Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Swept Away By the Fictive Dream: On Fantasy Fiction

Storytellers create worlds that are at once familiar and Other.

Fiction is always a kind of dream; we always feel like we're encountering a strange world. The genre of fantasy fiction is a colorful exemplification of this.

The Wizard of Oz, for example, places the encounter at the center of the narrative; you could say that the narrative is precisely the unfolding of the encounter. In the first fifteen minutes, a world that is “real” is presented to us; then, once the tornado comes, the rules of that world are thrown away and we are put in this bizarre landscape, where people and faces look similar, and other things look unreal. The scarecrow, the lion, and the tin man all carry semblances of a world we know, their faces smile and wink and cry like those of people we recognize, but are imbued also with unreality. Things not-human--straw, tin, a mane--are suddenly a part of them the way teeth are a part of us. And Dorothy is the reader encountering the strange new world as she is the tour guide guiding the reader through it.

Dorothy’s encounter with Oz is the reader’s encounter with the fictional world.

When Dorothy got swept up by the tornado, we did too. We've been swept up by the tornado since our parents told us bedtime stories--or since our televisions screened them to us.

There are two ways of creating a fantasy story. One was delineated above: a character living in a world with set rules is pushed into extreme circumstances, and learns by differentiation how the newfound world works. This is Narnia, Harry Potter, Inception (Ellen Paige is the character being informed), Artemis Fowl. Then there’s the story where the world is simply assumed, and the viewer has to figure out by himself how the world works. Of course, the author will provide bountiful clues. For example, in The Nightmare Before Christmas, the creepy monsters directly face the viewer during the introductory song, explaining what “Halloween Town” is all about. Miyasaki is a creator who does this in subtler ways. In Howl's Moving Castle, for example, we never really figure out what's happening. It is almost as if the narrator himself is at the mercy of the fantasy world.

In Spirited Away, Miyasaki achieves a synthesis: Chihiro does learn how the world works, but only obliquely. We never get a sense of the whole structure of it. We get glimpses, and just like the girl, we work from those glimpses, groping our way through the narrative. In this case, the creator is expecting a lot from the reader. This seems to occur much in animé; Ghost in the Shell, for example, seems to assume that you won’t get it the first time. That is, some stories are deliberately created with the intent of being seen at least twice.

But in any case, there is always some degree of exposition. And, more so, the hope that, once it is over, the detour-experience will be of some aid to us--that is, that after this journey through the land of a story, we have learned something, as Dorothy learned that there's no place like home.

Hence the tornado. This blog is a meditation on different tornadoes, mostly the ones that are worth the detour.

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