Thursday 3 May 2012

The Unwritten 1: Tommy Taylor and the bogus identity by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

 It's been a good long while since I tried a new title from Vertigo. Fables was a massive disappointment. A dazzlingly simple, high-concept idea anyone could have had deserves a complex, layered treatment that everyone can only wish they'd thought of. Instead we get a less than fabulous soap opera and hackneyed The Two Towers-style building-to-the-big-fight plotlines. Y The Last Man was another potentially excellent title marred by an excessive reliance on violence as a plot engine, reducing its post-masculine world to an array of warring feminine stereotypes. The fact that the artist only seemed aware of two body types - Barbie and Ken - didn't help.

The Unwritten, at heart, is built from the same theme Gaiman, for one, keeps returning to - that the stories we tell shape us and our world. So what happens when you find out that what you are is a story? That seems to be the revelation Tommy Taylor is headed for - unless there's some vast narrative feint at play. He is the son of a writer who created a series of Harry Potter-esque fantasy novels starring a boy wizard called Tommy Taylor. Taylor's father vanished mysteriously after turning in the penultimate volume of the series. The series is an immense success, but Taylor senior's estate is tied up, so Tommy makes money touring the genre convention circuit, doing signings and public appearances as the original inspiration for the fictional Tommy Taylor. You sense that this fame is something of an albatross around his neck, a legacy from his father that he doesn't care much for but can do little to shake off, just like his extensive knowledge of the real-world corollaries to famous fictions - the places they  were written in, the places they were inspired by. Then, a series of revelations that seem to be mysteriously engineered by his own agent suggest that Tommy Taylor might be a fraud. Things get stranger as Tommy Taylor is abducted by a vampiric villain from his father's novels, rescued by a mysterious girl and elevated to a messiah by a section of fandom. He flees to his father's Swiss home - Villa Diodato, in the first stroke of genius in this so far fairly humdrum, if amusing enough narrative. Better still,Carey doesn't go straight for the Frankenstein bit but also dwells on the fact that John Milton dwelt here too. if Tommy Taylor is a boy from a story, then Milton's Lucifer and Frakenstein's monster are his siblings or uncles. There's a gathering of horror writers which makes for a comment on 'genre conventions' (oh did I use that phrase again) that, to my mind, at least equals Joe Hill's rather overrated short story 'Best New Horror'. All this more than makes up for Tommy Taylor who is a bit like the typical Gaiman 'hero': a void at the heart of the narrative, too bland to be truly memorable.

But the real kicker, the bit elevated my rating from 'rather nice' to 'jolly good' if not quite 'transcendentally scrumpy' was the last chapter which ditches Tommy & Co. entirely to follow the career of Rudyard Kipling and the role played in it by a shadowy organisation that identifies powerful storyteller and drafts them in to help shape the world to their own pattern via stories that define an age, as Kipling's works helped shore up and strengthen the colonial spirit. This is a truly brilliant episode, sensitive to the many aspects of Kipling's work - the immense power and appeal of his prose and verse, his deep idealism and its contrast to the truth of what the British Empire was about, and even his interest in fables and just-so stories as time passed. Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde have walk-on roles that are true to their characters, despite one unfortunate bit of camp dialogue between Wilde and Bosie. This story is more than just a what-if - on some level it is literary appreciation and critique as well, in the way it contextualises Kipling's work both factually and within the fictional universe of The Unwritten.

Not an unmixed triumph then, but filled with enough  of the good stuff to merit reading more.


Suresh S said...

"Could you be a little more specific...bitch?" *fixed*

JP said...

Oh look, cheap misogyny. Did you invent that on your own, dick?