Strange Fiction 3
Remember how this started off with reference to Jay Lake's journal? OK, in one thread Jay riffs off Algis Budrys to identify two axes of fictional thought he calls Story Elements and Craft Techniques, the former consisting of character, setting and plot (broken down into problem, try/fail cycle, resolution and validation), the latter consisting of things like voice, style, POV, structure, person/tense, punctuation and paragraphing. The question he throws out, then, is if there's a third axis of Genre Devices, not in the sense of listable concrete SF/F McGuffins (time-travel, spaceships, etc.), but as something more abstract, not tropes but elements or techniques more analogous to the other axes. Jetse De Vries offers an interesting suggestion that the third axis is to do with "deviation from base reality":
Jay then, in another entry, suggests a rough taxonomy, thrashed out in comments, which breaks down types of fiction into private narrative, alternative narrative, future narrative and mythic narrative, further advancing fantastic narrative as a fusion of these forms. As I say on that thread, I think he's in the same territory as Delany's essay, "About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words":
How do we relate the apparently subjective response to the objective quality of "deviation from base reality"? Well, to my mind you start with suspension of disbelief -- the subjunctivity of "this could have happened". All fiction, I would argue, takes this as its base-line. The act of reading a book or watching a movie involves a blithe willingness on the reader's part to make-believe that these words on the page actually map to events. We're not generally troubled by the fact that these are lies, fabrications, falsehoods, that the cat did not actually sit on the mat, that there was never a cat to sit, and never a mat for it to sit on. The cat sat on the mat, we are told, and we say, fair enough. I'll go with you on that. I've seen cats sitting on mats, after all. I know it never happened, but it could have happened.
Note: I've met one or two people in my life who don't read fiction because -- it seems, from what they say -- they cannot suspend disbelief. They cannot entertain (or cannot see the point in entertaining) that subjunctivity. They read a story and remain in the subjunctivity of "this never happened". And if it never happened, why should they care? This is why I argue, contrary to Delany, that the "could have happened" subjunctivity is the base for all fiction, that rather than flip-flopping to other subjunctivities (e.g. "could not have happened") we entertain multiple subjunctivities simultaneously during the (genre) reading experience. Even when we are reading a purely fantastic work, where we're asked to swallow, for the sake of the story, a complete impossibility such as a crescent sun, some part of us is always playing along with the game of make-believe.
We continue to work on the principle that "this could have happened". That baseline subjunctivity, upon which the suspension of disbelief is founded, persists.
In what Jay labels private narrative this subjunctivity is never breached, because the events could have taken place without the reader's knowledge. The limitation of our knowledge in terms of scope means the fiction does not contradict it.
I'm going to add to Jay's model here, though, because, regardless of the limitations of our knowledge of private lives, there are private narratives that we know couldn't happen... because the events are preposterous. Comic narrative, I'd posit is based on exaggerating behaviours and reactions to a point where the suspension of disbelief is tested. A new subjunctivity is introduced when we respond with a "you can't be serious" -- "this could not have happened". The picaresque and the humorous anecdote play with our credulity. They ask us to believe absurdities. Often as not an anecdote, told as true but with a twinkle in the eye, gains its power from the sheer tension between the absurdity and the reality -- this "could not have happened (surely?)", but it "could have happened (really!)", and in fact it "did happen (honestly!)"
No way, man. You're shitting me.
I shit you not.
So, as our first genre device, I introduce the absurdity.
Funny enough, in a strange synchroniicity, I clicked onto this 50 Greatest British Comedy Sketches show the other night (after having written this section), and, amongst others, they showed a couple of Monty Python's classics -- the Yorkshiremen, and of course the Dead Parrot sketch. Anyhoo they're interviewing John Cleese for the show, and he comments on the Dead Parrot sketch: that "you can't believe they're having this conversation"; and "that's where the comic effect gets its power from". This is exactly what I'm talking about. As illustration (and just cause it's funny)... Monty Python's "Yorkshiremen" sketch:
#1: Imagine us, sitting in the fanciest pub in England, drinking our Chateau de Chauclea wine.
#2: Right you are, 30 years ago we would have been lucky to have had a cup of tea.
#3: Cold tea.
#2: Yes, without sugar or milk.
#1: Or tea.
#2: In a cracked and filthy cup.
#3: We used to be so poor that we would drink tea out of a rolled-up newspaper.
#2: You were lucky to have a newspaper; we used to have to suck our tea out of a damp cloth.
#1: We were poor, but we were happy.
#3: We were happy because we were poor.
#1: Right you are. My daddy said that money would never buy happiness.
#2: That’s because he never had any money, the bloody beggar.
#3: When I was young, we used to live in a house with big holes in the roof.
#2: You had a house? You were lucky! We used to live in a bottle cap, 23 of us in the middle of the ocean.
#3: Well, I say it was a house, actually it was a room – all 36 of us, and we had only half a floor. We had a big hole in the middle of the floor, and we used to huddle next to the wall for fear we would fall in.
#1: You were lucky! We used to live in a hallway.
#2: Well, you were lucky! We used to live in an abandoned septic tank in the middle of the garbage dump.
#1: You lived in a septic tank? You were lucky! We lived in a paper sack in the bottom of a toxic waste dump. Every morning we would awaken to nuclear waste being dumped on us until we glowed.
#3: Actually, the house I was telling you about was no more than a hole in the ground, covered with twigs.
#2: Well, you were lucky! We were evicted from our hole. We had to live in the bottom of the lake.
#1: You were lucky to live in the bottom of a lake. There were 150 of us living in a shoebox in the middle of a road. We dreamed of living in a lake.
#3: You were lucky to live in a shoebox. We lived in a brown paper bag. All 300 of us! Got up at 6 a.m., ate a crust of stale bread and worked in the mills for 12 hours. When we got home, Dad would beat us and put us to bed with no dinner.
#1: Well you were lucky! We used to get up at 3 a.m., strain the lake clean with our teeth, eat a cup of hot gravel, work 15 hours at the mill and when we got home our dad would beat us about the head and shoulders with a broken beer bottle and use us for kitty litter.
#2: We dreamed of that! We used to live in a rusty tin can in the middle of the road. One hour after sunset we would clean the road with our tongues, eat a handful of cold gravel and work 20 hours at the mill with no pay! When we got home, our dad would cut us up with a dull gensu knife and use us for cheese fondue.
#1: Well, you were lucky! That was luxury. We used to get up in the morning at 10 at night – which was half an hour before we went to bed – eat a hunk of dry poison, work 29 hours a day at the mill and when we got home our parents would kill us and dance around our grave singing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah."
#3: But you tell that to the kids today and they simply don’t believe you.
The impossibilities of the claims push this towards the nascent fantasy of fairy-tales and nursery rhymes. In fact, there's a clear reference point here:
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread.
She whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed.
In both cases, we're presented with... well... bad housing, huge families, malnutrition and child abuse. Cheery stuff. But they're pushed out of the realm of possibility by the irrationalities. In the first case, the comic sketch, those irrationalities are heightened to the point of absurdity. In the latter case, the nursery rhyme... well, we'll get to that...