In tribute to Ursula K Le Guin – my review of “The Wild Girls Plus…” 2012

That price for this slender tome must prompt pause for thought. Well, I consider this book excellent value for Le Guin fans and for anyone interested in writing, irrespective of genre.

The titular Nebula Award winning story, The Wild Girls, is followed by an article ‘Staying Awake While We Read’, some poems, another article ‘The Conversation of the Modest’, then an interview ‘A Lovely Art’, followed by a bibliography and short biography. It’s soon clear that this eclectic material has been carefully selected and ordered for maximum coherence and impact.

The Wild Girls story returns fantasy to its folklore roots through clarity of language and the omniscient third person viewpoint so little used in these days of ‘show, don’t tell’ and too often reduced to an unconvincingly remote series of events. Le Guin manages this challenging style with effortless grace, engaging the reader’s emotions with the undeserved sufferings of the innocent and still more impressively, with those who cause such suffering. The intensely personal motives which drive these people enable us to understand them even amid their incomprehensibly archaic world.

While this brief tale of two kidnapped girls enslaved by a patriarchal society is written with lucid simplicity, it is not a simple story. The complexity of all the characters’ lives becomes apparent through successive revelations about the different societies of the city and of the nomads. Slaves do not necessarily bemoan or rebel against their lot. The elites can be imprisoned by the strictures of their caste. Not that Le Guin explains the origins of customs and superstitions any more than she outlines their wider world. There’s no need for this story’s purposes and moreover, this absence of knowledge draws the reader towards the underlying theme of the perils of ignorance. The story also shows how knowledge isn’t a prerequisite for recognising injustice. One doesn’t have to propose a coherent alternative to be able to say ‘but this is unfair’.

As the slave girls grow and marry in an absence of romance though not of love, they discover how they might influence those who control their lives. Thus Le Guin’s story meditates on the role of luck and chance in life as well as unintended consequences and whether or not individuals are rewarded or punished according to what they deserve. Punished by whom? What are our expectations of narrative as opposed to our expectations of reality? How does our experience of story inform our daily lives for good or ill? In forty five pages, this is one of the most-thought provoking tales I’ve read in ages.

The articles and interviews thereafter suggest answers to some of those questions while prompting readers to ask more of themselves. In ‘Staying Awake While We Read’ Le Guin explores mankind’s relationship with story through changing ages of education and literacy, making a compelling case against the commercialisation and commoditisation of books. Capitalism demands unbridled growth. In nature that means obesity or cancer. The consequences for the literary world are equally unwelcome.

While we’re reflecting on that, a handful of poems offer another master class on how much complexity of modern life can be distilled to essentials through the correct, carefully chosen few words. Not necessarily offering answers; I’m still rereading ‘Variations on an Old Theme’ in search of full understanding, while accepting it may not be there to be found.

‘The Conversation of the Modest’ explores the differences between modesty, humility and pride in relation to gender hierarchy in the modern west and also artistic endeavour and merit. If that sounds daunting and dull, never fear. It’s as articulate and entertaining as the interview by Terry Bisson where yet again Le Guin shows how to say so much by saying so little. As well she might. The concluding bibliography and biography summarise the breadth and depth of her work and rightly extol her many achievements. But only after her writing has spoken first.

Ursula K Le Guin The Wild Girls plus… PM Press 2011 Paperback $12.00 102 pages

Reviewed for Interzone 2012

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