Monday, December 13, 2010

About dreams and metaphorical things

Where have I been lately? School and the resultant finals have been taking up much of my time, but its almost done! I also managed to see two heavy metal concerts during this time: Blind Guardian and Epica. I liked the Epica show better, because there were four bands and the energy kept up all throughout. Serious mosh pit going on. Could have done without the fat smelly guy falling all over people to get close to the band, but anyway. It was my first time seeing Epica, second time seeing Blind Guardian. I appreciate that, though they're the biggest power metal band on the planet, they don't take themselves seriously. Hansi Kursch comes onstsage, makes jokes about "Lord of the Rings" and smiles because he's gotten to travel around the world doing this shit for thirty years. I still wish they'd switch up the setlist a bit. A band like them has so many songs, it would be great to hear something obscure. Seeing a band like Epica feels more like being at a slambang mosh pit metal show. Blind Guardian feels like taking part in a ritual, chanting the classic songs as millions of others have done at BG shows for 30 years.

I read and wrote an essay on Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente. I've had a copy of the book for awhile (autographed!) but only got around to reading it now for a class. I genuinely think Valente might be the closest thing we have an honest to God genius working in fantasy at the moment. There is such a level of precision in Palimpsest. Every word, plot point, motif, even the character names work in conjunction with one another to prove her point about the destructive powers of desire. She pulls from different cultures and languages, finding the common ground in these histories/mythologies and weaving them together with delicious prose. Everything is deliberate in her books. Its literate, its intelligent, and it takes risks. The fact that she puts out work of this quality once a year shows a level of creativity that is just uncommon. I could see her getting talked of in the same way that Dickens is a hundred years from now.

Anyway, enough gushing. There's a wonderful part in the book where a character goes to the dream-city of Palimpsest and gets her fingers cut off. She returns to the "real" world to find that the fingers are still gone. She says, rather off-handedly, "Now we can count out this dream stuff," or something to that effect. At this point in the novel, it seems like Palimpsest might be a dream place, where different characters' obsessions are materialized by their subconscious to make some comment about their frame of mind. Um, no, it's actually a city with rivers made of coats and sharkmen and trains that are alive. It's real.

Reading a book like this reminds me why I dislike metaphor. Don't give me dreams. Give me living, breathing worlds. Give me danger. Give me wonder. Give me things that matter not just in the head, but in the whole body. Palimpsest would not be nearly as effective if it was just a book about hallucinations.

I generally don't book fantasy-specific readings, or read in genre spaces. I've done one scifi convention in the past year. This is because I don't want to ghetto-ize myself, and I'm sure that people who don't appreciate your typical fantasy literature would still appreciate the good yarns I spin. I relate to them; I don't appreciate typical fantasy either. Because of my choice of venue, there have been multiple occasions where people come up to me and say "I really liked that story with the drug trip at the end" or "I really liked the one where they had the weird hallucinations."

My response. "It wasn't a drug trip. Those were real dragons."

I always found this reaction funny. If you assume the dragons are part of a trip, all of a sudden you have a drug story. If you assume the protagonist, from out of nowhere, has a vision of dragons, all of a sudden you have a piece about mental illness. It changes the context, plot and characters of the story entirely. Never mind that nothing I've written in the story leads up to this. If I'm writing a story about drug users, I will establish early on that they're drug users. Hell, even William Burroughs' crazy ass stated at the beginning of Naked Lunch that his characters were junkies, before diving into their bizarre fantasies. Yet people come up to me talking about the metaphorical creatures in my stories, and what they represent, though I haven't said anything about metaphor. Apparently, its easier to assume that I'm a bad writer than a fantasy writer.

There is no metaphor in my stories. I'm kind of old school like that. Nor is there symbolism, no hallucinations, and there are sure as hell no dream sequences. The dragons are always real.

I know many people who hate the "it was all a dream" thing, and I know why. It is a staple of lazy writing; taking chances with the piece and then saying "No, I was just kidding." It's absolutely horrid and the audience can spot it from a mile away. It's a way of doing something wacky once you've run out of ideas, but lacking the storytelling balls to follow through on this and see where the gamble takes you. Something I realized recently: real writers don't use this gimmick. My experience with it, and my detestation for it, come from television and movies. Sitcoms are notorious for it. Episodes of Fresh Prince where Will dreams that he murders Carlton or something. The dream thing is a card in the sitcom handbook, right up there with clip shows.

Again, real writers don't use it. L. Frank Baum crafted an entire fantasy universe based out of unbridled imagination, where anything can happen. The writers of the MGM Wizard of Oz musical decided to make it all a Technicolor dream Dorothy had after getting hit in the head. Don't ask me why. Baum's Land of Oz is real. Dorothy really goes there, and she really lives there at the end of the series. At the end of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, it's left pretty ambiguous whether she was dreaming or not. Lewis Carroll was a writer; he knew that the idea of finding a bizarre and dangerous world down any rabbit hole was exciting, so he kept it open that she could return (and she did). Real writers use dream sequences to enhance the narrative. Hacks use them to dismiss the narrative.

And why would you want something to be a dream? There's enough rationality to the human experience (life is not rational, but we like to think it is, and approach it this way). Why is there an instinct to explain everything away as "These characters must be on acid"? A fantasy world is far more fun than an acid trip. Yeah, Pan's Labyrinth could just be the hallucinations of a girl as she lay dying from a gunshot, but why would you want it to be? (By the way, there's a clear tip-off in the movie that the faun and everything else are real, but you have to watch for it.) I'm with Valente on this one: the magical place should be an actual world with rules and consequences, and everything that happens is the result of character actions, not the subconscious running wild. It's much better that way.

The story I'm writing for my split book with Christine Stoddard is like that. What starts out looking like a Fight Club scenario turns out to be far more involved, interesting and fantastic than the characters realize at first. I'm having a blast writing it.

On a final note: I did corrections on my book this week, got the proof back from the publisher. It looks perfect. I told him to fire torpedoes. I'll made a blog post as soon as it is sent to Createspace. Book launch party is scheduled for January 22nd at the Layover in Oakland. Would anybody like to read with me?

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