no critical faculties feels sort of obligated but has very little to say: jesse bullington’s the sad tale of the brothers grossbart

About a year ago I purchased The Sad Tale of the Brother’s Grossbart, quoted it, then left it to languish while I read the less promising of the two books cited at the link because, hey, Gene Wolfe. I finally dug Grossbart out of that stack, over there, a few weeks ago and plowed through it, engaged but not overwhelmed, struck mostly by its grasping grotesquerie and frequent invocation of beards.

I mean it is right there in the title just look at it.

Hegel and Manfried Grossbart are terrible men who commit a terrible crime in the opening pages of the book; then we hang out with them for four-hundred-and-twenty-five pages while they stumble south toward their ostensible goal (the kingdom of riches they believe their father, and his father before him, stumbled into) and inevitable comeuppance. The brother’s horribleness is the most immediately striking thing about the work. Bullington does not attempt to soften their actions: the violence is described in gruesome detail, as is the brother’s indifference to what they have done. Grossbart is almost unrelenting in its insistence that its protagonists not display any sympathetic traits for the reader to cling to.

Maybe it’s not quite the Kane & Lynch of medieval fantasy literature: they have time and space to reflect on and discuss what they’ve done, and as I read I wondered if their self-righteous evaluation of their actions didn’t work in hand with my natural inclination, as a reader, to cleave to the protagonists of what is read. Alright , so they’re terrible people who’ve done terrible things but they are convinced that they’re doing the work of the Virgin Mary and they are facing things more fundamentally evil and grotesque than even them and they are kind of a grotesquely skewed reflection of the absurdity of all the small-minded, aggressive, parochial people they encounter in their unpleasant jaunt across medieval Europe. There are even a few grace notes, in which one of the brothers is obviously effected by whatever horrible thing he has done.

Of course, these are only moments, swiftly pushed back by the driving action, or one of the the circuitous, blasphemous theological discussions they use to justify themselves. These discussions are often hilarious, and so.

“Is damn strange, though. Seems someone must a closed their ears at some point in the tale and got it all crooked when it came out again. She’s the bride of the Lord, yet She’s a virgin. A virgin what gets with foal. Then She gives birth to Her Husband.”

Hegel chortled. “Guess he got in there after all!”

“Watch your blasphemous tongue,” snapped Manfried, tugging his beard. “Had you the sense to listen you’d hear how I got it all figured.”

“Oh you do, huh?”

“Damn right. See, one thinks She can’t be a virgin, cause virgins can’t have babes or they ain’t virgin. The Lord’s pole is pole nonetheless, Hell, if anythin, it’s the biggest pole to ever poke fold.”

Hegel unbunged the cask, reckoning they needed some sacramental beverage if they were to truly unravel the mystery.

“But She’s definitely a virgin, I mean, just look at Her.” Manfried held up the Virgin he had recently carved. All day he had waited for an excuse to show up his brother’s necklace.

“No question,” Hegel agreed, trading the beer for a better look at his brother’s handiwork.

“So here’s what I think. The Lord comes pokin his thing round Mary, bein all sweet and tryin to get him some of Her sweetness. And she straight denies him the privilege.”

“Why’d She do that?”

“To stay pure. Lord or man, She knew to stay holier than the rest She’s have to virgin for all time, else She’d be just another mecky sinner.”

Hegel stared at the statue, contemplating this.

“So the Lord’s mad, real mad, as the Lord’s wont to do. So he sticks it to Her anyway.” Manfried belched.

“No!”

“Yes!”

“But couldn’t he, I dunno, make Her want to?”

“He tried! Everythin’s got limits, brother, and even the Lord can’t make a girl want to spread for him, even if he can force Her.

“Poor Mary.”

“Don’t pity Her, cause She got Her revenge. Made sure the Lord’s son was the snivelingist, cuntiest, most craven coward in a thousand years.”

Enlightenment misted Hegel’s eyes. “She done that for vengeance ?”

“Worst fate imaginable, havin a son like that. And that’s why She’s holy, brother. Out of all the folk the Lord tested and punished, She’s the only one who got him back, and worse than he got Her. That’s why She intercedes on our behalf, cause She loves thems what stands up to the Lord more than those kneelin to’em.”

And so.

It is reactionary. In an interview appended to the end of the book, Bullington explains

I did intend to subvert some of the conventions of mainstream fantasy fiction… Much of what I love about fantasy, horror, and historical fiction seems at odds with what is currently popular in those genres, and this novel probably reflects that.

…but for all its gore and insistence on wallowing in the grubby details of its certifiably awful character’s awful lives, in its strengths and weaknesses it came to remind me of patriarch-of-traditional-fantasy Tolkien, specifically Lord of the Rings where his fair hand with Epic Romance was diluted by the more novel-like requirements of dealing with hobbits. His most powerful, or just plain effective, moments were those in which he emulated the traditional epics he was learned it, but he opened his epic with one-hundred plus pages of tiny men experiencing minor dramas and unveiling well-meaning conspiracies to accompany one another on pleasant walks. These children’s-novel shenanigans are a barrier to entry, a buffer between the reader and the real fruits of the author’s talent, whatever their ultimate narrative or thematic importance.

For his part, Bullington is strongest when invoking the lens of folklore, and the first time he really settles into applying his blood-and-guts-and-bile-and-shit sensibility to a straight-up fairy tale it’s a goddamn tour de force that kept me committed to the book when my attention was threatening to go elsewhere. He’s less riveting when dealing with the day-to-day tedium of the brother’s journey and, in the action climaxes where things go to pot or come together, these sloughs of description that left me numb. The final such was a parade of violence that I rushed through, bored, to the satisfaction of a conclusion that was far more pleasant in its restraint and invocation of masturbearding eternal:

Before their eradication, preachers of the Grossbart Heresy alleged that Saint Hegel gave his own life a second time to save his brother, but the tales of madmen and heretics are just that. Far, far to the east, however, there lies a chain of islands with curious beliefs. The people of that land have long held that eating the flesh of a sea maiden grants immortality; perhaps, then, the Brothers Grossbart still dwell in that lightless tomb long buried in sand, tugging their beards for all time.

SPOILERS!!!

One full beard up would read again with lowered expectations.

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~ by ironcupshrug on 02/06/2011.

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