Monday 6 December 2010

There Will Be Skulls


I've always known Silverberg is one of the Great Old Ones. A cornerstone of the genre, author of books like Nightwings, Thorns and Dying Inside that are classics in  the genre, and would be classics outside the genre as well if the consensus cogs would get their heads out from up the bums of D. DeLillo, I. McEwan and so forth for long enough to notice. But it's one thing to admit a writer into your personal canon and and quite another to be reminded, knee to the groin, uppercut to the jaw, nose leaking blood, head pinned down in the sand, that here, make no mistakes, is the real thing - a champion brawler, and he's not pulling his punches.

The Book Of Skulls is a yarn about four young men on a quest for immortality. It's a playing out of a cunningly crafted problem in human nature - given that only two out of four will win, that one must kill himself and one must be killed with the consent of the others, who will crack, who will triumph, and why?

It's a quadruple character study as we weave in between four first-person narratives, each one not perfectly reliable, each one rendered with perfect pitch. A virtuoso performance, but that's not all. Why are these four young men on this quest? Which of their motivations has what it takes to survive all the hardships and doubts on the way? What makes a person strong or weak? Silverberg unfolds answers to these questions with a feel for plot, language and character that is frankly awe-inspiring.

He also scores one for the genre in general.This story could not have been so profound and so real if it was just another 70s yarn about college boys from different backgrounds roadtripping across the US of A. It's the fantastic element that throws everything into perspective, that lets Silverberg give his story the momentum, presence and the power to say something about the everyday human concerns that underpin it. They say speculative fiction is about thought experiments and this is a thought experiment in human nature, conceived and carried out by a behemoth talent.


Kaustubh Thirumalai said...

Woah - this looks amazing!

JP said...

It is, but be sure to also read the other Silverberg novels I've named in the beginning - Dying Inside in particular!

Suresh S said...

Great review that I agree with. I was lucky enough to get a compilation with Book of Skulls, Nightwings and Dying Inside...for 50 bucks, good wot? BoS and DI totally blew me away. Nightwings was pretty good but seemed to to grow arbitrary after a point and the cheerful romantic end as I recall it came across as very contrived.

JP said...

Dying Inside, The Book Of Skulls and Nightwings for 50 rupees is the single most awesome deal ever. In the interests of karmic balance you should probably rip your testicles off or something.

I agree with you that Nightwings is comparatively the least of the three.

Trollkien said...

I totally loved Book of Skulls. I remember starting on it after giving up on Chuck Palahniuk's Survivor which I'd begun, beset by a vague sense of horror and panic after reading Lullaby. Some 20 pages in, I realised what a terribly limited (and just plain terrible) author Palahniuk is. All his books have the same or rather a very similar narrative voice. Every one of them has these very glib nihilistic bon mots which in their own way are as insipid as the inspirational messages that he mocks. Palahniuk pretty much like most grunge was a great reflection of the 90s - a decade that demonstrated like none before it, that you could be as superficial and shallow while being unhappy as you could while being happy.

Anyway, I was literally (or literarily)disgusted some 40 pages into Survivor and Book of Skulls was just what the doctor ordered. It was fantastically written, each character had a voice that was more distinct and recognisable than three allegedly different characters in three books by CP, and there's this fantastic reflection on death that wipes the floor with pretty much everything everyone else has written on the subject.