Dec 26, 2009

The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Flaming

I begin this post with a necessary digression. When Steampunk Scholar began as a blog, I hadn't really nailed down its purpose, other than to find a space to write about my dissertation musings and accumulate something approximating an annotated bibliography. After I reviewed Jay Lake's Mainspring, I realized that the web really didn't need another review website. One of the main premises of good writing is to add something to the discourse on the subject you're writing about. With a million plus bloggers giving their utterly subjective opinion on a book, I felt another would be superfluous. Even my own personal blog was more reflective about films than review-oriented. Of course, the line blurs, as sometimes in my assessment of the steampunk, I must comment on whether or not the command of the aesthetic was masterful or lacking. While my bias is always present, I do my best to speak about the writing in a fair and objective manner: I try to assess the text on its terms, not the ones I lay out for it through my expectations.

After the few years I've had teaching critical reading and writing, I'm convinced that few people read books or watch movie in this way. Moviegoers arrive at theaters with subjective expectations and, when they find the film fails to meet those expectations, they write it off: "It sucked." I hear this phrase dubiously leveled at all manner of film. When Roger Ebert reviewed Fellowship of the Ring, he commented on how Peter Jackson's cinematic hobbits didn't meet his expectations, based upon his experience of Tolkien's literary hobbits. At the time, I remember thinking, "Well, you're not a literary critic, are you? So review the movie, and stop talking about the book" (I detest assessing the value of a movie on slavish adherence to the book - I far prefer Tim Powers' statement that if the adaptation is nothing like the book, but well done, then we have two great stories).  Further, you weren't there to see if Peter Jackson had stolen your memories of hobbits and rendered them on the big screen: you were there to review the movie in front of you.

I feel much the same way about most reviews of books, which tell me little about the book, but a great deal about what the reader thought the book would/should/could be. "It just didn't work for me" has to be one of the vaguest, most useless phrases in the assessment of a narrative's value. In reading over reviews for Matthew Flaming's The Kingdom of Ohio, I saw numerous statements of this kind. People's expectations weren't met, or they thought he glossed over the Tesla/Edison storyline, or they thought he spent too much time in wordy descriptions. In other words, they wanted to read another book. They were reading the text on their own terms. One review commented on the ending by saying, "no one likes a cliffhanger." This is neither true of readers, many of whom like a cliffhanger ending just fine, nor fair to the book, which does not have a cliffhanger ending. It has an ambiguous ending, much in the style of Mohsin Hamid's Reluctant Fundamentalist. As with Fundamentalist, a close reading of The Kingdom of Ohio has already revealed a great deal about what happens after the text ends. Not enough to say definitively, but enough to conjecture probabilities. Many readers like this sort of ending, because they're allowed to playfully insert their own endings. Here, the writer allows the reader to engage in expectation without the potential disappointment certainty can result in. While I can't say that all reviews of Kingdom of Ohio do so, I would say that many of them make the same mistake many readers do: they ingest words and denotative meanings without attention to connotation or construction. In other words, they grade books and films on plot instead of poetry, events instead of evocation.

To explain further, I'll run the risk of getting spammed by hate mail and quote a few reviewers in particular who had a problem with Flaming's use of history: "Too (sp) make matters worse, Flaming stumbles over some inexcusable historical errors which, while not critical to the misguided plot, were still annoying." I'm not sure which historical errors bothered this reader, but I would argue Flaming didn't screw up history--he was dropping hints throughout that the world the narrator is speaking from is not ours. The narrator mentions two game shows, Wheel of Jeopardy, and Price it Right. A reader skimming for plot content will miss a detail like this, because the names are so similar to the real shows they reference, that the brain almost doesn't register seeing them. Further, the narrator refers to TV game shows as "the last bastions of absolute truth" because they "stand by a single correct answer for each question" (30). In the same way that the revamped Trek refuses to be bogged down with the past mythology, Flaming has allowed for historical digressions which are not inaccuracies in his narrative, but keys to the point of the novel.

Readers looking for plot as the final arbiter of quality often miss the point. Consider the following:
"The story is stranded in a morass of superfluous detail. For instance, the world of this novel is exactly like our past (complete with starring roles for some of the preeminent figures of the time: J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, and Nicola Tesla), except for one major thing: In the novel, there was once a "Kingdom of Ohio," all but forgotten now. It was literally a piece of land sold to a French family during the early part of America's history, and ruled within this county's borders as its own kingdom (complete with King) for more than a century. It is this Kingdom that Cheri-Anne claims to be from, but really, what's the point?"
I can't say for certain, and I apologize for picking on these reviewers, but when students ask me "what's the point?" of short stories which are seemingly pointless, like John Updike's A&P, or Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find", I tell them to go back to the text, and read it again, carefully. What concepts are repeated? What sorts of characters do we have? What is the setting? The tone? Consider all these things, and you can likely arrive at the theme of the work in front of you. It is at that point you will be able to assess whether the narrative was successful or not. The devil's in the supposedly "superfluous detail." In Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," there are numerous detailed lists of military gear--many students on first read consider this superfluous detail. But it's not. It is essential to the theme of the short story, of the idea that intangible burdens, like unrequited love or responsibility for other's lives, are heavier than an M-60 and its ammunition.

Without laboriously unpacking the literary elements of character, setting, tone, etc., I'll simply state that the theme of The Kingdom of Ohio is the uncertainty of memory. While one reviewer suggested readers stick to H.G. Wells for a good time-travel novel (without ever really explaining why), it must be remembered that Wells's The Time Traveler was not good science fiction - Wells never explained his speculations with the obsessive detail that Verne did. He wrote a novel of ideas, of social commentary. The Kingdom of Ohio is, aside from being a romance, also a novel of ideas, exploring memory, possible worlds theory, and the difficulty of "knowing" history. The novel is exactly like our past (and our present), except that people are watching game shows with names that are familiar, but "incorrect." The reality of The Kingdom of Ohio is just off center--like Middle-Earth, it too is a secondary world, but not one so far removed from our own to immediately recognize it as such: "According to the physicist, other universes may exist alongside our own: an infinite number of worlds, one for each possible variation on our own reality." (230). This speaks not only to possible worlds theory, but also to the idea of personal agency and choice, which are arguably always themes in alternate histories: "After all...if free will exists, it's a decision that we make between futures." (320)

Passages about the difficulty of memory are numerous, and while Flaming is no Umberto Eco or Borges, I'd offer that he does an admirable job in delivering these musings on the lacunae of remembrance:
"Whether beautiful or terrible, the past is always a ruin...When I look back on my childhood, my earliest memories seem like artifacts from a lost civilization...Most of all I remember the summer twilight over the mountains and how, on certain evenings, just before the sun sank below the horizon, it cast rays so luminous and golden that they felt like a solid, enveloping closet into which a small boy could simply disappear. An intensity no light today seems to match." (1)
It should be noted that this first page, like many good writings, holds keys to the ending. The ideas of artifacts, doorways, and light will be explored in the final pages. Already, Flaming is laying the groundwork for the careful reader.

For those who mistook it for an attempt at science fiction, one need only read the narrator's admission that it is a tale "about science and faith, and the distance between the two." (5-6) While all of the quotations make for interesting commentary on many themes in the steampunk aesthetic, this one reminded me of the ongoing investigation I've had based on Lavie Tidhar's ideas about steampunk technology as magical technology. Steampunk isn't about delivering perfectly plausible technology, because steampunk isn't about high tech - it's about science and faith (we might substitute fantasy, or romanticism).

While The Kingdom of Ohio isn't purely steampunk, it has elements of the steampunk aesthetic beyond the magical technology. Any invocation of Edison and Tesla in most current fiction should be seen less as an historical reference, and more as a mythological one, to the idea that Edison and Tesla represent: technological optimism, the idea that anything could be accomplished. So when Flaming writes that "It's a story about conspiracies and struggles to reshape the world; about secret wars between men like J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla" (5) we probably shouldn't go expecting perfect historical authenticity. It's the appearance of authenticity that Flaming and steampunk are concerned with. As I've said before, it shouldn't be a matter of throwing historical accuracy to the wind, but it doesn't need precise accuracy. In fact, Ohio is arguing that we can't know the past with precision.
"I wasn't a scholar growing up, but I remember learning that Christopher Columbus was a hero, and that the Civil War was about slavery. Now I'm told that Columbus was a "hegemonic exploiter" and that Mr. Lincoln's War was fought primarily for economic reasons." (29)
What's the truth about history when we keep rewriting our own? What difference does it make if I use real history or alternate history, when current historical criticism seems to doubt its own facts? Further, what difference does memory and history make in the immediacy of 21st century high-tech-plugged-in Ipod society? We don't stop to smell roses anymore.
"Thanks to the genius of human invention, things have sped up until I can hardly keep track anymore...we all seem to be fast-forwarding into a future where our memories become irrelevant relics from a useless and discarded past." (2)

"In fact...all this electronic wizardry only adds to our confusion, delivering inside scoops and verdicts about events that have hardly begun: a torrent of chatter moving at the speed of light, making it nearly impossible for any of the important things to be heard." (29)
The text itself is written in a way that begs the reader to slow down, and pay attention to the writing. Reviewers say this is slow-pacing, but this isn't an adventure story--it's a reflection of memory and love, and one should rarely rush along at a page-turning pace for such writing. We don't guzzle fine wine. Not if we know what we're about in discerning taste. I think the same is true for books like The Kingdom of Ohio, which reminded me a great deal of Mark Helprin's A Winter's Tale on a much smaller scale.

And while the book ends ambiguously, still playing with the themes of memory and possible worlds, this isn't a spoiler. Books like Kingdom of Ohio aren't about the endings, they're about the journey. Modern readers too often forget this--it's not about knowing how it ends, because sometimes it doesn't end, and if you haven't taken the time to savor the text along the way, you are as disappointed as someone who rushes through Christmas dinner, only to find there isn't any dessert. And besides, we have the free will to not see last page as an ending, but another beginning, becoming what Dana Gioia and X.J. Kennedy call "co-creators in the making of meaning".

The Kingdom of Ohio goes on sale on December 31, and while I it's obviously not for everyone, I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it for anyone looking for a slow, pleasurable read.


  1. Reviews like this make your deep love of reading and writing about steampunk abundantly clear. It's a great pleasure to watch.

    I'm also delighted you expose your students to the Misfit. Do you use any other stories by O'Connor?

  2. I appear to have read the same reviews that you did, and had a very similar reaction:


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