Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Strangeness in fiction

From John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist:

There can be no great art, according to the poet Coleridge, without a certain strangeness. Most readers will recognize at once that he's right. There come moments in every great novel when we are startled by some development that is at once perfectly fitting and completely unexpected [...], or those moments we experience in many novels when the ordinary and the extraordinary briefly interpenetrate, or things common suddenly show, if only for an instant, a different face. One has to be just a little crazy to write a great novel. One has to be capable of allowing the darkest, most ancient and shrewd parts of one's being to take over the work from time to time. Or be capable of cracking the door now and then to the deep craziness of life itself [...].

I've been thinking about this in the context of realistic vs. non-realistic fiction. From time to time I've implied a bias against "realist" fiction in favor of fabulist or magical realist fiction. But I'm not sure that's the right way to explain my preference. A novel like Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, not to mention The Brothers Karamazov, is perfectly realistic--the events depicted could literally happen on this earth. (BK does contain "The Grand Inquisitor," a story in which Jesus returns to earth during the Inquisition, but it's a story told by a character who's beginning to lose his mind.) Yet both of those books seem magical to me, and I think it has to do with Gardner's concept of strangeness.

Gardner doesn't do the best job here of explaining strangeness, but that's the point. It is one of those know-it-when-you-see-it things. He gets closest, I think, with the ordinary and the extraordinary briefly interpenetrating. The briefness is important. If you create a world in which the ordinary is always extraordinary, then you have a sort of bizarro world as your starting point, and have to do even more to generate some kind of informative strangeness. (I'm sure this can be done, and encourage all attempts.) But brief glimpses of deep craziness can suggest the power of that craziness more strongly. We spend most of our time on land, but 71% of the earth's surface is ocean, and every now and then we hear its roar, or we fall in.

So I guess what I object to is not realist fiction as such, but fiction that takes the representation of ordinary reality as its endpoint. That sort of work surely takes skill and dedication. However, like Gardner, I think art ought to aim higher, and deeper.

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