The Sneaky Art of Storytelling

28 March 2008

John Irving, J.G. Ballard and the Best of Genre Fiction

farenheit burn, by mrtwism, with Creative Commons licenceStories rarely do what we expect of them. Somewhere, in between the words, fiction becomes a little too much, detail doesn’t seem quite right. Few people ever read a story and think yes, that’s exactly how it should be, or was, or will be. And that’s surprising, because we search for structure, for shape and form, even as we lead unstructured lives.

Pity the poor storyteller. John Irving got in right in his autobiographical Trying to Save Piggy Sneed when he wrote that ‘real life’, or what we expect of it at least, is just not believable in fiction. “When the father drops dead with an apple in his mouth while urinating on the front fender of his mother-in-law’s car . . . uh, well, I just had trouble seeing it”. But it happened, and one of Irving’s students wrote it down.

There are, of course, ways of dealing with improbabilities on the page, or genre fiction would also be dead. Imagine that – no detective noir, no science fiction, no fantasy, no tragicomedy. The best case in point is Irving himself. It seems unlikely that someone’s mother would accidentally bite off her lover’s penis while giving him a blowjob in his car when her husband coasts down the driveway in the family station wagon with the headlights off to thrill the kids and – again accidentally – rams them. But I read that in Irving’s World According to Garp as a kid and I believed it.

two sides to every story, by Norma Desmond, with Creative Commons licenceWhy? Because it carried with it equal measures of fear and titillation for the boy that never fade in the man, because emotion dictates what I should believe, if only in one instance. That’s the first thing about this art called storytelling – we’re forever at the mercy of the scribe, always willing to shift perceptions just a little bit, to say yes, alright, just this once. But maybe not again.

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The Future is Now

12 March 2008

Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the New Internet Economy

Down and OutThe very best science fiction isn’t about ray guns or spaceships, and very little about science at all. It charts how we constantly drag heritage through the muck of the moment, how we live the future vicariously in the fleeting present. Cory Doctorow knows this, at least instinctively, and his Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom artfully captures the ever present tension of the future-now.

And an intriguing time it is. Doctorow doesn’t spend an eon building a universe around his tale, but eases us quickly into its here and now by ensuring that the sights we see, the worries we have second-hand and even the devices we marvel at are either what we have today or extrapolations of them, clever plays on present memory. In that way, futurist though he is, Doctorow’s closest peers are Philip K. Dick writing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in the late 1960s, and Robert Heinlein at work on Beyond this Horizon in the early 1940s.

The sense conveyed is that in this, Doctorow’s debut novel of 2003, a writer is at work shaping and reshaping his talent, reforming the genre as he embeds himself firmly within a tradition of realism and release, science fiction’s great double act. Like Dick and Heinlein before him Doctorow asks, what happens after utopia? There must be something beyond the appearance of perfection, because we’re imperfect beings.

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