Thursday, March 8, 2018

War With the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Northwestern University Press
European Classics, 1999
originally published as Valka s mloky, 1936
translated by M & .R. Weatherall
370 pp


"... we are all responsible for it."

Anyone who has not yet read this book should run, not walk, to find a copy.  I don't particularly care for apocalyptic fiction but this book is absolutely brilliant.  I'll also argue that although written in the 1930s, it's still highly relevant today in many ways; it's one that can go on the list of "timeless" books, making it a true classic.   It's also the epitome of offbeat, quirky, satirical and sardonic, which puts it squarely in my wheelhouse.  And even as humankind makes its journey toward the end of civilization as we know it, as it continues to sow the seeds of its own destruction,  god help me, I couldn't help but laugh through a huge part of this book.  I'm sitting here giggling with embarrassment  right now thinking how callous that makes me sound, but you really have to read it to understand.

The book chronicles the journey to the "War with the newts" in a sort of documentary style, beginning at the island of Tana Masah "right on the equator, a bit to the west of Sumatra..."  It is there that Captain J. van Toch has sailed, hoping to find a new source of pearl-bearing oysters.  He's told that there is a "strip of coast" where no one will go into the water because of "Sharks, and all the rest," along with "sea devils" which the natives refer to as "Tapa." Eventually he gets one poor guy to get in the water at Devil's Bay, where he comes back not only with oysters but also with reports of "thousands of devils."  These devils are actually salamanders, some "as big as seals."   van Toch gets the idea that if he can "make those lizards tame, and train them, ...they'll bring me the pearl-shells."  He also gets the idea that to fight the shark problem, he'll arm these tapa-boys  with knives.   The captain sees endless possibilities here, and later, back on land, explains to a potential investor that  that if only he had the right kind of ship he could transport these lizards anywhere he liked.  If he could take them and drop them in the ocean here and there...

... and thus it begins.

The author uses a number of different narrative styles to relate the history of the newts and the "steps of civilization"  -- there are personal accounts, scientific (and pseudoscientific) reports, letters, meeting minutes, newspaper cuttings, etc.etc., all in an effort to (as revealed in the introduction) "make his science fiction more lifelike." There are pictures of business cards, handwritten notes, and several changes in typeface that help to achieve that goal.  Čapek

"patterned his narrative on the events of the time, the catchwords, the diplomatic maneuvers, and the advertising slogans, and he made allusions to living people in their work. " (xviii)
It's a great strategy, and it works.  As this sort of documentarized history proceeds, though, it's what's under all of this that really draws our attention -- rampant capitalism on an epic scale.  With the newts, who require very little cost outlay other than food, the world has an unlimited supply of cheap labor:
"They have learned to use machines and numbers... They have omitted from human civilization everything that was without purpose, diverting, fantastic, or ancient; in this way they have left out all that is human, and have taken over only the portion that is practical, technical, and utilitarian."
 The question is at what cost, but I'll leave that for other readers to discover.

It's impossible not to notice parallels with  history up to the time this book was written -- slavery, exploitation, reform movements, immigration, and at the end, you'll get a shocking jolt as you realize what is behind the actual "war with the newts." Careful readers will notice the ongoing foreshadowing of what's to come, so read this book slowly.   At the same time, because of the parallels to our own time, it's also impossible not to realize that this could could have been published in the last decade or so -- hell, it could have been published last week!

Yes, while a book about a war with newts might seem, as one of my friends calls it, "preposterous," there is definitely a method in the author's madness, as well as a lesson to be heeded.  Do yourself a favor and as I said, run, do not walk, to find a copy.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Terror Tales of Wales (ed.) Paul Finch

Gray Friar Press, 2014
240 pp


My introduction to this so-far great series of British regional horror tales edited by Paul Finch was the excellent Terror Tales of the Seaside.  Like that one, Terror Tales of Wales is a collection of stories by modern writers of horror with 13(!) brief interludes in between which bring to the table a number of short bits of Welsh/Celtic history, folklore, myths, and legends.
The back-cover blurb tells us that Wales is 
"the cradle of poetry, song and mythic rural splendour. But also a scene of oppression and tragedy, where angry spirits stalk castle and coal mine alike, death-knells sound amid fogbound peaks, and dragons stir in bottomless pools..."
and indeed, many of the stories found in this collection are tied to the Welsh landscape, either on terra firma, in freshwater lakes, or related to the sea.  And, as  in my favorite horror stories, there are a number of  all too-human anxieties that are laid bare here; when those are combined with the mythological, the supernatural,  and the natural elements, the result is a group of stories that move well beyond the standard fare into something much more elevated and well worth reading.

While there are a number of really good stories here, I did have a few favorites, including Reggie Oliver's "Druid's Rest."  I wasn't too far into it before I realized that it read much like Aickman's "The Trains," and then...  If Aickmanesque is any descriptor, this story of two young women seeking shelter from a storm in a closed hotel definitely falls under that heading.   Thana Niveau's "The Face, was also great, a tale in which a photographer whose "favorite place of all to photograph" is the waterfall called Pistyll Rheaedr.    While going through her photos and tagging friends Owain and Gareth at the falls, she is asked by the photo software "who is this?" noting a spot at the top.  She sees no one at all, but the computer insists that there's someone there. When she looks at it in a different way, it's then she sees what might be a face, but might be only a trick of the eye since "nature's full of weird things." She'll get a chance for an up close and personal view when she accompanies Gareth to photograph him climbing the falls when they freeze over.   "Matilda of the Night" by Stephen Volk is another standout, in which a folklorist named Rees gets wind of an elderly woman in a nursing home who swears the Gwrach-y-Rhibyn, whose appearance portends death, has paid a visit, and sure enough, death followed in its wake.  Rees makes a deal with the woman that if he stays with her until she dies, she'll tell him all she knows, but it's deal that will cost him. 

Pistill Rheaedr, from Wikipedia

The remaining stories are also quite good, although I'm still not sure about "Dialedd" by Bryn Fortey, which came off as a piece of dark humor that didn't seem to fit the whole "Terror Tales" connection (in my opinion):

"Under the Windings of the Sea" by Ray Cluley
"Old as the Hills," by Steve Duffy
"Swallowing a Dirty Seed," by Simon Clark
"Don't Leave Me Down Here," by Steve Lockley
"The Sound of the Sea," by Paul Lewis
"The Flow," by Tim Lebbon
"The Offspring," by Steve Jordan
"The Rising Tide" by Priya Sharma
"Apple of their Eyes," by Gary Fry
"Learning the Language", by John Llewellyn Probert

I have three unread "Terror Tales" books on my shelves and am slowly picking up the rest until I have the complete set.  They're worth whatever I'll pay since not only are these deliciously nightmarish, but they're also a great example of the work of modern horror writers who definitely know how to ply their craft.  The idea of grounding an entire body of work in regional horror is just brilliant.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Demons of the Night: Tales of the Fantastic, Madness, and the Supernatural from Nineteenth-Century France (ed.) Joan Kessler

University of Chicago Press, 1995
326 pp


And it's back to France once again with this stunning collection of tales, nine of which are newly translated by the book's editor, Joan Kessler.

A few days ago I was asked by someone about the similarity between the "scare elements" of French tales like these and those I'd find in an American collection from the same time period.  Well, for one thing, I'm not overly familiar with American stories of the same period, but for another thing, I have to admit being thrown off by this question, so I borrowed from Terry Hale in his introduction to  The Dedalus Book of French Horror: The 19th-Century, trying to explain that it depends on who you read and when they wrote as to what you're going to find in their work:
"Born in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Romantic writers of the 1820s and 30s brought to the genre narrative sophistication and their own set of macabre fears and anxieties concerning such matters as the death penalty, anatomical research, the cholera epidemic, infanticide, and man's inhumanity to man; the rise of spiritualism in the mid-century presented a fresh collection of moral problematics; finally, the end of the century, especially under the pioneering work in the discipline later to become known as psychology, witnessed a renewed fascination in diabolicism and morbid sexuality." (35)
I also noted that Hale  suggested that it was "the psychological insight of Poe" that stood as the "original impetus" for "contes cruels" while, as he stated, the "contes fantastiques" of the sort that are in this collection, were inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman, "the literary lion" who "introduced a range of themes, ideas and narrative techniques" that helped to "renew" these sorts of tales, which would "remain in vogue" over seven decades. (31) 

There are many other factors that go into the making of these tales, much too lengthy to list and to explain in a nutshell;  I hope  my short answer was  understandable.  What I didn't say is that I don't really approach any of these stories to be hit with the "scare element" -- that's not at all why I read them.  If the frisson of terror climbs up my spine now and then, hooray, but I look at my reading of the works of these authors as a way of discovering how they each engaged with past and contemporary anxieties as well as themselves.

Ms. Kessler says of these authors in her introduction that
"Their works repeatedly probe the subject of the unconscious, often through the metaphor of the divided self or the landscape of dream and madness.  As they gravitate toward those areas of experience inaccessible to rational understanding, they actually lead us to a more complete notion of our own minds, with their web of tangled, contradictory motivations and impulses."

Briefly and with no more than short annotations from me here, there are thirteen fantastic tales in Demons of the Night, appropriately led by Charles Nodier's "Smarra, or Demons of the Night" (1821).  I had read a Dedalus book some time back called Smarra and Trilby, two tales written by this author and neglected to post because of time; his Infernaliana is waiting to be read on my Kindle.   "Smarra" takes the reader immediately into the realm of dreams, but wait -- there are dreams within dreams, with the only real anchors to be found in this multi-layered story at the beginning and end, and even then there is a big question that needs asking.   In this case it isn't necessary, but it would be very helpful to be familiar with The Golden Ass by Apuleius; I had to give it a read before I could finish my first go round with this story.   Next up comes Balzac's "The Red Inn" which is absolutely great.  The overall meaning of the tale will become clear as you read it, but the getting there involves one man whose thoughts about committing a particularly heinous crime become a reality -- but when the deed is done, he can't remember doing it.  Obviously there's more, but you won't hear it from me. Balzac is followed by "The Venus of Ille" by Prosper Mérimée,  which starts out with a sort of MR James vibe before it gets positively dark and deliciously creepy, with an ending I swear I'll never forget.   This story is followed by two absolutely delightful tales by Théophile Gautier, "The Dead in Love" (aka "Clarimonde) and "Arria Marcella."  In the first, which I can only describe as a story of a man with a divided self, a priest finds himself mesmerized by a beautiful woman at the exact moment he is to take holy orders; in the second, a trip to a museum to view artifacts of Pompeii leads one man to the woman of his dreams.   "The Dead in Love" will hold you spellbound until the last word -- it's also one that requires a lot of thought in the long run for more under-the-surface readers.

from La Plume et Le Rouleau

Continuing on we find Alexandre Dumas with his "The Slap of Charlotte Corday," which I'd already read in One Thousand and One GhostsThis piece reiterates the absolutely riveting story of Solange so don't miss it.   Next up is my favorite piece of writing in the entire book, de Nerval's rather poignant "Aurélia, or Dream and Life"This story, which was written during several stints in different asylums, has been studied left, right, and upside down, and because of the depth and the richness of what's in this story, a number of different interpretations have emerged.  I'll just give a little teaser from the Introduction, in which the editor notes that "The narrator-protagonist's plunge into madness is depicted as a journey into the self..." and here, I'll add that it's a story that touches on the connection between his own madness and his mythologizing dream life, without saying anything else.  Sadly, shortly after he'd written this story, de Nerval committed suicide.   Following de Nerval is Jules Verne's "Master Zacharius" that reminded me in a big way of the work of Hoffman.  It follows the story of a master clockmaker whose clocks begin to slow down and stop working; he will, before all is said and done,  become engaged in a struggle for very his soul.  I can't remember where I read it, but someone writing about this story referred to it as an examination of the "power-hungry" side of science, and that's about right. Considering much of Verne's other work, well, no surprise there. 

Coming into the home stretch, we start with two stories from an author whose work I love, Villiers de l'Isle Adam, "The Sign," which takes us into the zone of uncanny coincidence, and "Véra," a story of a "love-obsessed" husband continuing on with his life after the death of his wife.   This one is very well done, pushing the envelope between reality and illusion to the very last word.  Supernatural? You be the judge.    Two tales of madness follow from another favorite author, Guy de Maupassant: his most well-known story, "The Horla," and his "Who Knows?"  I'm not going to discuss either of these but I will say that for me the joy in reading this author's work is that I find myself thinking "it could be this" or "it could be that," and realizing that my head is potentially getting as messed up as de Maupassant's protagonists who strive for rational explanations of strange phenomena.  By the time I'd finished these two stories, I felt so off-kilter that I had to seriously put this book down.   Personally, I think this man was a genius writer whose work ought to be read by everyone with an interest in the darker side of the human psyche.  Last, but by no means least, we have Marcel Schwob with his strange tale "The Veiled Man," which takes place entirely in a small train compartment.  I'll just say that it is quite possible that beneath the story he gives us there is an entirely different version.

Overall, this has proved to be another favorite book, one that I can absolutely without any hesitation recommend to all.  I get that French literature of the 19th century isn't everybody's thing, and also, if you're looking for something solely to scare the bejeezus out of you, this just may not be it.  These stories are things of beauty, not something you read simply in the hope of getting a few chills up your spine, although it happens quite a bit here.   Beyond great, really; I live to find collections like this one. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki

Penguin, 1996
originally published 1814
translated by Ian Maclean
631 pp


Believe it or not, the moment I turned the last page I wanted to read this book again.  Given its 600-plus pages, that says a lot, and I ended up not rereading it, but I very easily could have.    I loved this book and I loved the people in it, but I spent most of the time in awe of the author's imagination.

I will say right up front that this book will not be for everyone. It can be  incredibly challenging because of the way it is written as a set of stories within stories within stories, which are often stopped and picked up again later rather than just finished at once, which in a couple of cases may require some backtracking. Reader expectations also play a role here.  For example, I was reading Amazon reviews and came across one from a very disappointed reader who said that he was upset because he'd started this book with the expectation of a "fantasy work" but instead ended up with literary fiction.  No comment on that one, but my point is that it's best to just go into it without any preconceived notions, because really, there's so much going on between these covers and so many different literary styles used here that to give it any sort of label would just flat out be folly. As the back cover blurb says, it's "entertainment on an epic scale," and really, that's how I'd approach it.  In short, relax and go with the flow and you will be rewarded.

The novel begins with the discovery of a set of several handwritten notebooks, all written in Spanish. The French army officer who is in Saragossa at the time of its capitulation in 1809 found them, and held on to them. Later, after leaving Saragossa, he is taken prisoner by the Spanish, and stripped of all possessions.  He begs to be able to keep these notebooks, and is given permission by the captain to do so once the captain realizes that this manuscript "contained the history of his ancestors."  The prisoner did much of his time at the captain's home, where the captain translated the work into French, while the prisoner took down every word.  The manuscript, as it turns out, is the story of young Alphonse van Worden, an officer in the Walloon Guards who has been ordered to Madrid.   In trying to find the shortest route, he ends up in the Sierra Morena between Andalusia and La Mancha. It is an area known for brigands, gypsies, smugglers and other bad types, but Alphonse has no fear, and takes no heed.  As he makes his way through the area, he comes across the deserted inn known as the Venta Quemada, and it's here that this tale really begins.  Eventually he will find himself in the company of several others, where they all share their stories.  It is Alphonse's journey through the Sierra Morena and these shared experiences that make up this novel; to say more would just be wrong.

The back-cover blurb reveals that these tales consist partly of "characters transformed through disguise, magic and illusion," and that idea, more than any other, plays out over and over again throughout this book.  One such story made me laugh out loud, but there are spots of humor everywhere. Also found here are stories that date back to the days of Cleopatra, stories filled with arcane and esoteric lore, lots of erotic moments, political intrigue based on historical fact; there are demons, ghosts, and the Holy Inquisition; there isn't a dull moment anywhere.  It truly is "entertainment on an epic scale."  At the same time, I can see a sort of method in this author's madness in the way he tells this story, which I won't discuss here because it would involve spoilers.

It's hard to describe this book in a succinct, general one-size-fits-all kind of way since it is different things to different people.  For example,  as some have said, it can be "an encyclopedia of the dark side of the European Enlightenment," a gothic tale, an "absurd, through-the-looking glass version of Spain under the Inquisition," as one scholar noted (do NOT go to that link until after finishing the book), a kabbalistic text (don't go there either), or a play on Tales From the Thousand and One Nights.  It's very easy to see all of those ideas combined in this book, especially in hindsight, but there are places in my notebook where I've marked instances of all of these and more while reading.

I loved it -- others may not share my experience, but it's one of those rare books that left me with a sense of loss after finishing it, knowing I'd come to the end.  Each and every second with this book was just pure reading bliss.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares -- a genius novel if ever there was one.

NYRB Classics, 2003
originally published 1940, as La invención de Morel
translated by Suzanne Jill Levine
103 pp

paperback (read earlier this month)

"The habits of our lives make us presume that things will happen in a certain foreseeable way, that there will be a vague coherence in the world."  -- 65

At 103 pages, one would think this book would be a very easy read, but that just isn't the case. It demands a second read (which I did) and probably a third (which I didn't do); its brevity belies the great  depth that the author has brought to this story.

There's not much I can say here without giving away the twist in this book, so this post will be a short one.  Casares has combined a number of different elements here that together don't really allow for The Invention of Morel to be pigeonholed into a single genre -- there are elements of suspense, sci-fi,  metaphysics, philosophy and even romance, so to try to give it a label is foolhardy at best. It is also dark, weird and great all rolled together.

A fugitive escaping from Venezuela with "a life so unbearable" has made his way to an island somewhere in the Pacific. It is a place where Chinese pirates will not go, nor will it ever be visited by "the white ship of the Rockefeller Institute" because it is "known to be the focal point of a mysterious disease."  A group of people had landed there in 1924 and then left it, after having built a museum, a chapel, and a swimming pool. The narrator is completely alone, isolated from the rest of humanity.  But then, everything changes, as he discovers that there are other people on this island.  He takes to watching them as they interact, taking a "certain fascination" in doing so since it had been a very long time since he'd seen anyone at all; he is also worried that they might discover him and deliver him to the authorities.  After a time, the fugitive begins to take the most notice of one of their number, a woman, Faustine, who "watches the sunset every afternoon."  Watching her changes his attitude from one of "nothing to hope for" to its opposite; he decides to make contact with her, risking his freedom in doing so.  It is, as he says, a move that could easily send him back to his past, but he's willing to do it because, as he says, "anything would be preferable to the utter purgatory" he lives in now.  Everything takes off from the point at which he actually works up the courage to speak to her but finds himself ignored, as if he doesn't exist.

original illustration, from the novel -- Faustine

To go any further plotwise would involve key spoilers, and if I say any more there wouldn't be a point in anyone reading this book so we'll stop here. Casares poses a multitude of metaphysical questions in this very short work, which, with apologies I also won't disclose for fear of ruining things;  he also makes some interesting social and political observations vis a vis the narrator's interest in Malthusian theory.  Let's just say that it is one of the best and certainly one of the most surreal stories I've ever read, and to say that it was unputdownable would be an understatement.  ARRGGHHH!  It's SO frustrating not to be able to talk about this book because it's THAT good and I want to spill my guts because it is THAT good.  But my hands are tied and my lips are sealed.

oh well. Just read it and you'll see exactly what I mean.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Thus Were Their Faces, by Silvina Ocampo

NYRB, 2015
stories originally published between 1937 and 1988
translated by Daniel Balderston
354 pp


"The people we hate the most are the ones we have entrusted with all of our secrets. When we are in their presence we can't change our soul. They are always there to remind us what we were like."
                   -- from "Cornelia Before the Mirror,"  342

Just after the introduction to this book by author Helen Oyeyemi, the editors of this volume have  included a brief preface by Jorge Luis Borges in which he reveals that Silvina Ocampo had a "strange taste for a certain kind of innocent and oblique cruelty."  He also says that she has the "virtue" of "clairvoyance," and that she "sees us as if we were made of glass, sees and forgives us"  and perhaps that is a part of why I found this book to be so unsettling, but I think that one of the creepiest things about this book is that quite often, we find ourselves looking at the world from a child's point of view which is surprisingly not quite as innocent as one would think.

Thus Were Their Faces is a compilation of short stories taken from seven of Ocampo's books  published between 1937 and 1988.  It doesn't take long at all to realize that you have landed in a different territory, beginning with my favorite story of this collection, "The Impostor."  While it has a certain gothic flavor, this story of a young student sent for a few weeks to live with a family friend completely draws the reader deeper and deeper into a much darker zone -- that of the human psyche. In truth, a sort of very quiet hum of madness runs through many of these stories, one that isn't quite apparent on the outside but which  slowly makes itself heard the more into each tale you wander.   I'm not going to go into any sort of in-depth descriptions about any of these stories, but in this book, anything can and does happen.  She doesn't spare the cruelty:  murder and death abound in many different and bizarre forms, long-term resentments turn into breaking points that materialize in different guises, and the stories that focus on memory, prophecy, and dreams are not without their deeper, darker edges.  Most are set among venues that in and of themselves are rather mundane and harmless; the challenge presented here is for the reader to occupy the minds of the people who inhabit those spaces, since in the long run, what we see from our outsider-looking-in perspective is completely different from what they see. While we may view what's happening with these characters as strange and bizarre, they want and need us to believe otherwise.  It takes a while to come to this realization, and once you're there, it becomes a rather disorienting reading experience that in my case left me with the feeling of being off kilter during most of my time spent between the covers of this book.

Reading strictly for plot is kind of beyond the point here, so readers who have to have every single thing explained are probably going to be lost and will probably not like this book.  It is yet another work that is a mind-stretching experience for people who want to move beyond the norm and who are looking for something that demands quite a bit more out of themselves as readers -- challenging, yes, but the payoff comes from immersing yourself in some of the best writing ever.  On the back cover of my book there's a brief statement from Borges in which he says that "Silvina Ocampo is one of our best writers. Her stories have no equal in our literature," and he's absolutely correct. While he was referring to writers from Latin America, I think what he says about her stories having "no equal" is absolutely spot on.  It is a beautifully-written collection that will linger on in my mind for a very, very long time.

Monday, January 22, 2018

You really have to love this guy: The Unfortunate Fursey, and The Return of Fursey, by Mervyn Wall

Say hello to Fursey, who really is one of the most unfortunate yet lovable characters one can possibly come across in a novel, or in this case, a pair of novels written by Irish author Mervyn Wall. Set in Ireland near the end of the tenth century, it all begins here in The Unfortunate Fursey, in which the monastery at Clonmacnoise is beset by demons

Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1946
paperback, 215 pp

after its "defences had been breached" one day.  The Abbot warns the community that "the Evil One" has made his way into their midst, and indeed, as the brethren are besieged for fifteen days of terror, they are finally able to expel the forces of darkness  with exorcisms, "the smell of incense, the splashing of holy water and the sound of the Latin language."   The demons are unable to remain anywhere in the monastery with the exception of  the cell of Brother Fursey, whose speech impediment rendered him unable to say the right words to get rid of them.  His cell thus becomes their sanctuary; to save the monastery it is decided that Fursey must be expelled.  After asking the Devil for advice, Fursey sets off for the "fine big city" of Cashel, where the first of his many adventures begins.  Sadly, for our hero, he finds himself constantly caught between the world of sorcery and the Church, and truthfully, the question here is which of the two is the most evil?  

 Jacket illustration of The Unfortunate Fursey from the Swan River Press edition, by Jesse Campbell-Brown.  From Behance

This picaresque saga is continued in the second book, The Return of Fursey

Valancourt Books, 2017
originally published 1948
paperback, 204 pp

which finds Fursey in exile in England where his quiet, cozy life as a grocer has been interrupted; he is now being sought for extradition back to Ireland.  He doesn't want to be forcefully brought back, but he does have a reason for wanting to return to his native land (which I can't reveal without giving away the show) so with the help of a crazy and bloodthirsty band of Vikings, he eventually gets there.  However, it is a very different Fursey this time around, and while the humor is still very much alive and kicking, his story takes a much darker turn in this volume.   Fursey once again finds himself "ensnared" on all sides; how he deals with the several forces contending for his soul is the meat and bones of this tale.  I think it would also be safe to say that both books reveal a man trying to come to terms with discovering his true nature, which is tested often and in many different ways.  

It's so hard to try to describe these two books without taking the spoiler route, and really, to reveal anything would be to ruin the joy for anyone who may want to read these books for the first time.  Underneath all of the humor there runs a dark streak involving the Catholic Church; aside from religion Wall also has plenty to say about politics and human nature itself.   In short, there is method to the author's madness, making for a great (and often laugh-out-loud) reading experience for people who want something well beyond today's standard fantasy fare.   One more thing: I'd advise saving Michael Dirda's excellent introduction until after finishing these novels. 

I fell in love with Fursey from the outset because he's sort of a hapless kind of guy, but as Wall brings his saga to a close in The Return of Fursey, I realized I'd grown so attached to Fursey that I was sad to see it all come to an end.  Both books are awesome silliness on one level; on another they contain a very serious tale that really got underneath my skin and will stay there for some time.  I can't recommend these two books highly enough.   To say I loved them would be an understatement.