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Posts tagged ‘Gaiman’

The Literature of Escapism: Part 1

The assumed purpose of reading a piece of escapist literature is to escape from reality, and while this in itself is no bad thing when taken in moderation, it may also be too literal a take on a seam of fiction that has rather more going for it. Below is an initial roundup of a personal selection of science-fiction and fantasy fiction, which reside under the umbrella of escapism; it in no way forms a definitive list, in fact it barely scratches the surface, and indeed that is where you, the reader, are meant to come in.

First, however, I would like to deal with the slightly dated view that escapism represents the polar opposite of realism, when in fact it can be both mirror and hammer of everyday life. To butcher Brecht. Reading fiction that could be loosely described as fantastical used to be a way of escaping life if it wasn’t to your taste, one example being C S Lewis’s Narnia providing his heroes with a universe far from wartime England. While we no longer need to divert the mind from the persistent threat of Nazi bombing raids, everyone arguably needs to retreat to some extent once in a while, we wouldn’t have holidays otherwise. But once you’re back, Asimov does not need to be condemned to deep storage along with Factor 30. He will do perfectly well for a commute, or a Sunday afternoon. I will admit that some Gibson is not suitable for reading directly before going to sleep, as you are liable to twitch and fret in a world of his making in your subconscious, and find the habitual world a little slow on waking. This may only extend to the deeply gullible and those who tend to watch a certain kind of film to excess. It took me a long time to admit that hoverboards really don’t exist. Yet.

To escape is a vacation for the mind and body; ideally not allowing the mind to become entirely vacant. While this approach to reading is not for snobs – some titles do indeed feature amulets, fabled weapons and misty unclad maidens – a rubbish title can conceal imaginative feats (of varying levels of intensity) in recognizable worlds. It is not all unrecognizable geography on Mars: George R R Martin’s appeal partially originates from that fact that his treacherous dynasties often chime with the bloodier chapters of European history. The habit of taking Lannister relatives as hostage before bumping them off in moments of acute ire after losing a battle is not galaxies away from Richard III’s treatment of the Princes in the Tower. In this way, escapist fiction is not a form of “literary pacifier” (in the words of Lev Grossman), it is however an entirely different kind of story. The writer is unburdened by some of fiction’s more restrictive traditions (such as time and space) but often recognizes that well drawn characters have universal power, Joe Abercrombie writes strong, believable and punchy female characters, for example. Hovering slightly outside our usual frame of reference can make you re-examine established ways of recounting a tale. Those obdurate Tolkien fans may hunt loyally for universal truths in the filmflop The Hobbit in vain, however this was because reading his books when you were little would entirely change your attitude to camping (how often does Frodo sleep in a bed?), food (is eating fruit cake like lembas?) and indeed spiders (how big can they get, REALLY). A childhood trip to see bluebells in the wood no longer ended with me in the car winding the windows up so I could get on with my book undisturbed, now I would eye the trees beadily, knowing that they were capable of playing up if treated carelessly.

Science and fantasy fiction also present effective ways of depicting reality – there is still death and deceit – they are often depicted in more lurid ways,however. In 1957, Isaac Asimov wrote an essay in The Humanist about this very topic, noting, “it seem[s] rather ironic to me that science fiction is continually lumped under the heading  of ‘escape literature,’ and usually as the most extreme kind, in fact.  Yet it does not escape into the ‘isn’t’ as most fiction does, or the ‘never was’ as fantasy does, but into the ‘might very well be.’  In its best phases, if science fiction escapes, it is an escape into reality.” Even if you don’t agree with that, the fact is that the ubiquity of this kind of fiction virtually guarantees everyone has had contact with it. This is a self-defeating ignore it if you want but it is still coming type argument, but at the very least this genre deserves some recognition.

If your nostrils are still flaring at this point, then perhaps David Foster Wallace’s venture into the world of science fiction, or A S Byatt’s fairy story The Djinn in The Nightingale’s Eye could go some way towards changing your mind.  Michael Chabon manages to combine time travel and detective fiction extremely successfully, if you are more of a Raymond Chandler fan.  Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season is said to be doing very well, hopefully enabling more women to read and then write this sort of fiction.

The time is not yet right to write yet more about Neil Gaiman (see our best books of 2012 post) but he certainly deserves a passing mention for American Gods and Neverwhere (recently made into a radio play by the BBC). the latter title features a darker, inverted London Below beneath the more established version of the city, whose citizens live in fear of the Angel of Islington, and Hammersmith is a living breathing giant of a man. Patrick Rothfuss has written the first two parts of a trilogy (The Name of the Wind and A Wise Man’s Fear) about a brilliant magus with fiery hair whose story deserves more than my pithy summary. Suffice it to say the story is incredibly well mapped, the characters wonderful and every detail sucks you in until you too will be on poor Rothfuss’s blog pestering him about the publication date of the final installment. Scott Lynch is spared this indignity as the final part of his Locke Lamora trilogy comes out next month. I know this because I bullied a friend into enquiring in several New York bookshops until someone kindly explained that Google easily reveals the information required. I chose not to believe this, and wanted to get my mitts on it sooner via some sub-cultural connection with access to recently published tomes of fantasy fiction. Herein lies the problem: the secret is out. These books are really, really good as well as addictive. The sub-culture no longer exists, and holds sway in broad daylight, thanks to Phillip Pullman and China Mielville and every other creator of fully formed worlds sitting on top of our own. Or within it. The hook is the resemblance to our world as we know it, as Ray Bradbury summarized: “science fiction is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.

The literature of escapism offers the reader another form of elsewhere.

The Editors

Neil Gaiman in conversation with Claire Armistead, Royal Society of Literature, 17th June

They say you should never meet your heroes, and while I didn’t strictly meet Neil Gaiman, I felt as if I did. Maybe because I could actually see the speakers’ facial expressions for the first time in my life, being fairly myopic and therefore the delighted occupant of a front row seat for the occasion.

Anne Chisholm introduced the evening as the biggest ever event for RSL, with 1000 tickets sold. The subject of the talk was ‘Memory, Magic and Survival’ on the ticket, however Gaiman changed survival to time on the evening itself. Maybe to sound less exhausted at this stage of his gruelling tour schedule. He was there to introduce his last latest novel, before inevitably talking about comics, which is certainly why I was there. Claire Armistead, the literary editor of the Guardian, described Neil Gaiman as ‘many writers’. He said he is determined ‘never to pop out of the same hole twice’, crossing genres deliberately. Joe Wright is directing the film, the book was not due to even come out until 2 days after the event, the rights are sold, and the script being developed, such is Gaiman’s clout.

The pair discussed the Guardian webchat curated by Gaiman for readers to contribute to a live online story, as a way of creating a communal story made by hundreds of people. It started with the line: “It wasn’t just the murder, he decided. Everything else seemed to have conspired to ruin his day as well. Even the cat.” The response was so enthusiastic that the webchat was the only bit of the Guardian website that didn’t crash during Gaiman’s one day takeover. He has since started similar threads on Twitter, as part of what seems to be an ongoing push to build confidence in his readers’ self-confidence. His ‘Make Good Art’ graduation speech earlier this year was an online sensation.

Gaiman described his most recent novel – The Ocean at the End of the Lane – as accidental. It started as a short story for his wife as he missed her while she was abroad, a way of showing her the world he grew up in.  The story grew from novelette to novella to a novel, although he only discovered this after typing it up.

What first sounded like a nostalgic Sussex story with autobiographical elements is actually a fairly dark tale that started from a revelation from Gaiman’s father, who found the family lodger dead in his Mini at their end of the lane; he had committed suicide after amassing gambling debts.  The narrator may be seven, but this is not a children’s book. The suicide was driven by money, and the monsters in the novel are heralded by the act of giving of money, and all through the eyes of a child who doesn’t really understand the place of it. This is a book for adults who have forgotten the powerlessness of childhood. Gaiman said he wanted to get away from ‘weird magic’ in writing this book, but of course this is what ultimately emerged with the silver shilling extracted from the throat of the narrator on waking from a nightmare.  There are fingers in eye sockets, a blurred line between dreaming and waking, the boundaries (or lack thereof) of myth and the feel of a shifting Leviathan of a story being coaxed off the ocean floor.

In a way that both revealed the extent of his influences (he read everything from a young age including Pony Club books) and explained the power of naming in the book, Gaiman referred to Mary Poppins as a Chthonic god to illustrate the power channelled by only ever referring to someone by their name and surname together. Gaiman professed his lifelong love of myth as a preference for darkness, rather than as a sugar coating fundamental truths. They are, after all, stories of deception and butchery. And to offset his description of this as his darkest and most disturbing book, he went on to plug his latest children’s book Fortunately the Milk, which is so wonderfully silly it includes a time travelling stegosaurus.

The amount of material he produces in a good year across genre and media is phenomenal.  And yet, he described the anxiety he experienced in the Sandman graphic novel era that ‘it’ would all go away, that he wouldn’t be able to write. This only stopped the year after he won the Newbery medal. Now the Sandman 25th anniversary edition is due to come out, and Gaiman is starting to feel the weight of 30 million readers. In this latest story, drawn by J.H.Williams, he will explain why Morpheus is exhausted at the start of Preludes and Nocturnes, and hence so easily captured. He announced this, along with his plan to write a short story for the Marquis de Carabas from Neverwhere.  For lovers of the comic book, this is Wimbledon and the Olympics combined. After he cited Swamp Thing: American Gothic as his favourite comic book arc, you cannot find a copy anywhere. His statement that ‘comics are a medium people mistake for a genre’  is also deeply pertinent for those who are trying to encourage the comic explosion to continue for as long as possible. In closing, he made a joke about colourblind Daaleks, and in the process delighted a thousand comic book fans in one heroic swoop.

#GaimanLDN

@RSLiterature

 The Editors