Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Land of Painted Caves: Fool Me Twice...

And so we reach the final novel in the Earth's Children series.  It is worth mentioning that for most of the time between The Shelters of Stone and The Land of Painted Caves, fans believed that seven novels were going to be published.  Auel had made a statement that she had enough material to produce a seventh novel.  So as the years passed, many of us hoped that the big delay was due to Auel writing the sixth and seventh novel together.  After all, wasn't that what she was supposedly doing when she wrote the fifth novel?  Since the sixth novel did not appear two or three years after the fifth, that seemed to be the only credible explanation.

Then when the announcement came that The Land of Painted Caves was Auel's last novel, many of us thought that meant the sixth and seventh novel had been combined to form a mega-novel even bigger than The Plains of Passage.  What could possibly await us?!  If Auel was going to stage the big Clan-Others confrontation, it would have to be here.

That said, fans' expectations had been lowered by The Shelters of Stone, and there was quiet acknowledgement that what Auel gave us would not be exactly what we wanted.  But still, she had to give us some of what we wanted, right?!

You have only to look at the Amazon reviews to know that the answer is a resounding no.  While Auel did give us one Easter egg in the final third, the major clash hinted at in the first three novels never came to pass.  We don't even get trading with Guban and Yorga's clan.  In fact, the Clan as a whole is very much a forgotten aspect of this novel.  Instead, what most of us thought was merely an incidental discovery turns out to be the novel's Big Deal.  Which begs the question: what the hell was the point of The Clan of the Cave Bear?

Plot Synopsis

(Note that on the surface, The Land of Painted Caves still had the potential to be a pretty good story.)  Ayla has begun training to be one of the zelandonia, which is very intensive and often causes her to place her family life second.  This, in turn, causes a rift to develop between her and Jondalar.  In addition to undergoing several "trials" in order to become worthy of the priesthood, Ayla also embarks on a lengthy "donier tour," where she examines cave paintings created by an earlier people.  Six years pass, and things finally come to a head when Ayla drinks a strange herbal mixture and ends up being "called" by the Mother.  During this calling, Ayla receives new words for the Mother's Song, telling her without a doubt that babies are created not just by women, but also by men.

When she arrives at the Zelandonii Summer Meeting, she learns that Jondalar has not been faithful to her, which sends her into a spiral of jealousy and despair.  The zelandonia officially make her one of them, and decide to share her new Gift of Knowledge at the Mother Festival.  Ayla tries to get even with Jondalar, and when he sees her having sex with the drunken Laramar, he explodes in a jealous rage.  Ayla feels so depressed that she finally agrees to go on a root journey with Zelandoni the First, not caring whether she ever returns from the void.  During the trip, she gets confronted by a group of people who chant cryptically: "The Mother is gone.  Only the Son remains."  Just when it seems like she is lost forever, Jondalar appears and calls her back.  They make up and agree to try and have more children.  Meanwhile, the rest of the Zelandonii try to absorb the new knowledge that without men, women cannot create babies.  

The Good

1.  The Return of the Mamutoi.  Many of us hoped, but I never really expected that Auel would bring back characters from The Mammoth Hunters.  So it was very exciting to learn that Danug and Druwez made a journey to visit Ayla after all, even if their insertion into the novel does feel a bit random.  I enjoyed learning about what had become of the Mamutoi since Ayla and Jondalar's departure, especially Ranec.  Though sadly, my long desired 'ship of Danug and Folara never takes place.

2.  Ayla's "Calling".  The mind trip that leads Ayla to be "called" by the Mother is rather cool, and certainly removes any doubt about Auel's mental sharpness when she wrote this novel.  In fact, the entire sequence is possibly my favorite in the novel -- not that I have much to choose from.  Ayla's visuals and sensations are very well described, and there is some black humor as well, what with Ayla thinking that she can just walk back to the Ninth Cave after her ordeal.  However, the power of the strange herbs makes me wonder why the root is given such importance, given that apparently the herbs can do the same thing, without sending Ayla into a void that could kill her.

3.  Ayla Understands Jealousy.  As eye-rolling as the Jondalar and Marona reveal is, I do like that it causes Ayla to understand what Jondalar was feeling in The Mammoth Hunters.  As interesting as it was that Ayla grew up in a society that did not know jealousy, it could be rather frustrating to those of us who are so familiar with the emotion.

The Bad

1.  Needs an Editor.  I thought I read that Auel's editor died before the completion of this novel and thought: "That makes sense."  But then I realized it was actually Auel's secretary and personal assistant.  So I don't really know why two-thirds of The Land of Painted Caves are so meandering and pointless.  Maybe Auel's editor lost her eyesight and some sharpness over the years?  If this is how The Land of Painted Caves reads edited, I shudder to think of how it read before.

2.  Repetition Is Repetitious.  Speaking of editing, Auel's editor did nothing to rein in the author's tendency toward repetition, which is worse than ever in this novel.  Did you know that Joplaya's son, Bokovan is a special child?  If so, it's probably because Auel mentions it three times in five pages.  Did you know that Ayla got a tattoo that other people are trying not to notice?

3.  No, Seriously, What a Meandering Mess.  Part Two, with the donier tour, has received its rightful share of criticism, but for me, Part One is even worse.  Nothing happens.  Ayla discusses colors and counting words with the zelandonia.  She and Jondalar visit families from other caves.  Jondalar takes on an apprentice.  Then suddenly there's a time jump, as if Auel thinks that merely by jumping ahead in time, she advances the story.

The "growing tension" between Ayla and Jondalar is almost nonexistent, except for when Jondalar asks, "Can I come, too?", like a little brother tagging along with his sister and her friends.  We certainly never see them talking about serious issues, despite being mated for several years, and despite being older and supposedly wiser.

Then there's the "donier tour," which takes Ayla, Jondalar, and Zelandoni into the southernmost parts of Zelandonii territory, or modern-day France.  Many fans have pointed out that Auel could have invested far more meaning in the cave paintings than just "Oh look, pretty painting!"  In any event, visiting the caves seems to have a dubious connection to Ayla's training.  Ayla briefly has an interesting story when she is faced with putting a Charoli-type, Balderan, to death, but then she doesn't need to make that choice because an angry mob does it for her.  Moral crisis averted!

Before I received my copy of this novel, I was told that Part Three was the only part where anything happens.  I therefore read Part Three first and then went back and read the other parts, and honestly, they added nothing to the experience.  Okay, I guess it was nice to know where Ayla got those psychotropic herbs from, but otherwise, the first two parts were a waste of time.  It's as if Auel wrote out the plot, realized she had only two hundred or so pages, and just slapped some filler on the front end to make it into a full novel.        

4.  Jonayla Sue.  When you think of a young child whose mother is frequently absent, what comes to mind?   Cranky and difficult at times?  Prone to throwing tantrums when her mother goes away?  Resentful?  Crying?  Pfft, perish the thought!  Jonayla is adorable, upbeat, and compliant, nothing more.  I had low expectations for Jonayla's character, but Auel managed to undercut them anyway.  

It's actually kind of depressing what an afterthought Jonayla is, to both the story and to Ayla.  Ayla shows far more interest in Jondalar than in her daughter.  "I can't wait to get to the Summer Meeting to see Jondalar!  Oh yeah, and Jonayla."  In some ways, it's not out of character for Ayla to neglect her children: when she was in medicine woman mode trying to save Iza, she forgot about Durc to the point where her milk dried up.  But they still had some warm, loving moments.  Even Ayla's warm moments with Jonayla feel perfunctory.  She expresses more interest in Bokovan.  By the way, did you know that he is a special child?

One thing I hoped for was if Marona returned to the story, the twist would be that she began mothering Jonayla while Ayla was busy with her training, first as a way of bringing Jonayla to her side, then because she genuinely cared for her.  But of course that wouldn't work, because it would open up a complex conflict that was not easily resolved, and we know Auel can't handle that.

5.  The Gift of Knowledge Is Handled Badly.  On my first read, I remember thinking that the Gift of Knowledge was rammed down people's throats.  On subsequent reads, I can see how badly it is handled on so many levels.  Right after Ayla's reveal, Zelandoni the First wants to make it an official part of the Zelandonii culture before the rest of the zelandonia start thinking about the ramifications (see p. 615 hardcover).  Yes, Doni forbid the zelandonia start thinking about new and earth-shaking information and planning how to ease it into their society to reduce negative impact.  No, instead it's better to just recite some new lines in the Mother's Song without any prior warning, and then leave people hanging afterward.  Feast time, people!
              
6.  Zelandoni the First.  I wavered between putting Zelandoni in the Good column or the Bad column.  On the one hand, I appreciate that Auel created a character you can't fully trust or root for.  Given how blandly good or bad her characters tend to be, Zelandoni's ambiguity is refreshing.  Yet I finally decided to move her to the Bad column because I blame her for No. 5.  Even if we didn't know that her choice likely paved the way for oppressive patriarchy, it was still a shitty thing to do, just dropping the new knowledge on people.

Then later, when Ayla is visibly depressed, Zelandoni decides it's the perfect time to play with the mysterious root that nearly killed her.  Way to look after your flock, First Among Those Who Serve.  

7.  Goodbye Clan.  Many people have debated the meaning of the opening scene, where Ayla willingly kills cave lions without first consulting her totem.  I'm just going to go with a crazy theory: the slaughter of cave lions was Ayla's way of making a harsh break with her totem, and with the Clan, so that she could fully embrace the Zelandonii and their religion.  From that point onward, Ayla might talk about her totem, but it would be like reciting lines of scripture in a church you attend only once a year.

8.  For That Matter, Goodbye Durc.  When I said in my The Plains of Passage critique that it felt realistic for Ayla to never see Durc again, I meant physically.  Like many people, I assumed that the root journey would set up one final meeting between mother and son, if only of their minds.  Durc does appear on Ayla's root journey, but it is clearly not the real Durc, just a symbol.  We learn nothing about the way Durc has been treated, or the type of man he has grown up to be, or what has become of the rest of Brun's clan.  I think if Auel gave us a meeting with Durc and nothing else, many fans would have been satisfied.  But no, she wouldn't even throw us that bone.

9.  Why Jondalar?  Why the Ninth Cave?  What is the point of Jondalar?  Are we really to believe that no one in Ice Age Europe was capable of loving Ayla as fiercely?  That if Ranec were Ayla's preferred mate, his love would not have brought her back from the void?

Jondalar is 30 years old by the end of the novel, yet no more mature than he was in The Mammoth Hunters.  Still avoids Ayla instead of telling her his feelings, still has violent rages borne of jealousy, and still has not an interesting thought in his head.  Anyone on the fence about his character would have been pushed over by his epically bad outcry: "HE'S MAKING MY BABY!"  How could anyone take him seriously after that?  Poor Danug, light years more mature despite being younger, must wonder how he ever looked up to this stupid lug.  What was the point of Ayla choosing him?  He does nothing that Ranec or another man couldn't do in his position.

Furthermore, what was the point of Ayla making an arduous journey across the continent to the cave where Creb's ancestors once lived?  What was the point if there was nothing special about that location apart from some pretty cave paintings?  Ayla couldn't have spread the Gift of Knowledge as a mamut?  The prior novels set it up so that something significant was awaiting Ayla at the end of her long journey.  The dream with the two sons, and the meeting with Guban and Yorga, suggested that it would be the setting of a major showdown between the Clan and the Others.  Instead, the Clan are nowhere to be found.

That brings up the final question: what was the point of The Clan of the Cave Bear?  By itself, of course, it is an excellent study of the differences between two types of human.  But beyond that, the series suggests that Ayla's life with the Clan had a purpose, that she will use her experiences to make a difference that is widely felt.  Instead, we see that Ayla is practically unneeded to change people's way of thinking about the Clan.  Even in The Mammoth Hunters, the Mamutoi might have accepted Rydag long ago if Mamut had told them about his experiences.    

Other Points Worth Mentioning

1.  Why Is Modernity Always So Bad?  Every time Ayla goes on a mind trip and vaults ahead in time, the modern era is always presented in a foreboding fashion.  The lines are too straight and the colors are unnatural *ominous music*.  I understand the past 100 or 200 years would come as a shock to anyone from that time, but come on, it's not like we haven't done anything good since then.  Yes, how dare we come up with cures for heart ailments like Rydag's, ways to painlessly extract tumors, or methods of travel that take hours instead of days.

2.  Instantly Fluent.  I like how Danug and Druwez are practically fluent in Zelandonii after, what, a few months?  Or how Jondalar and Ayla instantly remember their Mamutoi upon meeting them, without being even slightly rusty or struggling to remember certain words, despite an eight-year lack of use.

3.  Why Is Everyone So Eager to Remain Zelandonii?  It's a mystery as to why the Zelandonii are so much greater in number than any other people we've encountered.  Yes, some of the southern Zels are thinking of breaking off, but the mystery is why they've identified as Zelandonii for so long in the first place.  After all, it's not as though the Mamutoi and the Sharamudoi have remained the same people, or the Losadunai and the S'Armunai, yet both appear to be roughly the same distance apart as the northern and southern Zels.  

4.  Awkward Names.  It's bad enough that the Zelandonii love to list their extensive kinship ties.  But even simple names in this novel -- and this series -- can be incredibly awkward.  Such as Acolyte of the Zelandoni of the Twenty-ninth Cave.  Or Zelandoni of the First Cave of Ancient Sacred Site Watchers.

5.  Jondalaaaaaaar!  Of the Zelandoniiiiiiiiiiiiiii!  That reminds me: the name Jondalar of the Zelandonii always makes me think something George of the Jungle might yell before he swings on a vine.  

6.  Picking Up That Hot Potato Again.  There wasn't much sex that I recall in this novel, apart fron Jondalar/Marona's and Ayla/Laramar's grotesque display.  I expected to talk much more about the laughably bad "Pleasures" scenes in the Earth's Children novels than I have.  Instead I've been fixated on the concept of consent and lack thereof where sex is concerned.  In The Land of Painted Caves, the potential rape scene that comes to mind is Ayla's "consent" to having sex with Laramar when she was clearly drunk out of her mind.  If she was sober enough to be aware of the situation and in control of her faculties when she gave consent, is that enough for it to be true consent?

The reason I keep bringing up rape and physical abuse in these novels is because I feel as though Jean Auel picked up a social hot potato when she wrote The Clan of the Cave Bear.  "Look at this modern woman overcoming oppressive male dictates and winning respect!  Just like woman today in 1980!"  Then as Auel fleshed out her series, she realized the implications of making Clan society so oppressive, that readers might not have any sympathy for their plight.  So Auel tried to hide the hot potato and pretend that she never picked it up in the first place.  "No, no, the Clan are just a poor oppressed people, a little slower than the Others, but completely worthy of respect.  They can't help being sexist -- they were just programmed that way."  Auel's attitude in the later novels seemed to be that the Clan were akin to robots who could only follow certain commands.  If a robot is programmed to kill and then does, is it the robot's fault?

Still, to accept the rigid view of the Clan in the novels after The Clan of the Cave Bear, you need to forget that she ever wrote Clan in the first place.  The characters in that novel belonged to a simple society, but their thinking was complex and their actions more flexible than one would expect.  You can't look at Iza and think that she's just blindly following her "memories," nothing more.  Yet somehow that's what I feel we're supposed to do, and it never made sense to me over the years I read and reread the series.

Conclusion

So after 31 years, a series that began with Neanderthals ends with them nowhere in sight.  Instead of the concluding novel providing greater insight into the Clan-Other relationship, it produces a revelation that surprises no one.  Men help make babies, everyone!  Who knew?


Next Time: Where did Auel go wrong, and what could she have done differently?    

3 comments:

  1. I found your blog and read your 7 reviews of the Auel series. Quite entertaining, I had a couple of good long laughs. Thanks for that. Keep it up.

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  2. I've recently finished reading Auel's epic, mostly because I've read the others and felt an obligation.

    Back in the 60's, I stumbled across "The Lord of the Rings" in Ballantine's pirate paperbacks. Loved it and still do. Then I read Lewis sci fi and Aslan series, and found them too preachy. Didn't and don't like them. Then I found G.R.R. Martin's depressing series of depravity and nihilism. Even the little girl is a sociopath. Of course that series is ended in midstream with all the characters scattered all over hell and back.

    So, I came to Auel. I must say your analyses are dead on, especially all the cartoon characters, including Ayla. In the end she is a literal magician. After The Clan of the Cave Bear the books become progressively more tedious, and the middle books are pornographic. In general, I would put Auel's series among the failures.

    Tolkien's books survive and prosper because there is an underlying moral base. He has successfully merged his WW I experience (the Somme) with his Catholicism and done so with subtlety. Of course, it helped that he was a professional philologist with a life-long interest in Germanic and Celtic language and myth.

    Martin and Auel seem to lack any moral sense at all, Martin especially. One has to wonder what kind of man he is in real life.

    Anyway, thanks for the enlightening reviews.

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