Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Bit More on a Frequent Subject

[Originally posted to my newsgroup, July 26, 2007]

I've been ruminating about that sub-genre of stories that I'm such a pest about: stories that use fantasy tropes as part of a real world story involving characters having fantasies.

If I were doing, say, an academic thesis, a course syllabus, or an academically oriented collection of stories on this theme, one thing I'd be doing is to try to trace back the origins of the form. But there it gets tricky. One can, for example, read many Bible stories that way, with the result that, for example, the story of Abraham and Isaac gets very creepy. Kierkegaard, got a whole book, Fear and Trembling, out of that one.

Alternately, many folk tales, myths, legends, etc. are examples of "magical realism," where miraculous and magical things take place and the characters accept them as real and realistic, albeit perhaps a bit extraordinary. By contrast, people having fantasies is very ordinary, and those fantasies affect their behavior, in ways ordinary and extraordinary.

The first short story that I can find where a character's fantasies dominate the narrative is Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." That's typical, since Poe did almost everything first.

This sort of storytelling is quite common in cinema, so common nowadayds that it barely registers when we are given glimpses of a character's internal landscape. One can easily trace such conventions back at least to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which takes place almost entirely in the mind of a madman, with the audience not privy to that fact until near the end of the film.

By contrast, we're told at the outset of Don Quixote that the poor fellow is crazed, and we are seldom shown more than a glimpse of how the world looks to him. Come to think of it, that might make a good story.

In "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," the fantasies rarely have an effect on the character's external actions, save for the implication that his inner landscape is either an escape from his drably normal life�or the cause of it. In "That's What Happened to Me," by Whitt Burnett, the very grandiosity of the events described tell us how sad the life of the narrator really is. In The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop, the last chapter is set in the character's fantasy world, a world now so bizarre and changed that the reader can only guess at the final circumstances of J. Henry Waugh.

But notice the jump of centuries between Quixote on the one hand, and Caligari and Mitty on the other. What exists in between? One very trite example is the "it was only a dream" stories, elevated only if the dreams are of high enough quality (Alice's Wonderland, Little Nemo's Slumberland), and we don't really see the exterior world sufficiently to judge the effects of the fantasies. By contrast, Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes" is rife with repercussions.

A more difficult trick is to write a story where both the fantastic and the mundane interpretations are equally valid. The tour de force of this is Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm, or maybe that's just my interpretation. All other reviews I've ever seen of the book (and Lindholm's own comments on it) indicate that readers generally believe that the fantasy dominates and that the "mundane" sections are simply magical attacks (of some sort) on The Wizard. Still, one reads the books one reads, and not the ones that others read.


black dog barking said...

In Slaughter-House Five Billy Pilgrim's coming unstuck in time could be the character's untethered fantasies with Montana Wildhack in a Tralfalmadorian zoo, detached from the realities of optometry in upstate New York and surviving the fire-bombing of Dresden. Complicated by the presence of author Vonnegut in the story's outer frame, himself a survivor of Dresden. A coincidence that, to my recollection, is not addressed.

JP Stormcrow said...

I suppose Jekyll and Hyde has some element of this as well.

I assume than stories in which people aspire to things (like many ancient tales of Kings or noblemen looking to increase their holdings or power or whatever), imply some level of that person fantasizing about the desired state. But really there are so many aspects of human life that most literature does for absolute shit. (Or I don't know, maybe I am pretty unique in the richness of my inner fantasy life.)