I ran into mention of Frank Portman‘s Andromeda Klein in one of my various frequent search safaris. Here was a “young adult” novel that showed up on my radar because of a surfeit of esoteric references. It seemed unlikely that the story would live up to the seriousness of the references that brought it to my attention. But, even the first few pages seemed thick with terms that most readers might not manage to get past.
For just a minor example, in the first few pages one runs into references to Hermes Trismegistus, Thoth, Mrs. John King van Rensselaer, the ancient Egyptian city Hermopolis, mention and description of several specific tarot cards including Two of Swords, the term ‘soror’, the Warburg Institute, A. E. Waite, Aleister Crowley, Francis Yates, Pamela Coleman Smith, Celtic Cross spread, the Qabalah, some Hebrew letters, the world of Yetzirah, the Sephera Chokmah, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Giordano Bruno, Madame Blavatsky, witches, Lemurians, gnomes … and, not last or least, bone disease. This is all within the first ten pages … of a young adult novel.
I mean, I’m into this stuff and so I can hardly imagine what it would be like to read this story if I were coming to it fresh without background. Picking up this book for a newbie must be a bit like going into an initiation of sorts. One might have some sense of the general idea that’s going to be explored, but the specifics are going to be a surprise unless you’re the kind that ruins that sense of adventure by reading ahead. But even still, there’s this sense that things just won’t necessarily make sense right away, and maybe only make sense after doing research over time.
And, the story is definitely thick with references and only some of them are explained at all. My initial thought was that for the generation that’s never been without google or wikipedia, that’d be a good thing … reason to look stuff up and find things on their own. It definitely doesn’t apologize for the data, and after finishing the novel (in spite of the glossary unceremoniously placed at the end) there are many references that aren’t explained. Seems like the author’s first novel, King Dork might be a bit like that too, actually; including having a glossary at the end, but with different kinds of references. Frank Portman seems to not make much by way of concession in talking down to the reader. That’s actually kinda refreshing. I’m not sure it’s the best strategy for a nominally “young adult” novel, but it’s definitely different. And, really, why not have a difference from the bazillion bland books being bandied about by bookshops as hopefully half a fraction as attractive as Harry Potter, books heavy on the fantasy but light on the quality. Here’s a book that takes the laudable chance that standing out, and being different, is worth it in the end. But, this doesn’t seem to be a book for kids. Definitely this seems like something for an older target audience than kids, and, indeed, the suggested age is 14 and up. But then again, kids nowadays …
Okay, except, here’s one thing that struck me. The cover of this book seems to have a gratuitous lightning bolt.
My first reaction was that It seems an annoying thing if the only reason that’s there is to resonate with Harry Potter fans. There’s no reason for it that I recall from the story, so it seems simply to be deceptive visual marketing. I’m not saying the cover isn’t nice. I like it.
Frankly, I like the cover of the two song EP [also,et], which music was composed and sung the author, better as visual art, but the book does have a nice cover design, though not spectacular. Again, it’s different than the many copycat covers trying to simply knock off the Harry Potter cover styles, but in a way that kind of makes the superfluous lightning bolt even more cheap as a design choice. Then again, it occurs to me that I can rationalize the cover as a graffiti riff off the Harry Potter cover font and design, with a self-consciously mutilated printed page; that is to say, this could represent a DIY-culture statement of self-conscious identity both claiming and disclaiming connection. Other than that, the cover is brilliant in the same way that the GranPré covers for the US Harry Potter books tie into some main part of the plot without giving anything away in a spoiler.
On the other hand, if you’re looking at the hardcover, be sure to check out the inside of the dustcover. There’s a great, and even more great because unnecessary, touch there. (If you want to check it out, there’s a picture of that here.) At first sighting, I thought it was an alternate cover meant to look like one of Andromeda’s school textbook or notebook covers, the kind I was always doodling on back in the day my own self. But, it’s mainly just a bonus bit of design, which is as entirely appropriate to the story as the primary side of the dust cover. (Some day one of these series of books is going to make the spines create an interesting image on the bookshelf when they’re next to each other, and it’d be neato if this idea of using an alternate cover design were how that’s done.)
As I read Andromeda Klein, I felt the pacing and delivery to be appropriately punkishly quick and even a little syncopated (especially given the author’s background). For me it’s fast-paced with information, but it’s also fun. Could I even say a hint of Tom Robbins in feel to me? Sure, I can say it. There are lots of things that are revealed in the story, and not just plot points. There are a lot of terms, concepts and ideas that are explained a paragraph or more past where they first appear. But, there are also some that take a lot longer or aren’t explained at all. In at least one case, I found myself wondering if the choice to not explain a reference was strategic: Anton LaVey is mentioned but the abbreviation “CoS” is never explained to “Church of Satan”. That choice seems a bit ironic since there’s a bit of appropriately absurd satanic panic included in the plot, but it might just be one example of something that is simply never explained. Seems to me this would either be something a reader would love or not love, and that’s another refreshing thing; instead of being denatured in order to be more accessible.
Look, this is to Harry Potter or Harry Dresden as The Invisibles series is to The Illuminatus! books. It’s punk, damnit. Andromeda Klein is grounded in the gritty reality of a world where kids do things like have sex, drink, cut, die, fight, and, of course, are attracted to the occult. This is also a world where both kids and adults can be troubled, irrational, suspicious, narrow-minded and cruel. But, there’s also striving to find meaning and connection. And, for a rare few, there’s the drive to develop and change the world, even if that’s just one person at a time starting, like a well-known conversation between Krsna and Arjuna, with the self.
This story has a style, which seems to be the overall style of the author, which isn’t compromised. That’s a delightful thing. The story might have been told without this style, but why? Why make the telling of a story just another bland porridge of words lulling the reader along easily toward a final “meh”? The style of this story makes the reading of it an experiential example of the way the main character thinks and sees the world. Some of this distinctiveness is mediated by the realization that it isn’t completely unique since it appears at first blush to be the author’s overall style as well in King Dork; but, it really works for this character and this story natheless. (This, of course, must needs be tested by reading King Dork, ASAP!)
The references are a bit thick, and it’s also got its own idiom. There’s a lot to decypher in this story, just like in much of the source materials contained in the esoteric books mentioned within. Won’t say or imply it’s Clockwork Orange level of idiom, but to me it’s got a kind of Whedonesque flavour in its willingness to develop its own language and quick (oc)cultural references. At first it seems to be doing self-conscious name and concept dropping, but I came to like it. It’s part of the fun. Won’t say or imply it’s a got a lot of hidden meaning that requires one to actually treat the text to analysis through esoteric techniques, but the story demonstrates and models the main character going through a lot of esoteric thinking, pattern seeking and connection exploring.
One of the consistently fun dimensions of this story for me was the use and playfulness of language, terms, concepts, idiom, malapropism … it’s word play without being superfluous. Unlike, say, a Xanth novel where the story simply seems to end up being a delivery method for word play which came before or independently from plot development, instead the word play is integrated and an essential character to the development of this story and character, where language and the fractured nature of that is a reflection of the nature of the main character. Not a few times, I thought to myself as I was reading a passage with a fun malapropism: I wish I could more spontaneously talk like that. The only other time I recall right now I’ve felt that was reading some Heinlein dialog, the parts where there are several conversations going on at once, syncopated. I feel this is a unique experience of the written word when compared to others nominally intended for the young adult audience, although I somewhat gather that there will be a similar sense to the author’s other work. The point is that this story definitely has a voice, and one that was compelling to me.
Andromeda Klein has got a lot in there to offend uptight parents and squares, with magick, sex, drugs, death, language and more attitude. Even those uptight about esotericism will likely get tweaked. It’s kind of refreshing, actually. There’s way, way too many stories with weakly developed “magic” in them. I mean, she does an LBRP in the library and is actively practicing Liber Jugorum, for just an example among many. And the frankness about which a wide number of topics are discussed is interesting and similarly refreshing. It’s spiffy.
The author’s approach to a wide variety of topics is refreshing and unique. Probably nothing exemplifies this more clearly as a single example to give the character of the rest than the simple fact that Aleister Crowley is not a boogeyman in this story even though he and his work are included both implicitly and explicitly throughout the story. But, these references are matters not treated with sensationalism or as an ersatz archetype of evil, both of which are so very often the case when authors seem to take the easy, lazy way out. Rather, the life of Andromeda Klein is suffused with fictionally drawn and developed, to be sure, but also essentially normal and natural magical practice and rite and thinking in both action during the story and exposition of events outside the timeline in the book.
All this, you know, talking about interesting things, can’t come without cost, of course. I read that one of the author’s appearances at a school was cancelled because of parent complaints. And, I think this actually is the book that all the reactionaries thought Harry Potter was, as far as even only the esoteric references go. But, you know, even if you took all that out there’d be plenty left to cheese off the same kind of people that couldn’t even handle Judy Bloom, maybe enough even on just about any single page. However, I’m really heartened by the statement on the copyright page that “Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.” That statement doesn’t appear on the copyright page of the edition of King Dork that I picked up that includes a preview of Andromeda Klein, so that statement appears to be uniquely in this book. Good on them, anyhow, to stand up with and for a work like this. And, I suppose one of the best things for getting the word out would be for more people to freak out and thus only advertise wider that it exists but also essentially prove that the book is something worth reading.
I once lamented the treatment of magick in stories like Harry Potter and others, essentially convenient literary mechanisms with no real meaning or necessity. What would a story look like if it were written with real magick in it, I wondered. Well, this story may be the closest thing to what I imagined yet. The Universe moves or not for Andromeda because she’s making progress working on herself and her environment in accordance with her inner drive to find and then fulfill her own individual purpose.
This story shows a kind of magical thinking that isn’t offered in other stories. It’s explicitly ceremonial and symbolic. It’s not just a MacGuffin or Deus Ex Machina to drive the story, it is the story. Rather, magick literally has personality. Moreover, magick has several characters. There is a demonstrated Intelligence, and that makes the story surprisingly intelligent.
I find myself feeling that Andromeda Klein will have a place next to The Various and Below the Root for me. While reading I held up that hope it would hold up. At times, I even crossed my fingers. In fact, for me the comparison to Below the Root is apt, especially because of the way that Snyder’s novel was frank about sex and drug use as well as also being similar in that it faced complaints from parents and adults for that treatment.
And, know what else is cool? She’s not an orphan. it’s a little thing, but that’s refreshing too. Of course, there’s Harry Potter and quite a few current literary protagonists like Lyra and Lirael and Sabriel and Dorothy and Superman and Batman and even Dahl’s Matilda was essentially, if not technically, an orphan until the end of her story. Further, there’s Moses and Vulcan/Hephaestus to name only a few more historical examples. The archetype of orphan is an almost obligatory line item in the pedigree of literary children with special powers, and it is extremely overused even if I also recognize that it has very strong resonance. [see,et,et] As I read the story, I actually had a creeping dread that Andromeda would turn out, somehow, to be an orphan just because of how overused that trope is in such stories.
However, while not an orphan Andromeda is very much a rough ashlar, of course, but the formula is different. She still fulfills an archetypal function which represents a flawed origin. Andromeda is Batman to Harry Potter’s Superman. She is not miraculously the chosen one, but rather has gotten to be who she is through hard work and lots of research. Andromeda is maybe a post-modern Everyman or Chauncey or Zelig, on a kind of Fool’s journey toward attainment, even so far as to starting out, not as the blank protagonist, but rather as a physically, socially and emotionally flawed former sidekick to her late best friend. So, actually, in some ways, Andromeda is, perhaps, like a young Robin in a universe where Batman died too soon and his parents didn’t (See, because even Robin was also an orphan!), learning to become Nightwing on his own, without actual super powers but still a hero with amazing skills and a story worth telling.
The library angle is definitely a nice touch. The excitement I thought I’d feel while reading is what I thought I’d feel reading Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat after such heartfelt recommendations from the librarians I once worked with, though for me Weetzie Bat didn’t quite live up to my built up expectation. There’s not nearly as many library science references as there are esoteric ones, but there’s mention of interlibrary loans, reference desks; and, the politics of the public library as part of a library system and in the community is definitely part of the story.
So, honestly, after finishing the book, I’m actually not entirely sure that the ending was quote-unquote satisfying. But, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. This was a story that was also unique in that it wasn’t a perfect Hollywood ending wrapped in a perfectly explained and ordered bow. Like many European or non-Hollywood films, I’m left with the experience of a compelling story, regardless of some notion of being satisfied, that I could hardly put down and read the whole way hoping for it not to end all the while looking forward to each new revelation. There’s ambiguity left over at the end, even if there were, to be honest, also a couple bits of dénouement that had me rolling my eyes or feeling an opportunity was missed, and not just sequel-ready ambiguity. Sublimely, some of that ambiguity is around the ultimate nature of magick, and that such a central element to the story is left as an exercise for the reader to decide about for themselves seems to me to be a beautiful thing because first and foremost it rejects a fantasy of magic for a truth of magick. In fact, I can imagine how hard it might be to develop a sequel to this story, as there’s so much character and world development in the esoteric references and thinking that to re-hash that, as sequels often are forced to do to bring new readers up to speed in case they’ve not read the first installment, would require re-telling so much of the same story as to be ponderous and overwhelming. This could easily be forever a standalone novel, even with the left over ambiguity. Maybe even better because of that left over ambiguity after all.
Even though I find the ambiguity and uniqueness praiseworthy, I find myself drawn to wonder idly where does Andromeda fit in the Wold Newton family and how long until there’s an appearance of Andromeda in Wizard Rock. Perhaps these are just whimsical questions, but I did find myself wondering about them.
However, in spite of, but moreover maybe because of the apparent flaws; I, for one, would happily read the other, as yet unwritten, 21 volumes of Liber K. And, I recommend this book to both you and your precocious, precious little snowflakes.