Now is the time when earth cracks her skirt like a whip and sends her dress up in flames The place where she strips down to her bones and dances fiercely with the stars Where instead of bundling up against bitterness she throws down her ashen cloak and covers ground with softness as air-akin as moth. Where she turns her naked face to the outer dark seared by stars and eyes of owls with sight so keen no mouse is safe in its warmest, most secret, most carefully padded nest Where all the labor of harvest comes to naught and death flies on furred wings across winter steal to grinning, starry heights Where she pauses to sing among bare barked trees that glow brown as dove breasts, and mauve as dusk, “It has ended! It has ended!” Then she rests, mute and hard, seemingly for eternity before she has to put her shoulder back to the sun-warmed, moss covered, millstone of life.
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.
But 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, 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
We stood on the shore of Schroon Lake after the sun had set. A fingernail moon and a single star hovered above Adirondack foothills. Up the bank, toward the house, a three piece band played Django Reinhart-like jazz, the kind of quick upbeat notes that make you dance in spite of yourself. I had come down to the shore in search of my husband and found him talking and walking with man with a cloud of white hair. I could barely see the man’s face in the dusk, only the faint glint of glasses.
It had been humid day, but as soon as the sun went down, a breeze began to blow off the lake, sweeping upland and inland, cooling our brows, stirring our hair, reminding us of the luxury of skin.
He told us he lived in the woods and loved being surrounded by the trees, but missed this kind of view, gesturing to the broad sheet of water and the mountains beyond.
Together we tried to name of the star above the moon. Venus? Mars? He said he had little telescope that he could see the moons of Jupiter with. “That’s how Galileo figured out we were circling the sun. He saw the moons circling the planet.” He smiled as he told us this, and we nodded, taking it in. The breeze blew.
My husband said he just couldn’t get his mind around the idea infinity. It hurt his brain.
I couldn’t imagine anything but infinity. If the universe stopped somewhere, there would have to be nothing after it. “How could that be?” I asked. In nature there is no such thing as nothing. My husband and the man nodded and smiled. We looked up at the sky. The moon sank closer to the hill. The breeze blew.
He lived in Malone, up near Canada, a small town struggling since its businesses had left America, a shoe business and something else. Like many small towns, it had accepted the building of three prisons. They provided a few jobs, but nothing else.
He was a painter and owned a gallery in the town. He wanted to do some work with the inmates, but the warden didn’t like the idea.
He told us about a man he’d known, who had once worked for Sunmount—an institution for the developmentally disabled in Tupper Lake, where a staffer was allegedly stabbed in the eye with a fork and three other staffers were recently found guilty of abusing residents.
Sometime in the 90s, there was an escape attempt, and the man was run over by the escape vehicle. He was awarded only a 20 thousand dollar settlement, though he had to stop working and was hobbled for the life.
He could have spent it on a chair lift or a new car. Maybe he should have used it to pay off a few bills. It might have been wise to invest for the future. Instead, he spent the entire settlement on a powerful telescope with a computer attached that would give him a view of the universe. Our new friend said, “He used to invite a bunch of us over all the time to look through it. We could see suns rotating in the nebulae.”
I’d always wondered whether those pictures of prismatic nebulae swirling in stellar winds were real, yet this man had seen them with his own eye because a crippled man had helped him to.
Tourmaline sky resolved into black, and the light of long lost stars parted the darkness at a million points.
“He used to say the telescope was too big not to share.”
Standing on the shore of that shimmering lake, looking up at the sky, while the wind brushed us clean, we shared a moment of limitlessness.