Caliban’s Hour – Tad Williams

A long-held habit of multi-tasking is hard to break, so you’d think I’d listen to more audio books.  Effectively reading while doing chores – winner.  But I don’t.  The cost of audiobooks aside (though that’s a lot to put aside), I just never have been drawn to books-on-tape (or whatever the format).  Generally I’ll listen to music or a podcast while cleaning or some such – there’s not as much need to hear every word (except, of course, for Chop Bard).  Also, I haven’t enjoyed the narration of some of the audiobooks I’ve sampled.  Librivox is a wonderful thing, all volunteer if I understand correctly, so good on them … I just haven’t been able to settle in with some of the voices, like a Jane Austen or two I’ve started.  I’m voice-fussy.

However, my car is still trying to kill me by randomly changing stations in mid-song (several times, when it wants to).  I know there is intent behind it and that its intentions are evil because it’s switched me to the country station knowing I will do anything it takes to get OFF the country station.  Then it sent me to a hip-hop station, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I found myself upside down on the verge, wheels spinning, half-killed by the impact and the airbag and still flailing at the radio controls.  I’d tried a tape – The Hobbit, actually, which was one of the times I haven’t enjoyed the narration because it was too much rather than too little, and then something went awry with the playback.  I’d tried a CD, but after a few days of behaving just fine it suddenly would start skipping around the tracks when I accelerated.  (The car is evil, remember.)  I tried my iPod for a while, and there was nothing the car could do about that – except that the cord tangles with the seat belt and earbuds fall out, and when the buds are in place I don’t like being that deaf to outside noise.

Ron Perlman at the 2006 Toronto International ...

Image via Wikipedia

So when I came across an audiobook I picked up some time back at a library sale, Tad Williams’s , I decided I’d give the cassette deck another try.  The main reason I bought it was probably the author; I liked Tailchaser’s Song, and I liked The Dragonbone Chair and Stone of Farewell, though I got bogged down after that.  I think the audiobook’s narrator came as a pleasant surprise after I bought it: Ron Perlman.

I adore Ron Perlman.  And Ron Perlman’s voice is one huge reason I adore Ron Perlman.  His performance in this was beautiful.  In places, this was not fun, and the only saving grace was that voice.

Add to Ron Perlman and Tad Williams the conceit that this is a sequel of sorts to Shakespeare’s Tempest, and this ought to have been heaven.

Well…

I started calling it a Shakespeare fan-fic, and every virtual page just cemented this for me.  It’s both a sequel to The Tempest and the story from Caliban’s point of view.  It’s both knowledgeable of the play and completely dismissive of it … and anyone who’s read any of my blog knows how “dismissive of Shakespeare” is going to sit with me.

Basically, the tale takes place some twenty years after The Tempest, and a shadow has come to Verona seeking Miranda – seeking revenge.  It’s not spoilerific to say that once he discovers where she is, he spends the rest of the story looming over her in her bed forcing her to listen as he tells her his version of everything that happened.

Everything.

Abso-bloody-lutely everything.

The two areas in which this story frustrates me are the pace and the language.  Not my usual complaint about crudity or lack of imagination, but the opposite.  This Caliban is silver-tongued, lyrical, and most of all verbose.  The language shouldn’t bother me, but I keep thinking “Really?  Caliban using a word like ‘inchoate’?”  I thought, well, I suppose Shakespeare gave him as good a vocabulary as any of them, and as Prospero taught him not only to speak but to read and he therefore had access to Prospero’s books, “inchoate” isn’t too big a stretch.  I don’t think. Except if Caliban has been alone on the island for twenty years, no one to talk to, no books, nothing, I would think some of the vocabulary might atrophy.  Now, four-plus hours of listening to guttural monosyllables would be unpleasant, even in Ron Perlman’s voice, but my opinion is that if you’re going to base your work on someone else’s you need to have some respect for the original.  Otherwise, why bother?  I contented myself while listening to (most of) it by telling myself that no character in Shakespeare is monosyllabic; Prospero did in fact teach Caliban, so Caliban could legitimately be well-spoken.  Except if Caliban has been alone on the island for twenty years, no one to talk to, no books, nothing, I would think some of the vocabulary might atrophy.  But then I finally went to take a look at the play.

Caliban speaks 1348 words in the play, totalling 5631 characters (that may actually include some punctuation; oops).  That’s an average of (assuming I did cull all the punctuation) 4.177 letters per word.  I sorted them and eliminated duplicates and counted them again, and that gave me 541 unique words, totalling 2781 characters: about 5 letters each.  (He says “I” and “me” more than any other words, which brings down his overall average.)  He never uses vocabulary like “inchoate”, he never waxes rhapsodic as the novella’s does.  He does use some polysyllabic words, but they are mostly names and words that he heard from Prospero: “nonpareil”, for example.  I don’t buy this Caliban’s eloquence.  Also, I don’t believe it was ever said that Prospero taught Caliban to read.  

The other Issue I have, the pace, is a more serious quibble.  When I step back from it, I realize that it’s a good story, and the writing is, on the whole, excellent; it’s a solid, knowledgeable (I think) imagining of Caliban’s origins and inner life.  My frustration with the book is that I can’t shake the feeling that this could easily have been a short story My issue is the storytelling conceit that Caliban is standing over Miranda spewing out all this tale, a tale which takes something like four hours on the cassettes but which would take a person telling the story ex tempore a good bit longer, I’d expect.  And I just can’t buy a setting like this, of a man stooped over a woman’s bed for hours at a time, threatening her with death, but in the meantime … just talking.  Without the framing story (and the occasional “You see, Miranda”), told as a straightforward tale of The Tempest From Caliban’s Angle, I think this would be much stronger.  Or perhaps if it started just the same in a prologue, then as he stands over Miranda and declares his intentions switched to straight storytelling, beginning, middle, and end…  As it is, the storytelling grew somewhat aggravating as Caliban described his childhood, then the second-or-third-hand details of the time before his birth, then the time after Prospero and Miranda arrived, then before, then after, then pre-birth again, and so on.

Caliban’s intent is revenge upon Miranda, of course – but it’s not a quick revenge.  First he is going to tell her things she needs to know.  Starting with the moment she and her father set foot upon the island.  No, starting with his earliest memories.  No, starting with his birth.  No … starting with before his birth.  When he finally comes to the point of killing her at the end, I was replying to Mr. Perlman along the lines of “Oh, thank God, yes, please”.

The repetitiveness of this is just a little exasperating.  It kept reminding me of a complaint I once heard about Shakespeare (and which I’ve never found true in the plays) – it goes on and on for three pages (or the audio equivalent) and the upshot of those three pages is: it’s raining. This goes in a spiral that circles tighter and tighter till there’s nowhere to go – then breaks open the spiral, only to start a new one.  I wonder if this would be as aggravating in print; probably.

I find it so very surprising that the novella directly contradicts the play in many places.  Is Shakespeare supposed to have been an unreliable storyteller?  A spin artist bent on white-washing Prospero?  Caliban bitterly attributes the deaths of all the sailors on the ship to Prospero – when, in the play, no one died.  No one.

PROSPERO
But are they, Ariel, safe?
ARIEL
Not a hair perish’d;
On their sustaining garments not a blemish,
But fresher than before: and, as thou badest me,
In troops I have dispersed them ’bout the isle.

Here Caliban, of course, limns himself as the long-suffering hard-put-upon tragic hero of the piece.  He never did nothin’.  Rape Miranda?  Why, he never.  It was all her fault.  Plot with Trinculo and Stephano to kill Prospero and give Miranda to Stephano as a gift?  Not hardly.

Either Shakespeare or Williams’s Caliban is a big lying liar, and my money is on Caliban.

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One Response to Caliban’s Hour – Tad Williams

  1. Pingback: 61 Sleep no more | Bard Blog

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