[GUEST POST] Jesse Bullington on Reality and The Folly of the World

Jesse Bullington spent the bulk of his formative years in rural Pennsylvania, the Netherlands, and Tallahassee, Florida. He is a folklore enthusiast who holds a bachelor’s degree in History and English Literature from Florida State University. He currently resides in Colorado and can be found online at www.jessebullington.com.

Reality and The Folly of the World

Reality is subjective.

Hear me out!

Not to be that jackass philosophy undergrad who wants to argue with you about how you can’t really know if that orange in the fruit bowl is actually, yanno, orange, but for real: everything we take for granted about our world is made known to us via a system of organic sensors and filters, sensors and filters which regularly suffer glitches if not outright failures, and—

Wait, come back! I’m sorry. Can we start over? Even if oranges are really blue and it’s just a result of the mode by which we process the reflection of light that they appear orange, I’ll allow that the fruit, when ripe, does look to be the same color to the vast majority of human eyes. That color is orange.

So maybe instead let’s agree that reality isn’t subjective so much as our perception of it is, but that should still be plenty to get us going. Stating the obvious, sure, since differences in perception are responsible for, well, everything. The wholes of our lives are a series of unique experiences shaped entirely by perception, whereby external stimulation shapes our filters, so that further external stimulation is absorbed in radically different ways and—

Shit, I’m doing it again, aren’t I? The problem is that I’m not particularly smart—if I were this would all be much clearer and more interesting. Profound, even!

I realize I’ve gone from the philosophe boor in your kitchen to the drunkard crashing your kid’s birthday party, reeling around the point I’m trying to make as if it were a swaying Pinkie Pie-shaped piñata. That piñata/point is this: regardless of objective, external factors, the line between the real and the fantastical is drawn by the individual. One person’s clearly defined, comparatively young universe ruled over by an omnipotent creator and beset by forces both demonic and celestial that can only be navigated through an acceptance of scripture is another person’s plain old mundane, godless cosmos, which can only be understood to the small degree that it can through tireless examination. Ask one to describe the views of the other and you’ll get some amusing results, as well as a reiteration of the nose-on-your-face simple fact: we understand our objective world subjectively.

Obviously it follows that all writing is subjective, and finally, since we’re stumbling too much to land a blow on that aforementioned piñata, we’ll just tackle that papier-mâché pony to the ground, lollipops bursting through its flank to stab us in the chest as we land. Writing is subjective, but despite this you often hear people prioritizing those very things in writing that can be discussed in objective terms: a linear structure, clearly defined plot, detailed world-building, an, ahem, maximalist writing style, etc. I’m here to tell you that from where I’m lying—in a pile of rainbow-colored, cheap candy and breathing basilisk-potent booze fumes as you stare down in disgust, a weeping child clinging to your leg as you repeat your address to the police dispatcher on the other end of the line—that all that objective stuff is crap.

Well, okay, not really. Not all of it, anyway. I do think there’s something of a preoccupation with these things, though, especially in the genre community where most of my work ends up. I should also probably mention that I don’t think good writing is subjective, as there is obviously an enormous gulf between good and bad writing that has nothing to do with whether or not we personally enjoy it, but that’s a whole other tangent, and we don’t have much time before the cops get here, so lemme get back on track. Metaphorically speaking. A glass of water would be awesome.

The first two novels I published were works of historical fiction, yet had fantastical elements which were objectively occurring. The supernatural aspects of these books really weren’t up for debate. In order to make any sense at all, the reader had to accept imaginary creatures and concepts as real, even when the characters themselves were in doubt concerning their corporeality. I based much of the fantastical—or rather, as critical French descriptions of the Gothic would describe them, marvelous—elements on beliefs and superstitions pulled from historical records, but the point remains that these two novels were decidedly fantasies.

Which brings me to The Folly of the World, my third novel, which is out from Orbit on December 18th. With this work I ended up doing something very different with the fantastical, using it as a subjective possibility rather than an objective reality—I accomplished this in part by having one of my protagonists, Sander, be psychotic, thus providing a very reasonable skepticism for the reader as to how much of what he experiences is actually happening.

I should note that I actually went into this project with a great deal of antipathy toward the is-the-character-crazy-or-are-they-the-only-one-who-can-see-the-truth trope one encounters in a lot of horror and fantasy. In genre, mental, and for that matter physical, disabilities are often clumsily handled at best, and ableist at worst. Too often you see characters given some sort of fantastic ability to off-set what the creator might see as a shortcoming (GRRM and Stephen King immediately jump to mind); those with physical disabilities are granted extrasensory powers, those with virtually any kind of mental issues are secretly savants … when they’re not actually vessels for tremendous magical power, of course. Obviously, no one sets out with the starting premise of “let me Other this marginalized group even more by reducing them to a fantasy caricature and/or plot point,” but that can unfortunately be the result.

With Sander, I wanted to create an engaging, nuanced, and unique character first and foremost. The revelation mid-way through the genesis of the project that his arguably distorted perspective allowed me play the novel much more ambiguously than I might otherwise have was an added bonus, albeit one that became crucial to the work as it developed. Ambiguity gets a bad rap, and I was delighted to find my editor receptive to maintaining a sinister sense of doubt for the duration, rather than forcing a hard answer at the end, which is where a lot of somewhat similar works flounder (Jacob’s Ladder and some of Terry Gilliam’s stuff, just to look to film). With the Gothics you either have the fantastical questions of the text answered in the form of Scooby-Do mundanity à la Anne Radcliffe, or you get served Matthew Lewis-style, with everything you wondered about confirmed to be supernatural, and some other stuff you’d never thought about besides. With The Folly of the World, I’ve taken some of my favorite elements of the Gothic, but rather than employ one of these two standard-issue options for a conclusion, I’ve taken a third path, one which is more in keeping with the book’s heavy crime fiction inspirations: a rebuff to the concept of a neat, clean, black-and-white world ruled by rationality and objective truth, where all you have to do is ask a question to have it easily answered.

That’s not to say I don’t answer anything, or that the book is a giant mess of loose ends and non-sequiturs. Quite the contrary, I think it can be read several different ways, all of them making a lot of sense. I’m all about providing some answers in my fiction …  but I’m also interested in asking questions, and leaving it up to the reader to provide a solution, or not, depending on one’s interpretation of the text.

Anyways, regardless of what you think about my Folly … I’m really sorry about the piñata.

One thought on “[GUEST POST] Jesse Bullington on Reality and The Folly of the World”

  1. The unreliable narrator does call a lot of the world into question, and his interpretation of it. The disadvantage (and at the same time, strength) of such a an approach is that this means a reader is left more than a bit unmoored.

    But I bet someone like John Stevens here at SF Signal would have more, um, erudite commentary.

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