“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 had a nice little back-and-forth with Adrienne over on Goodreads a couple of weeks ago about the ‘It was all a dream!’ story. Adrienne isn’t a fan, and I know she isn’t alone. Personally, I have no problem with a story that eventually reveals itself as a ‘dream’ – a good story is a good story.
  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 …


Dana King said...

I can live with the "it was all a dream" scenario if it's done right, by which mean the reveal almost has to come a the end. What DALLAS did made you feel as though the entire season had been wasted. Nothing they did, either story-wise or with the characters, meant anything.

Two TV shows come to mind that did it right: ST. ELSEWHERE, and, best of all THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, where his entire second series was shown to be a dream he had at the end of his previous series. That was genius.

Gavin said...

Without getting into the merits of the "it was a dream" story, I think that it's a very different animal from meta-fiction, where the author breaks the fourth wall. In those stories, you usually know pretty quickly that you're reading a fiction, so to speak, and so you can align your expectations appropriately. The big problem with the "it was all a dream" story is that you don't even know until the end.

I don't think anyone is bothered by, say, "Alice in Wonderland", because it's so silly anyway. Or stories where you know it's a dream sequence going in. I can't think of any examples off-hand, but there are stories/movies where you know that most of it is a dream sequence, but, say, it's related to the person's state in the "real" world (for example, the person is in the hospital in "real" life, and as things get worse in the dream, they get sicker in life).

TheQ47 said...

Being the pedantic Pat that I am, I couldn't let this go. The dream season in Dallas was Pam's dream, not Bobby's. Pam had a dream, which included Bobby dying, and when she woke up he was in the shower.

Cora Harrison said...

When I was a teacher I used to ban this 'it was all a dream' ending to stories. I told the kids that it was a cop-out and meant that they had no commitment to their idea.
And now, as a geriatric writer, I still believe in this and would neither use it, nor knowingly read a story that contained these words.

michael said...

I agree with Dana that "its was all a dream" can be done right. "Newhart" is the best example. But "Newhart" stayed in its Universe by connecting Bob Newhart's two popular characters together.

"Dallas" was known for its clever cliffhangers such as who shot J.R. The Bobby in the shower was a cheap lazy way out from bad creative decisions in the prior season. If you write your characters into a corner you better have a clever way out or the audience will turn on you.

Declan, I don't see "Absolute Zero Cool" connection. In AZC the readers are in on it. We know from what the characters are saying that reality is iffy.

The "it was only a dream" must have a set up, some connection, to where the audience/reader can accept it. Many hate "Doctor Who" because no matter how hopeless it gets the Doctor will pull out his sonic screwdriver and save the day. Those such as myself enjoy "Doctor Who" because we know it is coming, it is part of the rules of the show's reality.

"Dallas" ignored its own reality and let down its audience by not playing fair and even worse not even trying to find a clever solution.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

The reality we think we know is not reality, but the best facsimile we can make of it through our senses combined with our belief system.

A novel has its own ideology, coupled with its own reality, which we as readers buy into for the duration of the novel. The novel's reality may serve to satirize or criticize the outer reality.

Sometimes by illustrating the difference between the common reality and the common ideology--say, by pointing out the mass hypocrisy of the times.

ABSOLUTE COOL ZERO does just that in many ways--among other things it does.

I read one way when the story is concrete and grounded in everyday reality. When novels become surreal, I read another way, looking for symbols, parables, or satire.

Some sci-fi novelists introduce the surreal bit by bit, and some novelists believe in "the total immersion system" in which the reader arrives in the novel at odds to understand it, and must find his way as he goes along.

There is a good essay on this, with examples, in SCIENCE FICTION: THE 101 BEST NOVELS, edited by Broderick and Di Filippo.

seana graham said...

I agree with Michael that the difference is that AZC readers are in on it. If they feel disgruntled, it happens at the beginning and they likely don't forge on.

I do think it's different to make it all a dream in a drama and in a sitcom like Newhart. Bob Newhart as a persona was always very whimsical to begin with, and it wouldn't be a stretch for anyone to see the show as a dream. But in a dramatic series the stakes are different and you get involved in the characters in a different way. I don't think it matters that they aren't 'real'. I mean that I don't think our minds really distinguish in that way, once we've invested in something. You can know something isn't real, and still mourn it, just as you can mourn the death of a celebrity you've never met, and actually know nothing about.

In AZC, by the way, I don't think I gave one character more reality than the other. One might be a figment of the other's imagination, but that's a house of mirrors, isn't it?

Declan Burke said...

Thanks for all the feedback, folks.

Michael, I mentioned AZC in passing just as an example of a story that plays with the idea of fiction interacting with reality. Seana is entirely correct to say that it's all varieties of fiction, though.

Q47 - Nice spot. I guess I'm busted as being not exactly a Dallas fanatic ...

Cheers, Dec