Having just concluded reading Hal Duncan’s Vellum
I immediately sat at my computer to begin composing my comments, for I knew that I had to review this book. But then, I stopped. I stopped and thought, because that’s what Vellum
makes you do; or it should, because if you are not thinking about this book then you haven’t really done more than skim the surface. You need some friction upstairs, to warm up the grey cells, to really appreciate just what this book is all about.
Having just concluded thinking about Hal Duncan’s Vellum
I tentatively sat at my computer to puzzle through my jumbled thoughts and emotions. And now I know that I’m not writing a review at all, because what I really want to talk about is not the plot, or the characterization, or whether the world of Vellum
is “fully realized.” And I really do not want to talk—much—about the unique, even exciting, style that Duncan employs in the first 440 or so pages*; others have done better at that than I could Here
. No, what I really want to talk about is the last chapter, the last 15 or twenty pages, the epilogue where the shite hits the fan.
You see, Vellum
is a deeply, profoundly subversive, humanistic book, a book that challenges the heart of what it is to be human in the world that we have created. It hits you, dear reader, with all of this brash challenge between the eyes in the last twenty pages, paradoxically, with a gentle and tender ending, a moment between two lovers.
Why? How? Well, “here be spoilers
,” I suppose I should say at this point. If you’ve not gotten through to the end of Vellum
, then read on at your peril. And if you’ve not read Vellum
, then much of what I am going to say will make no sense to you. But then, that’s also a good point. This is not a book that can be readily explained to you. This is not a book that can be readily digested by a skim-through. To really get why Vellum
is a great book—and it is—then you’ve got to read and think, and then think some more. In fact, if you’ve not read Vellum
then you’ve probably wasted your time thus far, reading this, and would only waste more by reading any further. Go here
, you know what to do.
Okay, now to the epilogue and why Vellum
is so intensely subversive. Subversive with a capital S, italicized, capitalized, subversive in cursive underlined twice. In the epilogue are three characters: Tom, Jack and the rag-and-bones man (let’s shorten that to the Rag Man). But who are they? Tom and Jack represent humanity, humankind, you, me, and every man and woman that ever was, and is, and ever will be. Fearful, uncertain, needful Tom represents the humanity that was and is; he’s us now, you and me. Fearless, bold, detached Jack is humanity as it will be, or rather as it could be. But who is the Rag Man, whose skin is made of souls, whose burden is saving everyone in Endhaven, whose function is reckoning, judging?
The Rag Man is the savior, The Savior. He’s Jesus Christ, Messiah, Buddha, whoever, whatever it is in us that tells us, convinces us, that our souls need saving from something. Saving from what? From damnation, from eternity, from the unknown, from whatever it is that our fear and needfulness convinces us that we need saving from. The Rag Man is the savior whose price is our souls. The society of Endhaven is built on the Rag Man’s contract (and another word for that would be a covenant) and the price he charges for safety and sustenance are the souls of the inmates. Sound familiar?
So what happens? The Rag Man judges Tom and finds him worthless. Even worse, he judges Tom a sinner. Yet he offers Tom a deal: betray Jack and live, or be cast out into the Evenfall, the fearsome darkness, the storm of shadow. Betray what you could be, turn away from that, the Rag Man offers, and I'll give you a starveling, hand to mouth existence under my rules, but safe and secure. Tom turns down the deal, however, calling the Rag Man’s bluff. And Tom’s soul is not cast out but cast free; the Rag Man’s rule over him is broken and the fearsome darkness is revealed as a beautiful, starlit night.
So, what is Duncan saying here? Well, in a nutshell, he’s saying that humanity needs no savior, that our souls do not need to be saved, they need to be set free. He’s saying that all of the gods and angels, demons and devils that we’ve invented, that we’ve given life to, are nothing more than the embodiment of our fears. He's saying that all of the myths and superstitions that we've given power over us are just stories. He’s saying that we need to call our own bluff, to move beyond our fears and our need for salvation.
How well does Vellum
work at this subversion seems a fair question. It worked for me, but then I’m an areligious, profane humanist myself and I’m predisposed to think highly of this message. More importantly, however, this subversive message works very well in the context of Vellum
as literature. It rationalizes and ties together what is sometimes a manic, almost incohesive style. As a reader the ending makes sense of much that seemed merely stylistic. In retrospect, for example, the message makes clear why it is that Finnan says that humanity will be the cause of the downfall of the gods. It's the last twenty pages that make Vellum
a great book, rather than an interesting experiment. It works quite exceptionally well, if
you get it. Unfortunately, I suspect that few people will put in the work that it takes to get that far.
Addendum: All of the reviews of Vellum
, that I have been able to find, cast the story as a 'war between Heaven and Hell, with humanity in the crossfire.' Engendered are images of angels and demons blasting each other as people flee in terror, or die by the thousands. Huh-uh. Nope. I suppose that the reviewers have taken their cues from the publisher's promotional materials, designed to drive sales; but no, Vellum
is more a story of the war between Heaven/Hell and humanity. If the reader expects a big, blood-drenched showdown ending between armies of angels and devils, uhh, then you'd better be prepared for a letdown. Vellum
ends with Tom (humanity-as-it-is) embracing Jack (humanity-as-it-could-be), with us having the courage to love ourselves. I, for one, like that ending.
*A note on style. Much has been said on Duncan’s style of writing in Vellum
, including the author’s essay on “Style is Substance” here
. I found Duncan’s style reminiscent of one of my favorite non-genre writers, J.P. Donleavy, so it worked well for me. If you don't know Donleavy then, well, jeez I guess this entire thing has been a waste of time for you. Sorry about that.