David, Peter (2001). Sir Apropos of Nothing. New York: Pocket.
Reviewed 02 December 2001
Contemporary heroic fantasy is a seriously wounded literary beast. Between the Interminable Fantasy Series (IFS)most of which make The Faerie Queen and the unlamented successors to Amadis of Gaul look profoundly literaryand the tie-in franchises for both gaming and filmmost of which make the average Archie and Jughead look like realistic competition for Gravity's Rainbowthe category1 desperately needs some correction. We don't have a genius the caliber of Cervantes who is both writing and publishable in the category at this time. Sir Apropos of Nothing is, however, a decent start. Its flaws are mostly forgivable, and it does maintain much of Cervantes's arch perspective.
Structurally, Sir Apropos is a quite effective parody of heroic and high fantasy. David's choice of narrative voice is, if at times a little heavy-handed in the execution, the right one for this kind of material (using contemporary theories of narrative voice2). Further, David undermines the traditional IFS Bildungsroman structure by starting in the middle of the action and then backtracking, by false epiphany, and by enforcing consequences for acting out of character. His naming choices also quite thoroughly skewer the bombast of pseudo-Arthurian and quasi-Tolkienish worldbuilding, expanding beyond what Goldman accomplished in The Princess Bride to reach an at-times-vicious circularity. The various scenes in which the monarchs tell the sad tales of their rise to power and reveal their tragic flaws are quite nicely balanced between outrageously self-referential and blunderingly obtuse.
Apropos himself is an interesting parody of the comedic hero. In a typical IFS or tie-in, the hero will have either an unknown, and eventially valedictory, relationship to the temporal ruler, or become a Che Guevara against a truly evil temporal ruler. Apropos himself is neither: he is physically deformed, but not possessed of some supernatural powers (excepting a supernaturally sharp tongue); he is not heroic in character (or so he perceives), nor even a good-hearted scoundrel, but a thoroughly self-interested SOB whose personal interests just happen to coincidefor a while, anywaywith the so-called Quest of the Hero; he has a "special weapon," a completely mundane variation on a staff that is entirely consistent with the technology level of his world. He doesn't have a smartass sidekick, being enough of a smartass for the whole book by himself. He's not endearing; he's not handsome; he's not suave and debonair; he's not given to immense feats of prowess in battle (in fact, his successes in battle uniformly arise from cheating, such as getting all of the opposing horses at a tournament drunk before the jousting begins, thereby ensuring the success of his then-master); he's certainly no font of powers unavailable to all but the Select Few. Instead, he's a vainglorious, selfish, greedy, sarcastic pain in the assand thereby a much more successful Hero than one finds in contemporary fantasy, because his faults are real and not merely calculated to provide appropriate secondary plotlines.
The epiphanies, false and otherwise, are perhaps the best-written parts of the book, at least insofar as how thoroughly they obliterate their targets. Other reviewers (particularly the Usual Suspects at Amazon) have complained that these sections are too long. That, however, is exactly the point: they are actually shorter than their counterparts in the mainstream of contemporary category fantasy, but seem longer, more strained and pompous, and more predictable. David then ostentatiously ignores these speedbumps on the way to disreputability; the difference between Sir Apropos and the typical IFS or tie-in is that David does it on purpose, instead of through incompetence.
However, if there is one weakness in the book, it is the way in which Apropos is saved from a life of respectability as a royal consort. Not only was this result predictable, but it undermined the potential of turning Apropos loose on the court from the inside; or, perhaps, of turning the court loose on Apropos's delicately self-interested sensibilities. Given his upbringing, I find his disdain for (potential) incest (which is, in any event, far from certain) inconsistent, and the absence of true self-interest in his schemes points out the sometimes-jarring "acceptance of the awful truth" reactions of many of the secondary characters when confronted with their flaws. Frankly, the last 25 pages are completely unnecessary.
1. I am deliberately using the word "category" rather than the more-common "genre" for two reasons. First of all, "genre" is an inaccurate description, however it is pronounced; the four genres are verse, drama, narrative and persuasive prose, and expository prose. More importantly, however, just saying "fantasy" gets use nowhere, thanks to the bastardization of both the category itself and sales methods by publishing-industry marketing categories: try to find Don Quixote, One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Helprin's Winter's Tale in the "fantasy/science fiction" section of a bookstore or catalog, or conversely try to find Deathbird Stories, Buffalo Gals and Other Stories, or The Book of the Short Sun in the "fiction/literature" section.
2. That Don Quixote has a uniform narrative voice at all, let alone one as well-modulated as it does (at least in English translation, as I don't read Spanish), is itself part of the parody of the overblown chansons de geste and heroic works (Romanze) of its time. Recall that prose fiction simply did not exist in long form prior to those books. Compare the development of the cinematic POV in the early 20th centuryin the creation of a new form of storytelling, even from ancestors like theater, one can hardly expect complete consistency. On the other hand, contemporary publishing demands a straightjacketed adhesion to one of only a few choices, and thereby loses much of the richness of meaning that can be communicated through varying narrative voice.
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