Vellum by Hal Duncan

Macmillan, 2005, 528pp, £17.99
reviewed in Vector 243, September-October 2005

We are all postmodernists now. At least in the literary sense, where familiar postmodern techniques of intertextuality and word play and unstable realities are casually crafted onto familiar fantasy tropes of the ultimate battle between good and evil. Vellum occupies that suddenly hip Miéville-esque hinterland between fantasy, science fiction and horror, but more than that it gathers within its capacious girth elements of Mesopotamian and classical mythology, liberal helpings of authors as varied as William Shakespeare, W.B. Yeats, Pat Barker and H.P. Lovecraft (at one point referred to as ‘Liebkraft’ to let us know we are in an alternate reality), and snatches from more pop songs than I could possibly list. The scene shifts, often within the space of a single sentence, from contemporary Glasgow to near-future America to ancient Sumer to the First World War to the Spanish Civil War to the Caucasus during World War Two to heaven to a variety of strange worlds stretched out across the vellum (I’ll come to that later). And as the landscapes shift, so do the characters. A leather-clad biker chick is also Inanna is also an upper class Anglo-Irish single mother just after the First World War; a rough-tough Irish sergeant in the trenches is also Prometheus bound to his rock is also Satan; a homosexual student in present day Glasgow is also an archaeologist who makes a dreadful discovery in the 1920s is also hired muscle for an angel. And so it goes. You need to keep your wits about you as you try to disentangle the myriad strands of story and character and setting, but even that won’t really help; it is a world where anything can happen, which allows for impossible situations to be casually tidied away by authorial fiat, or sudden leaps of time and space with no real explanation for how situation A could possibly have led to situation B.

If that makes it sound like a mess, it is. An engaging, clever, witty and at times gripping mess, told with sufficient verve that you do not notice too many of the gaps and contortions of the plot, but a mess nevertheless. Even so it will be, I suspect, a best seller; it flatters the reader with its ingenuity, the plotting is audacious enough to take the breath away, and there is genuine storytelling swagger here that keeps you reading even while it makes no sense.

As to what actually is going on: there is a scene, around page 200, when we see that the throne of heaven is empty. It is a brief scene, quickly over, because this is a long novel made up of brief scenes quickly over, which makes it feel like it is even longer. There is no rhythm to the book, just this staccato stop-start shifting of gears, and some thread that looks as it if might constitute part of the plot can disappear for scores of pages before re-emerging at another place and another time with a different cast of characters. But hold on to that idea of the empty throne. It seems there never has been anyone occupying the throne, but rather in the dim and distant past certain men and women achieved a state somewhere between immortality and godhood. Some of these became mythic archetypes, recurring in the same role throughout history, eternally returning to the same actions and relationships. Others took on a different aspect, what we might call angels or demons. More, even upto our own time, can join these ‘unkin’, usually as a result of experiencing a sort of timeless horror during warfare. Under Metatron some of the unkin formed a sort of heavenly bureaucracy known as the Covenant (a significant choice of name for a Scottish author), others broke away and became the opposition. Whether you want to gift one side with the name angel and the other with the name devil implies a value judgement irrelevant to the situation, and even some of the unkin have resolutely not chosen sides. But now war is brewing, and it is important to gather all the unkin for one side or the other, because the war is going to change past present and future, and might actually decide who sits on that empty throne.

But that is only part of the story, because there is also the vellum. There is a scene very early in the novel which sets up the vellum. We are shown a book, the Book of All Hours, which is really a sort of atlas. As you turn each page the detailed map of a locality becomes a tiny portion of a city map, which in turn becomes a tiny portion of a country map, which in turn becomes a tiny portion of a world map, which in turn becomes a tiny portion of the vellum, and the pages keep turning on and on. The vellum is a sort of infinity which stretches out as a continuous landmass co-terminus with our own world, and within the vellum are any number of minute variations on our world. How this geographical infinity belongs with the historical eternity of the heavenly war story is never exactly clear, but throughout the novel we keep switching to an exploration of the vellum, which may in some interpretations, be the realm of death. And there is another story going on here, the discovery of a written language which predates human civilisation by millennia (and which allows Duncan to employ that hoary old cliché of the translator who begins with a message saying: this is a joke, and ends crying: burn this message … aaarghhh!). Although one of the discoverers of this language is one of the archetypes who populate this novel, this strand of plot feels to be completely at odds with everything else going on in the book. Mind you, this is the sort of time-shifting, world-shifting epic which allows any inconsistency, so it may all belong there after all. And there is another volume still to come.

Maybe it will all make sense, but at the moment this is extraordinarily entertaining nonsense.