Twoâ€”count â€™em, two!â€”pirate items in today’s post. Let’s start with the most disappointing (it’s a very good place to start): Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. I loved the first movie (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)â€”let’s face it, when you’re dealing with zombie pirates, you’re plumbing (plying?) deep undead waters of awesomeness. Dead Man’s Chest was significantly less awesome, and also at least one entire sequence too long: that whole bit with the cannibals on Pelegosto was just treading water. It had no effect on the plot, and wasn’t even a very interesting detour, outside of the makeup.
I’m not really sure why I expected At World’s End to be so much better than Dead Man’s Chest; optimism, maybe. In any case, while it had some good stuff, I thought it was poorly paced, trying to cram too much backstory into scenes that were already full to the gills with front story. I liked the front and back stories, as I understood them: the British armada vs. all the major pirates in the entire world, and the first Brethren Court, which gained mastery of the seas by binding the goddess Calypso “in her bones.” The trouble is that I didn’t feel they were particularly well told.
Some of the scenes were very nice. I liked when Davy Jones visited Calypso in her cell, and my favorite line of the whole movie came when Barbossa referred to Elizabeth as a fishwife and Pintel called her “Mrs. Fish.” (I don’t know, it was funny.) Also, the filmmakers did an excellent job, particularly in the whirlpool scene, of capturing the slow, impersonal heaving and swaying of a ship on the open sea.
But it just seems like a lot got dropped without being satisfactorily resolved, even in the event of a sequel. (Short example: Calypso turns into Daryl Hannah, crabs, and a maelstrom, then disappears. Yes, that enormous swirling hole ate Davy Jones much as the enormous toothed hole of the kraken’s mouth ate Jack at the end of the second movie, but then Calypso’s entirely out of there.) Also, the situation with Davy “Orlando” Jones and Good King Bess “I Have a Sinus Condition” Swann at the end was supremely unsatisfying. Putting aside for the moment any problems I might have (read: definitely do have) with choosing for another person an almost eternal existence as Davy Jones, without their having a say in the matterâ€”putting that aside, it still makes no sense to me that a woman who could and would become king of the pirates, and whose every mortal connection and attachment has died (Norrington was killed in her sight; she saw her father float past in the land of the dead; she turned Will into Davy Jones), would choose a life of one night per decade with her man rather than join his crew and be with him forever. The film didn’t provide a single reason she might have for giving Will up to neverending servitude and then abandoning him to it. That bit really bothered me.
Much better is the second book of W.A. Hoffman’s Raised by Wolves series, Matelots. I reviewed the first book, Brethren, at the magazineâ€”click that link to find the review reproduced on the book’s Web page. Or, to please my corporate overlords, I can direct you to the digital archive of Frontiers magazine, where you can find my review in the PDF of issue 25.04′s Agenda section. No matter where you read the review, please ignore the bit where I say “his characters”; I’ve since learned that Hoffman is a woman.
All the praise I laid on the first volume goes for this one, too: it’s engaging, funny, emotionally realistic and involving, and just brilliantly paced. As much as I was impressed by the clearly deliberate rationing of incident and character development in Brethren (which nevertheless felt natural), I’m even more impressed by that process in Matelots. Part of the reason is that it encompasses more characters this time aroundâ€”Hoffman’s net is widening to include secondary characters and at least one much-promoted figurante. But also, where in Brethren that progression took the fairly obvious direction of “toward physical and emotional intimacy generally,” in Matelots it veers into areas that show Hoffman’s sophisticated understanding of sexuality and how it can be integrated into men’s lives. (No real word yet in the series on women’s sexuality, although there is a new lesbian character.)
(A brief and ultimately somewhat down-letting aside: I saw today in Richard Davenport-Hines’s fine bio of W.H. Auden a quotation from a letter in which Auden mentions his lover Chester Kallman bringing “his matelot” out to Auden’s Fire Island home. I was excited to see the word used in the wild, but further research convinced me it just meant “sailor,” as in, “Chet’s a big Fleet Week ho.”)
One more encomium for Matelots, and then I’m off: for all that it’s largely a historical-adventure novel, it’s also appealingly literary. The two central lovers, Will and Gaston, communicate much of the time by metaphor. They use a metaphorical classification system for describing the types of people in the world, and they’re constantly adjusting, inspecting, turning over, and expanding the metaphor to fit their experience. They have another metaphor (based on the first) that they use to help understand their relationship, and Hoffman returns to it frequently throughout the book, altering it slightly with each repetition, almost like the refrain of a villanelle, so that it illuminates a different aspect of its subject every time it recurs. Matelots is an immensely rewarding read, made all the better by its intertwining of literature (with its philosophical questioning and psychological complexity) and high pulp.