Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Fast-Paced Is The Fashion, Unfortunately

In Phyllis Wheeler's review of The Oerken Leaves she begins the section on what she thinks of the story by saying

This book has a classic, slow-paced feel, especially at the beginning. So it’s not particularly fashionable. But I like classics, don’t you?

Let me say up front that I am not criticizing Phyllis's review, or think that she has missed the mark on what is and what is not fashionable. I am taking her word for it, and it is the state of fashion that I am confronting, not Wheeler.

Now by fashionable, I take it to mean that what is in fashion is a story that moves from one scene to another quickly, or a story wherein changes in the action follow closely on the heels of each other.

Fashionable implies that in the estimation of the world of readers of fantasy, this is the only thing worth reading right now. Now I think fast-paced has its place, especially if the reader is looking for a change of pace. But surely, as fashionable as it may be, can fast-paced really be that good? It seems to me that a steady reading of nothing but fast-paced novels would be like choosing the roller-coaster for every ride at the fair. Let me see if I can convey to you how drastic the picture is. It would be like arriving at the park at dusk and going straight to the roller-coaster and ride it all night until the park closes at which time you make a bee-line exit. No elephant ears or pizza; no cognizance of little kids tugging their parents this way and that to get as much in as they can before Mom and Dad call it a night. It misses out on the heady feeling when stuck at the top of the ferris wheel while the whole dazzling world of light and color below comes at you like the opening scene of an oscar winning movie. You have no chance to stroll past the barkers wondering what it would be like to do what they do. You missed out on the balloon busting dart throw, or the side step around a hotdog which someone had the misfortune of dropping. I could say more, but you get the idea.

A steady consumption of fast-paced novels, like the continuous ride of the roller-coaster, will sooner or later become monotonous and boring. Not merely because its the same beat over and over (anything done repetitively will become monotonous and boring in time) but because fast-paced does not allow for the reader to imaginatively become a part of the story. Before the reader can achieve any sense of participation at any given point, he's forced to move on. He doesn't get to know the characters because he has little time to notice them. A good story draws the reader into the middle of it, where he can see and hear and feel the fictional world as though he were part of it. The reader lives in the story through the proxy of one of the characters, or as an enthused silent partner, or perhaps both; but he is there, in the thick of it, in on every little detail and caught up in the experiences - delight and despair, feast and famine, greed and generosity, rags and riches. You cannot do that with any depth and quality unless you get to settle down and rub elbows with the characters. And you can't rub elbows if you and the characters don't have the opportunity to stick around with each other.

But I think it is worse than that. Fast-paced makes for poor writing, or perhaps because one is a poor writer, fast-paced is what works best. No real character development is possible. No iridescent blossoming of plot. No animated interaction between character and character or character and his circumstances. It tends toward bland narrative (reporting of events, thoughts, and speech) rather than vivid story-telling (which draws the reader in so that he imaginatively experiences it). Story-telling requires good, quality writing, but the fast-paced tale does not. That is why the classics (Lewis, Tolkien, Clemens) and those surely destined to become classics (Rowling) are slow paced - the writing made it that way and is a quality that few authors are able to match.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Outlandish Imagery In Fantasy

In my article The Literary Genre of Fantasy and Its Use in Imparting Christian Truth, I discussed how fantasy has an inherent ability to convey Christian truth, akin to the way imagery and symbolism does so in the last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse. In the article Why Do Some Not Like Fantasy? I proposed that one’s dislike for fantasy may arise from a low view of any story whose world is so bizarre that one simply cannot relate to it. The implication is that fantasy has not the stuff which makes a story credible and familiar.

Frankly, that may not be a completely baseless protest. Fantasy could become bizarre to the point of repulsion, though I suspect that is rare, even in the poorest specimens of what is construed to be fantasy. Even the good stuff may likely have some points in it in which the characters or circumstances become so ludicrous that you want to throw the book down. But even here, it may not be so much the creatures of the story that are at fault, but the writer’s inability to bring them to life and yank the reader into the surreal with a vibrantly painted verbal picture that has rhythm, remarkable imagery, exquisite syntax, and good grammar.

One example from a classic. For me, Reepicheep, the gallant mouse of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia held such a repulsion that I never liked him and doubt if I ever will. Not because Lewis did such a poor job in making Reepicheep life-like, but probably because he did it so well; the imagery of this little mouse disarming men a hundred times its size and weight is simply too absurd. Even so, it did not make me throw the book down - or even gently lay it aside. I kept reading because everything else made up for it.

There are two ways that I can think of by which a fantasy approaches outlandishness - absurd characters and equally absurd circumstances.

This can be a problem in any fiction, but fantasy is more susceptible. A character may be so weird, either in appearance or behavior, that one is not sure what to make of it. Granted, that may be the thing that piques the interest and keeps the reader moving on to find out more. And that is a sign of not only good fantasy but good writing. But if there is not some progress in the unfolding of the role of this odd personality, frustration sets in followed by anger and apathy. Well, perhaps that is laying it on a little thick, but even a smidgeon of all that does not bode well for a gracious opinion of the story.

Gollum of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is such a character. As I recall, Bilbo first meets him in an underground lake. Gollum is such a repulsive yet intriguing character that he immediately steals the attention. As the story unfolds, one yearns to know more about him and his alter ego, Smeagol; and because a little was divvied out here and there, the attraction not only remained, but grew. His schizophrenia was so vivid and his features so luminous that when you saw him on the big screen, you found yourself saying, “That’s exactly how I thought of him!”

But it could have been different. If there had been no unveiling of Gollum’s history that explained his appearance and lot as encountered by Bilbo and Frodo, we all would have been left scratching our heads and wondering what Tolkien was thinking. But Tolkien unearthed it for us in a masterful job of developing the miserable creature’s life, all along the way dropping hints that there was something crucial in his existence that would have a profound impact on the way the tale would end.

In the chapter The Evil Within (read the excerpt from The Oerken Leaves in the article Why Do Some Not Like Fantasy?) Brutus encounters a lumbering lizard in a pond whose spring-like atmosphere turns into a snowless, wintry tundra. Not much is said about the lizard’s appearance except that it is brownish, has yellow eyes, and a snaky willowy tongue. The connection with the lizard first comes to the reader as he, with Brutus, watches from across the pond.

There is something wary about the little beast, but that doesn’t become certain until the change in the air and wood, and especially of the pond, which has turned into a stinking, murky soup, belching out a stench that causes Brutus to shudder at what foul things may be at the bottom. The lizard must have had something to do with it - that is where it had been lurking while Brutus drank. The lizard begins to slowly advance in Brutus’s direction, always keeping his yellow eyes fixed on him.

Is this an absurd picture? Well, yes it is, but it is also intriguing (at least I hope the reader finds it so). What is going on? Is there something in all of this that we can relate to; is there a point of contact?

Let’s continue to watch...

The episode builds to a climax, where Brutus is irresistably drawn to the reptile, fascinated by its willowy tongue, impelled by a fancy ‘so utterly illogical, and yet unexplainably logical’ that he reaches out to it and is stung by a lashing on the back of his hand. A searing pain fires through his hand, and Brutus finds relief only by plunging it into the stinking muck of the pond. As relief comes, Brutus is left to ponder what happened, and a revelation of sorts takes place – Brutus sees and feels the evil within himself. Brutus is struck with nausea so severe he vomits. The cause: he is overwhelmed by his despicable behavior, having given in to the ‘wicked beauty’ of the tongue (is there not a beauty in wickedness that draws the heart so prone to evil? And is that not the opposite of the renewed heart of one saved by grace in which the “beauty of holiness” [2 Chron 20:21; Ps 29:2, et. al.] has burst, and a longing to be holy is planted which never leaves).

And yet, though sickened by the realization of his own evil nature, Brutus does not turn from it. Instead, he begins to rationalize away what the creature had done, symbolized in the mark left by the sting. This mark initially strikes Brutus to be a brand or seal which claims ownership, affecting him in such a way that he senses that worst of all that he is would come out.

This brief episode in our fantasy has conveyed to us some of the most fundamental yet profound truths revealed to us in the Bible about our human condition. We Christians all must take a hard look - examine ourselves - as Paul exhorts (2 Cor 13:5). Out of our hearts proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies (Matt 15:19). How deceitful our hearts are, even after a work of grace has been done within. We must fight against it (Gal 5:17). We cannot rationalize, as Brutus did. We face a foe who seeks to devour us, 1 Pet 5:8. We must resist though we “groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body,” Rom 8:23, until the evil within is eradicated in that day when we are sanctified, body, soul and spirit, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess 5:23).