Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean (1991)

Tam Lin has been in the back of my mind, like a half-remembered dream, for about twenty years.  I know I've read it at least one other time, either back in college or just out of college; as it was published in 1991, I probably read it somewhere in the early to mid-90s.  Perhaps while I was still in college, but very likely just out of college, that first awful year or so, when your life as an undergraduate ends and your life as an adult hasn't quite started.  I imagine reading Tam Lin that first time was an experience in nostalgia and jealousy and longing for missed opportunities, and the pining in my heart I had to for my lost friends, spread throughout the country, and their changing and growing up and my changing and growing up.    During the last five years of college, I had just gone through the most amazing and transformative time of my life up to that point, perhaps outside of puberty.  I made a giant group of friends, amorphous friendships that shifted and changed depending on where I was on the journey and where they were on the journey.  But also I made a few friends that I know, to this day, I could call on the phone in the middle of the night and they would be there for me, what Janet, Tina and Molly called "the pink curtain" moment.    I came out of the closet as gay during this time too; had sex for the first time with a boy, a cute theater boy who went to a college four hours away (we broke up but I still think of him very fondly).  I dragged my girl friends to gay bars two hours away from our small liberal arts school, a school that shared some similarities with Dean's Blackstock.  I had various  crushes on boys I thought were gay, one of whom I saw in a gay bar later that year but he never liked me back in the same way.  

Then the mountain you climb that is college, that is educational, and sociological, cultural, and sexual - suddenly your climb is over and you are back at the bottom again, only of some other mountain this time.  Your life goes from being really quite interesting to dull, and the friends you saw on an hourly basis are gone.  You are alone for the first time in your life, and it sucks.  I most likely read Tam Lin when I was at the bottom of that new mountain.

Tam Lin is not about the bottom of the new mountain.  It's about that other mountain.  But reading it again made me think of both times; the time of college, and that time of longing.  And another time, the time of now, when you still long for those college days. Now I know I would hate college as a 47 year old.  I hate being told what to do; I'm even more anti-authoritarian than I was in college. I only want to learn and read what I want to learn and read - that hasn't really changed much from college either.  But to go back to college at Blackstock, now what a college!  It's not a real place, it's obviously no one speaks and acts in such creative and elegant and imaginative and intellectual ways.  No one goes around quoting Shakespeare and Alice, and quite frankly, if they did I'd probably think them pretentious as hell and avoid them.  But everyone wants to visit fairyland - Narnia, or Middle Earth, or Neverland.  It's why Disneyland is full of adults; trying to capture the magic of childhood - and often succeeding!  Blackstock is a different kind of fairyland.  I think I was a smart and creative kid, more well read than any kid I went to high school with for sure, and probably more than anyone I know in person (some Goodreads folks give me a run for my money).  As amazing as my college experience was, looking back, I missed out on a lot.  I wasn't a joiner; I knew people but only formed a few close friendships. Reading about Blackstock is the same as wanting to go to Narnia.  Just for a bit.  Take a few classes.  Be a part of something like that again.  Only even more so, more wonderfully perfect.  

If you Google Pamela Dean and Tam Lin, you will find a few articles (Jo Walton, for one; who can write about books better than her, I do not know) that do a far better job than I of describing in an intellectual way how Dean is using Blackstock as a magical garden or fairyland facsimile; that simple going away to college, 18 and 19 an 20 and 21 year olds are, like Thomas the Rhymer, in a fairyland for a period of a time, a magical world of words and thoughts and ideas that doesn't exist anywhere else.  Like firefly hunting, Dean catches all of that and more in her marvelous book, and then puts these ideas in the jar and lets the blink on and off all night, enchanting the reader.  The agony and the ecstasy of college life, the kind of college at least writers and lovers of literature want to attend and get lost in for seven years.  Lovers of the humanities, and those of us who attended a small midwestern liberal arts school, probably dig this book far more than big city big uni purveyors  of that bane of our modern society S.T.E.M.  There is Shakespeare dropped like bombs throughout - but for me, ice cream bombs (is there such a thing?  I may need to change this metaphor), sweet and intriguing (they are also important, for reasons that become clear later on).  The Alice quotations I was much more tuned to though.
I think Jo Walton wrote that this book wasn't for everyone, and it's most definitely a LOVE it or HATE it book.  Walton says you should read it multiple times, as you start to realize how what appears to be a big unexpected reveal at the end is actually hinted at throughout; and that everything falls in place more and more as you read it again and again.  I love books like this.
Who on earth would I share this book with?  I don't think I have a single friend who would appreciate it.

Funny aside: Because of the time period,  the characters in the book looked like Scooby Doo characters in my head - Molly is Velma, Nick is Shaggy, Tina is Daphne, and Thomas Lane is Fred.  Janet stands alone though, as does Medeous.  Melinda Wolfe looks like a librarian named Melinda with whom I used to work.

Tam LinTam Lin by Pamela Dean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tam Lin really isn't for everyone. It's very, very dense, with many, many quotes from Shakespeare. As well as quotes from Alice in Wonderland, and other books, very varied. Until the last chapter - I think even the last few pages, this doesn't even feel like a fantasy at all. Although then you go all Homer Simpson and say DOH, because everything makes sense, or at least as much sense as a Pamela Dean book is going to ever make; Jo Walton writes that you should read this at least twice and I agree. If you like fantasy with half naked blonde dragon ladies and incestuous siblings - this really isn't for you. If you like your fantasy Harry Pottered up, with wizards and magical spells, you aren't going to get that either; except the setting and some of the flavor is like Harry Potter turned inside out and then dipped in Hamlet. Speaking of the setting; I loved it. The college Blackstock is like the perfect college for people who love books and literature and also being around other people who love books and literature; it's a fairy land all itself. If you have been out of college for an extended period of time, you might enjoy this just as a trip down both memory lane and a sad wistfulness for the college that might have been.

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1 comment:

  1. So glad I got to be a part of your life during this tumultuous time, and was there to see you blossom into the amazing individual you are when you were free to live your truths! Love you bunches!


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