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Fool on the Hill

March 25, 2010

Is it ever a good idea for a magician to explain his tricks?  When you find out the mechanics behind an illusion, it leaves you feeling disappointed when you realize there isn’t really any magic involved.  Even worse to be shown how a hot dog is made.  There are some things man was not meant to know.  It should come as no surprise, then, that when Matt Ruff shows us the ugly workings of how a story is made in his novel Fool on the Hill, he gets mixed results.

That I felt that there was some wish-fulfillment going on in this book would be an understatement.  S. T. George is a multiply-published, rich and famous author who has a writer-in-residence post on the campus of Cornell University.  He slays a dragon by story’s end and gets the girl, and no, I am not revealing any spoilers by saying this.  Along the way he gets to have fantastic sex with a goddess.  George is too much of a dork to accomplish any of these things by himself, so we get to see the god Apollo manipulate events in his life into the shape of a story.

Fortunately, the side characters – and the prose itself – are good enough to make up for a bland leading man and love interest.  (Her name is Aurora and she’s a Daddy’s little princess – three guesses as to what happens to her.)  This alternate Cornell is populated by pixies, a possessed mannequin, and Ragnarok, the Black Knight.  Ragnarok is an undergraduate haunted by his past in the Klan and interesting enough to be the main character of a book in his own right.

Matt Ruff is a master of the throwaway reference, rivaling Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics and perhaps even besting him for the sheer density of the things.  One of the characters (he’s a talking dog) approaches a pair of canine philosophers to ask them about the nature of the divine.  They inform him that they are waiting for Dogot, and ask him whether he has seen him.  No mention of this incident is ever made again.  There is also the case of the best scene of the book, when the villain’s rat army is preparing to take over Cornell’s dining hall.  They forgot to account for the hall’s head chef:

Vermin?! Vermin in my kitchen?  DUH-HYUN!

The chef is Swedish, in case you were wondering.

Ruff is also capable of writing beautiful prose … when he feels like it.

“Are you real?” he asked her, still dizzy from the fall.

“What?” Myoko glided up to him.  “You been into something heavy tonight, Li?”

He didn’t answer, but reached out gently to touch her, as if fearing that she too might whirl and vanish.  He clasped her hand in his, marveling at the feel of solid flesh and bone; he brushed his fingertips against her cheek.

True, there are so many gonzo occurrences in this book that it can only be called a WTF book, but it’s a good kind of WTF book.  The plot is contrived.  Ruff acknowledges that it’s contrived, and even goes to lengths to show us how he … I mean Apollo … contrived it.  As a writer, I’m quite familiar with the manipulations that Ruff/Apollo undergoes to get characters in the right places so that coincidences can happen.  I’m just not sure if it belongs in a finished product.  When an author tells us he’s about to employ a deus ex machina, it’s not as much fun anymore.

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