FEBRUARY 25, 2017
BEFORE I CAN INTRODUCE YOU to Knights of the Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden and Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin — two new Irish works of young adult (YA) fiction full of majestic scope and symbol, clockwork antagonists, and determinedly crappy parents — I have to introduce you to my Uncle Carl.
Uncle Carl was a mystic. He was brilliant. I like to picture him crying for two years on a windy beach after he and Freud had their terrible breakup. He’s not technically my uncle, but Carl Jung became a benevolent defender of every odd and gawky imagined niece and nephew when he published Psychological Types in 1921, with the insight that different people experience reality in fundamentally different ways.
As defined by Jung, extraverts (not the “I like parties” kind) relate to the objective world around them as it is, and their reality is oriented to the tangible, the useful, and the measurable. For introverts, however, objective reality merely operates as a springboard for a more subjective, completely internal experience, and that experience is their real reality. Moreover, if you are an intuitive introvert, your subjective experience is a deluge of visions of the possible, of archetypal fantasies, and of other pretty (pretty!) colorful things.
Because archetypal possibilities are difficult to express coherently and rarely pay the bills, society usually doesn’t highly value the intuitive introvert. “From an extraverted and rationalistic standpoint,” says Jung, “such types are indeed the most fruitless of men.” I like to picture Jung valiantly defending the lived reality of introverts, brandishing a salad fork at an assembly of know-it-all fine-dining extraverts, proclaiming “[o]nly a sick mind could forget that cognition must have a subject!”
To be a speculative fiction writer, you have to be an intuitive introvert. According to Jung, an artist reveals “extraordinary, remote things in his art, which in iridescent profusion embrace both the significant and the banal, the lovely and the grotesque, the whimsical and the sublime.” This perfectly captures the etheric, beautifully grotesque, immensely satisfying descriptions in Dave Rudden’s Knights of the Borrowed Dark.
When I read a book, I always ask: What does the author love? Freud loved his own genius. Jung loved the numinous. Stephenie Meyer loved Edward + Bella 4EVA. Dave Rudden loves describing the monstrous and eerie, and making sharp, witty juxtapositions between the divine and the mundane. The novel centers on Denizen, a 13-year-old orphan who finds out he is related to a group of knights who fight other-dimensional creatures called “the Tenebrous” that emerge from the shadows.
Fleshing out a reasonably standard fantasy hero’s journey are descriptive gems like this:
It was massive. That was the first thing Denizen noticed. Its sheer size was an assault on his senses, a weight that forced him back. Its limbs hung asymmetrically from vast and jagged shoulders, badly wrought wings rising to scrape the tunnel mouth — stone scarring white in its wake.
It dragged short and violent gasps through the mouthless thumb of stone that served as a head. The shadows of the tunnel came with it, hanging from its throat in cobweb curls, snaking like veins through its lumpish chest.
Each shuddering step it took drove home to Denizen how wrong it looked.
As if you’d been asked to sculpt an angel, but you’d never seen one before, and there were people to tell you what one looked like … but they hated you.
Knights of the Borrowed Dark is filled with brilliant turns of this kind, limning absolute poetry with the equally evocative, deceptively spare ruminations of the young hero, all using vocabulary accessible to YA readers. There are short unexpected turns that continually add a bright, lively feel to what is otherwise a familiar young-hero-encounters-great-evil plot line. Rudden also incorporates a descriptive synesthesia into his characterizations, turning senses onto themselves to evoke a deeper feeling. Denizen, for example, has “eyes the color and sharpness of a nail,” and as Denizen’s friend Simon is hiding from the creepiest otherworldly member of the Clockwork Three (the most dangerous of the Tenebrous), we encounter this description:
The moment stretched maddeningly, and Simon became convinced that he could hear the bzzt of his nervous system, the hoosh of his sweating skin, and, finally, beneath it all, the tink of the future becoming the present one second at a time.
Rudden’s deft mixing of the senses is both precise and greater than the sum of its parts; his prose is the work of an intuitive introvert who loves describing his visions and does so with great aplomb.
There are a few bright, numinous, symbolic aspects to Knights of the Borrowed Dark that particularly deserve Jung’s attention: first and foremost is the nature of the Tenebrous, who emerge from the shadows and compose themselves in the shape of broken images in the material that surrounds them as they approach. Jung saw the greatest part of the person to be unconscious, underground, and otherworldly, taking on every part of the self that consciousness couldn’t accept — until, after enough repression and renunciation, communications from the unconscious burst forth and demand attention. Communications like sickness, strange compulsions, and twisted viewpoints. Anyone who has ever found themselves awash in a sea of tormenting impossibilities, with seemingly mundane aspects of life taking on terrifying new positions, can relate to the experience of encountering the Tenebrous.
The related, second notable aspect of Knights of the Borrowed Dark is the nature of the main villains, the Clockwork Three. Creepy, humanoid, made of moving gears and parts, a strange family that thrives on pain and fear, they are evil from the standpoints of both the human and the Tenebrous worlds. From the Jungian view of an unknowable unconscious that gives rise to symbols that break forth into real life, a terrible evil that emerges from the darkness and represents itself as human feels truly archetypal and timeless.
When we enter the world of Sarah Maria Griffin’s Spare and Found Parts, we encounter a different angle on such clockwork-type imagery. Griffin imagines a post-apocalyptic world in which an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) weapon has wiped out all computers (and artificial intelligences) and a subsequent strange plague has devastated the human population. Generations later, the people of this world still exhibit signs of this plague and are born missing eyes or parts of limbs. These can be replaced with advanced prosthetics designed by our main character Nell’s parents; Nell herself has a ticking clockwork heart.
It seems that Griffin’s material comes from a desire to do more than merely describe her visions. Jung saw this branch of the intuitive introvert family as grappling with a “moral problem” which “comes into being when the intuitive tries to relate himself to his vision [and] confronts the question: What does this mean for me and for the world?”
What does Sarah Maria Griffin love? I think she loves social utopia with a side of individuality and ecstatic bliss. Her visions aren’t merely descriptive, but also prescriptive, and her novel therefore offers a very interesting and winding tale.
Let’s start with the big symbology. In Spare and Found Parts, the term “contribution” is used somewhat flexibly, both for official, end-of-adolescence projects that are presented to a legislative committee, and for any great developments that affect society. Nell’s mother’s contribution to society is, apparently, the design for an enormous statue of a woman pointing out to sea. Stone workers (working-class people who are looked down upon by the inventor types, despite the fact that no one seems much better or worse off) have been building the statue all of Nell’s life, defying any laws of gravity and physics that might limit the height of stone structures.
Griffin establishes the titanic statue as a symbol for Nell’s own internal struggles, yet this overt symbolism doesn’t resonate as deeply as the moments when the novel turns its attention toward representations of social utopianism. In Nell’s town of Black Water City, multiracial people and relationships abound; the lesbian parents of her best frenemy are casually referred to as “my mothers”; the main character very naturally considers boys and girls as possible mates; and nonbinary people and the pronoun “they” are introduced with all the warmth and love that a mother cat shows her newborn kittens:
“I’m Nic Fern,” said the last person, flannel clad, a bobble hat on their head, short tufts of mousy hair sticking out from under the wool, both feminine and boyish at once. Their voice was tender and gentle, almost a whisper. They extended a hand; both of theirs were porcelain coated and painted with thin green vines — newer models. Nell shook their hand, and it was warm — definitely newer.
Nell is another kind of introvert: the feeling introvert. According to Jung, this kind of introvert, rather than experiencing the world through cascades of archetypal visions like the intuitive type, values and organizes experience around the secret depths of their feelings. What’s more, if this kind of person conflates their personhood with their ego, they will become ambitious, just like Nell does. A feeling introvert will often try to keep an internal balance of her feelings (which are her most potent reality) by distancing herself from people and things that could evoke intense emotion. Thus, we watch Nell flinch from, squeeze by, avoid, barely tolerate, and openly despise people who either love or don’t mind her. Nell eventually finds an interesting solution to her social alienation: she will build a boy from prosthetics and give him a mind from a contraband computer — an undertaking considered “blasphemous” since the EMP blast. “It must be easier for you to imagine building someone new who meets your every need,” her best friend Ruby quips, “rather than make a compromise and try to see the world from my perspective, even once.”
Jung was not overly optimistic about the relationship prospects for the feeling introvert, and it does stretch believability that Nell, who barely tolerates others, has such loyal and dedicated friends and family. One way to come to terms with this as a reader is to remember that the story is told from Nell’s point of view. Perhaps those around Nell have a different experience of her than she does of herself. Maybe there is a lovely vulnerability in her eyes, or the flowing arc of her hands as she pushes you away is inexpressibly beautiful, or she smells just fantastic.
Nell’s journey through Griffin’s delicate, nuanced prose becomes a more active adventure once Nell finds people to help her create the boy who is made from “spare and found parts.” Upon descending into a secret lab (for Jung, stairs down always seem to mean down into the unconscious), she comes upon electronically produced music and people dancing, and she has possibly her first positive emotion in the narrative:
Whatever was blasting through the air was definitely music. Delight, when it arrives out of no place at all, is like an electricity that runs through passages in bones and out through hands and up into mouths. It is a beautiful shock. Nell nearly screamed with joy.
From this ecstatic, intense moment, Nell is able to propel herself through the determined and individualistic achievement of her “spare and found parts” boy, to survive horrible realizations about her terribly selfish parents, and to join with a tribe of people who share her dream of bringing the gifts of computers back to society.
Knights of the Borrowed Dark and Spare and Found Parts exemplify the writing of the two kinds of intuitive introverts (those who purely transmit what they see and those who try to affect the world with their visions). Younger YA readers are sure to relish Rudden’s gorgeous descriptions of a young hero’s journey, and teenagers will relate to the desires to create a perfect person to love and have an impact on the world that Griffin so ably captures. Interestingly, each of these new novelists thanks the other in their acknowledgments as key members of their “Doomsburies” writing group. We can only assume that Jung, who surely knew the importance of sharing ideas with enthusiastic collaborators, would be very happy for Rudden and Griffin to continue to inform each other’s work for years to come.