heavens: but I was surprised to find myself enjoying precisely the way Sirius 'really' is a dog. Reborn as a puppy, he only gradually recovers the memories of his shining 'green nature', and even as he becomes aware of who he is, his 'dog nature' keeps intruding. Secondary characters like Tibbles the cat and Bess the Labrador are also sketched in lightly but with genuine personality: in fact they are more three dimensional than most of the human characters - Duffie, the wicked stepmother or Miss Smith, the fairy godmother.

Because, of course, while the main story belongs to Sirius, Kathleen has her own narrative in progress, and that narrative is the story of Cinderella. Kathleen has a double helping of unsatisfactory parents. Her own parents, in an unusual piece of current affairs, are unavailable as a result of the Troubles, her father in prison and her mother having "run away to America", that undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns. She has therefore been taken in by her Uncle Harry, who is well-intentioned but largely absent even when he is physically present (it takes Sirius some time to think of him as anything more than a thunderous voice) and the deeply, inexcusably unpleasant Duffie. The household also contains two Ugly Brothers, in the Duffields' two sons, though they eventually turn out not to be so ugly after all. And that leaves Sirius to play the part of Buttons, though that may be pushing the analogy too far.

There is no fairy tale ending for Kathleen, though. She eventually finds her fairy godmother, though she has to seek her out, but she will never be restored to her rightful kingdom, and the happy ending for Sirius means pure loss for her, try as he may to redeem it. There's a complexity and an uncertainty in the ending which the first part of the book did not prepare me for: and certainly while I was throughout noticing vivid descriptions and revealing observations, somewhere around the two-thirds mark my reading shifted gear, and I was no longer pausing to notice, no longer stopping to draw breath, running non-stop with the Wild Hunt...

And the lesson we learn from this is that memory is not to be trusted. Rereading, the gift that goes on giving.

[User Picture]From: sovay
2017-02-12 09:16 pm (UTC)
somewhere around the two-thirds mark my reading shifted gear, and I was no longer pausing to notice, no longer stopping to draw breath, running non-stop with the Wild Hunt...

I remember reading Dogsbody for the first time in elementary school and being able to recognize the hounds of Annwn instantly from their white coats and their red ears, chapters before they were named in the text; that was one of the first times I recognized that knowing stories could give me an advantage, though mostly I was just happy to make the connection. Conversely, the title was the first time I'd heard the term, so I didn't realize it was a play on words rather than your average fantasy compound noun.
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2017-02-13 12:06 pm (UTC)
I associate those colours with the horses of Faërie, though I can't tell you why. So I knew that Sirius's markings made him no ordinary dog, but not where the story would take this. And of course I came to all DWJ's books as an adult - which I sometimes regret...
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[User Picture]From: klwilliams
2017-02-13 12:54 pm (UTC)
When I first read Dogsbody as a child (around 11, I think), I hated it. I don't remember why, but it was enough to turn me off of DWJ. I didn't pick it up again until I was in my thirties and friends had assured me I'd love DWJ, and then I enjoyed it (and had completely forgotten why I'd hated it). So rereading is good.
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2017-02-13 02:41 pm (UTC)
How odd, that we should both have had a blind spot about the same book! Do you generally like books about animals?
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[User Picture]From: klwilliams
2017-02-13 06:25 pm (UTC)
It's not animals per se that I like or don't like, it's how the books are written. Some I love, some are meh, some are yuck. I seem to recall that I felt that Dogsbody was a very negative book overall, when I first read it, but I didn't read it that way as an adult.
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