Some Conjectures on Fantastika and the Sense of Self in Several Recent Novels
We’ve been at the point for some time now where broad generalizations about elements of fantastic fiction are not merely problematic (which has been the case for most of fantastika’s, and literature’s, history), but may limit our understanding of the diversity and adaptability contained in not just the allied genres but within the literary field of production itself. Emerging patterns, shifts in technique and assumptions, and the chaotic foment of creativity often get overlooked or normalized when a general statement is made about “the field” or “the literature” when asserted as dictum rather than hypothesis. As architectural sketches they can be useful as we probe the structure and relations and effects created within and by the literature and its producers and audiences. The trick is to not fully build them in our minds, to not construct edifices of thought that end up blocking our view and walling us off from what is happening around us.
This assertion is a prelude to this week’s discussion because in this column I want to very briefly compose a few of those sketches, keeping in mind both their tentativeness and the fact that they refer to something that is often considered solid or whole but that is in fact fragmented, relational, and in-progress: the sense of self. Criticism and discussion of literature often focuses on either technical or historical facets of a given work; what I want to do in this column is talk about reception and how a particular aspect of a work’s message seems to function. I want to consider the idea that in many works a sense of self is projected via one or more characters that we the readers pick up on and reconstruct, using our knowledge and imagination to not just follow the plot, absorb description, and make connections to create narrative progress, but that we also create in our minds an idea of personality or self that maintains our attention in a long story and providing a consciousness for the reader to interact with throughout the text.
This idea is taken in large part from Alan Palmer’s book Fictional Minds, a book I have only begun to read thoroughly and digest; this is one of several reasons why I am talking very explicitly about conjectures, sketches, etc. But his essential point that “[r]eaders create a continuing consciousness out of scattered references to a particular character and read this consciousness as an ‘embedded narrative’ within the whole narrative of the novel” is extremely compelling. The notion of a “fictional mind” as a component of a narrative is a useful heuristic device for codifying something that we seek out in a fictional narrative: a human (or at least sentient) voice/presence. This is a phenomenon that I find emergent in particularly in longer fictional works, discovering one or more senses of self that influence and condition the narrative, often profoundly shaping the story and how a reader receives and interacts with it.
For example, in China Miéville’s Embassytown (review here), there is a very focused sense of self that emerges from the novel, but it does not necessarily grant added coherence to the narrative. Avice Benner Cho is telling her story and that of her homeworld in a focused, if sometimes difficult to follow, first-person narrative that has to simultaneously communicate her humanity and how she perceives the alien world around her as a particular person. Cho’s sense of self comes through strongly because it is the filter for everything we as the reader experience. Cho, however, is a floaker, an outsider with insider access, a singular citizen with a unique position as a living metaphor for the alien Ariekei. We know she is important because she is telling the story and hints often about what is to come, and is a privileged persona who gives us what feels like more of a third-person perspective in places while firmly binding the narrative itself to a dissolute yet discernible self.
Cho is a great example for this idea because of the limits of the self we access and because of what I see as Miéville’s intentions with the novel, which are to question the solidity of language, identity, and perspective and even the nature of consciousness. The sense of self we put together as Cho tells her story is strong, but often aloof and incomplete, something negotiated and reaffirmed through the telling of the story. Cho’s self-possession is evident in the lack of long explanations about customs or events even as the reader struggles to make sense of her world and its strange situation. Juxtaposed details of alien weirdness with unfamiliar human practices and assumptions invite the reader to step back from the narrative even as the first-person voice and emergent idea of Cho as a person create some empathy and mooring in this new world.
This attempt at fixity is difficult to maintain because, while Cho is hard to comprehend and engage with sometimes, everyone else around her is even more difficult to access. The sense of self that the reader needs is not always the one they get; cultivating uncertainty at every level makes it difficult for the reader to stay engaged with Cho, and comprehend the lives and motivations of those around her. The conundrum of her explicit persona image is fortified by both personal details and the constant reiteration of her autobiographical self (an idea that Palmer takes from António Damásio) but is rendered ambiguous within the storyworld’s enigmatic context. This conundrum creates an aura of weirdness but also interferes with the ability of the reader to engage the characters as storied persons they can relate to within the context of the narrative. Our sense of Cho undermines the central thread of the novel’s plot even as we gain a better grasp of Cho as a character, rather than an ongoing invocation of signifiers. What we see here is a problem of generating a sense of self for characters (and thus for the reader) that is specific to fantastika, where the unknown, the improbable, and the unthinkable are factors that demand a refashioning of the fictional mind(s) within a story.
To better illustrate my meaning, let me use a different example, that of Vimbai from Ekaterina Sedia’s The House of Discarded Dreams. The setting is extremely different: it starts out as a college woman’s bildungsroman that quickly moves into surreal and quixotic narrative terrain as the main character has to negotiate her way out of a mythically-resonant dreamworld and reconsider her sense of self in the process. Vimbai’s journey takes place both internally in her development as a character and externally in the hallucinogenic eruptions that change the world she must navigate. Unlike Cho, the initial sense of self we glean from Vimbai is somewhat mundane, somewhat different (yet still in the realm of “the real”), and rather passively constituted. As a reader I was a bit frustrated by this until the novel unfolded further and with it, a changing sense of self for Vimbai. There is a palpable feeling of growth in the character and her personality as the story progresses that is a reaction to and action against the changes going on around her as folklore and nightmare push her to mature and take charge of her life.
The reader is pulled into this journey with the main character, not just into the plot but into her changing sense of self. Unlike Embassytown we do not learn the rules she already knows but we discover them with her, and then discover that she is making her own rules, a very different subject position that is conjured out of a different point of view (third-person) and a different method of bringing the reader into the character’s mind, more gradually but inevitably. The creation of empathy is intentionally slow but not piecemeal, and the surreal situation becomes a backdrop that encourages Vimbai to develop in front of us as a character and mind. The effect here is to draw us closer to the character and generate an idea of her sense of self that keeps us engaged with her bizarre story.
In Sedia’s book, the weirdness becomes more comprehensible not only as the plot advances but as the main character chooses to engage it and understand it on its own terms. Vimbai is less filter than revealer, more transparent in some ways than Cho but also less distant despite the different point of view. The contrast of “the real world” against the actualized dreamscape that has significant consequences for the protagonist’s journey creates a different set of stakes for the central character and ameliorates ambiguity by bringing the reader into close proximity to the fictional mind of Vimbai. While the storyworld presented is confusing and discomforting, the character of Vimbai becomes more of a person to the reader as the story unfolds. Much of this feeling of persona is created by the conjuration of a sense of self for the character, in this case through internal thought processes as well as the construction of the very world around her, influenced by her sense of self and her dreams. Here the fantastic allows for intimate access to a fictional mind because that mind creates the world, which becomes a profound notion in itself in the novel.
This to me hints at what makes fantastika a worthy subject for examining the creation of fictional minds in general and offbeat or improbable senses of self specifically. Most fiction uses landscape, social dynamics, and other external aspects to inform us about the characters’ perspectives and feelings, and also employs ways to directly access their thoughts, at least in summary fashion. Many of these devices can be extended and played with in fantastika to fashion avatars of experience, monads that reflect upon and re-view the world, and divergent ways of thinking about and seeing the world, whether mundane or fantastical. Searching for the sense of self as it is communicated in fantastic literature can reveal a wider range of techniques and applications of the sense of self to a narrative and may also add more examples that agree with or question some of the current notions of how the sense of self is symbolized and received, of how a different angle of genre or reworking of a trope might give us a bit more insight into how we read fiction, and perhaps even how we read the world.
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