“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Perchance To Dream
I suppose there’s an element of feeling cheated when a story is revealed to be a dream, or not real. It’s the Bobby-in-Dallas scenario, where a series of Dallas starts with Bobby stepping out of the shower, and we realise that the entire previous series was all Bobby’s dream. Viewers who invested in the characters and their ups and downs felt cheated, because it meant that none of those ups and downs really happened.
Of course, we all know that none of those events really ‘really happened’ – for all that it was rooted in a recognisable reality, Dallas was fiction. But maybe that’s the crux of the matter, the unspoken agreement when it comes to fiction. The writer does his or her best to make a story realistic, and the viewer or reader meets the writer halfway in suspending his or her disbelief.
If the writer oversteps the mark and makes it explicit that the fiction isn’t real, the illusion is shattered. An intact stained-glass window is a fabulous creation; the smashed fragments of a stained-glass window rather less so.
I have a dog in this fight, so to speak. Absolute Zero Cool is a story about an author interacting with his characters as they try to write a novel. Absolute Zero Cool is a fiction, but it’s one in which ‘reality’ interacts with ‘fiction’ as the author struggles to control his characters. Some people liked the premise; others found it off-putting and alienating.
Perhaps that’s because all fiction, regardless of genre, is escapism. Even the most seriously intentioned of literary fiction transports us to a different world, or at the very least a different way of experiencing this world. That’s a wonderfully liberating sensation, a kind of out-of-body experience that allows us to see and hear and know things we might never otherwise have known if we had remained mired in our own reality.
If a fiction fails in terms of escapism – if it reminds us too forcefully that it is fiction – then the effect of the stained-glass window, that prism that allows for the beautiful interplay of light and imagination, collapses at our feet. John Gardner – a novelist in his own right, but perhaps better known as the author of On Becoming a Novelist, and for being the mentor of Raymond Carver – declares that a good story should be “a vivid, continuous dream”. The dream must be vivid, but it must also be unbroken.
On the other hand, we’re all adults. We know that we can’t travel interstellar distances. We know that ghosts don’t exist. We know that private eyes don’t solve murder mysteries with a gun in one hand and a dry martini in the other. We know, as we physically turn the pages without allowing our imaginations to blink, that we are complicit in making this dream ‘real’.
It takes a lot of psychic energy on the reader’s behalf to make the dream ‘real’. Perhaps that’s why the ‘It was all a dream!’ story feels like a cheat to some people. Or why some readers object to being reminded that the ‘dream’ is in actual fact a dream.
But is that kind of story any less legitimate than the story that is fully escapist? Is a story, say, in which characters become aware that they are characters at the mercy of an interventionist Creator, a waste of a reader’s psychic energy? And is it superfluous arrogance on the part of the writer if, having met with a reader who fully commits to the dream, he or she then whispers in their ear, ‘Remember, it’s naught but a dream.’
I’d love to hear your opinions, folks …