Another of the cheap paperbacks I picked up for the plane journey at Half Price Books in Northpark back in June has surfaced on my desk. Metal Angel was published by Roc Books of New York in 1994, and written by Nancy Springer.
This was the first Springer book I’ve encountered, though she’s published over thirty. That’s probably the most frustrating challenge of reading – so many authors, so little time. We should all reincarnate with updated reading lists – it’s the only way we’ll ever get a chance to catch up.
Springer isn’t just prolific: her back catalogue is diverse. She’s won an Edgar Award for her mystery writing, a James Tiptree, Jr. Award for science fiction dealing with gender issues, and been nominated for both Hugo and Nebula Awards. She’s written series about the sisters of Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes, teenage fantasy (including several Arthurian books) and numerous stories featuring horses. She teaches creative writing in Pennsylvania, and she’s a writer who wears her heart on her page. From the cover image and blurb I expected pulp fiction, and that’s what I got: but I also got metaphysics, intelligent writing about gender, and a rare, wide-open emotional honesty and intensity.
The story starts with Volos, an angel from the heavenly choirs, willing himself into the world of flesh, fired with ambition to experience everything it has to offer. He thinks this is his choice, but as the story unfolds we learn there are powers at work that he doesn’t even begin to understand. His major emotional focus, his teenage anger at the Heavenly Father, blinds him to a whole range of possibilities. Volos imagines himself with the face and body of a god, but has yet to outgrow the self-absorbed, uncomprehending innocence of a child. He is determined to define himself, rejecting all external control.
Meanwhile Angie, a young mother from a repressed little sect in the Bible Belt, dreams of the freedom to live and questions her preacher father’s definition of sin. Angie has a passion and yearning for life that expresses itself in the songs she writes in secret, and a determination that she and her sons will not be trapped by her father’s joyless hypocrisy and her husband’s blind acceptance of circumstance. Drawn to each other by their need for a more tangible escape than music, Angie and Volos change the fabric of their universe, simply by becoming the people they were meant to be.
There are only two kinds of evil in the book, and neither are as Angie’s preacher father might imagine. The dark side of the universe, death and pain and retribution, is presented as balance, not evil: something that must be experienced if we are to know real joy. Evil has only two faces, both human – the lesser one of selfishness, and the greater one of hate. Fundamentalism of any kind is preached down in this story more effectively than any politician has so far managed to do it, and ‘let live’ is the corollary to ‘live’.
The world of Metal Angel is a cosmos of cause and effect, a Christian reading of the workings of karma. Springer is working on a much smaller scale than Osamu Tezuka, whose comics, animation and writing link into a huge karmic cycle where his characters struggle for enlightenment through incarnation after incarnation, but she’s exploring the same principle. She’s also interested in the extent to which we don’t just imagine ourselves into being, but also modify others. Through temptation, inspiration, manipulation or simple inaction, whatever their intentions, all her characters remodel each other.
The plot is hokum, the characters all start out as stereotypes, and Springer’s writing style sometimes makes me wince, especially when she’s writing lyrics. Equally, though, she can turn a beautiful phrase, so perhaps my reaction is the discomfort of encountering a foreign language in all its colloquial glory. And her absolute belief in the individual potential of those stereotypes, the alchemy of her love for them and for life, transforms and humanises every character, patches the plot holes and drives the story towards its climactic resolution and long, gentle coda.
I didn’t quite come out believing that music is the answer, whatever the question. But I came out feeling warm and fuzzy because in Springer’s fictional universe, unlike the real one, all the knots had been untied, the birds set free from their cages, and justice and life had both been served. Metal Angel made me want to read more of her work. After spending time in her world I felt entertained, relaxed and at peace with the universe, and that incalculable gift is beyond the ability of many celebrated literary giants to deliver.