Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Compass Rose Points Every Which Way

"The problem with possessing prodigious talent," Dr. Jacobs said, "is that it means you can do just about anything." It was sleepy spring afternoon in Modern British lit class, one made all the more drowsy because we were discussing the notoriously difficult poetry of W.H. Auden. But despite my lethargy, I wondered at the incongruity of the statement. How could an excess of skill prove anything but a blessing? I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. "Auden’s dilemma," Dr. Jacobs continued, "was one of selection: How could he settle on a single style when he performed well in all of them?" This must have been the predicament Ursula K. Le Guin found herself in when collecting the short stories that compose The Compass Rose.

In the book’s preface, Le Guin admits that "the stories it contains tend to go off each in its own direction." Indeed, the collection is written in a veritable riot of styles. A number point toward science fiction, and some of these would have made George Orwell proud. One describes how a tyrannical bureaucracy gets undone by mysteriously rising sea levels ("The New Atlantis") and another delves into the secret diary of a lab technician whose job of probing mental patients’ minds secretly aids a despotic government ("The Diary of the Rose"). Others are more lighthearted. "Intracom" gives Star Trek the slapstick treatment, with a spaceship’s incompetent crew trying deal with a stowaway alien and still deliver their cargo of breadfruit trees to a distant galaxy. "The Eye Altering" uses the travails of a sickly colonist on a hostile planet to show how beauty comes as much from the beholder as the thing beheld.

But no sooner do you acquaint yourself with the futuristic tack than Le Guin swings you in fantastic and speculative directions. "The White Donkey" interacts with Indian mythology, while "Gwilan’s Harp" turns the tragic destruction of a beautifully made instrument into a meditation on the ravages of aging. Some find Le Guin giving her internal academic full rein, pondering the nature of language ("The Author of the Acacia Seeds"), locale ("The First Report of the Shipwrecked Foreigner to the Kadanh of Derb") and the clock’s ruthless advance ("Some Approaches to the Problem of the Shortage of Time").

And finally, lest we become too comfortable with genre, The Compass Rose leads to literary pieces, too. Two men ponder relatives’ deaths with radically different results ("Two Delays on the Northern Line"). A theoretical physicist loses his mind trying to quantify the number of the earth’s dead ("The Water Is Wide"). And an exploratory group composed entirely of South American women becomes the first expedition to reach the South Pole in 1909 ("Sur"). More impressive than Le Guin’s range of vision is the skill with which she executes almost every story. That very range becomes both the collection’s bane and blessing. The wildness of subject matter almost guarantees that many won’t be to your liking -- and that a few may find your heart’s true North.

(Picture: CC 2006 by
Inky Bob)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Glad you finally got around to reading it. I actually liked the incongruities--I guess the fact that anything would happen meant that I wouldn't expect it when something I liked showed up. And of course when I don't like a story, I don't have to wait long for the weather to change.

Also, I read "The White Donkey" as being about your typical fantasy unicorn, with a protagonist who has no idea what that--or even a horse--is.

Also also, I wish I had written "Gwilan's Harp." It's a beautiful love-story to the whole folklore/fantasy muddle. And it is so perfect in its music--and soothingly life-affirming in its compassion--that it seems it could single-handedly justify the genre.

Loren Eaton said...

I was expecting you to chime in! Alas, I don't have as much reading time as I would like, but I've been sneaking in a short story a night for the past couple weeks.

While reading this one, I was struck by Le Guin's skill; she can literally do just about anything, just like Auden. That's probably why she can also be a little perplexing. You just can't pigeonhole her. That being said, I really loved "Intracom," and another one of the shorts will show up on the Middle Shelf sometime in the future. I'll let you guess which one.

(I think you're right about "The White Donkey." Guess I missed the important stuff in that one.)