Ursula K. Le Guin, Always Coming Home: Author's Expanded Edition, ed. Brian Attebery. Library of America, 2019, hc, 826 pp., ISBN 978-1-59853-603-4; $35.00.
When Le Guin's Always Coming Home was first published, I reviewed it as "her masterpiece to date ... it rivets the imagination like no other secondary world since Middle-earth itself ... [it depicts] a joyous, happy, mature society without the didacticism, sappiness, or artificial perfection of a utopia."
I still consider it her masterpiece, and her magnum opus, which is why I was so delighted to find that the fourth volume of Le Guin in the honored and authoritative Library of America series, after sets of the Orsinian and Hainish stories, is this one. It is likely to remain the definitive edition of this great work.
First, there is the original text of the book, in all its complex, varied, and extensive form. It's meticulously proofread – one spot where I was sure I spotted a typo turned out to be a correction from the first printing – and clearly presented. Neither the pagination nor all the features of the layout of the original are preserved, but all the words are there (except the publisher's blurb), and all of the maps and Margaret Chodos-Irvine's illustrations are there, in pretty much the same place as typography permits. The recorded music and poetry are not there, but they may be ordered separately as CD or download, and information for doing that is given.* The major change from the original text is that the endnotes after some individual items have been converted to footnotes: placed at the bottom of the relevant page and marked with asterisks. This strikes me as a superior presentation.
There is, however, more. Le Guin preserved and later revised about 40 pages of additional Kesh material: poems, mostly from the women's Blood Lodge; some material on Kesh syntax which will please the linguists; and what from its billing appears to be the addition Le Guin was most asked for by readers: the "complete novel" Dangerous People, the Kesh novel of which chapter 2 appears in the original book.
Well, it isn't a complete text. Dangerous People is described in ACH itself as a "long novel," but turns out to be only three chapters, of which chapter 3 is fragmentary, having been "damaged in transit" from the Kesh. However, chapter 1 at least is well worth careful study. Read after chapter 2 it bears some quietly-presented but astonishing revelations which deepen the reader's appreciation of chapter 2 considerably. So do innumerable footnotes, to both the old and new material, which explain Kesh customs the reader otherwise picks up only by osmosis or here and there in the book's bits of expository material.
But there’s more than that. Editor Attebery has included other writings by Le Guin related to ACH. These include "May’s Lion," a sketch for a short story reimagining a real-life incident from the primary-world valley involving an old woman and a wayward mountain lion into a tale of the Kesh; and several essays discussing Le Guin's approach to fictional creativity and her relationships both with the California landscape and the Native peoples who inspired this story. Most of this material previously appeared in collections issued during Le Guin's lifetime.
But three items did not, and it's their presence here which most pleases me. For all three derived from the 1988 Mythopoeic Conference at which Le Guin (and Attebery, too) were Guests of Honor, and up until now all three have only been seen in the pages of Mythlore, the Mythopoeic Society's journal. To have them available in this definitive edition pleases me utterly, especially given my role in midwifing them all into existence. For I was the chair of that Mythcon, I chose the Guests of Honor and the ACH-related theme, and thus commissioned Le Guin for her GoH speech, "Legends for a New Land," which outlines her motivations and goals behind the book far more explicitly than she wrote elsewhere.
Then there is the panel transcript, "The Making of Always Coming Home," featuring all four of the people on the original title page: author, artist, composer, and geomancer (to find out what that word means, read the transcript). I feel particularly proud of this detailed explanation of how the book was put together. I conceived the panel, arranged for all four of the participants to be on it, made the tape recording, transcribed it, sent it to the panelists for corrections, and finally submitted it to Mythlore where it appeared in issue 65. I had also asked some of the questions which kept the panel going: the first questions on each of pp. 762, 764, and 769 were all me.
Lastly and most preciously, there's the endpaper illustration by Patrick H. Wynne, "The Valley of the Na, looking south near Kastóha-na." The credits don't say this, but this was the headpiece to the publication of Le Guin's speech in Mythlore 56. And in neither place is the origin of this illustration explained. After Mythcon, I arranged for and conducted a van tour of the Napa Valley with an eye towards the places significant in Le Guin's fictionalized Valley of the Na, whose locations I had determined from the author’s maps. On Highway 29, going up into the mountains above Calistoga (site of Kastóha-na in the book), we stopped at a foothill turnout that overlooked the valley. A photograph of the scenescape taken at that stop formed the inspiration and basis for Pat's gorgeous illustration.
And now all Le Guin devotees, not just those who know about Mythlore, may see and appreciate all these things in this most magnificent and worthy volume.
*The CD is supposed to include a copy of Le Guin's original liner notes and lyrics, but the copy I ordered did not. Fortunately I still had two copies of the original cassette, so I transferred one copy of the sheet over to the CD sleeve.
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