The Divinity Student by Michael Cisco – Serialized at Weird Fiction Review

The lovely people at Weird Fiction Review are currently serializing Michael Cisco’s The Divinity Student for free. Right now Chapters 1 and 2 are up for your reading enjoyment.

I was previously unaware of Dr. Cisco’s work but thankfully I keep a thumb on the fluttering pulse of the weird via select Twitter feeds (@lairdbarron, @undertowpubs being just two of them – and speaking of Laird Barron, Slate has a great article up on his brand of cosmic horror). As a result, I was fortunate enough to catch wind of The Divinity Student.

Should you read it?  Short answer: Yes.  Long answer  . . .

Since only two chapters and the foreword are up so far, it would be far too premature to attempt a review, but I will say that my impressions so far are very favorable.

In Ann VanderMeer’s foreword she says that none other than Thomas Ligotti recommended The Divinity Student (Dr. Cisco’s first novel, published in 1999) to her attention. From the first two chapters, the Cisco-Ligotti parallels are clear. The share the same overally quality of hypnotic and dreamlike prose, but I recognize what I perceive to be some differences in how this is acchieved.

My impression of the first two chapters of The Divinit Student is that the novel reads like a more narratively propulsive Ligotti. Later Ligotti stories seem to me to embrace the hypnogogic qualities of the weird, circling around a scene like a buzzard, watching it decay and reveal new, awfule shapes that were always there hiding beneath the flesh’s decorum. Later Ligotti also is also predominantly written in the first-person, embracing a literature of ideas and thoughts, more than of characters or places.  As a result, I find a the structure to Ligotti’s narratives to be more story-like dreams.

The Divinity Student, however, takes us from a field, to a red house, to the infirmary, to a fever dream, to the sun-baked city of San Venefico, to a certain building, then up the stairs to a certain room, then to a desk in another room.  Is that a superficial difference?  I don’t think so.  It’s a dream-like story and while there is an undercurrent of something deeper that has yet to be revealed, The Divinity Student is moving forward to ferret it out, instead of circling it.

In part this might be due to different narrative aims of short vs. long form fiction. It could also be because this was Cisco’s first novel.  I find early Ligotti stories (especially Songs of A Dead Dreamer, Grimscribe) to be almost unrecognizably plotty – which isn’t a value judgment at all, but rather a recognition of how an author’s style can change as he excavates his own authentic voice and literary concerns.

Narrative movement aside, however, Cisco’s prose is the real star of the show. The physical description, word choice, and structure of the sentences are expertly written and have a similar thrust that moves the reader along.  I would try to describe it, but since it’s free, you really have no reason not to try it for yourself.

Here’s an example of one bit that I think is a particularly good example:

“Come on.” She walks across the small office with its low ceiling to the back wall, a little window there with asymmetrical panes, shining with dusty light that seems to collect within the membrane of her blouse, making it glow like a paper lantern. She indicates a desk to him.

I really enjoy the variation in sentence length and structure, the clear description capped with a (here, literally) glowing image. The writing doesn’t bog down into detail-porn, but – much as the physical motion of the plot is always moving – the sentence-level narration is full of depth and motion.

One thing I would caution readers to, however, is that Cisco’s prose – particularly in the first chapter – has a hypnotic effect that can obscure parts of the plot (such as it exists at this early stage). I was recently reading an essay by Chuck Palahniuk over at Litreactor in which Palahniuk cautions writers against the danger of the “thesis statement,” or those sentences that open a paragraph which then spins its wheels digging into the mud of elaboration rather than moving the plot forward. And that’s a caution that I agree with, insofar as I do, which is sometimes.

Fiction writing and business writing are two different species of the same genus. My experience is primarily in the latter, so I look for thesis sentences to guide me through the developments and presage the content of the paragraph. But that won’t help you with The Divinity Student.

In particular, there is a lightning strike buried in the second paragraph that took me a second reading to find. There’s also a fever dream in the middle of the first paragraph of the third section break that I had to go back to three paragraphs later to make sure I hadn’t missed an actual change in the story’s physical location.

It’s hard to gauge the formatting of the text on a webpage, although it apparently is as close to the e-reader text as possible, so this probably translates over into the (e-)printed text. I found the second chapter much easier to follow, but no less rich in description, which I think is due in part to greater variety in the paragraph length and structure.
None of this is to disparage the writing, but rather to caution the reader that attention should be paid.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed the beginning of The Divinity Student and look forward to the furture installments. This comes highly recommended to fans of weird fiction.
Much thanks to the Weird Fiction Review and Michael Cisco for making this available.

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