Begging the readers’ indulgence for building up to a big argument, this week is theory, and next week the text: the far-future graphic novel The Last Days of an Immortal by Fabien Vehlmann and Gwen de Bonneval…
Todorov’s neat definition, useful if profoundly outdated, places the fantastic as a genre between fantasy and suspense—which is to say, the supernatural and the psychological. What exemplifies the genre is the reader’s hesitation between these two possible kinds of explanations for the central event. This explanation looks past a story’s style to concentrate on content: what matters is the nature (or supernature) of the world in which it’s set. The glass pane of realism, on the level of form, remains unshattered, even unsmudged. The fantastic soon became a body of conventions: settings, trappings, symbols manipulated with the brisk tic-tac of pieces on a chessboard. No wonder Roger Caillois, however hotly disputed, could in the ‘60s qualify the genre as a game whose sole object was to provoke fear. As Benjamin Rosenbaum remarked in a discussion at David Moles’ blog: “Most genre fiction is not disruptive of consensus reality at all — quite the contrary, by playing its ‘What if’ game, it solidifies consensus reality. It says ‘We all know there are no ghosts; now here’s a ghost story.’ Most genre fiction is deeply epistemologically conservative.”
This is a most unfortunate fate, since the fantastic originally adopted realism to subvert reality. The classical fantastical tale hinges on a single, bewildering irruption; the realism was there to make that rift more believable, to cast doubt on the real.
But what if we could apply the Todorovian model on another level? What if a work presented us with a meta-Todorovian hesitation: not before absolute ontological categories, like “real” and “supernatural,” or even mutually exclusive phenomenological categories, like “sanity” and “madness,” but before categories of representation, like “realism” and “fabulism”? What if our hesitation were before mimetic modes, if what we were being asked to choose between, as an explanation for what a work was trying to accomplish, were genres themselves? That what mattered was not the nature of the world in the story, but the aesthetics of the story in our world.
This assumes the attempt to identify genre is, in the case of certain works, essential to their reception. Can this hesitation be a kind of subversion, along the original lines of the fantastic? And what kind of emotional response can it provoke in the reader? As with any theoretical construct, the question should be asked: is it useful? What, if anything, does, it clarify?
In the genre’s later days, you could tell a tale was fantastical from its thudding hearts and creaking floorboards. The definition that made the fantastic hackneyed was one of content—which, as David Moles notes, “is how the SF world tends to draw the SF /non-SF boundary.” Todorov’s definition was one of effect—which, as Moles points out, is how Bruce Sterling defined slipstream: “a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.” In Todorov, the fantastical effect was to induce hesitation in the reader. When Sterling goes on to call “this kind of fiction Novels of a Postmodern Sensibility,” we could be forgiven for thinking slipstream is a genre to which genre itself, plus its free play and pastiche, are important. If not knowing whether to call a work realist or fabulist could make it count as slipstream, could that qualify it as fantastical? Could it, as Stephen Graham-Jones claims for the Weird, “destabilize your perception of the world”? And is there room for such a thing as weirdstream?
Problems of etymology plague proper classification. In French, a few words consistently circle the fantastic: étrange, bizarre, insolite, inouï, or as Thomas Owen would have it, secret. Their basic English equivalents seem so tame: “strange” could simply mean odd, we might dismiss “bizarre” as fanciful, “unusual” is so everyday, and “unheard of” quite eccentric, while “secret” can range from childish to coy. We’d need footnotes to add that insolite can have overtones of unease and kink alike, and inouï magical implications, or that Owen imbued secret with morbid privacy and the suspect dankness of secretions. Also orbiting nearby are épouvante (horror) and effroi (terror), extremities of frayeur and peur (fright and fear), and the grotesque of Grand Guignol, though the latter’s splatter is more about what’s shown than what’s suggested. Finally, the 20th century added surréal/surreal, literally “over” or “above” the real, but if we were to observe the precedent set by surnaturel, we should have wound up with suprareal.
This last opens the door to a further dimension, where the Weird resides—Lovecraft’s “outer, unknown forces… unplumbed space.” Weird comes from the Anglo-Saxon wyrd, for fate; pity French, which lacks a hard Germanic word for the obdurate inevitable. The fantastic Todorov sought to define was largely a French genre, one indebted to the German Hoffmann but which flourished with the Decadents. How can French convey a concept for which it lacks a word? But isn’t weird exactly that word for which a hard, bounded concept is lacking? “Some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding,” hint the VanderMeers in their Introduction to The Weird, “of the world beyond the mundane.”
How Weird is slipstream?
Let’s set Sterling’s definition of the second beside the Vandermeers’ discussion of the first. Like slipstream, the Weird sets “its face against consensus reality.” The Weird is “fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so.” Like effect-based genre definitions above, “The Weird is as much a sensation as it is a mode of writing.” It welcomes “contamination… by the influence of other traditions.” So far, so good.
But when Kessel and Kelly are Feeling Very Strange, it is the strange of disjunct, slippage, or echo, of “living in the late 20th century,” of Strange Days, not Strange Tales. Wikipedia tells us, by way of the Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology,
“The now most common meaning of weird, ‘odd, strange,’ is first attested in 1815, originally with a connotation of the supernatural or portentuous (especially in the collocation weird and wonderful), but by the early 20th century increasingly applied to everyday situations.”
Slipstream prefers this latter weird, like “that kid next door who would rather read than play” (from Michael Moorcock’s Foreweird to The Weird), rather than the Norn Urd peering into your soul from across the Well of Fate. And while slipstream “does not aim to provoke a ‘sense of wonder’” like classic SF, the VanderMeers remind us that “with unease and the temporary abolition of the rational, can also come the strangely beautiful.” Weird and wonderful?
Well, no, not quite. What I left out was darkness and terror. When fiction takes its ax to frozen sea within, it’s not Weird unless tentacles surge forth from the shattered ice. It’s not Weird unless the frozen sea within reveals a cosmic portal. “A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread…” These aren’t the waters of one’s own dark secrets, the psyche’s sunken ships and clanking holds that the fantastic animates, but the glacial, absolute black of beyond. “A hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain…” It’s not so much the bicameral mind hallucinating neurological divinity but the hollowed human becoming a conduit for otherworldly directive. “The assaults of chaos… the daemons…”
I think of Francophone fantastical writers, when not focused on fear, as falling broadly into two camps, or at least composing in two modes. The imaginers (Mandiargues, Béalu, Devaulx, Ray, Ghelderode) usher us across unbridled, baroque, even demented landscapes extruded from deep within, while the nostalgists (Châteaureynaud, Hardellet, Dhôtel, Willems, Thiry) use the impossible to limn subtleties of longing. For the latter, the original garden, whether of childhood or faery, transcends Judeo-Christianity, some universal home of beauty that haunts us. The emotional range is from wistfulness to loss, bewilderment to bereavement. The sorrow of loneliness looms large, with intermittent hints of romantic self-pity. A perfect English model might be H.G. Wells’ “The Door in the Wall.”
“Dark reverie or epiphany,” the VanderMeers remind us, “not the lightness of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’.” What, you might ask, have they got against loneliness? Why is it light, and not a burden? Perhaps it’s that loneliness is a life sentence. It remains this side of the visionary unknown the Weird would explore. In this sense, the Weird is concerned on a fundamental level with Otherness; not the Other the West made of the rest of the world in its successive expansions, but a transcendent, irreducible Other, an ur-Other. And if any genre lays inherent claim to meetings with the Other, it’s science fiction. Where are possible points of intersection between the Weird and SF?
We have a pug—well, he’s part French bulldog. His name’s Magoo. He’s a quick study, but easily distracted. His sense of smell seems limited—when we drop food for him, we sometimes have to point it out. But his hearing is acute. Toss or turn once on the bed, and from the sofa in the far room he’ll run to your side, in hopes your stirring means food or an outing.
He likes to put things in his mouth. We used to think he was an indiscriminate trash compactor. We still do. But now we’ve also slightly refined that theory, and believe that his main means of exploring the world around him may be gustatory, or at least tactile-via-tongue. True, he has slight symptoms of pica, notably an insatiable craving for fabric and paper products. But why else would he regularly mouth acorns, pebbles, unripe berries, bits of mulch only to spit them out again, sometimes before we even yell, “Drop it!” if not to get a mouth feel for something his other senses couldn’t adequately tell him about?
Of course these are all guesses, and reflex personification. In “What is it like to be a bat?” philosopher Thomas Nagel observes, “philosophers share the general human weakness for explanations of what is incomprehensible in terms suited for what is familiar and well understood, though entirely different” (italics his). You’ve only to look at the Marvel character Eternity to see how the Beyond can be de-Weirded and embodied. It’s the ultimate, not to say an apotheosis, of anthropomorphism: the infinite universe itself bounded in humanoid form, complete with flared cape and collar. The hollow man who contains multiplicities, the cosmos incarnate, the human form as window on the void.
Nagel’s classic paper concerns the impossibility of ever truly understanding the subjective experience of another creature, Thomas Nagel asserts
“Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life.”
And this is true. I look into Magoo’s hazel eyes and know it truly is impossible to ever understand what makes him break off, as if in contemplation, from fanatically licking his paw, or just what his walnut brain seizes on in choosing, among indifferentiable patches of backyard dirt, the new poop spot he will circle and hunker over. As Tom McGuane once observed of a purebred pointer, “Son… anything that’ll eat shit and fuck its own mother is liable to do anything.”
Nagel rather adamantly develops the impossibility of every aspect of understanding what it is to be another creature. “Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited,” he writes (italics his). Imagination “tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat.” The underlying thrust is a “belief in the existence of facts beyond the reach of human concepts.” Here, Nagel sets the the subjectivity of any other living creature — whether human, animal, vegetable, or alien — so far beyond reach that it might as well be likened to the impersonal, visionary Other of the Weird. Nagel makes of the merest bat a consciousness beyond reason, beyond categories, beyond comprehension. In doing so, he promotes loneliness, or rather aloneness to an existential condition on par with death, that mystery we have grappled with for millenia, whose doors open on the Beyond. And one cannot help but feel that is exactly what Fabien Vehlmann and Gwen de Bonneval do in their far-future graphic novel The Last Days of an Immortal.
NEXT WEEK: meta-Todorov and transmedia comics, aliens and aloneness, gustatory communication