Catherynne Valente’s novella Under in the Mere is about as inaccessible a book as I’ve read in some time. That doesn’t mean I’m not recommending it, but it’s fair warning to any who attempt it. Under in the Mere is a poetic, surrealistic “retelling” of several Arthurian tales (a mix of the better and lesser known ones), although “retelling” is really far too pedestrian and prosaic a term for Valente’s dense, imagistic and poetic language here, and far too limiting with regard to how she plays with the tales and with language. Perhaps “recreation” is a better description.
Here’s a short taste of the language from the opening of the first story, involving the Lady of the Lake:
Perhaps I am nothing but a white arm. Perhaps the body which is me diffuses at the water’s surface into nothing but light, light and wetness and blue. Maybe I am nothing but samite, pregnant with silver, and out of those sleeves comes endless swords, dropping like lakelight from my hems. Will you come down to me and discover if my body continues below the rippling?
I thought not.
Look out: the lake’s edges blur into the sky, blue into blue. All water flows into itself — this is the lake; this is the sea. River and shore and flux, we are all water together, and the moon shows in one just as in the other, a wide white face and a long white arm.
This opening is a relatively easy passage to follow in comparison to what is to come. To be utterly honest, there were times, sometimes several paragraphs in a row, where I had no idea what was actually happening or being said. Just as honestly, I have to admit I was seldom bothered by this. Under in the Mere, I found, is as happily experienced as it is read. At those points where “story” disappeared for me, I was just as happy to be carried along by language or by voice (each story narrated by a different character — The Lady in the Lake, Galahad, the Fool, etc.).
Actually, “carried along” implies a sense of movement and that’s probably an overstatement, implying more of a sense of structural and narrative grounding than I had at those times. Being “submerged” in the language is probably a better way of putting it; its abstraction and surreal nature is kind of like floating in a muddy lake — you can’t tell exactly where you are or which way you’re facing, but you have the general gist of the place and the sensation is not at all unpleasant as the water buoys you up. At least, not unpleasant unless you really want to know exactly where you are; in that case, the experience is probably a bit maddening. Those looking for clarity of plot should best avoid Under in the Mere.
Or those looking for faithfulness to time and place. Valente doesn’t shy away from anachronisms in her recreation. Characters sometimes speak in modern dialect or reference modern tools. And throughout the work the land of Faery, of Avalon, is linked to California — a “modernization” which I thought absolutely worked: California has always been both the land of paradise and promise (sun and Hollywood and fruit and work and high tech) as well as the land of Other (Hollywood and “liberals” and “gays” and earthquakes and facelifts).
As with any collection, the stories vary in their effectiveness, though personal opinion may differ depending on where one’s taste falls between utterly surreal poetic abstraction and clear-as-rain narrative. Several are quite powerfully moving, especially “The Fool,” “The Lovers (the story of Balin and Balan),” and “The World (the story of Bedivere).”
There is a lot here to drink in here — the language, the imagery, the way Valente plays with storytelling tropes:
I begin to think there is a plexus of these fairy women, a chain, a net, knotted by hundreds of hands in hundreds of towers. They must spread out like veins, collecting each other’s daughters, waiting for a chance to escape the pattern…
Note the poetic auditory connections here as well, the assonance /consonance /alliteration /rhyme and near-rhyme: “fairy”—“chain”, “chain” to “net” to “knotted”, “knotted to hundreds to hands”, “must” with “hundred”, “out” with “tower”, “chains” and “veins”, etc. Note the issues of sexuality and power and storytelling and myth.
Under in the Mere is a book that I believe will stand multiple readings and give you something new each time. It can be a maddening book, a frustrating book, an arcane and obscure and opaque book, but I’d have to say it’s a rewarding book for those who don’t mind being lost in the woods now and then.
Valente’s sometime-inaccessibility is given good service by her brevity. The entire work is less than 140 pages, including illustrations and white space, and the stories average around 10 pages each. The sense of being lost as to what is happening, therefore, doesn’t last very long. Give the first story a shot and if you think you can stand the sense of displacement, fall under its spell under in the mere.