The Islanders Week 13: Dark Green / Sir, THE DESCANT

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SUMMARY

Yannet (Dark Green/Sir) THE DESCANT

  • This is the story of the meeting of two artists, Yo and Oy. They are both conceptual creators, misunderstood by the public, condemned by critics, and suppressed by authorities. They liken themselves to art guerillas. Apart from these things, they are quite different people - maybe even opposites, as their names suggest.
  • Yannet itself is a sub-tropical island in the Lesser Cirques, with one centre of population at Yannet Town on the Hommke (Dark Green) Peninsula. The rest of the island is mainly forest and nature preserve, with some agricultural areas. The coast is mostly wild.
  • JORDENN YO arrived on the island first, under an assumed name. She planned to create a tunnel on
  • Upon arrival, Yo climbed Mount Voulden (Sir) which dominates the northern end of the peninsula. She lay on the mountain and let the winds lift her skirt; she fell in love with the mountain and spent a few weeks studying the winds and the mountain's place in them.
  • Meanwhile, we are introduced to TAMARRA DEER OY, another landscape artist living far away in The Swirl. Oy likes to fill things in, using aggregates, cement, and other polymers. In doing so, he transforms found landscape objects. He smooths rocky coasts, cements buildings, and closes off streets.
  • One day, OY reaches out to YO by electronic communication, suggesting they should meet. Oy's reaction is complicated - first she rebuffs him, then insults him, then opens to him, and finally invites him.
  • OY, however, takes his time in going to YO. He travels to one island after another, working on installations. He creates the glowing sand dune on Foort, for example, which was first mentioned in the entry on that island. He starts two other installations, but due to natural forces and ennui, they are left incomplete. Finally, he decides to visit YO.
  • YO, meanwhile, has been working on her tunnel and it's basically complete. She hopes to make use of OY to help her finish aspects of it, like getting rid of the tailings.
  • Finally, Oy arrives on Yannet and the two meet. Yo's passions, seemingly pent up, spill over and they spend the next several days engaging in sexual activity, but not intercourse, which she expressly forbids. With that out of the way, she takes him up to see the tunnel. Their relationship evolves for a while, but she seems to remain the dominant one. YO is complex, needy, driven, passionate, and restrained all at once. As is their relationship.
  • One night, finally, the Nariva wind arrives and the tunnel starts to issue it's sound - a low basso-profundo drone accompanied by vibrations. It's enough to set off car alarms. She seems satisfied by this, and OY is impressed. But she says this is only the beginning - she now needs to learn to play the instrument.
  • OY senses that YO now only needs him as an audience, and though he sticks around for a short time to help her, he plans to leave as soon as the next ferry arrives for his destination. One night, he points out that something is missing - she needs to create a descant, a smaller, shorter tunnel to create a higher pitched harmonizing sound. She immediately sees his point of view, but seems to be angry with him for pointing this out. She becomes obsessed with the idea.
  • On the last night before his planned departure, the wind picks up and plays in the tunnel. YO once again initiates sex, but this time she invites him to penetrate her. As the drone of the mountain reaches its peak, she also climaxes. She breathes loudly in time with the wind and the sound of the mountain, creating the descant that OY had described. She becomes one with nature. The harmonic sound draws the people of the town out into the night, moved by the experience.
  • Having helped YO create the descant, OY leaves the next morning on the earliest ferry, not caring what the destination is.

A DESCANT

Google's dictionary service tells us that a Descant is:
1. an independent treble melody usually sung or played above a basic melody,
2. a melodius song,
3. a discourse on a theme or subject, or
4. as a verb, to talk tediously at length about something.

Wikipedia tells us that "etymologically, the word means a voice (cantus) above or removed from others."

Taking all of our reactions to this book together, I think Priest has managed to hit all of these notes!

QUESTIONS/DISCUSSION

  • This is the end of the book, but I'd like to confined discussion to this chapter alone for now. Next week we can discuss the book as a whole in more detail.
  • What do you make of YO and OY? Are they simple people? Good people? Are they good characters?
  • YO seems to need OY. Why? Why is the reverse not true?
  • Is the point of climax of this story also the point of climax of the book as a whole?
  • What is Priest telling us about the nature of art? Has your opinion changed since I first asked this question?
  • Back in week 3, @Ray_Otus said: "There are some recurring themes already - like artists who play with natural forces. Women artists. Who do it on an island and then leave behind their works." Prophetic?

Comments

  • 1

    So, the tunnelling is just a metaphor for sex. How dull. Yo goes around fucking islands until she gets "properly" fucked herself. I was expecting a bit more.

    Yo and Oy were caricatures, cipher characters in a fairy story about opposites or something. I initially expected Oy to be some alternate name for Bathurst, and we'd finally see these two characters meet and create something.

    The idea of descant, both Yo's final song and the reflection on the book, are there to make us think about the themes. Is Yo the one who makes the sheeple of the Islanders look up from their turgid lives and contemplate the transcendent nature of art, or sex, or something.

    What role did Oy play? I can only imagine he's there as a symbol for how men are inferior to women when it comes to creativity.

    Metaphors about art? All the artists we see are transient, except Kammeston who's a bit more mobile than he would like us to believe. Is abandonment a key part of art? Is this about "death of the author" and it's all up to us to interpret what the true meaning is for us?

    I feel the book is trying to carry more weight than its capable of.

  • 0

    Yes, trying to interpret the symbology of a woman who makes holes and a man who fills them doesn't take too much insight.

    So far as I recall we had not heard of Oy before, nor of what you might call an anti-tunnelling art form.

    The whole tunnelling as art form thing is clearly a kind of caprice of the fantasy world - I don't think that either the economics or physics of the idea really hold water (let alone air), but neither do I think they were ever meant to make sense to those modes of thought.

    Pursuing the "tunnelling-as-converting-to-female" analogy, what are we supposed to make of the islands which were so thoroughly tunnelled that they collapsed? Is this such an extreme divergence to the female pole of the axis that nature cannot support its own weight? And therefore a kind of balance between the two poles is necessary?

    As a chapter, we once again see a relationship marked by astounding sex followed by separation. It's a clear pattern of the book, with, again, no closure for the participants who simply go their separate ways. It's also, like most of the sex in the book, sterile, serving only to release something in the participants and not in any way generating anything lasting. I'm not simply meaning children: the couples (mostly artists) don't seem able to envision sex as anything more than of-the-moment.

    I did note (and I think, pace @Apocryphal , that this is a thing of the chapter not a whole-book thing) that chapter 1 was about Aay, Island of Winds, and has a strong emphasis on the relationship between geology, wind, and the landscape. The main character focus (Esphoven Muy) even associated tree noises in wind with particular musical instruments. So there is a clear sense of recapitulation and chiasmus here, even though tunnelling itself is not (so far as I can see at quick glance) mentioned in ch1.

    Returning to Yannet, I did feel that CP's writing was more interesting and more lyrical in this final chapter, as though he felt finally able to let go of the very tight and prosaic style he had adopted elsewhere (is Yo a thinly concealed image of CP himself?)

    in passing, I had never come across the third and fourth meanings of Descant that Google presents - I can vaguely see an etymological connection but they seem disconnected from what I have always thought of as the primary meaning.

  • 1

    I'm seeing Yo and Oy as being inspired by Yin and Yang, a female principle and a male principle which oppose one another but contain an element of each other within. "Yin is the receptive and Yang the active principle, seen in all forms of change and difference such as the annual cycle (winter and summer), the landscape (north-facing shade and south-facing brightness), sexual coupling (female and male), the formation of both men and women as characters and sociopolitical history (disorder and order)."

    I don't think tunneling is a metaphor for sex, but it may be a metaphor for womanhood. I the also don't think we're meant to see these events as being 'an awakening of the sheeples to the brilliance of artists'. I think that somehow the last scene represents either a return, or an acknowledgement, of a world order - somehow a restoring of the balance.

    We haven't encountered Oy before, but we have seen his work as the glowing sand-dune on Foort which people weren't even sure still existed, and by artist unknown. I don't think it's a coincidence that Esphoven Muy (who we also encountered only once) and her study of winds was introduced very early in the book. Somehow I think this passage may be the key:

    Out there in the ocean of islands the winds that sifted the sand on the beaches, guided the currents and stirred the forests had their source. They arose from the doldrums, from the cooling impact of snow and the calving of bergs in the glaciers of the south, from the unpredictable high pressure systems of the temperate zones, the calm lagoons of humid air across the tropics. They followed the tides, swooped around the heights of mountains, changed the moods and and hopes of the people they touched, brought rain and cleansing air, created rivers and lakes and refreshed the springs, they ruffled the seas. Nariva, Entanner, and Benoon. Beyond them a score of others, trade winds and gales, hurricanes and monsoons and tempests, cooling squalls and the lighest of breezes, the warm winds of dawn, circling the globe, raising dust, making rhythms in memory, turning wind vanes and filling sails, inspiring love and revenge and dreams of adventure in people's hearts, slamming windows and rattling doors. The winds of the Dream Archipelago blew wild and parching across barren outer cays and crags, enlivened the humid towns, watered the farms, swept deep snows into the mountains of the north. Yo's clear soprano voice tapped this source, gave it a shape and a sound, a story, a feeling of life.

    It sounds rather like he's describing 'stories' - or possibly 'people'.

  • 1

    About metaphors, I agree with Richard that this relationship, like I think all the others in the book, is devoid of any real connection. There's no generosity or nurturing in it. No-one becomes more as a result of a partner. And even if we take the tunnels to be a symbol of womanhood, we can expand that to motherhood and... where are the children?

    As for the winds being stories, I like that insight. I think it fits. Perhaps we should have been paying attention to the wind names, seeing which winds connect which islands and which stories. But that's a bit too much effort for me!

  • 1

    I do agree that this relationship is devoid of a real connection (I don't think it's trued for every relationship in the book). The final chapter feels more to me like a story about conception, than it does about sex as a pleasurable or titilating thing, or even about making a family. One reviewer, Nick Hubble, in his review of Priest's book, The Adjacent, compares the conclusion of that book to this one, and says:

    "The Islanders finishes with a female reconfiguration of the universe as the notes of Jordenn Yo’s orgasm sing out from the island of Yannet and into the winds of the Dream Archipelago"

    https://lareviewofbooks.org/contributor/nick-hubble/

    I can almost imagine that... but can't quite connect the dots to get to that conclusion.

    I think the 'winds as stories' / 'islands as stories' / 'traces' hangs together better. In the end, Yo cries out her story to the wind. The tunneling itself doesn't make much sense, but in the context of Yo's personal story, it does. The noise of the tunnel is a disturbance, until her voice joins it and then it seems more natural.

    If the words "Every man is an island" on one cover of the book are meaningful (and not just some claptrap a publisher added) then perhaps we can think of it as 'islands = stories' and therefore every person is a story. That theme is certainly captured by the sections about 'traces'.

  • 1

    @Apocryphal said:
    I'm seeing Yo and Oy as being inspired by Yin and Yang, a female principle and a male principle which oppose one another but contain an element of each other within.

    That seems reasonable - certainly their names are complementary, though I'm not sure their personalities are

    storing of the balance.

    We haven't encountered Oy before, but we have seen his work as the glowing sand-dune on Foort which people weren't even sure still existed, and by artist unknown. I don't think it's a coincidence that Esphoven Muy (who we also encountered only once) and her study of winds was introduced very early in the book.

    I have to confess I'd completely forgotten we'd met the glowing sand dune before. But I agree about Muy, and as mentioned before the first chapter was entitled Island of Winds

    Somehow I think this passage may be the key:

    Out there in the ocean of islands the winds that sifted the sand on the beaches, guided the currents and stirred the forests had their source. They arose from the doldrums, from the cooling impact of snow and the calving of bergs in the glaciers of the south, from the unpredictable high pressure systems of the temperate zones, the calm lagoons of humid air across the tropics. They followed the tides, swooped around the heights of mountains, changed the moods and and hopes of the people they touched, brought rain and cleansing air, created rivers and lakes and refreshed the springs, they ruffled the seas. Nariva, Entanner, and Benoon. Beyond them a score of others, trade winds and gales, hurricanes and monsoons and tempests, cooling squalls and the lighest of breezes, the warm winds of dawn, circling the globe, raising dust, making rhythms in memory, turning wind vanes and filling sails, inspiring love and revenge and dreams of adventure in people's hearts, slamming windows and rattling doors. The winds of the Dream Archipelago blew wild and parching across barren outer cays and crags, enlivened the humid towns, watered the farms, swept deep snows into the mountains of the north. Yo's clear soprano voice tapped this source, gave it a shape and a sound, a story, a feeling of life.

    This was the passage I was meaning - I would have enjoyed a lot more of this style of prose in the book and regret that CP only chose to deploy it right at the end.

  • 1

    @Apocryphal said:
    If the words "Every man is an island" on one cover of the book are meaningful (and not just some claptrap a publisher added) then perhaps we can think of it as 'islands = stories' and therefore every person is a story. That theme is certainly captured by the sections about 'traces'.

    The cover text is, of course, a deliberate inversion of John Donne's No man is an island which is interesting not just as a theme in itself but as (I believe) a deliberate reversal of Donne's conclusion

    ... any man's death diminishes me,
    because I am involved in mankind.
    And therefore never send to know for whom
    the bell tolls; it tolls for thee

    I do think that relationships in the book are, by and large, signalled by an uncommitment to the other. and so the key players do not subscribe to the idea that they are involved in mankind, nor that the funeral is for every person., not just the one who died. People here are radically uninvolved with one another - just like islands - and perhaps it's also significant that the only continents we hear of are perpetually at war with each other.

  • 1

    And therefore the Islanders, like the Islands, are broken and separate?

  • 0
    > @Apocryphal said:
    > And therefore the Islanders, like the Islands, are broken and separate?

    Yes indeed - one could probably argue that this brokenness manifests itself in all kinds of different ways. I started to make up a list but realised that the thought belongs more to next week's overall summary, so for this week let's just note it in passing!
  • 1

    @Apocryphal said:
    And therefore the Islanders, like the Islands, are broken and separate?

    In that case, is this chapter an attempt at unity? Yo finally relaxes and shares a moment, the people listening to her song do so as a whole. Is this where Priest shows us what units the Archipelago?

  • 1

    @Apocryphal said:
    QUESTIONS/DISCUSSION

    • This is the end of the book, but I'd like to confined discussion to this chapter alone for now. Next week we can discuss the book as a whole in more detail.
    • What do you make of YO and OY? Are they simple people? Good people? Are they good characters?

    They are not people, they are symbols. They are symbols set up as opposites to embody a principle the author wanted to play with. They have no life beyond that embodiment. They are characters the same way the letter X is a character.

    • YO seems to need OY. Why? Why is the reverse not true?

    Because that's the way Priest wanted it. The grand thing he wishes to tell us requires it.

    • Is the point of climax of this story also the point of climax of the book as a whole?

    I assume you mean the climax as in orgasm? If so it was a pretty poor, sputtering, lonely sort of climax.

    • What is Priest telling us about the nature of art? Has your opinion changed since I first asked this question?

    What I get is that if this is what art is all about I want nothing to do with it.

    • Back in week 3, @Ray_Otus said: "There are some recurring themes already - like artists who play with natural forces. Women artists. Who do it on an island and then leave behind their works." Prophetic?

    That's just Ray being his natural genius self. Happens all the time!

  • 1
    edited April 30

    To those hunting for insights, I'd suggest re-reading the introduction again before we close the book for good - something might pop out that hadn't before.

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