Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review of The Constant Tower by Carole McDonnell

I think this may be an important book. This certainly a well-written book, full of detail and observation and metaphor. The Constant Tower is also a subtle book, and one that eludes my immediate comprehension.
I had some difficulties with the book on this my first read-through. I kept reading it like it was set on Mars when I suspect I should have read it like it was set in Fairyland. I understand the world Psal lives on to be tidally locked onto its sun. Okay. There are questions about how livable such a planet would be, but such a setting has been used before and I could accept the concept as a given. But, but, there are nights in which unprotected people are dissolved and then randomly reconstituted elsewhere on the world. Night? Without rotation how can you have a night on the sunny side of a tidally-locked planet? There are three moons, and I could understand there being a lot of eclipses, but night? If a moon is large enough to cause an eclipse long enough to be called a night, it is no longer a moon and planet, it is a double planet, and then the two would orbit each other and neither of them would be tidally locked to their sun. Carole is too careful a writer to make such a glaring mistake, so she must have found a way to make a night that I can't figure out, and the question drove me nuts throughout the whole book.
And that dissolving and reconstituting thing. For a while I wondered if she was using quantum mechanics and indeterminacy. I think now that I would have better off thinking "magic".
The last third of the book shows how the author breathes Scripture. Many authors, when they try to incorporate Christian Scripture into their works, they end up with awkward sentences, awkward scenes, just awkward: A cherry on top of a bowl of stew. Here, the dialogue is so natural, that unless you already know a lot of Scripture you will have no idea she is mirroring or quoting Scripture. Once she used a sort of apocryphal quote from an atheist scientist and subverted the intention of the atheist.Well played, Carole. Then it occurred to me that if I was catching dozens and dozens of allusions that most people won't, what else has she written in this book that I did not see, might never see?
You have to bring attentiveness and education to anything you read. Complex, deep works often contain more thoughts than I am capable of perceiving. When I first read That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis, it seemed to me to be a jumbled mess. After a few more decades practicing reading and education, I can now read That Hideous Strength with pleasure and far greater comprehension. I suspect The Constant Tower might provide a similar experience with some readers.
The main character's name is Psal. I wondered first if the author chose that name to set up a Saul/Paul dichotomy, but that proved not to be the case, I think. Then I wondered if the name was meant to bring up echoes of the Psalms. If so, I could not see it. I gave up looking for symbolism in the names.
I had sympathy for four or five of the characters in this long book filled with thousands of people. I had empathy for absolutely none. I hated the evil society depicted and I disliked most of the characters. Their thinking was so orthogonal to mine that it hurt to try to understand the characters. Their behavior and  thoughts baffled me.
I have no right to complain about that bafflement as I have often complained that books and Hollywood too often portray aliens as middle-class Americans with rubber masks. I happen to approve of the majority of middle-class American values, but it seems unlikely that aliens, American Indians in the 16th century, European peasants in the 13th century, etc would have the same attitudes as my suburban neighbor mowing his lawn.
Part of what reading novels are supposed to do for us is help us understand how others think and gain more supple minds. I flunked this lesson. I finally identified part of the character's mental landscape as something I call Tribethink. I see Tribethink (which surely has a more scientific name somewhere) as an unmitigated evil. But of course Tribethink is mitigated or else most of the world would not engage in it. Tribethink can reduce anxiety and provide explanations. I still hate it because it allows you to be evil to people not in your tribe and have no guilt about your evil. Hmm, maybe that's a point of the book.
The people in this book spent a lot of time talking about power. I've never had power and never will have power, so I have no temptation there and little understanding of the temptation. I come from a subset of English/Scot immigrant descendents for whom one of the highest life-ordering principles is Mind Your Own Business. I found the characters' constant bossing each other around to be exasperating.
Once, a son of mine was urging me to watch the television series Galactica and I replied that I didn't want to because all the characters were creepy and they all behaved badly. My son retorted, "No. You don't like the show because none of the characters have your temptations." Hmm. How many of you have a son who tells you more than you want to know?
Confession here: I am the oldest of my siblings, and, yes, from time to time I have told them what to do. I did so knowing they would never listen to me. The handful of times I have been heeded terrified me. I would bear part responsibility for consequences. Noooo, I don't want that responsibility.
Since I hang with people who in public never express anything more violent than mild disapproval, I found these pushy, bossy, violent people tiresome.
At the end of the book, the teacher/narrator begins to tell the story of the warrior son of the king, and I was repulsed. I never want to hear the warrior's side of the story. (Oh boo-hoo, I felt jealous so I murdered those people to feel better) I just want him to be executed for his crimes and murders. But as in real life, in this book, criminals escape judgement and the innocent are harmed.
And speaking of repulsed, my tribe also strongly believes that there are certain things you DO NOT talk about in public. I squirmed through the sex scenes.
By this time you may be wondering why I gave this book five stars when there was so much in it I disliked. I gave it five stars because it is a great book. Stranger In A Strange Land by Heinlein is also a great book. I happen to hate that book, but what has that to do with its quality?
And there were many things I liked. I liked what little symbolism I was able to decipher (The longhouses represent the mental structures we inhabit, right? Please tell me I'm right.). I loved the kaleidoscopic explosion of Scriptural imagery in the last third of the book. I loved the stance that people with disabilities are people of worth. And I can live with likely missing all of the big themes of the book. I expect to catch more the next time I read it.
It's possible that if I would just admit that I'm as big a sinner as the sinners in this book, that the core of the book would crack open for me and the Constant Tower would welcome me and heal me.

After I posted this review on Amazon, Carole McDonell posted this info for me on FB
 Carole McDonnell Lelia, yes..the longhouses are mental strongholds, the towers are our
conscience..seared or other wise. God is the greater light, we live by the lesser light . There is a bit of qunatum physics in there with sound. Psallo is greek for song or making music..cause the towers live by music and he works and tunes the towers. Odunao is Greek for torment. Nachas is hebrew for pride and accomplishment. The Constant Tower is a mathematical term in physics. Gaal means loathing. Biblical name. Netophah and Maharai are Biblical names. Netpophah means slope.


  1. I googled Constant Tower mathematics physics and got thousands of pages that did not say what constant tower means in physics.
    I'm glad you're still "talking" to me.