“Because the day nourishes dry dreams and wounds your angelical being, you will set off in search of night. . . .” – Jaime Sáenz
Reading is a peculiar experience. It is a practice that simultaneously invites ideas inside our heads while allowing us to create a sense of displacement through them. Even as we take symbols and concepts in we are shifting ourselves conceptually and affectively. Reading can transport us to magical realms, make us believe that we share kinship with millions of people we have never met, or relate to us the minutiae of the everyday world. The power of reading is that it conjures things in our minds that are not there, and allows the possibility of experience and emotion and contemplation to occur in the process.
I moved recently and I have been slowly unpacking my library. As I take books out and organize I’m struck by the memories that many of the books call up for me. From classic adventures to philosophically resonant writing, I find that the fact of a book in one’s hand brings back recollection’s of a book’s feeling, of the displacement that it created as I read it. Some of the most powerful feelings come from the books that instigate one of my favorite reading experiences, a sensation of disruption combined with a pleasure gained from a text that challenges my reading skill and my ideas of the real and the felt world. I often find these experiences in fantastic or weird fiction, but the essential quality that creates this sensation is one of else.
The word else says more than its application may first demonstrate. The word’s roots are in the beyond, in places unknown and unfamiliar. When a story creates that mixture of extradition and gratification, for me it lies in the intensity and challenge of elseness it creates. The familiar made strange, the strange made enigmatic, the enigmatic made ineffable; what creates these qualities and the resulting amalgam of consternation and exquisite enjoyment are those techniques and ideas that compose a confrontational, involved else.
This elseness is transporting and estranging, and is not always rooted explicitly in place but implicitly invites us to another somewhere. This is place as feeling rather than place as location, and this is the else that we get from a story. We can have an elsewhere, but no -why, -who, -when, or -how in common usage. This may be in part because of the root of the word and its development, from the idea of a foreign place to a synonym for other. But else is not just other; it has possibility, it has dislocation, it has more than other in it. All fiction establishes an elsewhere, but it is not just a new place. We are pulled elsewards in stories and impelled to seek a new destination fashioned by our reading and the words laid out for us by the author.
Some of these elsewheres are comfortable, inconsequential, accessible with little effort. Others are composites with multiple dimensions and points of access, while a few manifest an elseness that challenges the reader with more than a puzzle or a significant life-moment. Each work of fiction contains a map of its elsewhere that the reader unravels to create a territory of the imagination. But this is not just a pastoral view of the land; it is an experience of the world made in our minds with the story we take in. It is Sáenz’s night that we create within the day that surrounds us.
Some works are so far powerful that they create a affective tension between being unnerved and pleased with the night we have discovered. I felt this when I read Eric Basso’s Bartholemew Fair and was brought not just into the milieu of the fair, but into a conceptual archipelago of impressions that settle, then unsettle, then confound you, and bring you back to the start again. It uses the invocation of a place to create an elsewhere that has some familiar aspects but to it, yet is. . . not deceptive, but layered, braided, revealing in gradual and sudden moments. It is more than a labyrinth because there are no walls, no twists and turns, just the feeling of proceeding through a dream where you think you know where you are but whose stability is constantly in question, sometimes deliriously so, sometimes ponderously.
But this is only one way to create a sense of else that jars you even as it overcomes you with delectation. Kiini Ibura Salaam’s Ancient, Ancient creates a torrent of elsewheres that are in turns sensual, brutal, and sublime. This set of stories build not a shared world, but a complementary actuality. What I mean is that what links these stories are felt commonalities, are the power with which they create sensations in the reader, and with each new surprise you are disheveled a bit more but exposed to delights as well. The else is not consistent but the stories build effects that can carry over into others. And the elses linger, perhaps a bit more intensely in my case because so much in the stories was unfamiliar to me, or were feelings and thoughts I needed to be reminded of.
How we engages the elsewheres of such fictions is, of course, subjective to an extent. As I noted when I wrote about “mind-blowing” fiction,“the reaction is often a tangled one that lies in the interface between the reader and text, within the reader’s imagination stimulated and playing off of the creativity of the text’s composition.” But in searching for a way to grasp the fundamental construct that grabs me in the best fiction, that upsets me even as it makes me smile, I find the idea of its elseness very compelling. Because what often blows my mind and sets up this discordant delight is not just a big idea or top-notch writing, but what the displacement of the story does to me, what there is to explore and amaze me in the territory I discover. When a story can completely take me away from the dry dreams and wounds of my day into a night with depths and unexpected cruxes, I am fundamentally elsewhere, pulled elsewards, and the day means nothing anymore.