Thursday, March 31, 2016

Fiction and the Need for Hope and Magic

I'm currently reading two short story collections -- Skin by Roald Dahl and Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro -- and the stark contrast between the two has got me thinking about my love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with so-called "literary" fiction.

It's not that I don't want to like literary fiction. It's that so much of it just feels humdrum, hopeless, and depressing. I tell myself I'll give the genre another try. I spend the months afterward in a speculative fiction miasma trying to get the taste out of my mouth.

Anyway, the two collections differ in one major way: Dahl's stories, though grim and sometimes unsettling, have a levity to their prose, a hint of magic in the world even when dealing with perfectly ordinary people and situations. The opening stories all deal in some way with crime and passion, but they never feel like over-the-top sensationalism. Dahl has a way of making even the ordinary seem extraordinary without telling us he's doing it.

Ishiguro's stories, on the other hand, are steeped in a kind of melancholic nostalgia that differs from the nostalgia that permeates Ray Bradbury's work (and for those of you who know me, you know I love Bradbury). In Bradbury, the fairies from your childhood might be a bit more human now than you realized, but in Ishiguro, the fairies never were magical at all. There's no hope in the world of these stories, no magic (even in the narrator's voice). All the wonderful things we remember have no sparkle. And that doesn't sit well with me, even as someone who has had to say of things I grew up loving, "That's not nearly as good as I remember" and "That scene/joke is a lot more awkward/painful/not funny than I always thought." Even if you discover there wasn't as much magic as you thought in the world, there should still be some left over. We can be melancholy for a time, but let's not spend the entire story there. Give a little hope, show a little magic. Because if there's no hope in the world, it's a much darker place than anyone wants to be in.

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