Skip to content

Hal Duncan writes stuff

Hal Duncan writes books, of which so far one has been published: Vellum, which I tried to review a while back. Recently a friend who occasionally reads this blog mentioned that he intended to give Vellum a try, and just today I came across a couple of pieces by Duncan that throw some light on what he was trying for.

First there’s an article in Emerald City, in which he argues against separating style and content, in particular in a work like Vellum where the style is consciously intertwined with the content. It’s standard Duncan, wordy and with the occasional profanity, and a pretty good inoculation test: if you don’t break out in hives in response to the essay, you’ll probably deal okay with the more flowery parts of Vellum.

The other thing I found is a concise explanation of what “The Vellum” of the title actually is, put more clearly than anywhere I recall it in the book. It’s on Duncan’s blog, buried in the middle of a meme, so I repeat it here. (Some of the other stuff is pretty funny, but not directly Vellum-related.)

Vellum: There are three dimensions to time, just as there are three dimensions to space. Looking only in front of us and behind us, we see only the frontal dimension of past, present and future. But there is also lateral time, the field of alternative possibilities, parallel worlds in which we took different choices, became different people. If those people are still us then our story must incorporate those other versions, not a straight line from cradle to grave, but a tangle of branches and roots, divergances and convergances, as in some Greek myth expounded by Robert Graves: the people of Thrace tell this story of Dionysus; the people of Athens tell another; Dionysus is the product of all those variant tales. The third dimension of time is the residual, the dead realities beneath us, laid down as sedimental strata of morphologies, metaphysics complexifying through each iteration of a cosmos in a process of involution, of evolution, order emerging out of chaos until we find ourselves here on the solid surface of a world run by scientific principles. Dig down and we might find the graves of gods under our feet, the bones of giants, their more primal realities palimpsested by our own, as a faded text upon a reused scrap of parchment — the Vellum.

In hindsight this passage, especially the distinction between the dimension of alternative possibilities and that of ‘residual dead realities’, clarifies things quite a lot. I hope it might also be useful preparation.