Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Book Review: Rakesfall by Vajra Chandrasekera

What the heck did I just read (complimentary)?

I've apparently been on a bit of an unreviewable fiction run. I'm not complaining (they've all been stellar) but Rakesfall, the new novel by Vajra Chandrasekera, is not ending this streak on either count.

If you have read his previous novel The Saint of Bright Doors (which Adri covered as part of her roundup here), you might think yourself familiar with the strangeness Chandrasekera puts in his stories - the geography that shapes itself to will and politics, the deftly inexplicable intrusions of the fantastical into the world. But I say to you, having read Rakesfall now, my friend, you have absolutely no idea the depth of the pool into whose shallow end you have merely dipped your toes. The weirdness is off the charts, and he's holding no one's hand this time, except to drag them through the layer by vivid layer of this strange, piecemeal story that slowly coalesces into a sublime whole, without you ever noticing it happening.

The story follows two characters (or perhaps more) whose lives touch each others again and again and again, throughout time and space and branching timelines. Through a sequence of at first what seem like unconnected stories, we see them relate and relate and relate over and again to each other, to the world, and to the substance of their own relationship, until we begin to see that the story has never really just been about them, as if the kind of relationship that transcends lifetimes can ever be a "just". I've seen the book described by some as a series of short stories with a thread of connection between them, but that does no justice to how thoroughly interwoven each part of this novel is, if you're paying attention to look for the connecting threads. They are everywhere, offhand comments and motifs and themes and ideas and names and ghosts all. Some of them even reach further, back to The Saint of Bright Doors, although I would not call this any kind of sequel. What do these characters do? Well, many things. But it is not in their actions that the story really lies, but in their interrelations, and their relationship to the story, to the very idea of stories, instead.

Some books are plot heavy. Some are character driven. Some world-building focussed. Rakesfall is in the rarer category of theme-driven, and the even rarer still selection of theme-driven and also good. And its strength there lies in not letting itself get too bogged down in one single message, to the detriment of all else. Some stories have a single driving ideal at the core of themself, and by focussing on it to the exclusion of all other parts of craft, they wear down the reader so much without rewarding them that the book becomes a lecture instead. Chandrasekera does not have one note here, but a symphony - to say this book cares about one thing is to have missed five others. I'm sure I have missed five different things in my own muddling through. But I found plenty, and each is gently, quietly interwoven with all the others, to be drawn out by someone wanting to look for it. As a story about stories, it understands how crucial a part the reader plays in that dynamic - the need to trust them, to let them find their own way, their own understanding of what is provided, and feel no need to browbeat them into comprehension, to require them to take a single canonical point. The themes I found in it - and enjoyed, well-explored as they were - were around power and oppression, colonialism, autonomy, destiny and inevitability, the role of the player in the story, the power of choices. I am certain I missed some axes of it that overlap into politics I don't know well.  

But the reader does need to be willing to do the work. And that, I think, is going to be the trouble for this book. It is never going to be escapism, or a pacy, distracting, linear read. It's a book whose content, whose meaning, is to be worked for, and it is important to go in willing to put in that bit of effort.

Because if you do? You will absolutely be rewarded.

If nothing else, the prose is delicious. One of the delights of being the age I currently am is that there are now more and more authors writing books who grew up on my internet, on my references, in my generationalect, so to speak. People who use the slang I use, in the tone I use it, whose view of the world is so clearly coloured by the vast, unpoliced, unpatrolled and uncontrolled wilderness that was the internet of the 90s and 00s. I see that in Rakesfall, too, in the way Chandrasekera switches tone and formality, using a downshift into the casual as a subtle irony, or to undercut a mood, like so:

The simile of the two-handled saw is not a parable. It isn't even a story. That it is self-consciously a simile suggests an unseriousness, a little haha hoho, a little lol j/k.

Or the way tone and formatting intrude in the following segment of a quasi-mythical tale within the story:

One day, the king on his throne hears faraway weeping, and he knows it's from the haunted cemetery outside his city, where a seditionist poet impaled for high treason cries, undying or undead, for water. All his soldiers pee themselves a little, so the king calls up his favourite wrestler, biggest face in the city, beloved far and wide as the best good guy who isn't afraid of anything, and the king says, my Beloved Bro, will you Please take this Cup of Water out unto the Dread Cemetery and give it to that Loud Fucker, and Tell him to (a) Pipe down and (b) give Thanks to the generosity of his King? And the wrestler says, Sure Thing my King.

There's a whole essay you could write about the use of capitalisation here, as well as the contrast between that "unto" and the "Loud Fucker"/"Beloved Bro". The way the tone rattles around between high, mythic formality and the numinous and then right down into the most informal and millennial of slang resonates beautifully with how the story is, itself, told, meandering through time and place, through people who are the same but different, from the visceral act of self-flaying in a bathroom to an undying being flying through space. So often, "inconsistent tone" would be a deserved insult, but here, it is anything but - in that inconsistency, it maintains coherence with its own ideas of itself. It could not be the story it is if it were tied down to a single way of speaking and being. This is especially true for tying it in to the characters, who might otherwise be held at arms length from the telling, and who need to be in close, for you to see the echoes of themselves throughout their selves across their time.

Even aside from his tonal choices, the language Chandrasekera uses is consistently well-chosen. He dwells often on the physical, on skin and blood and texture, on the cutting of flesh and the lolling of tongues, and that is so, so necessary in a book whose concept and overarching purpose are so distant from the grit of humanity. It needs tying down, grounding to something familiar, to let us explore that vastness.

But it is not just the prose. Though distant, the characters are well-drawn, and though confusing at first, the plot coalesces into something truly great by the end of the book. Where many stories experience a quickening towards the end, a visible moment where things begin to come together, and where the pace of events kick up a notch - the Eurovision key change moment, if you will - this has none of that. I say "coalesce" because that is exactly what my understanding did, emerging from the mist of the story with delicately paced exactitude. There was no one moment of insight, just a steady, dawning comprehension that lasted over a third of the book, and left the final page closing with a deep sense of satisfaction.

With every compliment I can muster meant - because it's one of my favourite books, and one I would so rarely draw a comparison to - what Rakesfall reminded me most pointedly of is Vellum, by Hal Duncan. Both are stories that use concepts of personal archetypes, a group of souls rattling around time's dice cup, bumping into each other through eternity. Both reject linearity. Both reject categorisation. Both embrace the grit and grime of humanity alongside the sublime, and refute any idea of a mismatch between them. They're not the same book, by any means, but they have some of the same spirit, and must be approached in similar ways. I suspect Rakesfall, as I find Vellum does, would reward each reread with discoveries of new twists, new nuances and new references, and give the reader a different experience every time. And, ultimately, both are books I want to put into people's hands and just say "it's fucking weird, I can't explain it, just trust me... and come back when you're done". They're books to have conversations about. They're books to have conversations with.

Which is, ultimately, why I adore Rakesfall. It's a story that understands stories, and asks the reader to work with it, to reach out and meet it part way, to understand those stories too. To draw from a negative review I saw of it online - it is an experience as much as it is a story - and the beauty of that is that that experience is necessarily a singular beast. My time with it will not be your time, nor my own in a year when I come back to it (as I surely will), pen and paper in hand, ready to make notes. And because it yearns for you to reach out to it, to work with it, because you must do the work to listen and to think, the experience that comes out at the end feels all the more intimate, all the more personal, all the more beautiful.


The Math

Highlights: beautiful, winding, tone-shifting prose; a plot that materialises gently out of the ether; immaculate pacing

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference: Vajra Chandrasekera, Rakesfall, [Tordotcom, 2024]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat.