This was one of the most lovely books I almost didn’t finish. To certain library books I must ask certain questions: are they worth overdue fines? Perhaps more importantly, are they worth negative karma when late? To both of these questions, Senlin Ascends is an empathetic ‘no.’ And yet, on the strength of dear Milda’s love for the tale and encouragement, I find myself disregarding my earlier decision to return it.
“You have no idea what the Tower will turn you into!” Tarrou laughed and swatted the air trying to dispel Senlin’s sudden piety.”
Though the writing is truly gorgeous, the plotting is purposefully meandering. Headmaster Senlin is on a journey with his newly-wed wife to see the famous Tower of Babel. Within minutes of arrival, he loses her in the marketplace, and the rest of the story is a journey upward through the levels of Babel as he searches for the lovely, vivacious Marya. What follows is his experiences through the first four levels of the tower.
I suspect if you mix The Pilgrim’s Progress with Arabian Nights, using the language of Valente’s In the Night Garden, you’ll probably have a good idea what you are getting into. Senlin is forced to reconsider ideas about Tower of Babel, his priorities, his identity, his relationship with Marya, even his conceptions about how the world operates and how he should relate to other people. It is as much a story of the internal self as one of external events.
“Senlin loved nothing more in the world than a warm hearth to set his feet upon and a good book to pour his whole mind into. While an evening storm rattled the shutters and a glass of port wine warmed in his hand, Senlin would read into the wee hours of the night. He especially delighted in the old tales, the epiccs in which heroes set out on some impossible and noble errand, confronting the dangers in their path with fatalistic bravery. Men often died along the way, killed in brutal and unnatural ways… Their deaths were boastful and lyrical and always, always more romantic than real. Death was not an end. It was an ellipsis” (page 23).
My barrier and sticking point was the idea that Senlin’s journey centered on looking for his wife, Marya. Literally by page eight she has disappeared, so the rest of the story is about her from other perspectives. As a feminist, I find this type of structure deeply disturbing. Given that the story is from Senlin’s third-person perspective, one may argue that’s completely appropriate, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is her placeholder status–replace her with ‘ring,’ or ‘Grail,’ or ‘silver cow-shaped creamer’ and the agency would be the same. She acts in Senlin’s memories of their interactions, she appears as a hallucination, Senlin thinks about her in relation to him, we learn of her actions from third parties, but beyond that there are only the barest paragraphs–in flashback, strangely, of Senlin’s memories–of Marya being anything other than an Object. She is a mirage, a holding place for the character’s own thoughts and emotions. A telling quote, I think, from page 1:
“Thomas Senlin and Marya, his new bride, peered at the human menagerie through the open window of their sunny sleeper car. Her china white hand lay weightlessly atop his long fingers.”
Though that, perhaps, is part of the underlying motif of the story: the absence of women and the fickleness of love/relationships. Early on Senlin is told, “women get sucked up the Tower like embers up a flue,” and we begin to get the picture that the destruction will be along gender lines. Outside the Tower, Senlin meets Adam, a young man who is missing his sister. On level three, we encounter another significant male character who will ‘one day’ return to his wife.
Of course, the search for the Other inspires in Senlin reflections on his own character, and his relationship with Marya. The challenge for me is that Senlin is someone I have trouble liking. It could be because Senlin hits too close to teen-Carol., and I don’t mean in the hormonal sense, I mean the sense one has when one is young, overly book-smart, and color-blind to shades of grey. He is the headmaster in his small fishing village and he considers himself a leader of the community, although I strongly suspect the feeling is not mutual. He has harped on the wonders of Babel to his students and fellow citizens, which is no doubt supposed to play into the irony as he discovers the reality of Babel has little in common with his conceptions or his much-thumbed Guide to the Wonders of Babel.
In fact, I found myself wondering about the parallels with my most favorite and sometimes wildly inaccurate guidebook, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur too finds himself at a loss, forced to confront wonders and misconceptions. However, Hitchhiker’s does it with absurdity and humor, while Senlin does it with gorgeous prose and Victorian sexism. If you’d like beautiful language and imagery without a plot, give The Night Circus a try.
I absolutely enjoyed the writing, but Woman as Object coupled with the perspective of a man who is difficult to connect to means it was a struggle to read. It did pick up a great deal as Senlin reached level four (page 200/350) and started to embrace more duplicitous planing for the future, but it was too little, too late. The fact that most of the character actions were telegraphed in advance means there wasn’t that much surprise. I wouldn’t rule out Bancroft in the future, but I’d likely enter into it with suspicion, and that’s no way to read a book.
*Many thanks to Milda for her encouragement in getting me to completion!