Category Archives: Fantasy

Unraveling Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest

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Vellitt Boe

Does an overtly racist writer deserve the energy it takes to write about them?  I’m not sure. However, Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, based on Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, obliged me to read him. Turns out, her interest in Lovecraft is timely, so this month, I’ll focus on Lovecraft, and next month I’ll focus on Nebula and Hugo award winning Kij Johnson.

Lovecraft’s style in The Dream-Quest is annoying and boring. His prose is crammed with value-laden adjectives like terrible, shocking, frightful; his characters are flat and don’t evolve; there’s little dialogue, and there’s a lot of summarized action. Finally, he favors pretentiously and anachronistically twisted syntax.

Yet, when I enter Lovecraft’s land of “dream,” I feel like a person wading through a bog, sliding my foot along a hidden rail of oddly compelling, incomprehensible sense. His more polished stories remind me of Jorge Luis Borges.

 

Lovecraft,_June_1934

Lovecraft 1926

He prays to the gods of Kadath to go there, but they don’t answer him. He determines to go Kadath, “where no man has gone before,” to speak to its gods in person. What ensues are rambling encounters with Ghouls, Night-gaunts, Zoogs, and Gugs with no apparent progression.  The basic plot of Dream-Quest is that Randolph Carter (Lovecraft’s avatar) visits the land of “dream” and sees a “glorious” sunset city that fills him with “the pain of lost things and the maddening need to place [them] again” (Lovecraft 1).

Kentucky U. scholar Timothy Evans asserts Lovecraft’s antiquarian travel writing is key to understanding his fiction. He idealized his white, New England heritage, and he despaired of science, industrialization, and modernism. He loved America’s colonial landscapes, seeing them as the “real America” (forget the indigenous). His greatest horror was immigration and “miscegenation” (Evans 177, 188, and Klinger xl).

Alan Moore corroborates this in The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, where he urges us to see Lovecraft as a “barometer… of the fears…of the white, middle-class, heterosexual, Protestant-descended males” who were threatened by “the shifting power relationships…of the modern world” (Moore, xiii).

Sound familiar? Trump would seem to be a dumber, barely literate version of Lovecraft, engaging in absurd antics as he tries to reify a nostalgic vision of “the great white America,” while populating the White House with Ghouls, Zoogs and Thugs. But I digress.

Evans asserts that while Lovecraft’s travel writing explores the light side of his antiquarianism, his fiction explores the dark side, which, in my estimation, might partially redeem his fiction.

 

Maxfield Parrish

Maxfield Parrish

The fact that Randolph encounters ugly and dangerous creatures who kidnap, drug and almost kill him supports Evans’ assertion of the dark side of antiquarianism, as does Randolph’s interview with the “crawling chaos” Nyarlathotep, at the end of the novel.Certainly, Dream-Quest, is rife with bucolic landscapes rendered in misty-eyed wonder. The rejection of obsessive antiquarianism is evident when Randolph Carter encounters King Kuranes, who has dreamed up a replica of old Cornwall (Lovecraft 71). His warning that life in his fulfilled dream is actually unfulfilling suggests that Lovecraft – at least unconsciously—thought the same.

Nyarlathotep informs him (spoiler alert) that the city he seeks has always been his for the taking, for it is made of his childhood memories of New England. The gods of unknown Kadath have been hanging out there, and that’s why they didn’t let him reclaim it (Lovecraft 130). All he has to do is ride on a “monstrous” bird, alight among the gods, and remind them how beautiful their own Kadath is, thereby inducing them to leave his city (Lovecraft 135).

It appears to be a trick when the bird flies him into chaos where he’ll certainly go mad.

The duality of cats and Ghouls, the only friendly creatures in the land of “dream,” who save his life, is yet more evidence of Evans’ assertion.

When I opened the window to let in my own cat, she paused on the threshold, the perfect embodiment of duality. Cats are wild but domestic, cuddly by day, killer by night, and they always pause on the threshold. In short, they make the perfect guides between worlds, thus serving as a touchstone for reality. A fan of cats, Lovecraft depicts them thus in many stories.

Dogs are also dualistic creatures, wild and tame, happy, silly human companions who nevertheless eat carrion and feces. So, too, Ghouls, described as having dog-like faces, “glibber” and “meep” rather adorably, considering they are cannibalistic zombies.

If we view both Randolph and King Kurane as monological, the fact that dualist Ghouls and cats save Randolph suggests Lovecraft sees resolution in the dualism. One more point for Evans.

KadathHere’s where Evan’s interpretation ceases to work, though. Randolph, in the midst of being driven into madness, suddenly remembers he’s dreaming and can simply jump off the bird. Inexplicably–yet somehow consequently–the cosmos dies and is reborn (Lovecraft 140).

Then two conflicting things happen: On the one hand, maybe the dream world becomes real (italics mine):

There was a firmament again…for through the unknown ultimate cycle had lived a thought and a vision of a dreamer’s boyhood, and now there were re-made a waking world and an old cherished city to body to justify these things…

Randolf Carter had indeed descended at last the wide marmoreal flights to his marvelous city, for he was come again to the fair New England world that wrought him. (Lovecraft 140)

On the other hand, he simply wakes up:

Randolph Carter leaped shoutingly awake within his Boston room…and infinities away, past the Gate of Deeper Slumber…the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep…taunted insolently the mild gods of earth whom he had snatched abruptly from their scented revels in the marvelous city. (Lovecraft 141)

I must admit, I like the way Lovecraft’s prose deconstructs itself here, delivering and un-delivering a resolution at the same time by moving the dream into the real world, but characterizing the dream world as simultaneously “infinities away.” Jacques Derrida could have a field day.

Far from being a rejection of antiquarianism, the ending of Dream-Quest suggests that if you pursue your dream in with the right consciousness and a few friends in the unconscious, you can turn fantasy into reality, and it’s worth a brush with death.

The contradictory and inscrutable ending makes it impossible to ascertain just exactly what the story means, which is perhaps, the point of all stories, but most certainly this one.

That’s why, against all intention, I ended up liking it and look forward to rereading Kij Johnson’s Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe with it in mind.

 

Evans, Timothy H. “Tradition and Illusion: Antiquarianism, Tourism, and Horror in H. P. Lovecraft.” Extrapolation. Vol. 45, No. 3. by the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. 2004.

Johnson, Kij. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. Tor.com. 2016.

Klinger, Leslie S. “Forward.” The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. Ed. Leslie S. Klinger. Liveright Publishing Corporation. 2014

Lovecraft, H.P. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. A Del Ray Book. Ballentine. 1990.

Moore, Alan. “Introduction.” The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. Ed. Leslie S. Klinger. Liveright Publishing Corporation. 2014

Rottensteiner, Franz. “Lovecraft as Philosopher.” Science Fiction Studies, March 1992, Vol. 19, p117-121.

Does Fantasy Dodge or Enhance Reality?

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Baby dragon? Or newborn lesser short-nosed fruit bat. Photo by Anton

Lately, I’ve been writing and reading realistic stories with a hint of guilt. Why guilt, you may ask?

Because I’ve been a staunch defender of the literary merit of fantasy, sci-fi, and magic realism, and because my turn to realism in middle age is accompanied by a bit of skepticism about the paranormal and a bit of boredom with its fiction, even as these genres are gaining status in the publishing world and as writers are beginning to blur genres with greater effect and fewer apologies.

In a recent interview with the New York Times Book Review, Samantha Hunt said: “’Magic’ is a tricky word. It separates the unexplainable from our daily experience. Yet eyeballs, snowflakes, quantum physics and birth (along with many other things), are magical and habitual. I prefer the word ‘science.’ I like to write about wonder found in the ordinary.”

Basically, she’s saying, reality is so amazing that she uses the concept of magic to call attention to it. That’s sort of what I do—use magic to externalize emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual truths – make metaphor materially (or at least verbally) manifest.

HubbleBut while I agree with Hunt that molecular structure is wonder-inducing, calling into question, as it does, the nature of solidity, I disagree that science equals the magic or the miraculous. The words “magic,” “supernatural” and “miraculous” specifically mean that which is beyond nature – that which has no rational explanation.

So why do we keep using it in fiction if what we are really talking about is our perception of reality?  Why, in the wonderful featured story, “The Thing In the Walls Wants Your Small Change,” does author Virginia M Mohlere use the tiny dragon to symbolize the

main character’s need to let her own inner monster out to fight the very real monster of her abusive, alcoholic mother? Why didn’t she just write a realistic story about that? Wouldn’t that be more complex to have the character fight her own battle, thus inviting the question of whether it’s right to fight violence with violence?

I don’t know if I can answer that question, but I’ll try: the tiny dragon is a more delightful, more beautiful, more loving solution to rancid reality. The dragon is allowed to be an animal. It’s right and correct for the dragon to bite and scratch the mother—because it is acting in accordance with its true nature, whereas it would be wrong for the narrator to do that because humans are supposed to transcend their basic nature, to transcend violence. The dragon construct, therefore, allows us to have both. It allows us to deal with a heavy subject in a light way.

But, at the risk of offending, I wonder when approaching my own writing on this score, if I’m dodging the difficult. If one goes much further down this road one might conclude, as some do, that all of fiction is a contrivance, and that only “real stories” are worth reading. Is there something wrong with relying on a construct? Is a construct the same as a contrivance?

Ursula Le Guin by Marian Wood Kolisch

Ursula Le Guin. Photo by Marian Wood Kolisch

Ursula Le Guin, in her essay, “The Critics, The Monsters and the Fantasists,” would object to this line of questioning. She says, to assert that fantasy is mere metaphor or allegory is to reduce it and negate its primary power, which is to point us outside the box of quotidian life, which she sees, I think, as an inherently good activity because it opens us up to tolerance for difference and to imagining a better life.

Of course, we all know how subjective reality can be.  And we’ve all heard the adage that fiction (good fiction anyway), is truer than truth.

I remain conflicted and curious about this issue, and ultimately, I think the world takes all kinds of fiction and needs all kinds. After all, there isn’t just one version or a willow, but thousands, and new ones crossbreeding every day.

Reblogged from Luna Station Quarterly

Quick Take: Black Warrior Review

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BWR43.2-cover1.jpgThe Black Warrior Review Fiction/Prose contest winner “Videoteca Fin del Mundo” by Ava Tomasula y Garcia is a difficult but rare read.

On first read, the story—or essay—felt incomprehensible, but as I forged ahead, the gist of the piece became clear: she is talking about how terrible things go on every day all around us, specifically the abuse of migrant workers who are then swept up into deportation centers, and how the “intolerable” becomes tolerable in our every day life, and how that fact is intolerable.

She’s saying that when we really think about it, the way this country uses, abuses, dehumanizes, and discards migrant workers is an ongoing apocalyptic disaster movie that we all sort of accept it as an every day thing as we, enjoy our “hot water, [our] clean air, [our] free right of movement, [our] microwave, [our] strawberry jam on bread this morning” (9).

She raises the question of how some of us want the impossible, a world without borders, while others of us see that as the apocalypse. She suggests that wishing for a world without borders is contradictory, since it’s akin to being “anti-systemic,” (14) and the system of the body is what keeps us alive. As impossible as a world without borders is, she contends, it’s the kind of world  world that the very rich enjoy, so it’s not so impossible, after all (15).

If you want to read it, you have to purchase it the magazine, but a great interview with her is published here.

Is this a story? No. The narrator has a problem, but it’s an abstract problem about the “dissonance of the everyday” (9). The first four paragraphs are all meditation and no action, something any fiction writing workshop would tell you not to do.

The only action that occurs is in the fifth paragraph when the narrator wades “through strawberry hydroponics fields” (11). There is some action in relating facts about how undocumented works spray strawberry crops with “fourteen million pounds of pesticides a year,” and how migrant workers emerge out of “poisonous cloud[s] of gas that that was “used to kill people in World War I” (10). It’s footnoted. These are facts. Not fiction.

As always, when I read a difficult text, I am thrown into a decades-old meta debate.

What is the purpose of writing difficult texts? How difficult is too difficult? Does the writer know how difficult this is? Do I want to write like this? Should I? Do I want to work this hard to read this? Should I?

Also, why did these editors publish this as a piece of fiction? It reads more like an Avant-garde non-fiction essay. It’s the contest winner for the fiction/prose category, and it is, after all a work of prose. But they have a nonfiction category. Why didn’t they give it the award for non-fiction?

Obviously, they published it because that’s the kind of magazine they are. They like densely written, thought-provoking work that pushes on the boundaries of form. All of their stories, essays and poetry isn’t this difficult, as in the case of Scott Fenton’s “Possible Origin Stories for an Aspiring Boy Wonder,” which is just that, a series of paragraph-long origin stories. It’s playful and accessible on the surface, but yields more with each pass, which is my preferred reading mode.

But reading Tomasula y Garcia’s story/essay is a much different experience than reading this blog post. The hard work of tracking her words creates a certain pleasure, a certain convergence of many thoughts in a single blow that when unpacked at the same time, transport you to a new, dreamy, nightmarish, soulful place.

Flannery O’Connor once said, you write a story to say something you couldn’t say any other way.

In the end, Ava Tomasula y Garcia wrote her essay/story this way because she wanted readers to experience it in just that way and no other, a devastating and beautiful meditation  that might wake us from a nightmare long enough to do something about it.

Those darned submission guidelines

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Lit Mag 2Most literary magazines submission guidelines tell you to read their magazine to see what kind of work they publish.

This can be daunting when you are struggling to find enough time to write, let alone publish.

Furthermore, when you follow their directions and do the reading, it’s hard to decide which magazines to read (there are so many!), and it’s hard to extract their aesthetic. Finally, magazines often have guest editors and their slush pile readers often rotate, so it is certainly not an exact science.

Nevertheless reading broadly is a good idea not just for other writers, but for you.  It speaks to the fundamental reason you (we) write. While many of us started to write out of need to hear ourselves, to witness, or to express ourselves, in the end, that can’t be the only impetus or result.  It’s like going to a party and monologuing. As satisfying as that might be short term, we are social animals who need to be part of a larger community conversation.

Ultimately, we write as a way of interacting with the world, and reading is an important give and take in that interaction.

So, where to start?  I recommend that you go to Poets and Writers’ website, http://www.pw.org, scroll down to “Tools for Writers” and click on Literary Magazines. This is not an exhaustive list,and not all the magazines listed will survive or be well known, but it’s an easy way to browse.  You can also Google “Top literary magazines” and get a good list of the most famous ones– the ones that if you get published there will help others taken you more seriously by publishers.

Also, explore some of the many, amazing independent presses. Check out “25 Independent Presses That Prove this is the Golden Age of Indie Publishing.”

Remember, as the editor of Bellevue Literary Press said (publisher of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Tinkers by Paul Harding, if you’re not buying, no one is (especially if Trump has his way and defunds the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities).

With this in mind, I’m starting new Quick Take series. I’ll spot-read issues of various literary magazines and presses that come across my radar, and I’ll write short reviews of pieces which exemplify that magazine’s or press’s aesthetic.

See you around, soon.

 

Why Bill Condon’s Beauty is a blockbuster beast

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Hollywood Glitter
In the 20s, 30s, and 40s, if I remember correctly, when the country was experiencing social and economic upheaval, Hollywood started putting out these cheesy, blockbuster, fantasy, feel-good movies along the lines of Zeigfield Follies. This period, not coincidentally, was also the birth of worldwide fascism. We seem to be here again, all of us drunk on disappointment and yearning for escape.

I don’t like to cut down the work of others, especially when it represents such an huge effort on the part of so many.  This movie gave a lot of good jobs to a lot of people, with a cast that looked to be at least 45% black.  I wanted to like it, but I didn’t.  Hated it in fact.  I wouldn’t have gone, except that my 16-year-old daughter invited me, and when your teenager asks to spend time with you, rule of thumb, drop everything and do it. I had to keep my scathing criticism to myself, because she loved it.

Let me start with the good stuff. Emma Watson did a great job, and who knew she could sing? The fact that she was able to take her role seriously and lend genuine character to this vapid role is a mark of true talent. Also, besides having a cast that 45% people of color at least (even though all the stars were white), there were a few bows to gayness.  Kudos.

Now for the bad. First of all, Disney/Hollywood needs to realize that there are more than six fairytales, and we really don’t need another Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. Been there, done that five or six times.

Second, from the moment the old woman/witch appears in the first two minutes with thunderous music, a clap of lightning, and door thrown wide, I thought, “Where can they go from here?”

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good, escapist fantasy, and have high tolerance for Hollywood formula films that has some inventive subscript, like the humor in Guardians of the Galaxy. Then again, maybe I’ve finally seen one too many, and am one of the few that wants to shake Hollywood off its fanatical devotion to that formula to the exclusion of all else.

Even for Hollywood, though, this movie was overblown, hyper-stylized, and vapid. Do I repeat myself? Very well, I repeat myself. The movie contains multitudes of sins in tastefulness. It was the Disney cartoon made flesh. They didn’t try for any new interpretation, nuance or depth.

The set was beautiful but so ornate that it was constantly calling attention to itself. Maybe it was just that the one-dimensional characters couldn’t stand up to the set design. That’s all the movie was, really, a vehicle for set design. To be fair, the only seats left in the theater were about three feet from the screen, so that might be why I was choking on the set.

However, it’s ironic that a movie whose message was to look beyond the surface, was all about surface.

Corporate-Threat-to-Liberty-300x214At one point the director appeared to be trying for depth by giving the beast a backstory (or maybe that was in the Disney original; I don’t care to waste time looking it up). The poor vicious prince was wounded by the death of his mother and twisted by an evil father. I wasn’t convinced. I doubt Trump was abused, for instance. I think he’s just insane and spoiled, but we can blame the Trump phenomenon for why this movie is so popular right now.

Also, they were trying for some depth when “Chip” the boy teacup asks his mother why they were all punished for the wicked prince’s callousness. She, played by Emma Thompson, explains because, “We all sat around and watched [the abuse] and did nothing.” But they were servants. Disney seems to forget that servants have no power, and could have done nothing. Oh well, it’s fantasy, right?

Still as John Gardner famously said in The Art of Fiction, and this isn’t an exact quote, the reason we believe that the bird is talking is that when it flies to the top of the house with a nut in its mouth and opens its mouth to speak, the nut obeys the laws of reality and rolls down the roof.

I just don’t understand why anyone would spend so much money on a project like this. Oh right. Money. It made a lot, and got rave reviews, even from the New York Times, which is testament to how bad American cultural tastes are right now, and how desperate we all are for pretty escapism as we navigate our way through this nightmarish political turning point of American history. I guess it gave a lot of jobs to artists….

Watch Moonlight instead.

Review of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

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8611145362_aa831c2b9c_nI’m pleased to welcome a guest to my site, Holly Wright, as she reviews Hayao Miyazaki’ film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind:

One of the things I’ve liked most about the Hayao Miyazaki films I have seen is that characters that would typically be seen in black or white terms, are in shades of grey. In Nausicaa, one can see this element in Kushana, princess of Torumekia. Sure, she conquers a peaceful village and kills their beloved king, but she’s doing this because she believes this to be the only way. She knows that the giant warrior cannot be brought back to her homeland, not only because the creature is too large, but because they will use it for their own gain. She wants to destroy the toxic forests, and the monsters that inhabit it. For Kushana, she is saving the world and uniting the kingdoms for the good of humanity. I love Miyazaki’s ability to make what could be the antagonist into a real human. But of course, the real antagonist of the movie isn’t in one single person, just as it often isn’t in life. In this particular movie, the antagonist is in the establishment of beliefs centered around the toxic jungles and her creatures.

Kushana, in a sense, can be seen as the embodiment of these beliefs, but again, she is somewhat of a pawn rather than the most concerning opponent to the peace of their world. She’s humanity; even her body has been industrialized. She feels rejected by nature, and why wouldn’t she? She was literally scarred by its protectors, the insects, embedding in her a lifelong hatred for what had physically and emotionally maimed her. She wants so badly to believe in the ability and power of humanity to finally take their earth “back.” This desire leads her to place her conviction in the form of the giant warrior, able to destroy what is keeping humans from dominating. Unfortunately for Kushana, she misses what Nausicaä, the main character, has the wisdom to understand. Nature is not there to control. The people of the Valley of the Wind know that they must live beside the toxic jungles, that they must coexist with the terrors Kushana wishes to annihilate. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is the polar opposite of Kushana.

Nausicaä easily communicates with the animal world, rides the winds, and even cultivates what was believed to be toxic plant life. She is unafraid of the toxic jungles, leisurely laying within the toxic spores at the very beginning of the movie. As a child, she befriends a baby Ohmu, a creature that horrifies most of the people of the world. She still considers herself a component of the natural environment, and this is proven with every daring feat she accomplishes within the movie.

Clearly the movie is a story that has been told many times, but is still unheard. Nature is terrifying, and destructive, but it is also the giver of life and a creator of beauty. (Mind you, this is not the type of beauty that this word is now often inclined to be used for. Nature’s beauty doesn’t have to be just aesthetically pleasing to the eyes, it can even be found in things even humans do, things like love or altruism.) The movie warns of what happens when we cut off our connection with nature and take up a fight against it. It warns of what happens when we take and don’t return. Either we like it or not, we are a part of nature, it is evident in our abilities for destruction and creation, but if we lean too far on the side of destruction, it will not take long for nature to correct us, and then maybe we will be seeing the red eyes of the Omhu.

Holly Wright is a returning adult student currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in psychology and hoping to be accepted into a PhD program at SUNY Albany. She initially wrote this for my SUNY Adirondack course in science fiction and fantasy, English 217.  In between school work she likes to write, read, watch TED talks, and spend time with her husband, daughter, two cats, and dog.

 

Are Contemporary Novels Too Reflective? A Case for Visceral Writing

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Alice Hoffman

I recently read  Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things, and what I’m loving best about it is the depiction of early Manhattan:

When the grid of Manhattan streets was created, in 1811, a grand project that would forever change the city, filling in the streams, ridding the map of meandering roads, Ninth Avenue cut through the center of Moore’s estate. The scholar was so appalled at the way the future had swooped in to claim the farm he so loved that he donated much of his land to the general Theological Seminary and St. Peter’s Church. He left open sixty lots of orchards, assuming this gift would ensure that Chelsea would never be completely overtaken by mortar and stone. But after Moore’s death the lots were sold, with most of the trees hurriedly chopped down. Only the churchyard and garden remained the same…(56)

As a writer, she has improved a great deal since she wrote Practical Magic where the magic felt cute but extraneous to the plot. In this novel, the magic is so integral to the plot that you wouldn’t really call it magic. But I’m finding the plot slow. Moore, mentioned in this fascinating except, isn’t a character in the book, though some might argue that Manhattan is. Certainly this development of
Manhattan feels as though it will be central to the plot eventually. But even though almost every line is beautifully written, reading the novel feels more like work than pleasure. In my opinion, she is doing more “telling” and reflecting than she needs to. She is relying on flash back rather than letting the present-day action carry in it the traces of the past that shaped it. But I’m not criticizing her. This novel is a triumph.

I simply want to raise a question. We demand that short stories be efficient, that they externalize the conflict wherever possible, but in many novels, this admonition is thrown to the winds. Why? Why shouldn’t novels be as taut as short stories? I’m finding many novels a bit of a grind to push through, but I have always blamed this on my slow reading habits, my physical restlessness, my intellectual laziness.

Yezierska_Lima_News_July3_1922.jpgYet I find writing in Anzia Yezeirska’s novel The Bread Givers refreshing. A Polish immigrant, she wrote this novel circa 1920, about a Jewish immigrant family. With the novel, she captures the Yiddish cadence and sentence structure. There is very little reflection, very little back-story. It’s all plot and dialogue. It reads quickly and pulls me convincingly into that world. And yet, Yezierska wasn’t considered a great writer until recently, and then by a discerning few.

Plot-driven novels have long been considered sub-literary. “How can you develop character without backstory and flashbacks?” asks my colleague. It’s a rhetorical question for her. “My favorite novelists, like Faulkner, are all reflection,” she adds. Yet, Yezierka succeeds in conveying depth of character all with present-day action. Hemmingway was renowned primary for his externalization of conflict.

I want to be clear that I’m not talking about pot-boilers. The reason these aren’t good isn’t because they are plot driven, it’s because the characterization is shallow and the word choices trite.

Homer_British_Museum.jpgMy mother says lack of reflection and explanation was something Plato hated about Homer. He criticized the Illiad and the Odyssey for being all action and no explanation or interpretation. I’m too lazy to read Plato and Homer to see if she is remembering correctly, but she should know: she’s a world literature scholar and is a walking encyclopedia.

This type of storytelling – where plot and action is ascendant — belongs to the oral tradition, she says. And perhaps that’s why I love it so much – why I became a storyteller/performer for 15 years. Storytelling showed me that a story can be beautiful in the very shape of its plot, so that it almost doesn’t matter what words are used to convey it. When the tinker turns out to be a prince, we feel the rightness and truthfulness of that idea. When Hansel and Gretel have to ride alone on the back of a duck to get home, we unconsciously know why.

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Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich’s Tracks does a beautiful job achieving beauty through plot. For this reason Tracks is my favorite novel of hers, yet it may be one of her only novels that didn’t win an award. It is a novel that is told by two competing storytellers who alternate. The writing is beautiful, but the beauty comes from the shape of the story, rather than from verbal gymnastics: ““Men stayed clear of Fleur Pillager after the second drowning. Even though she was good looking, nobody dared to court her because it was clear that Misshepeshu, the water man, the monster, wanted her for himself” (11). Though this is, in fact, a flashback, it is all about the “facts” – about what people said about this character. It’s all very direct and visceral.

I’m surprised to find myself on this end of things. I, who have always been accused of being overwrought, I who love words, and who my poet friends accuse of being a poet. And I’m certainly NOT writing a manifesto for what all novelists should be doing in the 21st century. I’m simply doing what Judith Johnson, my writing teacher from SUNY Albany told me all writers need to do, define their genre, carve out a place for themselves in the literary world and name it. I’m going to call it visceral writing.

 

Why We Can’t Let Go of Magic

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Illusion Magic

True confession here. I don’t believe in fairies (sorry Tinkerbell), I don’t really believe in ghosts (sorry Dad), I don’t believe people can fly (sorry superman), and I think psychics are just very good intuitionists…so why do I love magic realism and fantasy? Why is this literature and movie genre thriving?

Here’s one of many reasons. We know from cognitive and brain science that we have several brains, the more primitive brain at the center – the brain stem and the neocortex. In the central brain stem resides the amygdala which governs our limbic system which governs our emotions (this is explained very well in Roseann Bane’s Around the Writer’s Block. It is sometimes called the Leopard brain says John Medina in Brain Rules. I’ve also heard it called the lizard brain. (Gladwell’s Blink is also a good source,)

This part of the brain is geared toward survival. It reacts instantaneously to fuzzy perceptions. It knows only three reactions, fight, flight or freeze. It sees a snakelike object in the grass and prompts you to jump or shoot. You jump and THEN you take a closer look and your cerebral cortex says, “Oh, that’s not a snake. It’s a stick.” Evolutionarily, the cortex developed later and surrounds the primitive brain and is where you do all your rational, creative, sorting, organizing, and planning thinking. I’m guessing that the primitive brain is the seat of Freud’s “unconscious” and the id whereas the cortex is the seat of the conscious and all our ego and spiritual constructions.

The point is, that part of our brain still sees the world in terms of magic – it sees ghosts in the flickers of peripheral vision, it sees zombies in that unexpected manikins you run into in the attic, it sees a weeping woman in the snow capped sign post in your low-beams at night, it provides the stories and images in your dreams for your thoughts, feelings and ideas.

So magic realism, fantasy and science fiction work part of our perceived reality.

Having said all this, let me add a respectful disclaimer… I don’t disbelieve in anything completely. I truly think anything is possible, but not exactly probable, so I look or the rational explanation first. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard sound bounce in unexpected ways to create the illusion of thumping up above when it’s really coming from next door. And I must also say that I see the possible danger of grandiosity, narcissism and avoidance when people start asserting they have special powers. However, to those friends of mine who make such assertions, I believe in radio waves, microwaves and other forms of communication that are undetectable to the human eye and ear, and I think you should keep honing your craft whatever it is, because above all, I believe in the inner wisdom of all things and the magic of the the atom.

A ghost hunter I once met said that spirits attach themselves to people with “cracks in their psyche,” and a doctoral friend whose brother was schizophrenic and cousin is a practicing psychic, told me that tribal shamans and psychics tend to be people who are emotionally unstable – schizophrenic, bi-polar, etc. Why might this be? I’m guessing it’s because that brain stem is probably more active in those people. Certain filters are gone which gives them unrestrained access to all parts of the brain. And just as poets, through years of practice, can more quickly access their creative brain than most people, people who have achieved emotional balance can hone their access to the wisdom of the lighting fast and intuitive primitive brain.

So that is why we keep coming back to magic realism, fantasy and science fiction.

P.S. “The Haunting of Zelda” was published in Stories We Tell available for sale at: http://www.storytellersanthology.com

Depression and Other Reality Shifts

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Depression*You wake up one morning and for no apparent reason, everything has changed. Your mind is caught in a dark loop, endlessly repeating that you have no friends, you’re ugly,  you’re fat, your writing is worthless, you have been teaching twenty years only to become a disorganized, boring, overly complex and uneasy teacher. And it’s not all in your head, because there was that comment from an acquaintance, that shaming rejection from publisher, those 30 agents who passed on your novel that was supposed to be your resurrection, that sidelong look from a colleague, and those student evaluations. When you stand at a party, no one comes up to talk with you, or people’s eyes go dull when you talk because you are so shallow. And why aren’t you like Karen Russell who at 24 got a story published in Zoetrope and now has a MacArthur genius grant? Anger builds at all the people who wronged you in big and little ways. You find yourself going over this same, dark, messy ground for the umpteenth time despite years of therapy.

You know this isn’t real. Only four days ago, you were thinking you were a loving, fascinating, beautiful person, as good as any published writer.

You know you should clap your hands over your ears, get out of bed, walk up the mountain past the shadows that tear at you, whispering. This isn’t real, you say to yourself, stumbling forward, not real, not real, not real, not. But the knowing comes from some part of your mind that has no flesh, and the voices aren’t on the outside, they’re inside. They’re the very cast of your blood chemistry, the design of your atoms, so real, so real, so real, that you think you would rather die than fight this invisible battle again, this civil war that makes you seem self pitying, irresponsible, disorganized, irritable, and erratic to others. And maybe you are, maybe it’s all just a matter of will, and you are lazy, lazy, lazy. Will you ever be free? The only honorable thing to do is quit your job so that the healthy people who deserve it can have it, or kill yourself so that you don’t have to walk this walk again.

If you have chosen badly, your spouse tells you he or she is sick of your shit, but if you’ve chosen well, he smiles sadly when he sees the signs and stands back knowing you’ll figure it out. Later he cleans the house and does the food shopping to lighten your load.

The survivalist part of your brain tells you that you have to exercise and eat right, and people will tell you to take medication, and maybe you should, but they scare you, so you don’t. You push yourself outside, because in the end that is the thing that has always saved you. And as you walk you call the right friend, and she, instead of trying to talk you out of it, says, yes, that’s how it feels, and it’s hard. And then the tears come, and the two sides of you, the chemical and the rational talk, taking turns with each other and your friend. And you remember not to ever judge others again, because this is how it feels to be inside depression, and no one from the outside knows what it’s like. It looks like nothing. It sounds like a head cold.

A half hour later, after the walk, if that was the particular cast of your genetic dice today, you feel better, but jittery. Your brain feels like it has been wiped clean. You can’t quite remember which street your house is on, because it looks different somehow, the angle has shifted or the light, or you are seeing it from a different time in your life, a time kicked up by that sudden bout of depression. The words threw, through and thru don’t look right, and you know that you knew which was which only yesterday, but for now, you don’t. You swim back through the murk to reclaim your former self and hope others don’t notice. You remember that it’s important to be who you are even if only a fraction of the world wants it, that it may not be the right time for you to become a successful writer, but that you must carry the flag of who you are until that time comes, even if it comes after you die.

This is one of the places magic realism comes from.

*Note to my friends: Don’t worry, I wrote this over a year ago. Thanks to the anti-depressant duloxetine building on years of therapy, I’m fine. This really is just a rumination on one of the many ways that fantasy and magic realism represent a facet of reality.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman: Anti-Fantasy, Brilliant Concept, Slow Going

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Magicians PhotoEver wished to be in a Harry Potter novel? Lev Grossman  explores the downsides of that wish in his anti-fantasy novel, The Magicians (Plume 2009). Magic turns out to be more boring, more complex and less uplifting than anyone might have hoped. And to its credit, when the violence in this novel occurs, (what little there is), you cringe, reminding you that, no, you really DON’T want to be Harry Potter fighting Voldemort.

What makes the book brilliant, is its meditation on the nature and purpose of magic: “‘Use magic in anger,’ warns the dean of the magical college where Quentin Coldwater and his friends train, ‘and you will harm yourself much more quickly than you will harm your adversary. There are certain spells … if you lose control of them, they will change you'” (88).

Later, the novel expounds on the danger of magic from a different angle, when the Quentin is undergoing the final college trial, traveling 500 miles to the south pole with nothing to protect him but magic. Having created a bubble of warmth around himself and added strength and speed to his legs, he cruises endless snow, remembering another teacher’s advice: “Once you reach a certain level of fluency as a spellcaster, you will begin to manipulate reality freely … your spells will one day come … almost automatically, but with very little in the way of conscious effort…For the true magician there is no very clear line between what lies inside the mind and what lies outside it. If you desire it, it will become substance. If you despise it, you will see it destroyed. A master magician is not much different from a child or a mad man I that respect. It takes a very clear head and a very strong will to operate once you are in that place” (161). The fantastical concept of magic stems from the real power of naming and speech, which can make present that which is absent, and Grossman identifies this core truth here.

What follows is a beautiful passage, “The stars burned shrilly overhead with impossible force and beauty. Quentin jogged with his head up, knees high no longer feeling anything below his waist, gloriously isolated, lost in the spectacle. He became nothing, a running wraith, a wisp of warm flesh in a silent universe of midnight frost” (162).

These kinds of passages compelled me to stay with the book. But my progress was made torturous by Quentin’s blockheadedness and the shallowness of his friends. Aptly named Coldwater, Quentin pours cold water on everything. While we can all relate to his search for happiness, I kept hoping he would figure out that happiness isn’t the point of life; it’s a poor substitute for fulfillment, the occasional side effect of living a life of purpose, which, according to Daniel Pink’s book Drive, is an inherent need.

But neither Quentin nor any of his friends develop any sense of purpose. Not one of them ever says to themselves, “Gee, maybe I could make the world a better place with this tool.” It’s downright odd. The only characters who come close, Quentin’s girlfriend, Alice, and his non-friend, Penny, get punished. Alice, by far the best character in the book, ends up with a bit part.

I’m not exactly criticizing the book for this, because Grossman made me care, and though it was slow, I was willing to flog myself to finish it and felt bereft when it was over. (The flog-marks are fading, thank you very much.)

So I’d say Grossman’s novel, the first of a trilogy, does what the best books do, re-defining and deepening its genre. But he uses too many adjectives (hint from a reformed adjective addict, don’t use more than one per noun on a regular basis). Also, we don’t need to see the main character going over the same ground 25 times.