Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The Good, the Short and the Scary

There is a widely-believed myth that short stories are kind of easy-for-idiots versions of novels - easier and faster to write because they are shorter in length. A frequently suggested solution to my writer's block is to take a step back and write short stories for a while, until I refine my 'voice' and can get into the serious business of writing novels.

I'm not a short story writer. The short story is a particular aesthetic form with conventions, cliches and genius-requirements of its very own, quite distinct from novel writing. An easy way to distinguish the two is that short stories tend to be denser in meaning, and less dense than poetry. Bottom line: it takes a particular kind of writer to master the short story.

Of course I believe that we no more really live in an age that appreciates the short story any more than we are in an age in which poetry is the literature of the day. I wonder why that is. Even people who read widely tend to avoid anthologies of short stories.

When I was in school and frequented libraries I loved one kind of short story, the horror. I devoured anthologies of short horror tales, some classics like the American gothics of Edgar Allen Poe, but more often the more modern tales. I think horror tales are particularly suited to the short story form. Not because they ought to finish quickly, but because there is a kind of formula to the effect of the uncanny that roughly follows the strict, tricky limitations of the short story. When I read horror anthologies I read them for their cleverness, not for their scariness. Many good ones were written for children. Some excellent ones even made me laugh. The best horror tales made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up with sheer delight in their ingenuity, their wit and elegance, and these are are qualities highly important for good short story writing. They require a great deal of intelligence to enable one to work with creativity and style within the strictness of the form.

Tuesday, 09 March 2010

Alice in Fantasyland?

Humbly bearing in mind my maximum readership of two, as well as the fact that I write these pseudo-academic ramblings mostly for my own satisfaction, I shouldn't have to begin by making this point again, but I will. The essay writer's imperative to begin with the assumption that one's readers are completely unfamiliar with one's subject is too deeply etched within me:

I am not a story purist. When I approach retellings of stories, or re-imaginings, and, especially, film adaptations...of previously known tales, I don't dislike deviations from the original simply because they are deviations. It is true that I always enjoy spotting the deviations, and pointing them out to less-than-enthusiastic friends, but that doesn't mean I disapprove of them per se. My approval depends on several factors, among the most important: what they accomplish (or fail to accomplish), and how they facilitate dialogue across mediums (film and novel) and/or generations.

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland was a toss-up for me. Let me state for the record that I enjoyed it. I like Fantasy, and that is what the movie has turned the Alice books into. The Alice books are certainly not Fantasy stories, but Dream tales, and the difference between the genres of Fantasy and Dream is a crucial one, but I'll get to that. Right now I want to state my central observation, which is that in converting the genre the film has essentially sacrificed the most striking value of the books: their peculiarity. And in return it has given us a story so generic that we can, as my sister aptly stated, predict exactly how the story will go simply by looking at the movie poster. Which is not to say the film-makers have done a bad job. A good story told before, even many many many...many many many many times before...is still a good story.

In terms of genre the one family trait that Dream and Fantasy share is their unreality...their offer of the avowedly impossible. And in both genres, the key to their impossible visions may lie in psychology...but that is where they part ways. Because if Dream is a map of the subconscious, then Fantasy is most certainly closer to the conscious, systematically resolving the unconscious impulses that do not tally with the conscious notions of the morally (meaning socially) acceptable. What sets Fantasy so far from the Dream tale is that its writers are strictly constrained by structure and above all, by morality. Fantasy stories are profoundly moral. Dream tales carry no such restriction. They can be whimsical, and idiosyncratically so, without relying on myth to give resonance to their visions.

The Alice books have the distinction of being the first children's tales that were written without the intention of trying to teach children something, which, in the strict socio-cultural context of Victorian England, was a big deal. If anything the books parody that most ubiquitous trait of children's literature, didacticism, with particular glee. If there is one theme that is continuous in the books, it inheres in the recurrent image of various characters assuming authority over Alice and attempting to teach her something, or reprimanding her, while Alice notes that they speak pure nonsense. Such exchanges provide abundant plays on language, with rhymes and maxims turned upside down and inside out. And they are truly dream tales, which accounts for an almost complete absence of a plot. Therein lies the fun of the Alice books, their wit, and most importantly, their uniqueness.

Despite my admiration, however, the Alice books do leave me unsatisfied on one count: they do not move one emotionally. Why should they? They were written to amuse, and so they do, and in a way that has become iconic worldwide. But it seems that even more than a hundred years later, we still cannot fathom the value of telling a story simply to amuse kids.Oh no. We love the imagery that the Alice books provide, but let's give it a plot: a hero, a quest, a battle, and thus give it that one thing that it seems to be sorely lacking: a message. In other words let's make it into something completely different from what it is, a fantasy, and moreover of a kind that is as common as it is predictable.

Monday, 08 March 2010

Erika in the Painting

My collection of stories, in both cinematic and novel form, is extensive. And numbered among them are many films and books that I dislike in their entirety, for whatever the reason. Yet I would not pass up the chance to buy them if I could rewind time, and that's because there's a very particular reason behind my acquisition of every book and DVD I've ever bought.

I process stories in fragments, in terms of the individual frames of a film, or passages in a book. I also judge stories in terms of their wholeness, but very few have passed on that score. Most frequently, I find myself arrested by one scene where beauty, eloquence, and transcendent vision converge in a two-hour film that is otherwise pure crap. I would never pass up the opportunity to acquire such a film. That one scene may be the key to the conception of something beyond the banality of the story in which it is trapped.

The movie that has inspired this tirade is not to be ranked with such overwhelmingly sullied gems, however. The 1990 film adaptation of Roald Dahl's "The Witches", starring Anjelica Huston, has always been one of my favourite fantasy pictures of all time. While the opening sequence possesses the true thrust of the movie's captivating mystique, the second half is mostly saved by the elegant evil of Anjelica Huston's exotic performance.

Yet there is one scene in this movie that has stayed with me since the first time I ever watched it, and has remained as haunting as ever as I watch it now with the jaded, penetrating eyes of the literary scholar: Luke's grandmother is telling the story of how her friend Erika was stolen by witches. Not long after her friend's disappearance, she recalls coming to Erika's house:

The return to the time of a grandmother's childhood in Norway is both locked within the frame of a lost time and evocatively embodied before us. The tense specter of a child's unexplained disappearance is unstated and in every detail present. Then comes that moment of chilling strangeness when our tense separateness from fantasy dissolves in the full apprehension of a fairy-tale evil. Luke's grandmother relates the scene in the voice that is key to the enchantment at work:

"Then that day, while Erika's mother was pouring the coffee, her father came walking towards us. It was as though he had seen a ghost...His face was all twisted up as he walked towards the painting behind me. There...as if it always had been there...was Erika...locked in the painting...gazing at us..."

The scene as described is not overtly penetrating. But experienced in its form - something to do with the captured face of a child that could never exist anywhere but in the suffering of the eerie torment of being locked in a painting, in the composition of the figures, and the lulling chill of the voice of the grandmother and the spare chimes of a sweetly insistent score - few cinematic moments have struck me like this one.

In my book, Erika in the Painting is one of the few truly perfect accomplishments of cinematic story-telling. It will stay with me always as a reminder of the essence of fairy-tale...the apprehension of pure strangeness...like a melody at the shrill edges of the dark side of music.

Friday, 12 February 2010

King Arthurs and Their Stories

I recently started watching the series “Merlin”, which has pitched me back into one of my favourite subjects: the stories of King Arthur, sometimes called Arthuriana or The Arthurian Cycle in academic contexts.

Let me state for the record that I have not always been a great fan of these stories, which has always been distinctly out of character, since I have tended to fall on the sword-and-sorcery side of aesthetic pleasure, of which the Arthurian tales are considered the epitome, since before I can remember. Puzzling over this recently has led me to the realization that despite containing all my childhood favourite ingredients for a story – magic, sword-play, mythic beasts and ladies in smashing outfits – the Arthurian stories never appealed to me because I’d never been able to tap into a female connection to the story, an absolute necessity for my enjoyment of a tale. Two discoveries led to my conversion: the first was of Morgan Le Fey, at last a female character I could root for, and secondly, the astounding thematic space afforded by the mythic nature of the tales, which I did not have the sophistication to appreciate as a child. I should explain what I mean by 'thematic space', while I hope that my meaning of 'myth' will speak for itself.

There is no definitive source for the all the elements linked to the Arthurian stories, no ‘original’ text from which it derives its fundamental material. J.R.R. Tolkien compared its formulation to the steady brewing of a soup over centuries of story-telling, involving participants of various kinds – story-tellers, legend-bearers and some bits of history – all of which have added to the mix. What it is now is a collection of associated tales and a family of characters and events in endless variations occasioned by innumerable retellings. Its central significance, holding the lot together, lies in the rise and fall of a golden age, the age of King Arthur. Less to the abstract, King Arthur’s reign has come to represent an idealized Britain, situated and sustained within the ahistorical boundaries of mythic time.

To date, the tale has come to assume the following ‘core’ formulation: Arthur unites the factions of Britain and reigns over a stable and flourishing kingdom. In this he is either aided or opposed by the established characters in the Arthurian cycles, Merlin the wizard, Morgan Le Fay, the Lady of the Lake, and of course his trusty Knights of the Round Table. The key themes underlying Arthur's success are unity and brotherhood, symbolized in the literary device of the Round Table. The fall of the kingdom coincides with the affair of Arthur’s queen, Guinevere, and his First Knight and dearest friend, Lancelot, which unravels the fabric of brotherhood and thus destabilizes the kingdom (symbolized in the fidelity between King and Queen and between King and Knight). Hence many retellings (and it should be stressed that all tellings of the Arthurian tales are retellings) reduces the tale to these elements. These are the bare bones of the tale as they have evolved; no matter what archetypes are evoked by the characters in each telling, heroic king, tragic knight, doomed lover, selfish seductress or suppressed female, the tale always ends the same, and that is what enables the story’s mythic function.

But what is fun about the Arthurian stories is that so many additional elements, complex and compelling in themselves, have been boiled into the mix that there is an almost limitless possibility of themes that can be played out, so that the story is at once always familiar, always mythic, and yet always delightfully different, always able to yield new and rich stories.

End of Part 1.