Unknown countries (10): Discussion and conclusions

Posted by Ken Edwards on Tuesday, March 23, 2010 Under: writing
This is an investigation of eight novels incorporating the fantastic, with a view to drawing some conclusions about the place of speculation in fiction.
Let’s recap what I am trying to do here. I wanted to consider eight books with non-naturalistic content. I chose eight I had never read before, because I wanted this to be an open-ended investigation, a kind of thinking online without preconceptions about what I was trying to achieve.
I also stated at the outset that part of my project was to determine whether there is any intrinsically literary meaning in the classification of fiction as “mainstream” or “genre”, or whether such stratification has to do primarily with marketing.
Just to remind you, the books were:
Paul Auster: In the Country of Last Things (1987)
G K Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)
Michel Houellbecq: The Possibility of an Island (2005)
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled (1995)
Richard Jefferies: After London, or Wild England (1885)
J Sheridan Le Fanu: Uncle Silas (1864)
China Miéville: Perdido Street Station (2000)
Christopher Priest: The Prestige (1995)
Before proceeding further, let me say that my correspondent Paul A Green early in this project made the all-too-obvious point on my behalf that it
“could be argued that all fiction is sui generis "fantastic" in the process of composition insofar it involves what the philosopher/psychologist Julian Jaynes called ‘narratisation’, the conscious construction of an internalised world which is not consensual reality, and which , being based in language, depends on analogy & metaphor.”
This is true, and also leads us into unfathomable waters. If all fiction is fantasy, there is nothing to be said. If it’s a question of drawing a line between descriptions of what could and couldn’t possibly happen, well, who would determine where that line might lie?
More determinable perhaps are attitudes to the question of narrative. In The Rise of the Novel (1957), Ian Watt discusses the shift from a world where writers took their narrative material from existing public-domain sources – mythology, religion, history – to that of Daniel Defoe and later writers who, essentially, made things up. Though Watt also refers to Defoe’s Puritanical defence of Robinson Crusoe, which was attacked precisely for being fictitious, claiming in his preface that the story “though allegorical, is also historical”. (Defoe also famously criticised Homer for perpetrating “meer fiction”, obscuring the historical facts of the Trojan War.)
At the same time, that shift entailed a new attitude to the handling of narrative, and of the characters playing it out. In The Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, the fantastical characters are ciphers, metaphorically wearing masks or carrying placards proclaiming their existential roles; there is no question of their having an “inner life”. Post-Defoe, the characters are recognisably individual human beings with no primary allegorical functions, and the treatment accordingly is increasingly realistic, in the way we have come to recognise. Though of course that trend is already pretty obvious in Chaucer and Shakespeare, it accelerates as bourgeois civilisation develops.
And yet fantastic content comes back in different ways, for purposes including satire, or the satisfaction of needs for wonder, mystery and excitement. Hard on the heels of Defoe (and Cervantes), we have Swift, with Gulliver’s Travels. And then the Gothic novel, Poe, Jules Verne, Mary Shelley, Conan Doyle and the invention of the detective novel, the horror or ghost story and science fiction.
Returning to our eight exemplary novels, the first thing to be said is that they all inhabit the post-Defoe universe. All their characters are constructed as recognisable individual human beings, whatever their guise: even the grotesque “xenians” of Miéville’s Perdido Street Station are actually human individuals in disguise. In this sense, all eight books are bourgeois novels, not allegories or mythological fables.
In his review of Paul Auster which I’ve already cited, James Wood asserts somewhat condescendingly that Auster’s “narratives conduct themselves like realistic stories, except for a slight lack of conviction and a general B-movie atmosphere”. The degree of naturalism varies among these eight books: from the apparent deadpan realism of Ishiguro, which nevertheless partakes of the logic of a dream, to the Dickensian super-realism of LeFanu’s horror tale in which ghosts are threatened but never actually materialise, to the contemporary/historical settings of Priest and Houellbecq with the SF McGuffins that take them into a different dimension, to the cartoonish absurdity of Chesterton, to the fantastical worlds (but rooted in England) of Jefferies and Miéville.
What other common themes do we find? Here are some:
Cities: Fantastical cities, with more or less nightmarish qualities, are centrepieces of at least three of these novels. New Crobuzon, the setting for Perdido Street Station, is the nightmarish city par excellence, lingering in the reader’s memory well after details of plot and characters have faded. (I am reminded by two of my correspondents, by the way, that Miéville’s achievement owes as much if not to more to M John Harrison’s Viriconium series as to Mervyn Peake.) Auster’s unnamed city, consuming itself and falling apart before our eyes, is a black hole from which no escape is possible. Ishiguro’s unnamed city, probably somewhere in middle Europe, is less obviously frightening on the surface, but also has the feel of a dream from which escape is impossible.
In addition, there is Jefferies’ London, which no longer exists in his far-future scenario, but whose phantasmagorical remains are at the heart of the narrative, waiting to trap forever anyone foolish enough to venture within their bounds.
Paradoxes or impossibilities: Chesterton’s famous “paradoxes” are of course all over The Man Who Was Thursday, and they do get up my nose at times, but the central paradox of a supreme anarchist council (!) that turns out to be almost entirely composed of infiltrators, with a head who is an enigma, is not bad. I have already mentioned that the entire narrative of In the Country of Last Things is a logical absurdity, in that it is enclosed within a city from which no escape is possible. The Unconsoled abounds in the absurdities of dreams: long journeys that end in the same place they started from, conversations reported verbatim by the narrator, of whose import he seems totally unaware, time-scales stretched to breaking point, characters from the protagonist’s past appearing unexpectedly for no apparent reason, bizarre coincidences that occasion no surprise.
Dream-like states: The Auster, Jefferies, Le Fanu and Miéville books all have dreamlike or nightmarish qualities in whole or part, and The Unconsoled, as we have seen, is in effect a 400-page dream narrative.
Cults: The Possibility of an Island revolves around a religious cult that develops cloning as a means to immortality. Chesterton’s narrative is a satirical study of political cultishness and the extremes of behaviour it does or doesn’t lead to. Curiously, religious sects make an early appearance that is never followed up in two of the other novels: in Uncle Silas, an adherent of the Swedenborgians appears at first to have a sinister influence on the heroine’s father, and in The Prestige the present-day narrator is investigating a Californian cult at the outset – but both of these turn out to be red herrings.
Catastrophe: After London, as we have seen, is a prototype of the English Catastrophe tradition. In the Country of Last Things describes catastrophic, irrevocable breakdown of human society, with creativity and renewal at an end. The Possibility of an Island deals with (but rather skates over) the End of Western Civilisation As We Know It.
Terror and/or paranoia: Le Fanu is of course a master of building terror, then defusing it, then re-building it. Priest reserves the terror in The Prestige till the end, when it ramps up considerably. Auster’s and Miéville’s are complete terror scenarios. While there is danger in Jefferies’ narrative, the only true terror occurs in the episode when the remains of London are encountered. There are moments of terror in Chesterton, but usually defused by the comedy. As for paranoia, it permeates The Unconsoled in a consistently low-key way; terror as such is not a factor.
Comedy and satire: Ever since Swift, fantastical content has been a vehicle for political satire, and this is one of Houellbecq’s main intentions. For me, it falls flat in that it seems complicit with that which it is satirising, but there you are. Chesterton’s tone throughout is comic, and his satire is on contemporary mores and political attitudes. There is much comic writing in Uncle Silas and in The Unconsoled, some in Perdido Street Station and a few sly jokes embedded in The Prestige. There is little or no comedy in Auster’s unrelentingly tragic book, and Jefferies appears to have no humour whatsoever.
The unknown: This, to me, is what it’s all about, which is why I’ve titled this project “Unknown Countries”. The extent to which there is an “unknown” in each of these novels, and to which that unknown is resolved or not, varies considerably. I shall return to this in a minute, but briefly: Auster never reveals what the country he sets his novel in is, nor why its decline is so irreversible; Ishiguro’s city seems permanently unknowable; Jefferies spends much time on exposition and explanation of the how but leaves entirely out of account the reason why civilisation in England has broken down. The ontological status of Miéville’s city remains unknown even as the plot is resolved. Chesterton, Le Fanu and Priest all use the unknown in their novels to whip up suspense, and the resolution at the end – the dénouement – is not necessarily 100% complete.
Finally, the question of the relationship between each of these books’ fantastical content and genre is not an easy one to decide. Does it matter?
It mattered to Sheridan Le Fanu. As I mentioned in my report on Uncle Silas, he uses his introduction to bemoan the fact that his books are labelled “sensational fiction” – in contrast to those of, say, Sir Walter Scott, which were deemed high literature in their day, albeit full of sensational content. So we see that even in the first half of the 19th century the demarcation of fiction into marketing categories, with “genre” being regarded as a lower form of literary life, was under way.
Le Fanu is an interesting case, because he has never lost that genre tag. He plays with the elements of genre, in this case Gothic horror, but he really aspires to be mainstream. He writes complex novels with vivid characters and labyrinthine sub-plots, with comedy and suspense, and he wants to be as highly regarded as Dickens or Scott, but he is typecast.
The demarcations have of course become more apparent in the century following. The literary novel retreated further from sensational or exotic content and focused more on everyday bourgeois life – think of Henry James. And in the 20th century came modernism, and with that the downgrading of plot, and the advance of the “open text”. Think of Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Robbe-Grillet. Intricate plotting with an outcome in which all the threads are tied at the end increasingly became the province of genre.
At the same time, fantastical content has made a new bid for literary respectability outside of genre. Kafka’s posthumous acclaim has been followed in more recent years by the magic realism of García Marquez and Salman Rushdie.
The complex relationship between genre and literary mainstream is examined in a fascinating review of JG Ballard’s The Complete Stories by one of the authors under review here, China Miéville (my thanks to Paul A Green for drawing this to my attention). Miéville’s cogent argument is that Ballard’s apotheosis, gaining ground even as scarcely a few months have elapsed since his death, is based on well-meaning misconceptions, by Zadie Smith, Martin Amis and others. Ballard is great, Miéville argues, not because he is interested in character, not because he shows humanist values or is life-affirming, none of which is particularly true, but precisely because he is a science fiction writer who transcends the genre even while working within it. And SF doesn’t mean predicting the future either. Miéville believes Ballard’s “apocalypse landscapes are expressions of modern psycho-sociopathology” and in this inheres his value.
Miéville’s own novel, Perdido Street Station, flawed as it may be, demonstrates an attempt to push the SF genre beyond itself, to become serious literature, but on its own terms, not by betraying its origins. The standard literary response might be that one cannot take seriously a book in which characters have insect heads or in which there are demented talking giant spiders. In which case, what price Caliban in The Tempest, the Houynhmns (educated, talking horses) in Gulliver’s Travels, Kafka’s Gregor Samsa turned insect?
There are contemporary instances, on the other hand, of “serious” writers toying with SF content but trying to distance themselves from it for fear of losing respectability – Margaret Atwood, for example. In our selection, Michel Houellbecq may be a case in point – perhaps that’s one of things that turned me off his book. There’s something condescending about it. Though Houellbecq did write a serious book about HP Lovecraft. Martin Amis won literary plaudits for writing a novel in which time goes backwards; few approving reviewers noted that Philip K Dick had done exactly the same thing many years earlier.
The case of Kazuo Ishiguro is interesting, in that he is an established, major prizewinning literary novelist of a realist bent who, in The Unconsoled and other recent writing, has ventured, not so much into genre as into the Kafkaesque, in other words the avant-garde. One suspects that he risks losing readers who loved The Remains of the Day.
But SF and other genre writers who are pushing the envelope are also doing so by adopting some of the techniques and sensibilities of modernism, for example, the “open text”, and ditching some elements of “plottiness”. I am indebted to another of my correspondents, Andy McDuffie, who in an email suggests that what is noteworthy about a novel like Perdido Street Station is that
“it eschews that hermetic world building of Tolkien, replacing it with something more mutable, more open ended. Something that is bolder and, maybe, only explicable in terms of a wider context which is not only unknown but unimportant to the text: ambiguities taking precedence over the obsessive ‘train set’ mentality that informs the fantasies of Tolkien or CS Lewis.”
We read genre books partly at least for the “what happened next” effect, and for the final revelation, which we hope will not just fulfil expectations but will surprise us. More interesting still is the book that goes further, that doesn’t deliver a single pat resolution, that leaves us with questions only we as readers can answer. To return to another book from our selection, The Prestige is as tightly plotted as any genre novel, and commercially successful as such; but the plot resolution does leave unexplained residues that linger in the mind; in the same way as, nearly a century earlier, Chesterton’s “final revelation” at the end of his rollicking tale is a revelation of profound and disturbing ambiguity that even his unfailing cheeriness cannot mask. The unknown, the uncertain, the unexplained – I love books that leave this in, that don’t just slake the imaginative thirst.
I am surprised that Miéville, for all his Marxism, doesn’t have much to say about the class basis of literary judgements about genre. I believe – especially in England, of course – this is at the heart of it. Literary fiction is respectable. Genre fiction – SF, fantasy, horror, crime – is for the lower orders, although it is permissible to go slumming in it occasionally. People without a great deal of formal education are not expected to know about such niceties. For example, I had a dearly loved aunt who veered alarmingly in her enthusiasms between Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen. Obviously nobody had ever taught her you weren’t suppose to love both equally.
In fact, of course, lit-fic is indeed just another marketing category, another genre if you like, and has been for some years. Perhaps labelled “Contemporary”, you will find it all shelved together at many a chain bookstore, and you can bet the publishers’ marketing departments know exactly the demographic they are aiming at.
To revert briefly, before I finish, to another subject dear to me, there is a whiff of such class distinctions in British attitudes to contemporary poetry. There is Poetry with a capital P, the “unmarked” kind, whose gods have recently been such as Hardy and Larkin (though Larkin is increasingly uncool for political reasons). And then there are the sub-classes of poetry, such as performance and dub poetry (which may be heavily patronised, especially if their pracititioners are non-white) and of course avant-garde, which is for geeks only, most of them young men, including some who went to Cambridge University who should know better. (In reality, non-genre Poetry is a marketing category too, with a particular demographic profile among its designated punters: middle-class females over 40 with a college education, etc etc, probably not too dissimilar to those who buy Booker-winning novels as a matter of routine.)
In the less class-bound USA, post-avant poetry is now being taken more seriously; perhaps the usual ten-year time-lag will see such a development in this country.
In conclusion – there is no conclusion. This has genuinely been an open-ended exercise. I didn’t start with a thesis I wished to expound. I wanted to explore a selection of non-naturalistic books I had not encountered before and to think in public about them and what they meant to me, as a reader, and for my own writing practice. If I had planned this better, perhaps I would have started with a more comprehensive selection. I am acutely aware that among the eight only one is by a non-Anglo Saxon writer (OK, there’s Ishiguro too, but I can’t think of him as Japanese) and there are no women. Sorry about that. I hope to read further among some of these authors and others, and equally hope I have stimulated at least a handful of others to do the same.

In : writing 

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Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at http://www.kenedwardsonline.co.uk