Sunday, May 28, 2017

Angels of Music by Kim Newman

Angels of Music
By Kim Newman

“Isn’t Fantômas an imitator of Erik? He wears evening clothes and a mask.  He strikes from the shadows and issues press releases, just like Erik’s black-edged notes.  Even the name sounds like Phantom.”
“Once an imitation has been perfected, it makes sense to smash the original.”
“Don’t you know,” said Irene. “Angels never bleed.”

Naturally, the wheeze is a good one.  From the well-spring of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, we have a similar beginning, a group of female operatives of different nationalities who are assembled and trained by Erik, the Phantom of the Opera, and his companion, the Persian, to investigate for the French government and various other clients and generally be around to kick ass.  As a phan of many years’ standing, I won’t say I wasn’t intrigued. “What the Devil does the plot signify, except to bring in fine things?”  Angels of Music is certainly crammed with fine things, from steampunk/clockwork automata and masked balls (“At the Paris Opéra, Sophy thought, there would be a masked ball to celebrate a great failure  . . . or commemorate the opening of a ham pie”) to Dr Van Helsing’s rationalist wife, a sanguinary coroner, Springheel’d Jack-like vampire acrobats to Grand Guignol (if you like that sort of thing) to Fantômas and the 1910 Deluge.  I’m not sure the plots always gel—particularly “Les Vampires de Paris” and “Deluge”—and to my surprise, the cleverest, the most creative and coherent narrative centered around the youthful exploits of “Citizen” Kane[1] in Paris (though the Burgher Kane jokes were a bit wearisome). 

As a pseudo-historical/horror/sci fi tale, Angels of Music is enjoyable enough.  However, the phan in me can’t recommend this is as a book for other phans.  Would I have enjoyed the novel more if I had been familiar with every fandom from which Newman plundered his Angels[2] (and indeed, in the case of Georges Du Roy and Charles Foster Kane, his antagonists?).  Possibly, yet I suspect not appreciably. (The interpretation of a certain Mrs Eynsford Hill is soul-destroying.)  I do love fan fiction, and great new stories can be created from weaving together threads of other works—Phantom by Susan Kay may not be every phan’s cup of tea but it is a very convincing reworking of Leroux that sits confidently within the canon.  My problem was with the characterization of the Angels who were, by and large, ciphers, emblematic of their literary (and in some cases, cinematic) forbears and with, I felt, little in the way of their own personalities.  Surely this is a consequence of the (admittedly ambitious) proposition of the book, not to focus on just one period of history in the Opera Ghost Agency but upon several.  As there are few recurring Angels, it’s hard to get to know any of them very well.  Irish journalist Kate Reed, I believe, is one of the few “Newman’s Own” characters (though apparently borrowed from an early draft of Dracula), and not coincidentally, the most fleshed out and by far the best narrator.  Evidently there are other Newman’s Own characters running around in the narrative too, which I’m sure must be a delight for those who follow his Anno Dracula series.  As I don’t, I found them rather irritating because I thought they were going to be interestingly revealed or illuminated—and they weren’t.  “It has become a challenge to populate the supporting cast entirely with people from history or other fictions,” he claims, from a 2013 interview. Then why bother? I wonder.  Why not invent some more of your own characters?  Are some fans (definitely not phans) really keeping score?  Oh, there are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos from Basil Hallward from The Picture of Dorian Gray and Joseph Rouletabille (Leroux’s famous locked-room detective)—but what’s it all tending to?  Quite frankly, the only fangirl frisson I got was from the “After the Curtain” section which referenced another of Leroux’s novels.  

Newman’s Angels are, primarily, drawn from pulp fiction of the 1870s – 1910s, from Holmesian lore and Walter B. Gibson’s Tibetan “power to cloud men’s minds,” from science fiction, horror, and other writing from the bizarre end of the spectrum.  He is especially fond of La Marmoset, a master of disguise and a great detective—indeed, I think we would have gotten quite an enjoyable novel if the relationship between Erik, the Persian, and La Marmoset had been the prime focus.  Trilby from the George DuMaurier novel is an easy target, evidently not too bright, though one wonders why Erik bothered employing her.  Sherlockians will no doubt be delighted that a (young) Irene Adler is also one of the first three Angels, and to be honest, she and Kate Reed are the most vital characters from the whole novel.  I’m not a Sherlockian, and I am not at all invested in “the Woman” (I have to admit I was laughing out loud when she appeared with a New Jersey accent—I’m sure that’s canon but WTF?). Where I draw the line, however, is the portrayal of Christine Daaé.  Christine is rightly the Angel of Music of the title, and Newman raises some interesting points about Erik’s ability to (potentially) make Christine and Trilby Olympia[3]-like automata through his voice and even through the destructive power of their own voices, a theme continued with later Angels including Mrs Eynsford Hill[4], Riolama, and Gilberte[5]  However, Christine is portrayed as a tittering moron, not really good for anything but her singing.  Christine gets a lot of flak, but if you go back and actually read the original novel (preferably in French because most of the English translations make cuts here and there), she is a career woman, a proto-feminist whose thread features in many of Leroux’s heroines and probably stems from the women in his own life (Jeanne Cayatte).  She defends herself with scissors when she thinks she’s going to be raped, and she forces Raoul to self-examine:  how does he have the right to think she answers to him?  In any case, the love Erik feels for Christine is the whole point of The Phantom of the Opera, and not only does that love not exist in Angels of Music, this Christine would not be worthy of that love.
Where I think Newman has got the original book’s characters right is with the Persian, who becomes the front for the secret agency by sitting in his café smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.  He is a bona fide action hero (you would expect no less from the Daroga of Mazenderan) and plays referee between Erik and the Angels at times.  The Angels have a touching friendship with him.  Leroux invested characters like the Persian with mystery, and whereas Kay chose to dispel that mystery by giving the Persian a name and identity, something Newman withholds, Newman’s depiction of the Persian chimes with his omniscience and omnipresence in the Opéra in Leroux. I also love that the Angels can get armored by Chief Armorer of the Opéra.  

There are further occasional hints that Newman’s been reading the same Leroux that I have.  The focus on exposing the hypocrisy of 19th century French bourgeois and aristocratic society is utterly Leroussian.  Erik’s rather bitter prank on the cast of Zémire et Azor, a Beauty and the Beast opéra comique, rings true.  Erik keeping up with new technology (such as wax cylinders and cinema) feels right. There’s a potential nod at the thankless role of Mirror Bride in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in a scene where Christine has to hang limply like a doll, bent at the waist.  Newman has borrowed Kay’s Khanum but made her mother-in-law to Leroux’s “little sultana.” Erik makes rare but dashing rescues of his Angels, sometimes by using the Punjab lasso.  I can’t really see Erik ever wearing a kilt, even after a performance of Macbetto.  More seriously, he evidently doesn’t age—who knows if he is actually around fifty at the time of the first adventure?  Apparently this Erik never cried to Christine, “I am not a ghost nor a good genius . . . I am Erik!” because he must be some kind of supernatural creature.  In fact, Leroux worked hard to show that Erik wasn’t a supernatural creature.

That is, I find, the major problem with Angels of Music.  Leroux’s tale works because we are very slowly introduced to the character of the Opera Ghost even though he is often in plain sight—the gala dinner, for example, where he appears as a literal “skeleton at the feast.”  Adaptations which focus on the events in Leroux will find themselves hard-pressed to tell the story from Erik’s point of view because the mystery of who he is and how he operates is working almost real-time for Christine and Raoul.  In a prequel or sequel or fan fiction, I expect to get a little more under the skin of the Phantom—even if not to the intimate level presented in Kay’s Phantom.  In Angels of Music, he hides behind a mirror, apparently forever grinning with his skull-face—other than moments of sardonic humor, we never get to know him. His seductive qualities are evinced by the actions and reactions of the Angels, but only in one section (on page 400) do I ever feel his seduction of the reader taking place.  Even taking into account the apparent reference to the mysterious Charlie of Charlie’s Angels, in the words of K.E. Wildgren, Erik “wishes to be heard, acknowledged, even more than he wishes to be loved” (163).  If we reduce the Phantom to a mere cipher, then I think we miss the whole point: “Behind the repressed anxiety projected onto its façade, each ghost signifies [ . . .] the possibility that there is no meaning” (Isabelle van Elferen, “Sonic Gothic,” 432-3).      

[1] There’s a good cameo from a Frank Capra film as well . . .  and one from Bret Maverick of the ‘60s TV show . . .
[2] He very thoughtfully listed these fandoms in his acknowledgments section.
[3] The ETA Hoffmann automata—she’s there too.
[4] The former Eliza Doolittle
[5] GiGi