Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Third Bear Carnival

The Third Bear is a monstrum. This is to say it is a quirk in the mimetic weft of the narratives that comprise Jeff VanderMeer's latest collection, specifically its titular short story, "The Third Bear." It is to say that it is a fictive figure that creates affective warp in the fiction, straining the base-line suspension-of-disbelief with a boulomaic modality of disposition: a monstrum is that which should not be. Actually, a monstrum of the level of the Third Bear is more a boulomaic modality of conviction. Really, this sort of monstrum is that which must not be.

Such a monstrum comes as an unknown force of slaughter, taking at will any and all who stray into its path, leaving only "bloodstains and bits of skin" or "a shredded hat." The monstrum is not in the mere act of killing here, nor even in the brutality of it, in the carnage suggested by the reduction to scraps. It is in the absenting. A dead body, in however many pieces is horrible. The absence of that body is what makes it monstrous. Those scraps are the ragged edges left where something has been ripped from the world. A person.

It is this sort of disruption of equilibrium that instigates narrative. In those stories that simply bind the monstrum into a monster, the ramifications of that disruption will impact some protagonist, force them to recognise and engage, find the action that brings about resolution. Mostly this means to face the monstrum and overcome it or be overcome by it -- story following narrative grammars we can label Heroic and Horror respectively. In their crudest forms, neither grammar seems... entirely honest to me. Neither really does the monstrum justice. The monstrum of the Third Bear is not amenable to such mechanisms of control.

To leave the path in the forest around the classically folkloric village of Grommin -- where that folklore is one of winters and wolves rather than princesses and pumpkins -- to go into the woods in search of the creature's lair is to encounter "a hint of offal" as the first gleaning of the nature of the monstrum. To enter its lair as a makeshift hero in "chain mail, leathers, and a metal helmet, carrying an old sword some knight had once left in Grommin by mistake," (no magic weapon here, just an aged second-hand tool forgotten by... someone or other,) is to come face-to-face with the incomprehensible monstrosity that can only remain incomprehensible; the makeshift hero can only become another victim; the monstrum persists. To seek some understanding of its origins and motives, of its reason for being... this will take the narrative on a more complex course, one that essentially refuses Horror's grandiose religious notions of Evil, but the outcome will be no more Heroic. To face a monstrum like the Third Bear and either slay it or be slain by it, as a victor or victim of Evil... that would be to delimit it as Evil, to pretend an understanding. When faced with the Third Bear's monstrous artwork, with a "pattern" rendered monstrous by its medium, the protagonist Horley will see beauty in it, but not understand it.

If we could make sense of the Third Bear's "pattern," it would cease to be a monstrum. Or to turn it about, that we encounter it as a monstrum is why we cannot make sense of it. That boulomaic modality (the conviction of desire, that something "must not" happen) overlaps not just with the "must not" of deontic modality (the imperative of duty, that something "must not" be done) but also with the "must not" of epistemic/alethic modality (the necessity of fact, that something "must not" be because it cannot.) To assert that something must not happen may be to articulate a personal emotional rejection and/or a societal moral prohibition, but it may also be to articulate an understanding of necessity, of How Things Work. If A then B. What B must necessarily happen if A does.

With the monstrum of the Third Bear, it is rather a matter of the B that must necessarily not happen if A does, where A is "the world making sense." Where the Third Bear is "merely making a pattern," that pattern is perhaps the other A from which the B of the Third Bear does follow. We might well note: "When the pattern is finished, it will leave and go someplace else. Maybe the pattern will even help send it home." Maybe once the pattern is in the world, this is a redefinition of the world, a reconfiguring of How Things Work for the people of Grommin such that none can say "that must not be." Not in that epistemic/alethic sense. So maybe the full monstrum is gone then, in one sense, even if -- the paradox is -- that pattern leaves the monstrum indelibly written into the world. (A ghost? An echo? A story? The weaker monstrum of that which should not be?)

However we read the completion of the pattern, the monstrum's ultimate effect upon the world, it makes sense for that which must not be to be described in terms of what it is not. (It is the only way to make sense of that which can't be integrated into our understanding, to describe the negative space that can be.) So the Third Bear is not a bear, but rather "partially composed of some large furred animal, almost like a bear." Like a bear then, but... "But, near the end, no one really though if it as a bear, even though the name had stuck." The Third Bear is given another name in the story -- Mord -- a name perhaps pointing to a deeper nature as a force of death... except that this name is only a label like those of Leer and Scarskirt in "The Situation" (where Mord reappears); these characters' names "are not their real names."

A monstrum is unnameable, really. To allow a name to act as crude symbol, to make a straight equation of the monstrum with death, would be to diminish the Third Bear. (It would also be to diminish death by rendering it mere monster.) So its name must remain unstable -- "Theeber, Seether." So we can only catch glimpses of the monstrum, glimpses of the human and glimpses of the bestial: "He retained his hands, but they morphed to become more like those of a racoon." And "...all anyone ever saw of it, before the end, would be hard eyes and the dark barrel of its muzzle" as it "whirled around and snarled and bit the air, as if a clumsy ballet dancer trapped in a straitjacket."

We might imagine this ballet-dancing bear-that-is-not-a-bear at a carnival that is not the Ringling Brothers Circus, which does not have as one of its performers a talking rabbit named Sensio, who comes from "somewhere else," from "a place far from here," just as the Third Bear comes "from a place far distant... across the miles, across the years," another country that is not Sonoria. But that Sonoria is not on the map is the point. Sensio does not become a performer in the Circus. In this Third Bear Carnival, the Third Bear is not a bear.

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