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"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: The Beginning Place, by Ursula K. LeGuin

The Beginning Place - Ursula K. Le Guin

Awhile back, Slate published an article denigrating the phenomenon of adults reading YA fiction.  In my little black heart of hearts, I sort of agreed with it.  Which isn't to say that all YA fiction is bad, or that people shouldn't read whatever the fuck they like to read, but I just fundamentally don't grok the adult obsession with YA -- mostly because I hated being a teenager.  The thought of endlessly returning to that horribly awkward life stage via fiction makes me cringe, and I can't quite wrap my head around exclusively preferring a genre whose only defining characteristic is that the characters are teens... unless you are a teen.  But the article's scoldy tone was bullshit, and some of my friends were offended when I said I thought it made some interesting points.


The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was being dumb.  Just like it's weird to me that some folks read only YA, it's equally weird that I'd despise the whole concept so much.  It's a very broad category encompassing all kinds of writers and all kinds of subject matter.  And I mean, The Hunger Games was awesome, right?  So, to prove myself wrong (and, partially, to appease my affronted friends), I picked this one up.  It's Le Guin, it's spec-fic, it's short enough to breeze through in an afternoon.  The perfect slap in the face I needed to remind myself that books aimed at teens could be wonderful.


But ooooohhhhh lordy, did I pick the wrong book.



The Beginning Place follows two city-dwelling teenagers, Hugh and Irene, and their adventures in an unnamed and thoroughly bog-standard magical land.  All of your typical bad fantasy clichés apply:  Pseudo-medieval setting?  Check.  Quest against evil?  Check.  Chosen One narrative?  Check.  Time spent in magic land taking up virtually no time in the real world?  Check.  Adventures in magic land as metaphor or catalyst for protagonists' coming-of-age and sexual awakening?  Check.


And the thing is, I don't really have a problem with any of those clichés per se - I'll get lost in Narnia or Middle-Earth as happily as the next nerd.  It's how shallowly and mechanically everything is slapped together here, with no sense of meaning or purpose or basic coherence.



The prose is the first problem.  It's choppy and bloodless, alternating between flat declaratives and run-on sentences of doom.  Here's one:


As if all the suburbs, the duplex development motorhome supermarket parking lot used cars carport swingset white rocks juniper imitation bacon bits special gum wrappers where in five different states he had lived the last seven years, as if all that was unimportant after all, not permanent, not the way life had to be, since just outside it, just past the edge of it, there was silence, loneliness, water running in twilight, the taste of mint.


As if all the arbitrary nouns repetitive clauses floating adjectives commaless flatulence purple monkey dishwasher added up to anything readable.



And then there's the dialog.  Here's an exchange between Hugh and his mother:


"I'm going to miss the beginning of that movie on Channel Six, you watch it for me till I get home."


"Bye bye then."




"What kept you so late?"

"Walked home a different way."

"You sound so cross."

"I don't know."

"Take some aspirin. And a cold shower. It's so hot. That's what I'd like. But I won't be late. Take care now. You're not going out, are you?"



This is not a conversation between two human beings.  When I hear this in my head, it is in the voices of Beldar and Prymaat.


Or, my favorite utterance from Irene:


"What shall I do?" she whimpered aloud.


If there's one thing modern American teens whimper when they're under stress, it's the word "shall".



It's not just the writing style that I hate, though.  The plot is hollow and capricious, full of events that obey no logic or consistency.  Hugh and Irene discover that something is preventing the denizens of the magical land from traveling; whenever they try to leave their town, they are struck by a paralyzing, indefinable fear.  Thus, no trade can occur and people are beginning to starve.  Despite never having seen it, they seem to instinctively know that this problem is being caused by a monster that lives on the mountain, and that only Hugh is capable of killing it.  Why Hugh?  Because as a non-native, he isn't subject to the fear.  Why Hugh and not Irene, even though she is smart and strong, actually speaks the native language, and knows her way around the land far better than Hugh?  Well, who knows.  I guess hero-questing isn't a job for girls.


But what is this monster anyway?  Where does it come from?  Why is it so scaaaary?  None of this is ever explained.  I guess it's just supposed to be a metaphor for Hugh and Irene's fears out in the real world, and once they kill it (or, Hugh kills it, and Irene fawningly tends to his masculine wounds - and yes, sex is part of this tending), they can go back to the real world and be empowered to be like, fuck you crazy mom, fuck you rapey stepdad, I'm moving across town to live with this person I've known for three days.


None of the plot developments make any sense, and the reader is practically mocked for wanting it to be otherwise.  Now, granted, I am a sci-fi girl much more than a fantasy one, because I like things to have explanations.  If some weird shit happens, I want some wacky pseudoscientific expounding on how it functions.  But in fantasy it tends to boil down to "a wizard did it".  And that's not my style.


But still, Hugh and Irene's complete lack of curiosity about how and why they've ended up in Middle-Earth-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off is so grating.


Here's Hugh: "Either he was crazy or there was something unexplainable going on, some kind of monkeying with time, the kind of thing his mother and her occultist friend were interested in and he was not interested in and had no use for."


Cool story, bro.  Your lack of interest or sense of wonder or even mild surprise at THE STOPPAGE OF TIME is so welcome and refreshing!  Please, tell us more about all the shits you don't give about THE LAWS OF PHYSICS AS WE KNOW THEM breaking down and ceasing to function!


"Maybe it did not stop, maybe it ran very slowly there, time was different there, entering the glade you entered a different time, a slower time.  That was nonsense, not worth thinking about."


Yeah, I mean, who cares.  I'm so glad we have you as our intrepid guide on this magical mystery tour.


And Irene's no better.  She's been coming to this place for years, and is basically like, meh.  "Always outside the benign hearth-center lay the twilight and the silence, the unexplained, the unexplored.  She had been content that it was so."  Such a sense of adventure on this one too!



Meanwhile, much of the story is spent explicating all the ways Hugh and Irene just can't fucking stand each other.  Not in that obnoxious cute rom-com way, either -- there's no spark or chemistry between them, it's just bitchy Irene and sullen Hugh spitting bile and hating each other's face.


Instead, pages are devoted to Irene's worshipful love for this dude, the Master.



Well, no.  "The Master was a spare, swarthy man with a hawk nose and dark eyes... A harsh man, a dark man."


So more like



Anyway, the Master is the mysterious mayor of the magic municipality (AUGH I COULDN'T HELP MYSELF), and Irene wants it rill bad.


"She came here because her love was here.  Her love, her master.  No one would ever know that, no one would ever understand it, that center and secret of her life, that silence.  In his age, in his mastery, in his strangeness, in his hardness even, in all that divided them, in the distance that held them apart, there was room for desire without terror, there was room and time for love without effect, without penalty or pain..."


Remember what I said above about the run-on sentences of doom?


MEANWHILE, Hugh is lusting after the blonde daughter of the Lord



... sure, let's go with that.


Anyway, he's known her for about three minutes and doesn't speak her language, but that doesn't stop him from rhapsodizing for FOUR FREAKING PAGES about his deep and abiding love.


"It was as if he had been blind and she had come to him, and his eyes had cleared to see her... Each act and object had its meaning, now, for when she had touched him her touch had taught him the language of life..."


And so on and so on.  FOUR PAGES of that, my friends.


But then, as soon as Irene and Hugh (who HATE each other, remember) are sent out on their quest, it's only a few days before they're fucking and deciding they're married.  Not a single mention of the Master or Blondie ever again.  Ho-kay.  I get that their previous passions were silly crushes, but I don't understand why the book treats their sudden proximity infatuations with each other as so much more emotionally mature.  But by this point the book was mercifully almost over, so whatever, woo-hoo, those crazy kids finally got together, can I stop reading this yet??



I tend to think of YA fiction as being fluffy and theatrical, full of hooks and cliffhangers and character drama, but light on depth and literary quality.  So it's ironic that I picked this book as a YA standard-bearer, when it has none of the striking characters, dramatic plot twists, snappy dialogue, or crackling romance that characterize the best books in the category.  Instead, it's stale and impenetrable, boring and dark.  There are no emotional or conceptual hooks, no sympathetic or interesting characters.  It's like YA fiction from some grey alternate universe, where there is no joy in storytelling, where magic and romance and questing and valor are so desperately tedious and sad.


You have failed me, Ursula Le Guin.


(2014, #29)