It’s just after 3 am and I’m spending a few pages in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, having just woken up from a dream in which my dad is trying impatiently to get me to pack up my husband’s tiny rolling suitcase so that we can all go down to breakfast and get out of a hotel room which is horribly brown and in which the locks don’t work well and the bathroom has too many separate alcoves and doors.
Things are just subtly off in the dream and my body begins to thrum with anxiety, like a car jouncing down a gravel road that has ceased to become a road.
The problem is that I’ve been slamming back too much urban fiction lately. There is a sameness to the genre, a mystery wrapped in a fantasy in which blood is shed by magic and modern weaponry and the protagonist ranges through the strangeness without a taste for his or her life. The stories are quick but the people leave a slick of sweat on the imagination. This novel mitigates that with quick, elusive chapters that I have to read slowly, like watching fish flash through the water lilies at the local arboretum. The speed of their motion requires you to narrow in your focus and hold yourself in stillness.
I still have a shelf full of the urban stuff. I’ve enjoyed mysteries since I was a child and I’ve always had that tendency to be anxious. The stories fit and amplify my mood.
It’s 3:43 am and my veins are ringing like an alarm system. A few more pages and the anxiety will wear off and I’ll be able to slip again into those crazy odds and ends of a vacation: leaving the hotel room, finding your way through an unmarked cafeteria line, driving a Hot Wheels’ track of a highway to a cavernous mall.
Instead of reading the next book on the nightstand, I’m working my way through Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz as I try to understand my counter-surfing, desk-snoozing, bell-pepper-stealing canines. Needless to say, it’s a very different read from my normal F/SF reading, although it’s been a great read so far. Will it illuminate Varda’s vegetarian obsessions? Will it eliminate my kennel guilt? We shall see, my fuzzies, we shall see.
I needed something to contrast from the last book to appear on the nightstand, George MacDonald’s Phantastes: A Faerie Romance. This was a culture-shock of a fairy tale, originally published in (according to my copy, which may refer to a later edition) 1905. Part of my difficulty was that the plot is like a cobweb that catches a variety of forest detritus, which would only give you a sense of the cobweb’s location if you were already familiar with the leaves and seeds of that particular forest.
There are bits of beautiful and haunting language and funny little fairy songs about flowers that bloom too early for the main floral revelries and yet the story as a whole made very little sense to me. The main character lives an entire life in a fairy woods and then returns to his own bedroom after his “death” to a story that just evaporates from the page.
Characters are introduced and then go away, never to return. The main character is frequently warned to avoid things that he encounters anyway. He moves through the story by compulsion that felt, to me, as if was the whim of the author. I miss…well, plot. I want to feel that he is doing something and that there will be a purpose to the things he does.
Much of what he encounters, particularly when he is suddenly affixed with an evil shadow, doesn’t make sense to me and I suspect it is rife with metaphor and references that stream unseen over my heads just as the fairies themselves were mostly unseen to the narrator. We are both lost in a forest and keep moving forward blindly–he because that’s what one does in a fairy forest and me because that’s how one gets through a book. The end of the story doesn’t resolve the experiences, rather it implies that more (random?) experiences are heading toward the narrator at some future point.
I was surprised by how I have become accustomed to our clipped and stripped text and how something as small as the adverb “lovingly” could incite me to frown at the story. Little by little, words such as “bathe” started to annoy me. When the narrator broke into his own story to repeat songs or stories that he “remembered” from his journey I started to flip forward to check how long his “memory” would last.
None of this reflects on the author. When I could give him space and focus, I saw some of the beauty of his phrasing and the careful shadings of the lessons that the narrator was learning. In the end I was more puzzled by the book than anything. Just over a hundred years old and it is a curious artifact, though pleasing.
While being tossed about on the blogosphere yesterday, I encountered a post that seemed to be making a literary argument (to whit, that current fantasy bestsellers are degrading the genre) while in fact making the argument that modern bestselling authors were polluting the politically/culturally “pure” roots of our culture while polishing the author’s own cultural/political bona fides. Unlike an actual artifact (such as a frieze), literature is not dirtied or destroyed by new building or new writing. Then again, it’s not about the literature if it’s about your own elevated status.
After spluttering at a hackneyed post from a writer whom I’ve enjoyed in the past, I looked at the places where I agreed and disagreed. There are many stories published today that I don’t read because I don’t find it enjoyable. I have also (like the possible apocryphal example of the teen girls and The Iron Dragon’s Daughter) been cozened into buying romance disguised as fantasy–a distinction that annoys me as much as nihilism seems to annoy the other author. I would like a simpler way to find books that I enjoy without wading through stuff that I don’t. However, I would hesitate to blame my challenges on the specific political leanings or educational backgrounds of the writers who are fortunate enough to find place on the shrinking shelves of the F/SF section.
Literature (meaning in this case, written works of fiction of various genres) can give us an interesting look at the way in which ethical decisions are made in societies, the formulation of hierarchies and whether they are functional, and many other cultural embodiments that can play against or within an accepted cultural model. In some cases, it may be mainly through literature that ideas or assumptions are made visible from another time period or point of view. It may also provide, in addition to or apart from these, entertainment. Fantasy and the authorial perspectives that underlie it (such as those of George MacDonald, E.R. Eddison, J.R.R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula Le Guin, etc.) will change over time along with the expected methods of plotting and characterization and world building.
Whether these permutations are cracks in the artistic or the cultural firmament and whether they let in the light or the darkness seems to me to be outside of the realm of political discourse.