Monday, February 13, 2012

Realism and the fantastical offshoots

1,000 words today. I'm settling into the routine of composing on the computer with my new set up. It doesn't seem to be any faster for now. I feel like I go back and revise a lot more. Maybe because writing longhand is slower I get the words closer to right as I'm going along than I do when I'm typing. We'll see.

I've been thinking about my struggles with this book and the seed of a theory came to me this morning. On the one hand, my comfort zone is 20th-century realism. Everything I write tends to get heavy fast. On the other hand, my idea for this book -- and my wish for it -- is something more playful. I won't say more energetic -- because, done right, realism should have a lot of energy to it from the emotional stakes -- but I want this to get its energy from other sources. More fun sources maybe.

Does that mean I want something less dark? No. I don't equate realism with dark, and I don't particularly want to avoid having it get dark. But I do want it to be fun along the way.

I love magical realism and entertain the idea sometimes of ginning up a project that would use its techniques in a setting and sensibility that makes sense for me. But this project isn't it.

Sometimes I wish I was a fantasy writer. It would be fun just to have a monster or alien rear its head up and keep my characters from too much navel-gazing. But that would be cheating in a way if it weren't integral with what else I'm doing. Integrity is a concept I've been thinking a lot about lately. I don't mean it in the modern sense of having values or being moral upright or being honest. I mean it in a sense that is connected to the related word of integrated. The parts of a story should be in alignment with one another -- an idea I think I got from L. Rust Hills. Put another way, it's not enough for a piece of writing to be good, it must work according to the rules established elsewhere in the story and it must work in concert with the other elements of the story. The character should pressure the plot should escalate the theme should reveal the setting should pressure the character and so on. Going too far with my longing for the fantastical would be a form of escapism in a destructive sense. It wouldn't have integrity.

Yet the longing is there. I suppose another way of thinking about it is the traditions of the grotesque and the gothic. Aberrant elements in an otherwise recognizable world. And I do have some of that going on in my story already. But that still doesn't get to the longing for playfulness so much.

The touchstone I keep returning to is Kavalier and Clay. I love the way it mixes high seriousness -- including the evolving interior emotional space of fully developed, human, complex characters -- with flirtations with the fantastic, including comic books and magical and spiritual folklore. Early in the book when Joe climbs the fire escape and we see it through Sammy's eyes and he appears to fly up it like a superhero, I'm not sure what to think there. Does Joe break the laws of physics? Does Sammy hallucinate it? Is this an example of Sammy's overexcited imagination? The uncertainty right there of whether or not we're staying in a realist frame is part of the fun of the story, and forever after I keep waiting for the comic book characters to come to life off the pages that the realist characters are drawing.

Well, I'm gibbering here, because I'm struggling with something, but I have the sense that the thing I'm struggling with is key to finding the heart of the book I'm working on. I'm looking not for the fantasy mode but the fantastical offshoots within realism. How to create it and how to sell it.

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