Book Review: Clive Barker's Imajica
I just finished re-reading Clive Barker’s Imajica for the first time since high-school, and wow, it’s been a while. I first read this book in 1991, when it was first published, and wow, so much has changed since then. Since that time, I’ve actually taken courses in college where I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on things like religion, belief, ideology, and gender; on men, and women, and their roles in the world and society; on sex, its amazing power to heal and to curse and to drive us to do things, its power over us, its role in shaping who we are, what we do, and on people and society; on desire, its potency, and what it does to us; and on the power of belief and on imagination, and what that does to us, and how it inspires us, shapes the world we live in, and how it can help us, and maybe save us. And of course, I’ve thought about magic. Is it real? Does it exist? If so, what is it? How does it—or if it were real, how would it—really work? Are there other worlds beyond this one? Other planets with life on them? In other dimensions? What would other worlds beyond this one look like, feel like, seem like? Could we travel to them? What kinds of people and creatures would we meet there? I’m not religious, but, I’ve wondered, if there was a God, would it possible to find—and meet—God? And what if—and this is a big one—what if we found out that God, in all his “glory,” was actually the Bad Guy?
Imajica is a book that seeks, with immense majesty of prose and with drastic and breathtaking scope, to answer all of these questions and address all of these issues in one fell swoop; with one gigantic story arc that spans over thirteen hundred pages (in eBook form, at least). It remains Clive Barker’s most ambitious work, ever, and his most daring. It posits that there are, beyond the boundaries of our four dimensional world, four other, parallel dimensions—four other “Dominions”—each teeming with life beyond our wildest imaginings; cities of vast scope and methods of architecture that span a dizzying array of styles and inventions; and societies, landscapes, governments, and cultures of such dazzling variety as to make one wonder—how does Barker come up with it all? But all is not well in the worlds of the Imajica; for the Fifth Dominion, Earth, it cut off from her sister Dominions, floating in the dreaded wastes of the “In Ovo” (think of it as a kind of supernatural “hyperspace” hell filled with monsters and demons), and the other Four are controlled by the Autarch, a monstrous tyrant who, from his city-state of Yzordorrex in the Second Dominion, rules with an iron fist. The only hope for the “Reconciliation”—the bridging of the gap between Earth and the other Four Dominions, which can occur only every two hundred years—lies with a man who has no clue that he is the key to this great event: An art forger and womanizer named “Gentle,” who, when he meets a mysterious assassin named “Pie ‘oh’ pah”—who is in reality a shape-shifting, gender-fluid alien from the reconciled Dominions—finds there is more to life than just anonymous sex and faking great masterpieces. And also, part of the mystery lies with Judith, a woman desired by many men, but belonging to none of them; she and Gentle share a turbulent past, but neither can remember more than ten years into either of their own. With Pie ‘oh’ pah as a guide, they will find their destinies intertwined, and Gentle will, hopefully, reclaim his destiny as the Reconciler of Dominions . . . or else every world will perish in the coming apocalypse . . . an apocalypse brought about, perhaps, by the very God that the Reconciliation is meant to serve the will of . . . that God being, of course, the great “Hapexamendios,” better known in the Fifth Dominion as Jehova Yahweh.
The heroes have their work cut out for them, and the book’s villains don’t make it easy. First there’s the Tabula Rasa . . . an ancient society dedicated to stamping out all magical activity on Earth and stopping the Reconciliation at all costs, because the last time it was attempted, things went horribly wrong and a few people got eaten by creatures from the In Ovo. Oops. And then there’s the Autarch, mad with power and raging in his palace to his Queen, who bears a striking resemblance to Judith, and who might just be her twin, or her doppleganger, or her clone. Maybe. And then there’s Dowd. Dowd is the Familiar of Oscar Godolphin, one of the members of the Tabula Rasa, and he is a nasty piece of work. Just imagine a Neo-Nazi with the calm and almost sweet disposition of Alfred the Butler, and you’ll have Dowd. He has mites that he spits up out of his mouth and that can “unmake” you if you cross him though, so watch out.
Imajica is a fantastic epic “dark fantasy,” and I remembered enjoying it very much when I was in high school. And that hasn’t changed. I still love it. It’s filled with terrific, almost phantasmagorical and dream-like imagery, some of it whimsical, much of it dark. Some of it terrifying. Luscious, vivid descriptions that practically leap off the page and into your mind’s eye, picturesque mental images that are so lifelike in their prose-rendering that you just want to savor the words rather than speed past them, luxuriating in Barker’s turns of phrase and his gift for descriptive language. His action writing—when there is action, and there is quite a bit of it—is good too; he doesn’t waste time lingering on details except when he really wants you to notice something, or someone, and remember it for later. His dialogue is . . . well, not quite as good as his gift for terrific descriptions. Some of it is a little stilted and wooden, at times. But much of it is good, bordering on excellent; when he writes from the heart, you can really tell . . . But when it’s up to the characters to deliver exposition, that’s where he falters a little bit. But other than that, the writing is excellent, bordering on divinely inspired—if you’ll forgive the obvious pun—and you can almost see Barker frantically working on this manuscript as you read it, obsessively typing out every line, sweating over it long into the night like a maniac at the keyboard, a man gone wild with ideas and invention. Because that’s what it feels like most of the time—like this is Barker’s mind unleashed on the page; like this is Clive Barker’s mind let loose like a ferocious, feral animal to roam the wilds of our imaginations, stalking the printed word, and lashing out at us from the sentences and paragraphs of this book.
Of course there is sex in this book. It wouldn’t be a Clive Barker book without the freaky sex! And by God, there is a lot of it. And I do mean a lot. There’s so much sex in this book it ought to be retitled Imajica: Screwing Your Way Across The Reconciled Dominions. Really. I mean, this book has a lot of freaky sex in it, so if you’re not up for that, don’t read it. Laurel K. Hamilton would be proud of this book, let’s put it that way, okay? I’m personally not a big fan of graphic sex in fantasy or other fiction . . . I mean, okay yeah, they fucked. So what? I don’t need a full page description of what the guy’s penis looked like. (And Barker does exactly that on one page of this book. He spends three long paragraphs describing Oscar Godolphin’s rod.) I mean, okay, yeah, great, they’re horny and they love each other’s bodies. Great. What’s next in the freaking story? But. In this case, I understand why he’s doing it. Because it’s not just sex scenes that are scattered throughout Imajica. Sex, and sexuality, are woven into the DNA of the book’s plot, story, theme, and overarching narrative superstructure, and that’s part of what makes it so interesting and so fascinating a book to read; they’re part of the book’s psychocosmic structure, and they’re what define the boundaries of its mythological architecture.
Also, gender. Or more appropriately: Feminism. Clive Barker wrote this book in 1991, back when “#MeToo” wasn’t a thing yet; back when feminism was still gathering steam. But yet he wrote a book that is, basically, an “essentialist gender narrative” in which “men” and “masculinity” are depicted as the devouring, destructive, and conquering force, and “women” and “femininity” are the driving, creative, and nurturing force; in which men are portrayed as being both desirous and jealous of women’s power to create and nurture, and wherein they are often destroyed by this very desire and jealousy. And in which women are the true source of creation and magic, and in which men are the usurpers of that power; and in which they are the conquerers who create cities upon Mother Earth because they cannot be within Mother Earth. Yeah, he wasn’t subtle about it, folks. In the world of Imajica, the God everyone prays to on Sunday actually (SPOILERS) raped women to create the Reconcilers, like Gentle, and Christ before him, and others. It’s fascinating to note that in Imajica, God has either killed or imprisoned all the Goddesses (those who were too powerful for him to kill) before he took up residence in the First Dominion; and that at the end, (SPOILERS) all the Goddesses have returned, and thus we’re supposed to think that since God is dead (somewhere, Nietzsche is doing a fist pump), everything is okay, and that though the past was designed by men, the future will be written by women, and that this is somehow a better thing . . . even though Barker has already made big deal of telling us how, in the past, the female led cults and societies of the Imajica were just as bloodthirsty as this created and led by men.
This is my one problem with the book: I think it’s too one-sided, really. I’m all for feminism, and female empowerment, and for redefining the role that women have played in society for the last few thousand years . . . and I’ m all for disassembling the patriarchy. Hells yeah. You go, girls. But Imajica oversimplifies things. It’s an essentialist gender narrative, and therein lies its central weakness: The world is more complicated than just “women good, men bad.” The world is a lot more complicated than that. And if you go around telling people “women good, men bad,” then you’re part of the problem, because you’re oversimplifying a greater, more complex issue. The problem isn’t “women good, men bad.” The problem is that there is an unhealthy power dynamic between the genders in our society (including those people who are “gender-fluid,” like Pie ‘oh’ pah), and that there are unhealthy gender roles that have evolved because of it; and as a consequence of that, the dialogue between genders has suffered a breakdown, as well. And we need to deconstruct that power dynamic and those gender roles if we’re ever going to make any progress. And, also, we need communication between every gender—honest, open conversation; a reconstructed, reconstituted dialogue—if we’re ever going to make any progress toward a better understanding between men and women and all the gender-fluid people in between. The Goddesses need to come back, yes. And we need a feminizing influence, yes. And toxic masculinity needs to go die in a fire, sure. And in this particular universe, Hapexamendios needs to be exposed as a misogynist bastard of a god. And maybe even (SPOILERS) destroyed by his own creation, Gentle the Reconciler. But do we really need to go so far as to call all men destroyers and despoilers of all that is good? To damn them all, to curse them all? And to cast an entire gender as evil, even those who’ve done nothing wrong, and whose only crime is being male? No, we don’t. Because that’s stupid. As one prominent feminist scholar said in an article a few years ago that made the rounds on the Internet: “I’m all for feminism, but not if it means killing all the men.”
It is good that the book addresses gender-fluidity, though. Pie ‘oh pah is a wonderful character, and he (or she, or — problematically — “it” as Barker refers to Pie) makes a fine best friend and later (SPOILERS) a loyal and loving spouse to Gentle. Pie is a complex character, and Barker writes him (or her) with a certain grace and tenderness, and yet a complex darkness that is at once beguiling and charismatic. One could accuse Barker of going for a “magical negro” (only in this case it would be a “magical androgynene”), but what of that? Pie is a great character, and I fell in love with him (or her) as I read the book. (SPOILERS, but really, you saw this coming) I was extremely upset when he (or she) died, though Barker does manage to “bring him (or her) back” in various ways through flashbacks to Gentle and Sartori’s past, and when he (she) comes back at the end of the book . . . whoa, major tear-jerker moment. Major. I admit it, I cried. The only problematic thing about Pie is the way Barker uses the pronoun “it” to refer to the “mystif” (Pie’s species), though no other pronoun really “fits.” Pie can become whatever the observer wants, you see; he’s (she’s) not just any old “shapeshifter’: he (or she) becomes whatever the onlooker most desires, and he (she) doesn’t just appear that way . . . No, she (he) literally becomes that person or thing, changing even her (his) gender or her (his) internal organs to match whatever you wish she (he) was. This is part of what makes him (her) such a powerful character and such a symbol for change and growth. And Pie is such a fantastically rendered guy (or gal) that, like Gentle, you just never want to say goodbye to him (her).
Other than Barker’s radical approach to feminism — which I don’t entirely disagree with, in principle, but still, it kinda drives me up a wall, because, well, I’m a dude, and I don’t appreciate my entire gender getting slammed as “basically evil just because the author says so” — I still love Imajica with all my heart and soul. Truly, I do. I love this book to death, just as much as I love Barker’s other great fantastic adventure, Weaveworld (though I confess I love that one a little bit more). It’s one of my favorite dark fantasies, ever. It’s gloriously imaginative, fantastically written, and wonderfully majestic, flowing, epic, and dreamy. It’s got terrific imagery, beautiful prose, and great characters who I fall in love with every time I read it, for better or for worse, despite some of their personal failings — or perhaps because of them. It’s got action, suspense, horror, flights of fancy, and of course, it has lots of freaky sex that, while I personally could do without it (I’m not a prude or anything, I just don’t get into graphic descriptions of sex; I mean, okay, yeah, they fucked; big deal, get on with the story), I understand why it’s there, and I understand the role it plays in the overall story and it’s themes. (And hey, it’s good for a grin, and some of it never fails to make me scratch my head and wonder, “Uh, Mr. Barker, is there something you want to tell the nice psychotherapist?”) But yeah, Imajica remains one of my favorites that I will definitely revisit once every few years from now on, and will want to spend some time with now and then, remembering the waters of the Merrow Ti’ Ti’ and the grey wall of the Erasure; the Lenten Way and the desert of the Kwem; the heights of the Jokalaylau snows and the palaces of the city-god Yzordorrex. All of them are there, in Clive Barker’s Imajica, an epic, Dominion-spanning adventure that is guaranteed to take your breath away—and maybe even use it as a weapon!