Saturday, September 20, 2008

No, no, it's the other thing

Forget magical realism, or surrealism, or whatever it is. I keep forgetting about the existence of unreliable narrators. It confuses the whole thing. I'm fed up with my inability to see that stuff coming like a normal person would.

Also, Ursula LeGuin's Western Shore books, Gifts, Voices, and Powers, are really, really good.

I'm sorry, I don't have a lot else in me right now; sick, tired, pregnant.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The New Magical Realism

I've been thinking about cultural/style terms and how I really often don't know what they mean. This came to mind because I realized, watching Project Runway last night, that I'm not 100% sure what avant-garde means in the context of fashion. And now that I'm thinking about it, while I usually know magical realism when I see it, I'm not sure I can describe it to you.

The first thing I think of is Like Water for Chocolate, which I'm pretty sure is a great example of the concept: it's not fantasy at all, the setting is clearly, solidly historical, but there are touches of mysticism and magic. They're not explicit, though--this is not an alternate reality, but rather a reality infused with mystery and the general impression that the possibility behind the ordinary has taken one step closer to the foreground.

So here's the question: is Matt Ruff's Bad Monkeys magical realism? I don't think so, but it's something and I don't have another word for it. In the modern world, this woman is part of a covert organization that works to fight evil. There are strange, sci fi aspects--the NC gun (people shot with it die of natural causes)--and merely unlikely aspects--when Jane needs to contact the organization, she picks up any phone and there's a good chance someone's listening. The organization doesn't seem to make a lot of sense (at her first meeting with her boss, he's wearing a cheerleader's uniform, to make any story she might decide to tell unbelievable), or be very likely.

Is this magical realism? There's the sense of the mystery beyond what you see, the possibility of things you might call impossible. But the fact that it's a bureaucracy, not something beyond nature--does that violate the "rules"? Does it matter that the framework of the story involves Jane being questioned by a psychiatrist who doesn't believe her story--does the potential for an unreliable narrator make the story something besides magical realism?

And, on a different subject, were any of those clothes on Project Runway last night actually avant-garde?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Sweet, Far-off End

Libba Bray has, to my knowledge, written three books, but she's written so many, many pages that I think it counts for something. I just finished The Sweet Far Thing (which, I have to say, is a beautiful title), numbering 817 pages. And I have to say, the first 600 could have been cut in half and I would not have missed anything, and probably would have been very grateful.

The book doesn't have Harry Potter's excuse of having to cover a whole school year, whether it drives the plot along or not. It does have a Harry-like duality to the storyline, in that there's school and there's Evil trying to destroy the world and both are major issues that need dealing with. In fact, Bray does more with that than Rowling does, particularly because she's writing about young women in the 19th century, so the debut is incredibly important (Felicity will be disinherited and dependent on her abusive father unless she appears in society). I often felt that the social politics of 1890s London was better crafted than that of the realms.

The problem is that the vast majority of the book is painfully repetitive. They keep going to the realms and having the same conversations with the same characters over and over again. Each time they have a little more information, gleaned in other, more interesting scenes, but this does not grow into a gradual understanding of what's going on--rather, understanding sort of explodes near the end. Which is fine, but it doesn't take 600 pages to build up absolutely nothing but my anticipation.

The last 200 pages are definitely far more compelling, and the plot begins to sweep through the book. I think there are plenty of flaws near the end, too, but I'll grant that it isn't boring, and I don't want to spoil anything for anybody. The only one I'll point out is that I'm still not sure exactly what happened at the tree during the climax of the book. I understand what resulted, what all the consequences were, etc, but the actual progression of the scene confused me.

Seriously, this is a pretty darned good 500 page book, with 300 pages of notes and draft scenes edited in. Like the Star Wars Special Edition movies.

I'm sorry, Libba Bray. I still admire you a lot and would like to grow up to be you, please.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Art of the Short Story

I used to think I liked short stories--reading them requires less commitment than reading a whole novel, and they are focused, without subplots or extraneous characters. They're going wherever they're going, and they don't have that long to get there, so they tend to do it efficiently. These are things I like.

At the point in my life where I thought this, I was reading mainly fantasy and science fiction, and the stories I read were also (in the vernacular) F&SF. I had very little experience of anything (short or long) that might fall into the category of "literary fiction." As you might imagine, both long and short fantasy novels tend to be action packed and plotty.

I have expanded my taste in literature, and I've found that the short story is not standing up to my move out of genre. I find that, in general, the modern "literary" short story can be described thoroughly in very, very few sentences, and that most of the substance of the story is found in minutely observed details of the environment. I don't mean that it can be summarized, but fully explained in brief. And, in the hands of a good writer, the lavish details are serving a purpose--capturing a moment, elucidating a theme--it's just that themed description is not how I think of storytelling.

Take Amy Bloom's collection Come to Me, which I just finished, and enjoyed far more than I thought I would. There's a story called Come to Me, which describes a woman's return home for her mother's funeral, and her memories of her childhood vacations with her family. She knows her mother had a lover, a friend of the family who joined them on vacation with his daughter, and realizes over the course of the story that the relationship was more complicated, and involved both of her parents.

This is, of course, a summary. With another two pages, I could make it into a nice short-short story. But the real meat of the story is what the cabin smelled like, what the children played at, what the leisure of adults looks like to children. It is, in large part, about capturing summer at a lakehouse. The theme is there, and the point, but it's told through incredibly detailed observation of really standard day-to-day occurances.

Now, see, I liked this book. Most of the stories are good, and the real point of what they're telling me are very clear to me, which is a big one for me. And a lot of the stories are interconnected, with common characters and observations of character that build on each other, almost like a storyline. But the qualities I see here do not always work for me--I can't be an Alice Munroe fan, I can't subscribe to literary journals or read the New Yorker. It's just not me.

Interestingly, old stories are something of an exception. Richard Yates writes great short stories, and, grim as she is, I often enjoy Dorothy Parker. I don't know what it is about the literary world of today that gives me pause, but there you have it.

Thumbs up, though, to Amy Bloom's Come to Me.