Keith Miller’s The Book of Flying (2004) seemed like the language-focused, flighty (ha!) novel I was in the mood for, complete with a glowing blurb from Ursula K. Le Guin splashed on the cover. And it was that, to a certain extent: it read easily, evoking a dream-like, metaphor-heavy world devoted entirely to artistic creation, fully of lovely imagery and wonderfully weird landscapes. Still, there were aspects that grew more and more irritating as I read on, causing eye-rolls and muttering that ultimately overshadowed anything good I might have to say. It’s a set of problems I can’t attribute so much to Miller himself as to a literary culture bent towards expressing its own importance, telling us artistic production is important and meaningful but retreating from attempts to explain why. The Book of Flying is a book in praise of books, a story purporting to be “about” stories but really seems to be about something else entirely; that is, making the reader feel good about being bookish.
The protagonist of The Book of Flying is a librarian and a poet who loves books and loves telling stories but is curiously unaffected by the narratives around him. He changes, physically, but there’s nothing to change as far as a character goes; his lack of personality beyond being a tale-vessel makes the overarching quest-narrative inconsequential. He is in love with the winged woman Sisi, she leaves him because he doesn’t have wings, he goes out to grow them by reading the titular Book of Flying someplace off beyond the forest, leading to picaresque encounters. Beyond the beginning, this motivation is simply a vehicle instead of something I ever felt had any kind of significance. For all his talk of true love, Pico has little compunction in carrying on liaisons with all sorts of other women on the way, including an entire brothel, or eating former lovers (!), and his adventures make his ache for wings seem, hmm, insufficient for all the hardships he has to endure to get them. The episodic segments come to the fore, not the frame that never really brings them together. Pico’s purpose is a story-collector and sometimes a teller, but as a character, he comes across as a self-insert for the reader; his only trait is that he, too, likes reading, just like I do, and isn’t reading and writing wonderful?
Readers who pick up this sort of book are bound to agree, and The Book of Flying never interrogates that position. The explanation for the why of story is only this:
“Stories are life,” protested Pico. “Without them, books would be only paper and ink, with them they breathe, and the reader is drawn in, the stories become him.” (80)
The ending reflects that utterance: by reading the book-within-a-book Book of Flying, Pico will transform into a person with wings.
There are two problems with making this image the crux of a novel:
1) I truly believe stories are important, largely because of the myriad complex ways we use, interpret, absorb and create them. Narrative is a powerful instrument for the production of meaning and understanding, unique to humankind and largely responsible for intellectual developments since the stone age, but while we are subtly changed and influenced by stories, we’re also the ones doing the changing; no two people get exactly the same thing out of any given narrative. The interface between the story as-told and the story as-received is in many ways the most vital part of the process…and The Book of Flying omits it completely. Only someone as passive as Pico could absorb a story without twisting or changing it through their own experiences.
2) In The Book and Flying and other stories-about-stories, narrative is beautiful, life altering, meaningful and a positive, empathy-creating force in the world. Stories are Great. Yet narrative is, when you boil it down, just a tool in our cognitive toolbox, and the values and meanings embedded in the narratives that permeate a culture can be equally toxic and harmful as they are life affirming and helpful. Narratives of ethnicity, empire, race, class, the way things are, and the way things should be. This, too, is why “stories are important”, but rarely comes up in novels commenting on their own form and structure, and that aspect certainly isn’t explored here.
What to make, then, of The Book of Flying? An admittedly well-written book that pretends at depth while in fact only making the most superficial attempts at engaging with the act of story building, its ostensible point; a project about meaning that ultimately has little of it. It can be beautiful at times, but I just can’t buy into its central message.