I’ve read and commented on Ben Okri before. Songs of Enchantment was marketed as a sequel, but the word implies a type of linearity that doesn’t apply with Okri. I don’t know the extent to which I began the book in an unfocused state–which I definitely did–and thus found it less than dazzling or whether the book was in fact itself was less than its predecessor. I admit to the former but incline to the latter. I invite opinions to the contrary.
I should make a few things clear. First, I am not opposed to formula, as my appreciation of crap fantasy should make clear. What I am opposed to is formula that I spot as I’m reading it, and while Okri didn’t necessarily follow the type of formula one might be taught in an introductory creative writing class, there is a somewhat predictable ebb and flow to the book. A chapter presents a series of events–I saw a swarm of green butterflies fly from the nose and mouth of the dead man after he called my name backwards (my invention in Okri’s style)–and ends “and then everything we knew changed overnight, period. The next chapter picks up and goes somewhere else with little sense of connection to the previous. I am not wedded to linearity, but when one’s words seem to demand it and one doesn’t deliver, I’m not inclined to attribute it to careful writing, especially after Okri proved his worth so thoroughly in The Famished Road.
One should not expect any author to conform to any external standards. That said, one should expect that if one creates expectations, that one fulfils them in some way. The ending to the Sopranos, for example, was a categorical cop-out, made worse by the way some people tried to rationalize its total failure.
I would have loved to have been genuinely surprised rather than disgusted, but that ending cheated me. We can on slightly different terms disagree with Okri’s decision to write this book. Rather than finishing before the actual end, he continues long after. The Famished Road is the novel. Songs of Enchantment is merchandising.
Interestingly, Azaro, the focal point in the first novel and a deeply engaging character there, is fairly peripheral here. Madame Koto was a deeply tragic figure in The Famished Road. She began, outcasted socially but connected to Azaro, as heroic: a single woman making her way in the world, and one with powers to boot. Then–taking a cue from Things Fall Apart–the outcast sides with external powers almost as revenge against her local adversaries. Her bar becomes the local hangout for the Party of the Rich. It’s sad, but very understandable, and the difficulties of her changed relationship with Azaro moved me very genuinely.
In Songs of Enchantment, I would imagine a few different things might happen. Mme. Koto, I would hope, would redeem herself in some way. I’m a sucker, I admit. On the other hand, she might die. What actually happens is that she periodically pops into the novel with no development at all beyond what we got in The Famished Road.
I practice Buddhism, and it is the best thing in my life. As such, I don’t want to suggest that stasis is a bad thing. What I would say, though, is that stasis isn’t static. Things happen, but things don’t just happen. Above all, we don’t go to a novel for stasis. We go to our cushion. My earlier point, that Songs of Enchantment is marketing, was honest. I genuinely am convinced that the impulse for the novel came from the publisher rather than the author.