Notes from New Sodom

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

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Strange Fiction 4

4. No Fucking Way: or From the Comic to the Tragic to the Pathetic

So even the private narrative can be seen to fuck with our suspension of disbelief. In the previous section, I gave you an example of the absurd in the form of a Monty Python sketch, and traced it back to a nursery rhyme. Here's a rewrite of that rhyme, removing the irrationality:

There was an old woman who lived in Peru.
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 put them to bed.

Here's another:

There was an old woman who lived in Peru.
She had so many children she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread.
She drugged them all soundly and cut off their heads.

I throw these in to illustrate two other modes of private narrative, one remaining in the simple subjunctivity of "this could happen", the other complexifying it with something similar to the comic "this could not happen, surely" but with quite the opposite effect. The former private narrative is pathetic; it inspires pathos -- pity. For those of us not living in Peru, but aware that as a South American country there's in all likelihood a high level of poverty and assocciated problems of despair and violence, it never breaches the subjunctivity of "this could happen". The latter, however, is tragic, because it pushes us beyond the realm of rational human behaviour. It inspires not just pity but something deeper and darker. It transcends the merely miserable and becomes terrible.

The comic and the tragic go hand-in-hand, the "pity and terror" of tragedy founded on the flip-side of the absurdity, where events stretch our suspension of disbelief because they are of a nature so terrible we don't want to believe them possible. They seem... irrational, and not in the way that makes us chortle. The German term unheimlich (literally "un-home-like") seems apt here. The feeling that "this should not have happened", that it is against the divine / social / familial / natural order, sits at the heart of tragedy, in the concepts of miasma, moira & pathos, or hubris, ate & nemesis.

This is deeply related to the aesthetic of horror. Although the unheimlich of tragedy is not necessarily uncanny, grotesque, as it is usually required to be for us to taxonomise a work as "horror", in both tragedy and horror the events are literally "awful", violating the "laws of Man and God". From Aeschylus to Arthur Miller, Prometheus Bound to The Crucible, the structure of tragedy involves gradually ramping up the unheimlich until the apotheosis of the hero's destruction. In that simple "story" above we go from Mother Goose to Medea in four easy steps. The first line establishes the set-up of normality. The second introduces the unheimlich in the disruption of social normality; the old woman has too many children to cope with. The third sets up a conflict between her desire to support her children and her inability to support her children; imagine this as the third act of a play and you can picture the slow build towards the character's tragic fall as her attempts to deal with this double-bind fail time and time again, if they do not, in fact, exacerbate the situation. Finally, in the fourth we are given a climax worthy of Aeschylus, in a tragically irrational solution: infanticide.

That we know this kind of story plays out in the real world, that we know infanticide is a very real problem (think of female infanticide in rural India, for example), does not mean that this private narrative remains pathetic; regardless of such knowledge, we are being presented with a disjunction, a deficiency of reason. Domesticity has been shattered by the irrational, the unheimlich, in the difference between a whipping and a decapitation. If the comic turns on a response of "No way!", the pathetic turns on a similar sentiment, but one unmatched by the affect. We might say "No way", but we are only voicing an empathic denial; we know all too well that the world is full of starvation and whippings. With the tragic however, this denial is forceful, powered by a sense that surely to God, surely to God, this could not have happened: No fucking way!

So to what extent do the private narratives of "social realism" limit themselves to the pathetic mode, and to what extent do they, in fact, step beyond this into the tragic mode?

Even reined in, even holding off from the full-on blow-out of murders and misfortunes which is tragedy, I think, we can discern small scale units of the unheimlich in many of the private narratives that pass for realism. Between the tragic and the pathetic -- in the fusion of the two -- we find the mode of melodrama, firmly domestic whether set around the kitchen-sink (working-class) or in the drawing-room (middle-class), but pushing the misery beyond starvation (even if it is just starvation of love, of affection) and whippings (even if it is just verbal whippings of dysfunctional relationships), and into decapitation (or emasculation, or incineration, even if these are purely of the psychological / metaphoric variety).

Thomas Hardy's work is full of impossible coincidences that assist in this or that poor character's destruction. Ibsen's "Ghosts" contains no real spectres but it is steeped in the miasma of moral transgression (syphillis visited upon an innocent son; how much more miasmatic could this be?). These are not tragedies in the classic sense, but they are powered by the same feeling of dread. Yes, tragedy becomes melodrama as it pulls back from the ghosts and witches, omens and portents, poisoned blades and pokers up the jacksies, but it continues to test our credulity with the utter bleakness of its vision. It lowers the scale of monstrosity so our state of shock is not quite so heightened, our suspension of disbelief not quite so tested, but even at the level of miserabilist British TV soap operas like Eastenders the private narrative is not always as mundane as it purports to be. Abusive husbands end up as bodies under the patio. Blackmailers get beaten to death with pokers. The pathetic victims become tragic heroes, destroying their own innocence in their attempt to overcome the villainy the fictive world throws at them.

We can see all of these forms evolving in the history of the novel as private narrative. In Fielding's Joseph Andrews and Richardson's Pamela and almost anything by Dickens, we can see the comic, the tragic and the pathetic as three threads of a dialogue of private narratives through which the novel comes into existence. Rabelais's Gargantua is a prime example of absurdity as literary device (compare the structure of the great "arse-wiping" scene to the "Yorkshiremen" sketch above). De Sade seized upon the unheimlich as the core of the moral melodrama which, in the novel form, tragedy had become. Is Don Quixote comedy or tragedy, or both? I don't know, but there's a process, an interplay that ends up, perhaps, in CATCH-22, where we are entirely unsure whether to laugh or cry in the face of the grotesque absurdity of war. Toning down the absurd and the unheimlich to an almost natural level, we end up with, for example, the films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, but even in these -- in the farcical humour and banal horror -- we can see the roots of social realism in melodrama poking through, the thin boundary between tragic and pathetic.

I remember going to see Michael Winterbottom's Butterfly Kiss when it first came out. Amanda Plummer plays a crazy woman who wears chains under her clothes; she gets into a doomed lesbian relationship; it all ends predictably badly. I loathed it. I hated it almost as much as James Kelman's A Disaffection, and that's saying something. But I've loved much of what Winterbottom's done since -- Nine Songs in particular being one of the most stunning works of pataphysics I've ever had the pleasure to encounter -- so what is it about Butterfly Kiss that turned me off? What is it about a lot of such "realist" fiction that grates? Is it the fact that, for the sake of naturalism, the irrational -- the absurd and the unheimlich -- must be excised almost completely? The absurd and the unheimlich, after all, are -- I'd suggest -- rather important to making a story interesting. Irrational events, introduced for comic or tragic effect, poke at our suspension of disbelief, set up tensions that keep the reader turning the page.

No way, man!


Yes, way.

And for me these fictions often seem paradoxically less reflective of reality because they excise the irrationality -- the absurd and unheimlich -- that I recognise in the world around me. But at the same time these irrationalities must, by their nature, be exceptional or we would not consider them irrational; and there's nothing wrong with trying to show the reader that the narrative, and the world it represents, doesn't have to be weird to be interesting. The anti-sensationalist agenda of naturalism is not unworthy.

So is it the absence of these that render "realist" fictions "boring" to many readers/viewers, and is that unfair? Maybe so, but I think there's also a sense in which readers of fantastic fiction become attuned to these irrationalities, such that when realist writers do introduce them as purportedly naturalistic events, the artifice is obvious. What truly irked me about Butterfly Kiss was that it seems to be presented as a pathetic narrative when it is clearly tragic. Plummer's madness is not, to my mind, a naturalistic representation of any particular type of mental illness; rather it is an element of the unheimlich which jars with the pathetic context. I recognise it as a trick of tragedy. But it sits in an otherwise pathetic narrative, one which seems to be laying claim to versimillitude; and so, rather than maintaining the tragic tension between suspension of disbelief and the unheimlich, the very tension set up by the unheimlich element collapses. The suspension of disbelief collapses. Thrown out of the film, I cease to play the game of make-believe and see only Winterbottom trying to pull my strings, trying to push my buttons with misery beyond what is acceptable in a pathetic narrative.

Bollocks, I say.

It may well be that Winterbottom, an incredibly ambitious director, is deliberately testing the boundaries between the pathetic and the tragic, trying to reinvent them both (whether or not he sees it in those terms); I wouldn't put it past him, and I certainly wouldn't blame him for trying. I just don't think it works. What I find interesting though is the how and the why of this film's failure (for me), in its collapse of suspension of disbelief under the weight of an irrationality. I wonder if this doesn't offer us some insight into how other such fictions fail for other readers/viewers. We are used to these private narratives -- comic, tragic and pathetic -- but even in modern fiction, after centuries of these modes interplaying, blending, weaving through and around each other in a single work... one wrong move, one crossed wire, can still result in a collapse of suspension of disbelief.

What happens then, if you throw in other forms of irrationality, not just the absurd or the unheimlich, but the patently false?


Blogger David Moles said...

Merdre! That's pataphysics to you, mon frére!

I think you’re narrowing the field of accessible fiction a little too much by insisting on the absurd and the unheimlich — at least as a universal requirement of “interesting” fiction; I think those are examples of a larger category of things, for which I don’t have any better name than that old SF hobbyhorse “cognitive dissonance”...

When I look at the realist fiction (or, for that matter, nonfiction) that appeals to me, the most obvious unifying attribute is novelty, the confounding of expectations, which would include the absurd and the unheimlich but would also include the striking, the revelatory, and the merely educational.

But I think you’re on to something.

Also, I think you need to find an artist to collaborate with and put out a book of nursery rhymes.

8:57 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Oh, I don't mean that the absurd and unheimlich are requirements of all "interesting" fiction; I think they're requirements of comedy and tragedy respectively, and that they're important factors as regards making a work interesting, but, yes, there's other buttons to push.

Actually, the old SF "cognitive dissonance" thing is coming up in the next sections, dealing with the "strange", with some reference to Suvin's idea of novum, so you're a step ahead of me.

And... there's an apostrophe in 'pataphysics? I can't say as I've ever seen it written with one... but it's not the kind of word ye come across every day, so I'll take yer word for it.

12:51 pm  

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