Wednesday, June 16, 2004


I'm thinking today, for some reason, about the moment in certain types of fantastic literature which is significant even when it is absent. The moment when something occurs which is, according to the protagonist's previous experience, impossible, and the reaction (or lack thereof) which it evinces. There may be a term for it already. John Clute would know. For the moment I'll call it Sensory Denial, as in "This-can't-be-happening" or "I-must-be-dreaming."

Sensory Denial is specific, it seems to me, to a few types of fantastic literature. F'r instance, the Stranger in a Strange Land story. Thomas Covenant comes to mind, particularly in the second trilogy. For Covenant Sensory Denial is a defense mechanism, since he knows from previous experience that the vibrancy and beauty of the Land will be denied him when he has done what he has been called to do, and he will have to return to his unhappy world. Another example would be stories set in the "real" world where inexplicable things begin happening. YA fantasies or horror books come particularly to mind; in such books belief is often linked to faith of one sort or another, faith in one's friends or family, faith in one's self, or faith in a benevolent god.

In the above examples Sensory Denial can serve a thematic purpose. But we've all read stories or novels wherein it was gratuitous, where the author seemed to feel it was an obligatory part of the mechanics of fantastic literature. Not so much in, say, science fiction, where events must at least simulate rationality, and where the plot is often a series of attempts to find an explanation for what at first seems impossible. But in fantasy and horror, it's fairly common.

Still, there are plenty of recent examples in which Sensory Denial is simply left out. The influence of Magical Realism must be playing a part in this . . . the way in which literature of El Boom, as exemplified by One Hundred Years of Solitude, treated the magical as commonplace and the commonplace as magical. In part this is because of certain assumptions being made; in Garcia Marquez's case, the assumption is that miracles do happen, and that science does not explain everything. When Jose Arcadio Buendia announces that "the world is round, like an orange," his wife Ursula becomes enraged and tells him not to speak nonsense in front of the children. This is the opposite extreme from Sensory Denial; the evidence of the senses is given precedence. This does not leave out the Catholic faith which runs throughout the text, because there is physical proof of that as well.

I sometimes feel the pressure to give a nod to rationality in my fiction; to give a full stop to the events so that the character can question what is happening. But as a reader I don't appreciate it much, more often than not, and so I try to resist. To me it's intrusive and knocks me out of the story. When the dogs start talking to you, it seems like an authorial conceit for a character to pretend it's not happening. It can also be dull and waste a lot of time that could be spent telling the tale. On the other hand, it can be played for humor, or cast doubt on what is really happening.

I don't really have a fully formed thought here, and I'm too lazy to look up a lot of examples at this moment. I'm just brainstorming. But I'd be curious to hear other people's thoughts on this. For one thing, if there is an agreed-upon term for this, I'd like to know what it is. If anyone's written about this, I'm curious about that too. Maybe I'm scratching the surface of something that has already been deeeply explored, or perhaps I'm temporarily obsessed by something that will turn out to be not all that interesting. Any comments?


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