Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Fantasy and reality

Here’s a little riddle: What do American Gods, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Lisey’s Story, and Relentless have in common? (Besides the fact that I really liked all of these books.) I might include Peace Like a River in the list, too. Each of these books tells a story in which an ordinary person realizes that the world is not quite what it seems. The people and places and times seem familiar, but the fantastic, the magical, the miraculous, are part of the world, too.
I’ve always liked stories in which an ordinary person is thrust into events larger than himself (think The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, or the Chronicles of Narnia). But the books I’ve named above seem to integrate the extraordinary into the fabric of everyday life in some way -- and they do it well.

Some books tell stories that are fairly predictable -- the stories adhere to certain conventions of genre and the reader knows what to expect. I’m not saying this is bad -- I’ve always loved mysteries and science fiction and a lot of novels in these genres are very well written. But when you open the latest Sue Grafton novel, you know what to expect in late 20th Century California. There will be twists and turns to the story, but they’ll be firmly rooted in what we understand as ‘the real world.’ When you read The Hobbit, you know you’re in Middle Earth. There are wizards and dwarves and dragons, and, of course, hobbits -- all of which are firmly rooted in Middle Earth, not 21st Century America.

By contrast, the world of American Gods certainly seems familiar, but it soon becomes clear that Mr. Wednesday is not who he seems to be. And the reader soon begins to suspect there is more to Shadow than meets the eye. In Lisey’s Story, it doesn’t take too long to realize that Scott Landon was not just a typical tortured novelist who died too young. The Los Angeles of Relentless seems to match what we know, but I don’t think any of us knows anyone quite like Grant Borrows. A Prayer for Owen Meany and Peace Like a River are a little different, and yet in both of these, the miraculous is almost an everyday occurrence.

When I wrote The Man Who Kept a Dragon in the Basement, I was toying with a similar approach (not as well as Neil Gaiman or Stephen King, of course): The world we know, with one little difference -- dragons are real and some people can see them. As I was writing it, I realized that the story was becoming about more than just a guy with a dragon in his basement. I probably knew this all along, but I'd never really thought about it in relation to my own writing -- fantasy offers a language for talking about realities that sometimes are hard to express any other way. Ursula LeGuin talks about this in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness (which I don't have handy so I can't quote it directly). But she says something to the effect that if what she had to say could be said any other way, she wouldn't have had to write that whole novel to say it.

I've been trying to find ways to write about faith and life that don't sound contrived and false. In a fairly short stretch of time I read American Gods and then finished A Prayer for Owen Meany. They're very different types of books, and yet they both talk about faith and how what we believe motivates our lives and our actions -- and they do it without sounding hokey. Both books use fantastic elements -- exaggeration, outsize characters, surreal situations. But both books completely sucked me in and those two different pictures of America became real to me. And both books gave me a lot to think about.

The novel I started and didn't get very far on in November is a fantasy. Right now it's too much characters in search of a plot, but maybe I'll be able to do something with it. I like the possibilities it presents.

Maybe I've got fiction and reality on the brain too much, but my February column for Notes from the Windowsill is on a similar theme: A Larger Reality.

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