Comments on Elizabeth Hand’s Waking the Moon

Comments on Elizabeth Hand’s Waking the Moon

All comments from Butterbur’s Woodshed, and used here by permission of the authors.
From Mary Stolzenbach’s ON THE ROAD:

Hand, Elizabeth. Waking the Moon

“Waking the Moon Or, TAM LIN on drugs…”
Not only did this book involve two kids meeting over a quote from children’s literature, just as Con and I muttially quoted A.A. Milne at a second meeting, it also mentions Jane Harrison’s Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, the book Conrad was carrying under his arm at our first meeting. (Truthfully, I thought at the time it was a bit of pseudointellectual showing-off.)

On the architecture of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception: I knew a former student who used to tell a long story about a poor devout woman, Poor Crazy Margaret, who was kneeling- one day, praying, in the middle of the Shrine, when lo! The Virgin Mary appeared to her! And she said to her, “Margaret, go and tell my priests that they are to build to me a beautiful church. On this very same spot.” I never spent much time at or near Catholic University and hope that Byrd, or someone, can tell us how close Elizabeth Hand’s conception is to the reality. The name for it she’s come up with, both the full version and the shortened “the Divine,” works beautifully.

Warning: plenty of spoilers will appear in this discussion.

On first reading, several of the murders seemed telegraphed ‘way in advance. I was sorry to see Baby Joe go, though. Shucks. And our Exceptionally Noble Woman of Alternate Sexuality, Annie Harmony, is a pleasure to meet. One gal with absolutely no use for woo-woo makes a nice, earthy change from the other folks here… and we’re glad she survives.

Though Magda seems to be a major character, early on she is offed and disappears. The scene of her discovery of the original sacrificial site and relic is gripping and, I thought, extremely well-done. There are many wonderful set-pieces throughout this book, scenes of operatic power and conviction; and many tossed-off phrases that ring pleasantly on the mind and tongue and impress me with Hand’s stylistic talent. Still, there are passages which are somewhat flat and plebeian. One feels that some of the exposition was written hurriedly to join up the high spots, or that some of the book dates back to early versions before the writer gained her full power.

Oliver and Angelica live up to their billing as gorgeously beautiful and full of magnetism, and they are easy to picture, though I thought Angelica became a bit more tawdry in the second half. Perhaps I should make it clear here that though I spoke of Sweeney reminding me of the student I was, I would never have missed all those classes–or done all those drugs–or drunk all that booze–or…. Hey, I was pretty boring. But there was for me as well, the gaping at exotic and powerful-appearing people, who seemed completely new to my experience, the sense of being on the fringe of great things, and of moving out of a childhood shell.

Hand does houses and their furnishings extremely well. I loved the little carriage house, the large Craftsman-built house of the ill-fated “retreat,” Angelica’s desert villa, and the places of the Benandanti. And would have liked to live in some of these places (given a lot less excitement!).

Did Augustine really say that about Greek men taking over and the women losing their names? It’s like the theory Mary Renault propounds in The King Must Die; I don’t know where Renault got it.

The names are good throughout. “Othiym” works quite well, I thought, as did the imagined language of Cretan Linear A. However, in some other phrases, misspellings (“Fonzi,” “Frida Khalo,” and others) and curious minglings of Latin and Greek weakened the appearance of scholarly knowledge which is necessary to the work.

There are two excellent halves to this book with a rather rickety transition between them, I thought.

Dylan’s appearance was a coup de theatre, and an effective one. It surprised and non-plussed me completely. As did, in fact, the later re-appearance of Oliver. This latter, however, was a bit weak as I never quite saw how he did it. Had the Benandanti kept him out of sight, and out of action, all this time – and while matters went from bad to worse with his former inamorata in the way of taking over the world? If there is a power struggle which kept the Benandanti from acting earlier and more effectively, we are not shown it. Is he just wearing drag for … well, what reason? Has he indeed, magically or whatever, become female? Did his little bit of do-it-yourself surgery succeed? (Tim Powers, call your office!) Hmm, wonder if this is meant as a kind of replay on the extreme offering the priests of Cybele made to the Great Mother in ancient times…

Sweeney, while a bit abstracted, is not shown as a hermit. How could someone become as casually famous in the culture as Angelica, and Sweeney still not know a thing about it? Doesn’t she ever look at the Washington POST? Angelica would have been all over the front of the STYLE section, more than once, by the point which we have reached in the latter action of the novel.

Just one more nit: The silver Iunula’s gleaming, when discovered, had to be a miracle of the Goddess; Hand should have said so. Silver buried for centuries–or even for a few weeks in your sideboard–doesn’t gleam, normally; only gold can do that. Especially when Hand also mentions Oliver’s silver pocketknife, “tarnished almost black.” It looks careless.

p. 202–“Winesap Computers”–! Oh, come on, Elizabeth Hand! But I loved the mention of the Smithsonian Castle and the Carousel, intimate features of my landscape in our twenty years off-and-on residence in the Washington area. Hand has Washington weather down, too, especially the oppressive heat in which scenes are chiefly set.
From David Lenander’s DARK OF MOON, or the air was BITING
in Butterbur’s Woodshed #29, July 96.

Responding to Mary S.
I very much enjoyed your discussion of Hand’s Waking the Moon. I read this book over Wiscon weekend, waiting for programs to start, when panels turned dull and I couldn’t get up to leave the room for disturbing everyone in my way, in bed at night before falling asleep, etc. I read it very quickly, and had trouble putting it down. I especially like the beginning, the description of one’s first city, and Washington, D.C. What did you think of her description of Washington, aside from the oppressive heat? Your point about the mixing of Latin and Greek is interesting, reminds me of the objections to “homosexual.” I hadn’t thought of it while reading the book, though. Your theory about the variation in style, between the poetic and powerful passages and rather “flat and plebeian” sections was interesting. It ties into a discussion I’d like to have taking off from the critical thesis about style put forth by Eleanor Cameron in one of this year’s Scholarship Award nominees, The Seed and the Vision, a book I recommend. I have another theory, that she simply didn’t have time to work on the manuscript long enought to poeticize it all to the same degree (think of Moonwise, Greer Gillman told me at Wiscon that it takes her very long to write a book-no surprise to anyone here, I’ll bet), and probably doesn’t want that effect. But, personally, I’d like a lot more of it. Your focusing on the early sacrifice of Magda’s character underlines for me the major problem I have with the book.
I don’t know if I’m objecting to the same thing that a respected critic at Wiscon (where the book won this year’s Tiptree Award) mentioned objecting to in the book, a “disastrous ending” (I think that was his word, but I’m not sure). While Magda’s death may be a good foreshadowing of what will happen to Angelica, I think the problem is that the same damned thing happens to Angelica. We have a situation where the patriarchy has suppressed Woman and the Moon for thousands of years, perhaps many millennia, to achieve the World We (Almost) Know (“Almost,” because it isn’t quite our world, but close enough). And no, I’m not speaking up for monthly sacrificing of males, but the minute-by-minute sacrificing of females is not a better situation. And our main characters are set up to find a middle-way, something new, a new option. We don’t get it. In fact, the same old same old is restored at the end of the book. What’s the point? I feel like I did at the end of The Worm Ouroborous. All that reading, for this? (I was only a sophomore in high school, I didn’t know that the future held Moonwise or The Naked Lunch). Frankly, after showing me that my world is a horrible place, I don’t want you to propose that after all, it’s the best we can hope for. This book betrays any thoughtful reading, unless it’s intended to inspire these kinds of objections. But I don’t think so. It represents a failure of vision so total that the book itself, as well as any sort of Platonic Eucatastrophe, is utterly betrayed. Not that I didn’t love the beginning. Even most of the book is salvageable, though I’d readily cut fifty pages, especially of the repetitive sacrifices. It may be that Hand plans a sequel, in which some new, middle way is found. After all, we do have the opportunity in Sweeny and her young fellow. But there’s not enough here to indicate much hope in that regard.
This book is unquestionably a great page-turner, and I can certainly accept arguments that it’s mythopoeic, I couldn’t argue otherwise, myself. I’ll even go so far as to say that if the MFA goes to this book I’ll be able to say gracious and nice things about it. But although better-written than (for example) many of De Lint’s books, it’s not as good a book as The Little Country.

From Eleanor Farrell’s THE VIEW FROM THE STRAND
Written for Butterbur’s Woodshed #28 (May 1996)

Mythopoeic Fantasy Award Nominees
Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand

I enjoyed Hand’s earlier connected novels, Winterlong and Aestival Tide, for their dizzyingly decadent settings and opulent style, but this new book is definitely superior story-telling. It begins with Katharine Sweeney Cassidy’s arrival as a new student at the University of the Archangels and St. John the Divine, and the beginning of her friendship with the mysterious and colorful Angelica and Oliver. All three characters are destined to play a role in the conflict between the Benandanti, the clandestine order controlling the Divine, and the blood cult of the Moon Goddess.

This brief synopsis doesn’t do justice to the complex and well-constructed plot of this novel. First, the book is enjoyable as an ‘alternate universe” story, as the setting is juxtaposed on that of Catholic University in Washington, D.C. (as Parnela Dean’s Tam Lin took over Carleton College in Minnesota). The author’s treatment of the patriarchal Benandanti [Hand states in her notes that they really exist, in a more benign state, and I would love to find out more about them … ] and the Moon Goddess followers is very well-balanced, so one finds sympathetic characters on each side without being fed any philosophical or religious agendas. (Whew!)

April 28, 1996

Waking the Moon wore me out in every good way possible. I read this book like a maniac. I couldn’t get the words in quick enough. I read it while nursing the baby, cooking dinner, at red lights, while the (slow) printer was going. Yes there were some problems with it, but they failed to cloud the overall experience. Big, big fun. And the connections to other favorite books was wonderful. The Tombs of Atuan, That Hideous Strength, The Other Side of the Sun, — it was like a feast of memory. This book also deserves some heavy consideration for the short list, and the award. It seems mythic, and the ending (which soared above my every expectation, I thought Dylan was a goner!) perhaps places it in the spirit of the Inklings. It is a story about which I can joyfully say, I can’t wait to read it again! My only real problem was the change from first person to third person in the narrative; sometimes I lost the thread. Yet many things rang true, from the sublime to the strange, Sweeney’s desperate love for Oliver, her desire to fit in and be extraordinary, her loneliness were so heartfelt that I ached with her. And I really liked Annie. True independence is always refreshing. The description of Oliver’s shaved head reminded me of my husband, who did shave his own head once with a disposable bic razor and foolishly put rubbing alcohol on the cuts. And he didn’t have the drug excuse! Just good old rock and roll nuttiness (and Collin is also pretty darn gorgeous, even without the blue eyes). I do have one technical question for you knowledgeable folks: In ch. 12, ” The Priestess at Huitaca,” one of Angelica’s incantations includes the word or name “Zenunim.” In Madeleine L’Engle’s book, The Other Side of the Sun, a family that is involved with ancient pagan rituals is named “Zenumin,” which is obviously very close to the word Elizabeth Hand uses. Who is shading who? Is Zenunim an old godigoddess name, or is Hand echoing L’Engle, or is this all chance? Any enlightenment from any of you scholars? I would be most grateful.

Like I stated, short and hopefully sweet this time. After the overall discouragement of last year’s list, I am so happy with this year’s list, and whoever wins will at least have the merit of being in good company and competition.