Fans of Josiah Bancroft’s popular series, The Books of Babel, had to wait two long years for The Fall of Babel, the last one in the set of four novels. The Fall of Babel finally hit the shelves on November 9, 2021, and I was pleased to find a fresh-off-the-press copy at my local bookstore. Here is the second part of my review of The Fall of Babel.
*Just a note: As always, the first time mention of a character’s name, it is in quotation marks, after that without quotation marks; titles and names, fictional or otherwise, are in italics when used the first time.
Part 1 – The Daredevil’s Brother
I know that the publication date was pushed out a couple of times. The rush to get the book out has led to what I would regard as a slip in the writing style, which is the noticeable repetition of certain words. The longer a manuscript, the more one tends to miss the little things. I noticed that Bancroft has his favourite words, particularly “smirk” and “compose”, which occur mostly in the first part of the book, Part 1 – The Daredevil’s Brother. There is a lot of smirking, eye-rolling and composing going on. However, this can be justified by the fact that the first part of the novel features a couple of unpleasant characters (who come to a satisfyingly bad end) and, due to the recent arrival of the pickpocket “Adamus ‘Adam’ Boreas”, a lot of exposition on how things hang together – how they are composed. I ended up marking 18 mentions of “smirking”, but I suppose 18 smirks in a book of probably more than 150,000 words is nothing much. I’m just a picky reader.
Part 1 is more explanatory and less action-driven than the rest of the story, since it serves to remind the reader of what happened before, but is also, finally, set in the highest level of the Tower – The Collar of Heaven, Nebos, a lush, beautiful, luxurious, city-state enclosed by a dome and a near-impenetrable wall. Nebos is the pièce de résistance of the “Sphinx”, the creator of the Tower, and “The Bricklayer”, the long-dead engineer who was in charge of the construction of Nebos.
Very complicated, very detailed
Readers who have not tackled The Fall of Babel yet should to refresh their memories by revisiting the previous books. There were quite a few instances where I just couldn’t remember what something was, or how a character is connected.
However, the book design includes devices which can help the reader keep track: Right at the back, after the Acknowledgments, Bancroft has created a list of the “ringdoms” of the Tower that takes up a few pages. If I were the publisher, I would put that in the front, not at the back, because it is handy and because it’s also quite funny.
For instance, Level 2, The Parlor: you will find out eventually what exported eyeballs have to do with the plot, and believe me, it’s nasty.
A second mechanism for way-finding in the novel, is the preface to Part 1, which is a news article by someone called “Oren Robinson” for the newspaper The Daily Reverie. Bancroft uses this mechanism for scene-setting prior to the first chapter. I had to go back and reread it after I finished, since the character, Oren Robinson, only features much later in the story, when Captain Edith meets up with her on the State of Art.
A third device is the illustrated epigraph at the start of each chapter, which look like quotations from fictitious diaries and books. These can give readers a hint of what is going to happen – but they are riddles which only become clear once you’ve finished a chapter and go back to the decorative panel. It is really quite cleverly done, with Bancroft even using redacted texts, that look like those texts that are struck out by the hods who are following Luc Marat.
The words of two characters feature in these headings: diary entries by “Joram Brahe, captain of the Natchez King” and quotes from Music for Falling Down Stairs, by Jumet. Of all the characters in the novel, I was most often puzzled by this “Jumet” who only features in the chapter headings: Who is this? What does Music for Falling Down Stairs sound like? A quote that looks like lyrics or a poem, by “Jumet”, is the Epigraph right at the start of the novel, in other words, the one which applies to the entire story:
“We painted cavern walls to own the shadows with our palms.
We carved the ground with county lines to legislate our qualms.
We drew on heaven human shapes to stake the cosmic plot.
Man would write upon his soul if pen could reach the spot.
– Music for Falling Down Stairs by Jumet”
The Fall of Babel, by Josiah Bancroft, Epigraph
You have to admit, that is a very slick and clever bit of rhyming. These four lines contain the essence of the novel. Read the book and come back to them, and you’ll see how it ties together.
A man of many talents
I wonder if a reader, or Bancroft himself, can write Music for Falling Down Stairs, inspired by the quotes from “Jumet”? (That being said, everything that you can possibly imagine is probably already somewhere on the Internet: A search for “Music for Falling Down Stairs” turned up an abstract, atonal composition with the same name, by a musician called Will Sōderberg.)
Incidentally, Bancroft is a man of many talents: He a writer, an artist, and a musician. He is a member of the band called Dirt Dirt: “Dirt Dirt, the alternative to Alternative Rock, is made up of Josiah Bancroft, Red, Sharon Bancroft, and Benjamin Viss. Dirt Dirt is everywhere, but mostly lives in Philadelphia, PA.” (Links to Dirt Dirt on Facebook; Dirt Dirt’s three albums on Bandcamp).
(Below, the band Dirt Dirt, with Josiah Bancroft, far right. His wife, Sharon, is presumably, second from the left. The graphics are of the cover art of the band’s three albums on Bandcamp.)
In the next post: Josiah Bancroft’s “Books of Babel” Tetralogy Goes Out with an Almighty Bang (3)
The final part of the review of The Fall of Babel: About the imagery, the ending and the meaning.
About the image in the header:
The fuzzy image in the header is an adapted screenshot from the video of Music for Falling Down Stairs, by Will Sōderberg. It is a doll tumbling down a staircase. You’ll be amazed at how often this phrase has been used in music lyrics and videos.