Here's a story you've probably heard: in a strange world of dragons and heroes, a bratty young heir to a great fortune is about to enter an arranged marriage with a young woman he's never met. Published in January, Chandler Klang Smith's second novel The Sky Is Yours takes that simple hero narrative and plasters it over with…well, everything.
The Sky Is Yours is what I've come to describe as an 'everything novel,' by which I mean it's one of those huge, overstuffed tomes that seems to contain every stray thought the author's mind entertained over the course of the writing of the book. It's a fantasy novel, yes, but it's also set in a futuristic city ravaged by the fires of continual dragon attacks. The "prince" at the center of the story, Duncan Ripple V, is a reality show star (he was the central figure in Late Capitalism's Royalty) who listens to hip-hop and is desperate to lose his virginity. His bride-to-be, a baroness named Swan, is a cloned debutante who keeps growing teeth that demand continual dental care.
The Sky Is Yours parodies a wide array of different genres at once — off the top of my head, it pings dystopian YA fiction, superheroes, chosen savior narratives, and historical thrillers. It's a book that includes porn titles like Swab My Folds and a talking ape-dog hybrid. It is Too Much, in the very best way.
And as is standard in these kinds of everything books, Klang Smith is writing her fucking heart out. Especially at the beginning, when she describes the dragon's rampage:
We cannot name them. We cannot grow accustomed to them. Even those who cannot remember a time before they filled out skies cannot look at them with anything like calm. They are very large and very wild. When they pass overhead, they cast our skyscraper canyons into dusk. Eclipses confuse animals, and the animals of the city are deeply confused. Most of those animals are us.
In a glowing review at Tor.com, Leah Schnelbach enthused of The Sky Is Yours: "There have been a lot of books heralded as heirs to Infinite Jest, but I can happily say: this is it." I'm going to label this a hyperbolic assessment, and it's also inaccurate: if The Sky Is Yours merits a comparison to a David Foster Wallace novel, it's his excellent earlier attempt at an everything novel, The Broom of the System. This is no small thing; I'd argue that Broom is a much more entertaining reading experience than Infinite Jest, and like The Sky Is Yours, its flaws are charming and forgivable.
But Schnelbach's enthusiasm is entirely understandable. The Sky Is Yours is one of those enthusiastic and daring books that heralds a talent who cannot be contained by conventional means. These books struggle so hard against the bridles of labels that they force critics to play the villain, to try to contain the beast.
Like Snow Crash, The Sky Is Yours feels like a novel that is becoming self-aware. Like Matt Ruff's Sewer Gas Electric, it's a book that feels like a piece of book criticism that has fallen into radioactive sludge and is now trying to consume the world in a mad rampage. And like many of these everything books, The Sky Is Yours can occasionally feel cloying. Ripple is so intentionally annoying that readers can't help but feel annoyed by him, and there is no such thing as a postmodern or ironic annoyance. He's just annoying, is all. And like many everything books, the climax of The Sky Is Yours can't quite manage to rise to Klang Smith's ambition. There's simply no way for the book to cross a finish line with the same wild abandon that it used to explode out of the starting gate.
And that's okay. I'd urge writers to read this Writer's Digest article by Klang Smith that she published on the occasion of her first book, because it demonstrates that she understands the possibilities and the limitations of the novel. I especially love this item in the bulleted list:
Though fractals might appear to be nothing more that random paisleys or swirling blobs of tie-dye, they are mathematically generated to be self-similar at every scale. That means that, as you zoom closer and closer in on a fractal image, you'll see that the same pattern is constantly repeating itself everywhere, even at a level that's invisible to the casual viewer. Novels should operate the same way: the obsessions of the book should assert themselves even in seemingly inconsequential scenes and details, in minor characters and metaphorical language. If an element is crucial to your conception of the work, it isn't enough for it to come up once, at a dramatic turning point. It has to be present everywhere, all the time. The king of fractaled writing is Thomas Pynchon, whose novels often employ a host of wildly diverse characters and subplots but nonetheless continually return to the same focal elements: the animate vs. the inanimate in V., the parabola in Gravity's Rainbow, boundaries that divide above from below in Mason & Dixon, etc.
Klang Smith is exactly right, here, and she lives up to her own words in The Sky Is Yours. As strange as it may seem for a novel that audaciously shoehorns Jane Austen into the pilot's seat right next to Batman, Klang Smith has a plan and she sticks to it with a fierce dedication. This is a book that is dedicated to the belief that we fail repeatedly from the cradle to the grave, but that we can find some element of happiness if we learn how to love our failures. Every sentence - every improbable concept that Klang Smith throws into this giant, sloppy stew of a book - examines that thesis, and bolsters it, and broadcasts it. All that everything, it turns out, is there for a reason.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the LA Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant