Thursday, November 7, 2019

On Weird Fiction

     No, I’m not thinking of Weird Tales, which, as far as I know, has ceased publication. I’m thinking of really strange stuff: the sort of story that makes you wonder if the writer is allowed to leave the house without a minder.

     Have a snippet from a recent novel of this kind. It’s about a house that doesn’t really exist, whose properties have intrigued a scientist named Carlos:

     Ever since Carlos’s return from the otherworld a few years back, everyone in the lab knew he had been obsessed with the house. And like most obsessions with the truth, this had made the City Council nervous.
     “Your job is being a scientist,” the council had told him via an empty-eyed child messenger who had helpfully lunged out at him from the shower when he had gotten up to pee in the middle of the night. “So look pretty and write papers. Don’t go searching around for the ‘truth.’ You’re a scientist, not a snoop.”
     “Man,” said Nilanjana, as he told her about the message from the council.
     “Yes, it was upsetting,” said Carlos. “And then of course I was stuck with an empty-eyed child messenger, and you know how long it takes the City Council to come back around and pick them up. We ended up having to give her rides to school for the next three weeks. We’re going to her eighth-grade graduation tomorrow.”...
     Often, especially on hot days, the windows of the house that didn’t exist were left open in the front living room, and he could try to get a reading of the distance from the house’s nonexistent exterior and its parallel-universe interior. A check for entrances into parallel universes and laser readings of their depths are common parts of any new home inspection, and so he had just applied this construction tool to his experimental problems. If one looked through the window, it seemed like a typical living room: armchair, settee, loudspeaker without volume control for the distribution of government propaganda, emergency backup settee. The usual stuff. But he knew this was only an optical illusion, which is a fancy scientific term for a lie.

     [Fink and Cranor, It Devours!]

     I hope authors Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor don’t mind my posting that long an excerpt. I wanted to give you a good mouthful, the better to capture the flavor of this extraordinarily strange novel about extraordinarily strange people and events in an extraordinarily strange place: the desert community of Night Vale.

     At this point some percentage of my Gentle Readers will be scratching their heads and wondering why anyone would read fiction this obviously far beyond the bounds of plausibility even with the most determined effort to suspend disbelief. I must admit, I wondered about it myself when I encountered the first Night Vale novel, Welcome to Night Vale. But I realized, after I’d gotten into step with the outright lawlessness of the thing, that it was doing me a great service: It was reinforcing my appreciation for reality and the immense value of the rules that govern it.

     There are quite a lot of folks who could use that reinforcement even more than I.

     Not long ago, I recorded a video in which I read “The Petrified World,” a profound short story by the late Robert Sheckley. It too is about the rules of reality, and about what might happen to our sanity were they suddenly to change out from under us. Reality is, in the most personal sense, what we’re accustomed to: what we’ve prepared ourselves to cope with, however ineptly or idiosyncratically. We seldom realize how completely dependent we are upon the rules that keep reality real: i.e., that keep it in the pattern familiar to us from lifelong experience.

     In his poem “Burnt Norton,” T. S. Eliot wrote:

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

     The late Ursula Le Guin, in her novel The Lathe of Heaven, about a man whose dreams have the power to alter reality, demurred:

     “There is a bird in a poem by T. S. Eliot who says that mankind cannot bear very much reality; but the bird is mistaken. A man can endure the entire weight of the universe for eighty years. It is unreality he cannot bear.”

     Perhaps both are correct. Perhaps the weight of the universe compels us to seek escapes. Virtually everyone has one or more places he goes to hide from reality. But one cannot endure all that much unreality either, whether it’s imposed upon him or he crafts it for himself.

     For my part, a dip into fiction so outré that one suspects the creator(s) of schizophrenia helps to relieve the pressures that arise from tedious daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly existence under the veil of Time. But in such a realm, where the rules are unboundedly fluid, there can be no planning, no organization, and no sense of security. Sooner or later one must retreat to mundane, commonplace, boring but reliable reality, where at least he can be certain that the egg cracked into the frying pan will not spontaneously turn into a machine gun, a door into a parallel universe, or a lobbyist or politician.

     What’s that you say? Why yes: it does help to have a few glasses of wine at both ends of such a “vacation.” I recommend Villa Bellangelo’s Seyval Blanc. But each to his own tastes.

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