Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Freeform Critique

Here We Go Again

So I might have went a bit crazy and ordered a whole bundle of lit-crit texts off Amazon and eBay, reasoning that since I've mostly been coming to work like Todorov's or Clute's as regards (strange) narrative through summary essays, second-hand overviews and other writer's responses, rather than the first-hand source texts where the ideas are laid out in detail, I may well be talking out of my arse at times as regards what they're actually proposing. This is, of course, my general method of inquiry. Like, at uni, in English Lit or Philosophy, I could never understand those students who, faced with an essay on Yeats or Sartre, read all the Cliff Notes and critical works, all the summary overviews and in-depth articles, so as to understand exactly what all the academic experts and critical authorities understood to be the scholarly consensus as to what precisely this or that text actually meant, what "The Second Coming" was about, or what existentialism essentially (oxymoron intended) was. Fuck that shit. Just read the damn poem and think about it. And if you think that even Sartre himself can give you a definition of existentialism, dude, that's bad faith and it just proves you don't fricking get it. Point is, philosophy and critique are active, not reactive; tradition is for the theologians.

This attitude of blithe disregard for authority could be construed as cocky and lazy. I prefer to think of it as... free-spirited, shall we say.

Anyhoo, usually I try to make this clear with weasel phrases -- "it seems that", "it reads as if", blah blah blah -- because I'm not here to tell you what I think we all think that someone else thinks, dig? That's what Wikipedia's for. Nah, bollocks to that; you should take it as read that I claim no great authority and may well be kicking off from an entirely glib reading, that my take may be somewhat idiosyncratic, to say the least. But those weasel phrases get tiresome after a while, and people do tend to gloss over them; and, hey, I'm always interested in finding more gnarly ideas to take apart and play with; so I thought that even if I am going to blather away with my own jazz riffs on what I understand Todorov or Clute to be saying -- to grab these basic themes wherever I find them, see if I can play them back by ear, and if they sound right run with that, rephrasing them and putting them through the conversions, inversions and reversions of my own twisty, turny logic -- well, more grist for the mill is always fun.

So the bad news or good news, depending on your perspective, may be even more of my critical gasbagging in the near future.

In the meantime, though, as a further demonstration of that blithe disregard... well...

Fantastic Marvelous and Fantastic Uncanny

I've been thinking about the whole notion of the fantastic marvellous and the fantastic uncanny, which is Todorov's big conceptual contribution to the study of the strange part of strange fiction (as I understand it, that is).

For a crude, brief summary, here's a snippet from the Wikipedia article on the man:

Todorov defines the fantastic as being any event that happens in our world that seems to be supernatural. Upon the occurrence of the event, we must decide if the event was an illusion or whether it is real and has actually taken place...

Upon choosing whether the event was real or imaginary, Todorov says that we enter into the genres of uncanny and marvelous. In the fantastic uncanny, the event that occurs is actually an illusion of some sort. The "laws of reality" remain intact and also provide a rational explanation for the fantastic event... In the fantastic marvelous, the supernatural event that occurs has actually taken place and therefore the "laws of reality" have to be changed to explain the event. Only if the implied reader cannot opt for one or the other possibility, the text is purely fantastic.


I think I've made it abundantly clear by now how deeply inapt I consider the terms "fantasy" and "fantastic", but, if anything, "marvelous" and "uncanny" are worse in the application Todorov gives them.

For something to be "marvelous" doesn't just imply but explicitly posits that it causes us to marvel, that it invokes an affect of wonder, of amazement, of awe in its more positively-tinged aspect; it is a sense of the sublime described best in Yeats's phrase, "terrible beauty", focused predominantly on the "beauty". Marvels can be magical or mechanical, impossible feats like turning water into wine or spectacular contraptions/illusions like the clockwork birds or chess-playing automatons of old; the "marvelous", therefore, has nothing at all to do with the "laws of reality". In the lit-crit terminology I've been working with in previous entries, "marvelous" means something generates a boulomaic modality of "should have happened" and a subjunctivity level of "could not have happened" which may or may not be collapsed back to a level of "could have happened" depending on whether or not we can discern a rational explanation that renders it consistent with our notion of nomological possibility.

When we describe something as "uncanny", on the other hand, we are only explicitly saying that it is seemingly inconsistent with our notion of nomological possibility (c.f. "canny" and its sense of worldly wisdom, its etymological connections to "know", "ken", "gnosis", etc.). But even if there is no explicit postulation of affect, the term deeply implies a negative reaction in its connotations, its associations with the other-worldly, the unnatural, the eery, the eldritch, the unheimlich. This is awe in its more negatively-tinged aspect, focused on the "terrible" part of the sublime's "terrible beauty", as a source of discomfort, unease, tension. In our lit-crit terminology, this unsettling aspect of the "uncanny" is the implicity of a boulomaic modality of "should not have happened". In fact, the very source of that disquiet, I would argue, may lie in the seemingness of the inconsistence, in our uncertainty, our inability to collapse the subjunctivity level from "could not have happened" back to "could have happened" by way of a rational explanation.

The denotatively and connotatively overloaded nomenclature of fantastic, fantastic marvellous and fantastic uncanny seem to me, therefore, deeply misapplied, with the latter two directly contradicting their consensus meanings. That said, however, in its focus on the "laws of reality" Todorov's model of genre -- nomenclature aside -- fits perfectly with a subjunctivity-oriented view of strange fiction. Let me use that rough overview from Wikipedia to articulate what I mean.

The Wondrous, the Awe-Inspiring and the Creepy

Todorov defines the fantastic as being any event that happens in our world that seems to be supernatural.

Forget the "fantastic"; this is a term too deeply associated with the concept of manifesting (c.f. the Greek root "phantos" and its sense of making visible) desire (c.f. "fantasy" in everyday useage with its sense of yearning). Forget the "supernatural"; this is a term explicitly hierarchising the relationship between the normal and the abnormal, interpreting the unnatural event as product of a metaphysically "higher order". The metaphor of "depth" may be used where the supernatural is a negative force (angels come from above, demons from below, generally speaking), but either way it privileges the unnatural with a sense of primacy, of greater potency than the natural.

So, if we replace these terms with the neutrally-valued "strange" and "unnatural", what we have is the strange defined as being any event that happens in our world that seems unnatural. Which is to say, any event that generates a subjunctivity level of "could not have happened" because of its apparent nomological impossibility.

Upon the occurrence of the event, we must decide if the event was an illusion or whether it is real and has actually taken place...

No. Upon the occurence of the event, we must and do react with an affective judgement. We must decide (or rather our emotional response must decide for us) whether the event was a good thing or a bad thing, whether it "should have happened" or "should not have happened" -- what boulomaic modality it has. This is where we could theoretically introduce the terms "marvelous" and "uncanny", the former applying to those events which invoke a positive awe reaction, the latter applying to those events which invoke a negative reaction. But instead, partly to avoid conflict with Todorov's terminology and partly for reasons that we'll come to shortly, I'm going to use terms I consider equally apt. So what we decide (or have decided for us) is whether the event was wondrous or creepy.

We should note that these qualities can be wholly independent of strangeness. An entirely mundane event that retains a subjunctivity level of "could have happened" can nevertheless carry a positive or negative boulomaic modality. We heve, therefore, the strange-and-wondrous and the strange-and-creepy, but we also have the simply wondrous and the simply creepy. However, we should also note that, in practice, there is often an effect of strangeness generated by the sheer intensity of boulomaic modality. The more wondrous or creepy the event strikes us as, the more it strikes us as abnormal. Events so good or so bad disrupt the status quo, seem deviations from the norm. We might call these the strangely-wondrous and strangely-creepy.

As an aside: the aptness of Yeat's "terrible beauty" as a descriptor of awe should serve as a reminder of the inadequacy of this crude duality with regards to the sublime. It is not, in fact, an either/or situation; there is no reason that the strange cannot be both wondrous and creepy, invoking both modalities in a state of tension, placing the reader in a state of affect that is somewhere between the two and drawn in both directions. The slipping of the original meaning of "awful" makes it now too negatively-tinged to use in this context, while "awesome" is dragged the other way by the spirits of Bill and Ted, but it seems fair enough to talk of the strange-and-awe-inspiring here.

So, OK, now we've established that, let's try that next step again.

Artifice and Anomaly

Upon the occurrence of the event, we must decide if the event was an illusion or whether it is real and has actually taken place...

This is the intellectual crisis of estrangement that follows on from the emotional judgement outlined above. It is the question of whether or not the subjunctivity level is collapsed back into "could have happened" through the application of a rational explanation. There is, of course, again, the third option of uncertainty, of a persisting tension between the "could have happened" and "could not have happened" levels of subjunctivity. But we'll come to that.

Upon choosing whether the event was real or imaginary, Todorov says that we enter into the genres of uncanny and marvelous.

Obviously, given my contentiousness over these names, I'm going to require new terms for those genres. Given their nature as decribed, it would be better, I would argue, to refer to the artificial and the anomalous. In fact, because we are dealing with the event as an explicable or inexplicable act within the text, rather than an affect of the text, focusing on it as a thing which either fits or does not fit our notion of nomological possibility, I would prefer to move from the abstraction of qualities to the concreteness of objects -- to talk of the artifice and the anomaly rather than the artificial and the anomalous.

Moreover, where Todorov identifies only this branching of subjunctivities at the point where we decide if the strange is illusory artifice or irrational anomaly, we, in contrast, already have a branching generated by boulomaic modalities. So where Todorov offers two potential genres of strange fiction I would look at this as six potential features of strange fiction: the strange-and-wondrous-artifice; the strange-and-wondrous-anomaly; the strange-and-awe-inspiring-artifice; the strange-and-awe-inspiring-anomaly; the strange-and-creepy-artifice; the strange-and-creepy-anomaly.

In the fantastic uncanny, the event that occurs is actually an illusion of some sort. The "laws of reality" remain intact and also provide a rational explanation for the fantastic event.

Rephrasing this into our model: wondrous, awe-inspiring or creepy, the event that occurs is actually an artifice of some sort. It does not contradict the consensus nomology we think of as the "laws of reality" but is rather explicable by that nomology. We would be well to note here that the collapse of the subjunctivity level back to "could have happened" is going to have a knock-on effect on our sense of boulomaic modality. We might well expect to see any number of complex reactions. In positioning the strange as artifice do we remove wonder or transfer it the mechanics of the artifice? Do we remove the creepiness by revealing its mechanisms or make it all the more disturbing because it is more real? Does the strange cease to inspire awe when we think of it is an artifice or is the tension between "should" and "should not" heightened because we cannot deny the possibility and are therefore under more pressure to decide our attitude towards it?

In the fantastic marvelous, the supernatural event that occurs has actually taken place and therefore the "laws of reality" have to be changed to explain the event.

Rephrasing this into our model: wondrous, awe-inspiring or creepy, the event that occurs is actually an anomaly of some sort. It entirely contradicts the consensus nomology we think of as the "laws of reality" and forces us to revise our certainty in that nomology. We would be well to note here that the upholding of the subjunctivity level of "could not have happened" is going to have a knock-on effect on our sense of boulomaic modality. We might well expect to see any number of complex reactions. In positioning the strange as anomaly do we intensify wonder or dissipate it in a loss of suspension of disbelief? Do we remove the creepiness by revealing its spuriousness or make it all the more disturbing because it is entirely irrational? Does the strange inspire more awe when we think of it as an absolute anomaly or do we give up trying to decide between "should" and "should not" entirely in the face of our inability to ever make sense of it?

In fact, we have a further set of possible features, where -- wondrous, awe-inspiring or creepy -- the event that occurs is unresolved.

The Tension of Indecision

Only if the implied reader cannot opt for one or the other possibility, the text is purely fantastic.

Here we could rephrase this by simply putting "strange" in place of "fantastic" but the whole notion of "purity" is, I think, misleading. It makes it sound like indecision is an exceptional circumstance, when it may in fact be quite commonplace. In order to decide whether an event that occurs is consistent with or contradictory to the "laws of reality" we have to have a distinct and rigid view of what those laws are, a faith in our convictions, and the inclination to decide on that basis. Certainly many readers have these, but many more would seem, by the evidence of what is accepted as SF, to have a rather more flexible attitude, to be less than dogmatic in deciding what is artifice and what anomaly.

Actually, I think this indecision is part of the game of much strange fiction. If we're looking for the root of the cognitive estrangement in Suvin's novum, I'd argue that it might well be found in exactly this tension between accepting the rational hypothetical and maintaining an equally rational skepticism. In Hard SF that skepticism may ultimately minimise the strangeness of the artifice, a demand for rigour and foundation in known science (either due to scientistic dogmatism or scientific education) leading to more mundane hypotheticals that are virtually pre-decided as artifices, but even here the counter-intuitive head-fucks of high-level maths and physics (Hilbert Space, anyone?) can provide the initial frisson of strangeness sufficient to delay decision, to create a moment of hesitation in which we are estranged. And more often, I suspect, that hesitation is simply born of the fact that, well, we're dealing with hypotheticals here. Many an SF reader twitches irately every time they read a newspaper article equating SF fans and "UFO nuts". Skepticism, doubt, is an important part of the game.

Conversely, there is a similar game that takes place across forms of strange fiction variously labelled SF and Fantasy where patent anomalies are accepted as maybe, potentially, just possibly artifices. It's tempting just to call this game "suspension of disbelief" because that is a large part of it, but there's more to it than that. There's the conventionality of the trope, as I've argued previously, where the anomaly is explicable by an alternative consensus nomology to the one we live our lives by, where it is recognised as an artifice of the form, for the sake of a good story. In this sort of generic Romance the indecision persists because the anomalous nature of the tropes is largely in direct proportion to their coolness; and the more cool they are the more willing we are to play the game. There's also the more self-conscious and deliberate indecision where the anomalous is explicable as an artifice of the nomology of narrative itself, a product of those "laws of reality" that cover the use of extended metaphor in fiction. We postpone decision on the anomalous here because we can (or think we might through the continued act of reading) make sense of it as a conceit, an artifice in that sense. As with the novum of SF this may well result in a distinct sense of tension, of cognitive dissonance.

Finally, just to round out the coverage of the three commercial genres of strange fiction, a similar indecision can be found in Horror. In fact, part of the reason I replaced Todorov's term uncanny with creepy in my own model, is that I think talk of the uncanny often carries a sense of angst felt in the face of the truly unknown -- i.e. when we are faced with a strange-and-creepy event so alien we are not even able to decide whether it fits our nomology or not, whether it is artifice or anomaly. I wouldn't define the uncanny solely in this sense, because I think we also apply the term to the strange-and-creepy when it is quite patently anomalous -- so we can't implicitly exclude that aspect by defining it as undecided -- but I think it's an important enough aspect of it that the term is far more useful here than in Todorov's schema where it means virtually the exact opposite, the illusion, the artifice (which is, to me, a bizarre use of the term). Again what we have is an exploitation of tension between subjunctivities in that (anxious) indecision as to whether an event is artifice or anomaly.

The Questions of Strange Fiction

All of this leads to a set of questions that are, I think, at the heart of the various types of works that can be described as strange fiction, questions as to how a work generates a sense of the strange, whether that is shaded with wonder, awe or creepiness, whether the events function as artifice or anomaly, or exploit the tension born of a refused or delayed decision. Any number of individual works of strange fiction might best be understood, I would argue, as, in part, constructed from those questions and their variant answers in a process of discourse. And there are more questions and answers that are part of that discourse:

If multiple artifices are introduced into a text, each potentially carrying its own distinct boulomaic modality or tension of modalities, how do the interactions of residual modalities affect the reader's reactions and the subsequent shifts as and when each new strangeness is first introduced and then resolved into an artifice? How do the "should happens" and "should not happens" play off against each other when each also "could happen".

If multiple anomalies are introduced into a text, each potentially carrying its own distinct boulomaic modality or tension of modalities, how do the interactions of residual modalities affect the reader's reactions and the subsequent shifts as and when each new strangeness is first introduced and then resolved into an anomaly? How do the "should happens" and "should not happens" play off against each other when none of these actually "could happen".

If a mixture of artifices and anomalies are introduced into a text, how is this interplay of modality shifts further complexified by the tensions between rationality and irrationality? Do we find alliances of "could happen" and "should happen" or "could not happen" and "should not happen"? Or do we find them at cross-purposes -- "could happen" but "should not happen", "should happen" but "could not happen"?

To what extent would a predominance of one type of strangeness -- artifice or anomaly -- shape the readers expectations of the text, and what effect would result if an instance of the other type of strangeness was subsequently introduced? Could sleight of hand gloss over the difference, make the reader take artifice as anomaly, or anomaly as artifice? What if the writer makes a point of the difference, highlights it?

If the reader cannot decide whether the strangeness in a work is artifice or anomaly, must they then consider both possibilities and everything in between, forced into the cognitive dissonance where, even within a single strange event, the decision can't be made as to whether it "could happen" or "could not happen"? Might they not then be faced with all of the above potential questions and answers?

This all sounds incredibly abstract, I'm sure, but I think these are actually just generalised versions of specific and practical questions through which we can approach genre texts. How does this narrative establish its environment: mundane or strange; wondrous, awe-inspiring or creepy; as a construct of many little artifices or anomalies, or as a distortion around one large core artifice or anomaly? How much is the wonder, awe or creepiness an end in itself and how far does the demand-and-supply cycle round this drive commercial genres and their particular works? Or how much is that initial affective aspect of the narrative simply a means to an end? What exactly might that end be for this book or that? How does that factor up into subsidiary demand-and-supply cycles within the commercial genres? In previous posts I've broken down SF into various facets according to its multiple contradictory definitions -- half-jokingly, half-seriously inventing labels like Scientific Fancy, Scientistic Fiction, Soul Fiction, Symbolic Formulation, and so on -- and these facets are ultimately, I'd argue, largely a matter of discernable, albeit overlapping, demand-and-supply cycles for strange fiction with variant aesthetic purposes.

And these purposes can, I think, be better articulated for general forms and specific works through an understanding of the narrative dynamics born of those purposes. Does this or that SF novel "get away" with an anomaly as its "one impossible thing" because of a richly artificed context, or is that anomaly highlighted by that context? To a thematic purpose, or to force us to revise our nomology, alter our preconcieved notion of the "laws of reality" in order to reconsider whether the anomaly should actually be seen as an artifice? It might well be better to have some idea of what a work is doing (or trying to do) in this sense before blathering lazily and giving ratings based largely on how well it fits our personal taste. I don't really care whether a book works for this person or that; I want to know how it works.

This would be where, I think, the last few posts on narrative potentially tie together into a theory of narrative dynamics, because the artifices and anomalies of strange fiction are the stuff from which the balances, discords, conflicts and harmonies are made and the boulomaic modalities and epistemic necessities are good start points, I think, for looking at the precise dynamics of that transformative process.

No Country For Old Men

As an example which might be interesting to explore (in a really brief and cursory way -- because I'd really want to see it a second time before doing any sort of real critique, and because it's good enough that I wouldn't want to blow it for anyone with spoilers), let's look at the opening of the movie version of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, which I caught at the cinema last week. I have to say from the start that it's a fucking superb movie, as far as I'm concerned, quite possibly my new favourite of the Coen Bros ouevre. I also have to say, I haven't read the book, so I have no idea how my reading of the movie would match my reading of the book. Actually, I also have to say, my memory is appalling at the best of times, so if I fuck up any details, please let me know. Anyway...

So the movie opens with wide shots of the desert and Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell giving a voice-over monologue. He's talking about the tradition of being a sheriff, how a lot of the "old-timers" didn't carry guns, wondering how they'd react to the present-day. It's a low-key, philosophical musing reminiscent of the voice-over that opens THE BIG LEBOWSKI but played for real rather than as a caricature of the cracker-barrel cowboy spirit-guide vibe you get in the earlier movie. There's none of that "Sometimes you git th' b'ar. Other times th' b'ar gits you." hokum. But just as deliberately and just as clearly it sets up a genre vibe (which TBL subsequently ignores as far as I can see for pretty much the rest of the film). It lets you know without a doubt that this is a Western.

It's not simply a matter of visual and verbal content though, or at least not just in terms of tropes. A core aspect of what's going on here is the establishment of a boulomaic modality, an investing of the whole environment with a nostalgic yearning. Bell's voiceover is an elegy for the old West as lost idyll. We could describe this as a modality of "should have happened" applied to the continuation of the idyll or a modality of "should not have happened" applied to the loss of that idyll. Either way it's the same thing. This is a duality inherent in the lyric mode of pastoral, each idyll shaded with an elegiac sorrow for what's lost, for what will never be again, and every elegy lit up with the idyllic joy of what was found, of what will ever be, again and again and again, each time the song is sung. So, Bell conjures up, in his talk of unarmed sheriffs, the nobility of Jimmy Stewart in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN. In his wonderings over how that mythic figure would deal with present reality he evokes the sensibility of those who reminisce over the good old days when you could leave your door unlocked, those simpler and more peaceful days before the world got cruel and complicated.

But there's a neat trick going on here in the blurring of temporal boundaries -- the establishment of a continuity. The sense of familiarity in his talk of those old-timers leaves us questioning how far back the "old time" was. We get a sense that Bell might just as easily be talking of his father as of his grandfather or his great-grandfather, a sense of an unbroken line of tradition beginning sometime in the Old West of the Western but continuing up to the present day. It's a counterpoint to the notion of loss in so far as it presents Bell as keeping that tradition alive It intensifies that loss because the tradition is fundamentally being "kept alive" in memory, in eulogy -- Bell standing, perhaps, as the end of that line, perhaps even, in the disembodiment of his voice, the mere ghost of what has already been lost, what, of course, should not have been lost -- but a sense of what is yearned for being tenuously present nevertheless persists. The West is still there in America, we are being told, if only as a palimpsested myth

Then we get the turn, a revelation of what exactly it is that has palimpsested the Western -- Crime, not just as a reality but as a genre. At the end of Bell's monologue, as the camera pans to reveal a police car parked at the side of a dusty highway, a young (deputy?) sheriff motioning a handcuffed man towards it, Bell reveals (I can't remember the exact phraseology) that he is telling the story of a crime about to happen. Immediately we enter the idiom of DRAGNET, the voice-over that announces the oncoming of story in the oncoming of a criminal event. The scene you are about to see, it is saying, the story you are about to hear, the crime you are about to witness, is... is what? A terrible tale of murder and greed, man's inhumanity to man? But one of many? ("There are a million stories in the city and this is just one.")

The answer is: something that "should not happen".

All the sense of loss born of the elegaic tone is suddenly bound to a deeper negativity, the nostalgic wistfulness of the Western fused with the weary and cynical hopelessness of Crime. There is a reason you cannot leave the door unlocked these days. There is a reason the once-peaceful world now seems cruel and complicated. There is a reason those old-timers who didn't carry guns would be out of place in this world. There is a reason that tradition is dying, dissipating. It is the same "wrongness" we find in Clute's narrative grammar of Fantasy, the same weakening of the world in the emergence of dark forces. The frontier idyll has become the Wounded Land, the Badlands of yore have become the Wasteland of Modernity.

This is made clearer still as we see the sheriff ushering his captive into the back of the car and placing a strange contraption into the front -- a shining steel canister with a long steel hose and a thick rounded nozzle. A few viewers who've read the book or reviews, or who've worked in... well... a certain field of employment will know what this, but even with foreknowledge the introduction that object is an event of strangeness. It's not an apparent breach of our nomology in the sense of the "laws of reality", not "fantastic" in the Todorovian sense, but it breaches the nomology of the Western. In this Western-based pseduo-reality it is (or is at least comparable to) a novum, and the futureshock (or presentshock, perhaps?) that it generates indubitably makes it a thing that does not belong. In the nomology of the Western it has no place, it doesn't make sense, it "could not be". It is sleekly, shinily wondrous, an object of polished chrome there to be fetishistically fascinating (not unlike the silver-plated, ivory-handled Colt .45s and suchlike of the Western), but because of the sheer strangeness it is equally as unsettling, equally as creepy.

As the sheriff glances back at his captive, this sense of strangeness is reinforced in the otherness of the man in the back, Sigurh with his pudding-bowl haircut and clothes that belong in the Seventies city, in the civilisation of a night-club, a strip-joint. We don't yet know that the setting is 1980 and against the trans-historical conjurings of the voice-over, Sigurh seems as out-of-place as the strange artifact we have just glimpsed. Sitting in a silence that speaks of quiet confidence (and therefore menace), his reason for being there unrevealed (though we can infer from his captivity that he is Bad), he himself invokes that same sense of unease as that... thing, the same sense of creepiness.

But at the same time, the content of this scene makes as much sense in the Western idiom as in the idiom of Crime. This is the arrest of the black-hatted, black-garbed and black-hearted villain -- not the Cattle baron behind the scenes purportedly running the show, but the Jack Palance hired-gun who is the real villain of the psychodrama in his Otherness, in his representation of the Jungian Shadow. It is also the entry of the psychopathic hitman, the Crime Bosses murderous right-hand, as played by Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper -- you know the score. When we see, in the next scene, the sheriff complacently relating the capture over the phone, as Sigurh slowly and methodically, in the background, rises from his seat, we know that our fear is not unfounded. We know that what "should not happen" is about to. We know, because we recognise the demonic nature of the creature from his bearing, that the murder of the sheriff we are about to witness is an epistemic necessity, that it "will happen".

These human monsters of Crime (and the Western) are kith and kin of the monsters of Horror precisely because of this sense of epistemic necessity. No matter how fast we run, they will catch up with us at a steady stroll. No matter how we might plead, they will despatch us without compunction. They will play games with us like a cat with a mouse, because they are beyond the mores of human society. (Think of Jack Palance in SHANE, saying "Pick up the gun.") This last is a key point; this is where they metaphorically breach the "laws of reality" in breaching the "natural order" of morality, why they may well literally breach those laws, as creatures of the borderland between Crime and Horror. Sigurh's crazed grin as he strangles the sheriff with the handcuffs around his wrists makes it abundantly clear that he is beyond morality, beyond empathy, beyond humanity, a monster working by a logic inexplicable to us. They are manifestations of murder, Death walking loose in the world. In and of themselves they are things which "should not be".

This point is driven home in the gruesome revelation of what the strange Sigurh's strange contraption actually does. After Sigurh's casual/methodical washing of his blooded wrists, the next scene (at least, I think we directly cut to this) is once again out in the Texan wilderness, where Sigurh in the sheriff's car has pulled another driver over to the side of the road. Although he doesn't remotely resemble a lawman in his out-of-place clothes, and is indeed even more creepy now that he's also carrying his creepy contraption, canister in one hand, nozzle in the other (and we still don't know what it is, what it does, but now we know and we dread -- we have the sense of epistemic necessity -- that we are going to find out and it is not going to be nice), when he orders the driver out of the car, the man complies, a docile animal led to the slaughter -- the movie's metaphor, not mine. Sigurh raises the nozzle to the man's forehead, tells him to "hold still" and then... THUD. This pneumatic pressure pump thing, used in an abbatoir to kill cattle, blasts a bolt of air with such force that it blows what looks like a bullethole dead in the centre of the man's forehead.


Reeling from the shock and horror of this act (which really, truly "should not have happened"), we're suddenly elsewhere, looking through the scope of a rifle, an antelope in the cross-hairs. The erstwhile protagonist, a modern-day cowboy of sorts called Moss, lying up on a ridge, about to take a pot-shot at the animal, echoes Sigurh's words, "hold still", then fires, the rifle kicking back, the antelope scattering. Are we back in the Western here, still in it with Sigurh as Palance, Moss as the hero who's going to have to take him on, or some innocent homesteader doomed to be just another victim... or are we now somewhere else entirely, shifted by the subjunctivities and modalities of Crime and Horror to an uncertain interstice between the genres?

In the parallel of those words "hold still", the movie shatters one aspect of the Western myth in an instant; it denies us the Romantic heroism of the hunt, strips it of all wonder. Moss is no rugged individualist frontiersman bringing back meat for the table after a noble struggle with Nature, just another callous executioner like Sigurh, or at least a would-be executioner. Moss is a mediocre marksman, only wounding the antelope, his mundane level of skill inflicting suffering and immediately tagging him as "flawed". Again the Western myth is being rearticulated in the idiom of Crime if not of realism. (That little touch of the rifle kicking back speaks volumes about the disjunct between generic and naturalistic representations of weapons and power, and of the reactions and consequences involved in wielding them.) Would-be, wannabe, might-have-been, Moss is an incarnation of that combination of boulomaic modality and subjunctivity level so common in Crime and Realism, that of failure, of events that "should have happened, but did not". He is the denial of the extraordinary, the reification of the mundane.

So, Moss, having failed to kill his quarry, wanders down to the spot, finds a trail of blood and follows it. What he finds is not the wounded animal, however, but another strangeness. A black dog stands staring at him (and at us, viewing the beast from Moss's perspective), a squat and ugly pit-bull type of a thing. It's a moment of Lynchian creepiness, a touch of dissonance in this domestic dog so out-of-place in the wilderness, a suggestion of the grotesque in its gargoyle features, and more thant a hint of symbolism in its perfect blackness and isolation; it is a figure standing out so boldly from its ground that we feel a sense of meaning in its gaze, a silent communication. And it's hardly a subtle communication given the folkloric tradition of the black dog as spectral portent of death. At this moment we should realise for certain, if we did not already realise this with Sigurh, that we may be dealing with Horror here as much as with either Crime or Western. The black dog here is uncanny in exactly that way described above, in our inability to decide if it is artifice or anomaly, natural or supernatural.

The death it portends is quickly realised as Moss, moving on (following the dog, or the trail of antelope blood, or both?), finds himself on another ridge first looking down on then descending into carnage -- pick-up trucks riddled with bullet-holes, a dozen or so dead bodies scattered, including that of a dog identical to the one we've just seen except that it's brown instead of black. Do we explain the black dog here as the sole survivor of this bloodbath? Or do we see, in the dead dog, a potential corpse for the black dog as ghost? Or do we hesitate to decide, feel (and appreciate) the tension of uncertainty?

Of course, there's a rational explanation for the slaughter that quickly becomes apparent. A satchel full of money and a pick-up loaded with heroin tells us that this is a drug deal gone wrong, a staple trope of crime fiction which would ground us firmly in the genre were it not for everything that's led up this point. We recognise it instantly as a narrative trigger, know immediately that Moss will take the money and, in that single act of weakness, initiate the plot. Murder and money. Guns and greed. A drug deal that implies an underworld that implies a crime boss who will want his money back... and a hired-gun who'll be sent to recover it. We may not know how that will play out (and the Coen Bros will go on to make us more uncertain the further into the movie we get), but we know the genre framework at play here. Except... we don't. Instead we are caught between genre frameworks, glimpsing other massacres in the carnage of the drug deal gone sour, glimpsing beneath this the ruins of a stage-coach or a wagon train attacked by Indians, shoot-outs between rival gangs of bandits and cowboys, chests of Confederate gold or Union bonds or money from bank jobs. Bell's monologue has primed us to see the old myth underneath the new. And on another level still (more "primal" like the black dog or more "modern" like Sigurh's cattle-gun?), the strangeness of Horror is there too, to keep us unsettled as to whether even the "reality" suggested in the overlap between the myths is truly to be trusted.

This palimpsesting of genres is something that will play out through the movie and is, I'd argue, a core theme. I'll say no more about the plot that follows on from here because I don't think it's necessary to reveal those twists and turns in order to tease out a purpose established so succinctly in these few opening scenes: framing American culture as a generational transition from Western to Crime; flip-flopping between those two mythical nomologies to challenge that linearity, reveal the Western within the Crime, the Crime within the Western; using the strange-and-creepy artifices and/or anomalies of Horror to deepen the sense of moral crisis emergent from that theme; setting up this meta-narrative, then, as a starting-point for discourse -- the point where the questions begin rather than where the answers finish. Where we end up, with this theme, is a far more complex place than the simple linearity suggested by Bell's initial voice-over.

I've seen quite a few reviews of the movie which read it as a work which sets up genre expectations in order to subvert them. This is, I think, a gloss on the film that doesn't quite get to grips with the importance of the interplay of genre expectations, the extent to which our interpretations of the text as this genre here, that genre there, isn't simply about subverting expectations as regards plot-structure but ultimately about using the conflict of expectations to craft a set of intricate dramatic and thematic effects through which the film critiques the whole myth and history of America's morality. It is, I think, a film of both richness and scope, created from the very techniques than create our sense of genre, rather in the subversion (which is to say, rejection) of genre expectations (which is to say, formulaic plot structures we associate with genre).

No Country for Old Critique

It is no surprise to me that the Coen Brothers place so much importance on the underlying features from which we construct genre -- the conflicting subjunctivity levels, boulomaic modalities and epistemic necessities; or that one major construct of those features, strangeness, is to be found in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN just as it is in most other Coen Brothers movie. These are, after all, the same features from which we construct interest -- at a level deeper than the uninvested intellectualism of the middle-class, middle-brow, contemporary realism midlist, that is.

These are also, I'd argue, the same features that draw "genre" readers to those "mainstream" works which employ them, no matter where the writer stands in relation to "genre" -- as a fully paid-up member of SFWA like Chabon, a self-confessed fan and genre writer now "crossed-over" like Lethem, an obssessive devotee and pulp homagist like Tarantino, a "cult fiction" individidualist like Palahnuik, or the sort of mercurial magpies we find in the Coen Brothers, exploring a new nook or cranny of narrative form with almost every work (almost as if they want their ouvre, at the end of the day, to include at least one example of every possible genre). And, it amuses me no end to think, these are probably the same features that "non-genre" readers are increasingly looking for in the "mainstream", and that "non-genre" writers are increasingly seeking to provide.

At the end of the day, then, I reckon a focus on these low-level techniques offers us a set of tools for better understanding genre (as constructed from these techniques) in terms of "how it works" rather than "what it is". And further, I think, this shift in level also widens the applicability of the tools, affording a better understanding of works whose genre identity is arguable. Rather than trying to understand these as aberrations -- as the half-and-half and not-quite-either of "cross-genre" and "interstitial" -- or as subversions of the form, we might better approach each text as an individual permutation of possible approaches. From the critical brainstorming of genres as isolated forms, we've begun to develop tools that are just as pertinent to narrative as a thing in and of itself; and in many respects, the current trends in mainstream fiction are crying out for the theories of genre critique to be applied to them. To do so may require the overhaul of those theories, but I think we stand to gain more than we lose in those reformulations.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

More on Narrative

So I've been thinking about Todorov's model of narrative. If you're not familiar with it, this theory posits five stages for a conventional narrative:

equilibrium as an initial stage;
disruption of that equilibrium by some event;
recognition of that disruption by some agent;
reaction seeking to counteract that disruption;
restitution of equilibrium, but in a new form.

It seems a fairly straightforward idea, a way of taking the terminology of situation, problem, action and resolution and abstracting that to a notion of balance and imbalance, action as counteraction, as a means to an end, that end being the restoration of equilibrium. It's tempting, perhaps, to compare this with the idea of narrative grammars covered in the last big post, to look at the small sour lesions, small dissicating hints and novum of Clute's narrative grammars as forms of disruption, the thickening thinning and cognitive estrangement as a sort of combination of recognition and reaction, the recognition, revel and conceptual breakthrough as restitution of equilibrium, albeit in a new form. I think the Todorovian model has a lot of scope in that regard. Needless to say though, I can't help but want to tinker with this model.

For a start, it strikes me that Todorov's model mixes up potential states of a system (equilibrium, disruption, and resolution-as-a-noun, as the state of balance established at the end of the narrative) with processes within that system (recognition, reaction, and resolution-as-a-verb, as the process of establishing the new balance). And it does so in a way that doesn't quite seem quite... rounded to me. It seems overly focused on the effects of disruption to the neglect of those forces that create it. So I think the model needs a little fleshing out. What I'd suggest then, (adopting new terms for the sake of clarity) is something like this:

balance (a state of equilibrium)
-- the action of an agency upon the world, entailing:
-- the reaction of the world to this activity (disruption as a process)
discord (disruption as a state)
-- the action of the world upon the protagonist, entailing:
-- the reaction of the protagonist to this activity (recognition as a process)
conflict (recognition as a state)
-- the action of the protagonist upon the world (reaction), entailing:
-- the reaction of world to this activity (resolution as a process)

What this model offers, I think, is a more symmetrical systematisation of the transformative process(es) of narrative. The four key states can be understood entirely in terms of an entirely logical progression of transitions. Balance becomes discord (disharmoneous imbalance) through the process of disruption; that discord is simply the effect of some event upon the world. Discord becomes conflict (disharmoneous balance) through the process of recognition; that conflict is simply the follow-on effect of that disrupted world upon the protagonist. Conflict becomes harmony through the process of resolution; that harmony is simply the follow-on effect of that counteracting protagonist upon the world. It might seem that there's little difference between this model and Todorov's other than in the symmetry but, in rearticulating his model of stages in terms of states and, more importantly, processes of transition between states, we open up the possibility of viewing the narrative as dynamics rather than structure.

The thing is, another reason I'm not entirely satisfied by Todorov's model is that it seems to take little account of the sheer fuckedupness of most narratives, for the way they loop back into fractal structures of sub-narratives, nested cycles of occluded recognition, inadequate reaction and partial resolution. In very few (if any) narratives will we see a single act of disruption of the world, a single recognition on the protagonist's part, and a single reaction born of this leading straightforwardly to a single resolution. This last point seems most blindingly obvious. For the most part, the very stuff of narrative is, I'd say, those attempts to restore equilibrium that are unsuccessful -- achieving only a partial resolution and therefore necessitating a return to recognition, if not functioning as disruptions in their own right, increasing the complexity of the conflict. If there's one rule of how narrative treats disruption, I'd say, it's that it has to get worse before it can get better.

It's not unfair, I think, to look at most narratives in terms of broad stages like Todorov's: a stage where the effects of some action eventually percolate out into the world; a stage where the effects of those ramifications eventually become undeniable to the protagonist; and a stage where the protagonist responds to that disruption in a way that eventually produces a resolution. But eventually is the key word here and it's chosen for a reason. It's not just that it takes time for the processes to lead us from one stage to the next, but that these processes are manifest in and through events. And, taken as a model of narrative stages in the sense of acts, Todorov's model presents narratives only in the most abstract sense, each discrete narrative as one great unified event, the transformation of an old equilibrium to a new one. It's not unfair, I think, but it's a black-box view of narrative where we know how the box is in its steady state (equilibrium), we know what we put into it (disruption), we know that it takes this as data (recognition), we know that it processes it (reaction), and we know what comes out in the end (resolution), but we have little or no understanding of the intricacies of what's actually going on inside.

To me, then, for a model like Todorov's to be useful requires treating these stages as states and processes, expanding them to the revised model offered above, and using that as a framework, breaking the narrative down into the nested cycles that construct it. Rather than treating the model as a narrative architecture to be superimposed over a text, I think it offers us a notion of narrative dynamics that could be applied at a lower level, a way of viewing the narrative in terms of tensions. In the initial state of balance there is an absence of tension; discord is, essentially, the introduction of tension; conflict is the introduction of an oppositional tension; and harmony is that new balance formed perhaps by cancellation but just as possibly by the reconfiguration of those tensions into a state of concord. The key question, if we look at this as a matter of dynamics rather than structure is whether any state might serve as entry point to that narrative process.

To try and clarify what I mean, if we look at the serial form of narrative, the sort of episodic fiction we might find in TV like the old Japanese series Monkey, or early comics like Superman before the continuity of recurring villains and extended storylines takes root, or movie series like Friday the 13th, we can often see a good mapping to Todorov's model as an architecture for each episode. We have the equilibrium of the established set-up (Triptaka, Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy are on their way to India), a disruption (a demon disguised as a peasant sows dissent), recognition (Monkey sees through the demon's disguise), reaction (Monkey kicks the demon's ass), and resolution in a new equilibrium (Tripitaka, Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy are on their way to India but a little wiser). So far so good.

In much of this fiction, however, we might well question if there has been any real transformation as Todorov's model would have it, whether the new equilibrium is not, in fact, identical to the old one. If no real transformation has taken place, this challenges Todorov's model in one important aspect, suggesting that, to all intents and purposes, the initial and end equilibrium are not that relevant. In this view, we might even look at the equilibrium as no more than a framework within which the discrete narratives of each episode are situated, an implicit context. In much of this type of serial fiction, episodes can be viewed in any order. The traditional sit-com often seems to function this way, the resolution at the end equivalent to the pressing of a reset button.

That said, an increasingly emergent feature of TV serial fiction over the decades has been the story arc. Where Tripitaka, Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy never actually get to India, Buffy and Angel had whole storylines emerging through and between what Wheedon has referred to as the "monster of the week" episodes, those discrete narratives with their own Todorovian architecture of equilibrium, disruption, recognition, reaction and resolution. The important thing about this is that these seasonal story arcs are narratives in their own right, and if we are to apply Todorov's model to these as an architecture it requires that this architecture is scaleable, which it clearly is. And if we can scale it up, then we can scale it down. Turn it around. If the seasonal narrative is constructed across a series of episodically discrete narratives, each with their own architecture of tensional disruption, there is no reason not to view each discrete episode -- or the isolated narrative of any novel, story or movie -- as similarly constructed across a series of episodically discrete lower-level narratives.

In fact, the story arcs of TV serial fiction, written and rewritten on the hoof according to vague plans bodged by drunk-driving actors, studio interference, audience reactions, and all manner of other factors, sometimes even entirely unplanned (c.f. the inchoate mess that Alias became and the fear of many that Lost will go the same way, because -- the fear is -- the creators really have no idea where they are going) -- the way these story arcs are often emergent and unpredictable features of the process of making narrative -- might well point us to a process-oriented view in which the overarching structure, the architectural form, is best viewed as an interpretation. We can be certain of discord and the conflict born of it, but if narrative is in the journey, the end-point of resolution may be less than certain.

Which is to say that this model of narrative structure is, like plot as Delany describes it in ABOUT WRITING, something we project upon the narrative rather than an underlying skeleton upon which the narrative is developed. In reality every narrative is a sequence of sentences with meanings that construct across them the illusion of episodes which, in turn, construct across them the illusion of an arc.

Or not.

Part of the reason I've been thinking about Todorov's equilibrium model of narrative at all is that back before Christmas the Boy Kitten came back from university fuming over a run-in with a tutor who insisted that all narratives could be understood in terms of Todorov's model. From the sounds of it the tutor was not just taking an architectural view of the model -- as five stages that the narrative progresses through, one after the other after the other -- but an essentialist view -- in which this is "how narrative works", not just conventionally but always. One might allow for failure, broken narratives that end with inadequate resolution (as much as I love the books of Jonathon Carroll, for example, I often stumble at the ending like the final step that I expected just... well... isn't there), but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. The Boy Kitten, being an opinionated bastard like myself, took issue with this only to be told basically to shut the fuck up.

As someone who's rather fond of non-conventional narratives, I can't help but question that essentialist view. To me narrative is in the process. Yes, the process can be understood in terms of the states and processes described above, and more often than not those are put together, one after the other after the other, to form the conventional patterns of episode or arc -- beginning with a state of balance, a subsequent disruption of that state creating discord, an eventual recognition of that discord leading to conflict, the protagonist's reaction in that context leading finally to resolution. And more often than not that pattern is so obvious that the breach of it reads as a deficit. But even allowing for the "two steps forward, one step back" (or even "one step forward, two steps back") complexity that narratives acquire with the admission of occluded recognition, inadequate reaction and partial resolution, there are plenty of narratives, I think, that don't fit that Todorovian pattern in a more basic way, and by design rather than accident.

There are cyclic narratives, for example, like Joyce's FINNEGANS WAKE or Delany's DALGHREN, where the narrative begins in a state of disruption. Even at the sentence-level we begin wth the equilibrium broken, the opening lines in each work a mere fragment, completed by the unfinished lines at the very end as the narrative loops back in upon itself. There is resolution here, in the closing of the circle, the completion of the text as an object, but the state we are brought back to is a state of disruption, disequilibrium, discord -- the turmoil of night dreams in Joyce's narrative, the chaos of the apocalyptic city in Delany's. In these texts, in these closed cycles of disruption, equilibrium is entirely outside the narrative. It may be hinted at, as the diurnal reality of Dublin is hinted at by Joyce, or implicit in the discords and conflicts, as the world outside Bellona is implicit in the status of Delany's protagonist (who is, the cyclic narrative tells us, always and forever a new arrival from it), but it is not manifest within the text. In place of resolution as the establishment of a new equilibrium we are asked to accept resolution simply as the concretion of the narrative itself, the establishment of a state of (eternal) conflict. We accept this (or some of us do, according to our tastes) because in abstract formal terms that state is nonetheless balanced; it is simply the disharmoneous balance of conflict. (Compare Delany's own description of DALGHREN as designed to work like a Necker Cube, a line drawing that continually flips perspective as we look at it, readable as a cube seen from above or below.) The base condition of the world, these narratives are telling us, is dynamic rather than static, balance-over-time rather than balance as a state in and of itself; but in that back-and-forth see-saw of opposing tensions there is still an order, and therefore a beauty to be found.

And there are other types of narrative that challenge the Todorovian model yet further. Years ago, following through a reference in an afterword to one of Delany's Neverýon books, I discovered the short stories of Guy Davenport, many of which struck me as, to be honest, almost inscrutable in their construction (Delany himself decribed them in this way, so I couldn't help but be intrigued). Some shorter pieces take such an historical or biographical approach to their subjects that they read like fictionalised essays, literary snapshots of person and place; and they are fascinating for that reason. But it's in longer works such as "On Some Lines of Virgil" where Davenport, for me, demonstrates his genius. The elegance and erudtion of the writing itself is compelling. The Fourieresque idylls that he creates as backdrops are seductive even at their most... questionable (I'm alternately charmed by and suspicious of his (homo)eroticised borderlands of adolesecence and youth, dubious as to how much is an honest representation of desire and how much an idealising excuse for desire). But what really captivates me in his most characteristic stories, is that the narrative, despite its drive, often seems to defy the obvious structurings of arc or cycle.

In trying to figure out just what the fuck these stories were doing and why, against all my understanding of how narrative worked, I found them so compelling, I came across the term "pataphysical". I'm still not sure I can define it to my own satisfaction, never mind to that of others, but maybe I can give a sense of what it (partly) means to me. If plot is a high-level structure that we project upon the narrative, isn't it possible to remove that entirely, or at least to move our focus from the grand scale of the text as a whole to the smaller scale of the scenes that comprise it? For me, this is what the pataphysical narrative offers. Like a sequence of episodes on some TV series that refuses to coalesce into an (obvious) arc, the pataphysical narrative of "On Some Lines of Virgil" does not move through the stages of a Todorovian narrative model sequentially. Rather it expands on the approach of the cyclic narrative where the reader must construct a sense of equilibrium from the allusions to it scattered throughout. In the pataphysical narrative, we find discords, conflicts and harmonies (recognitions, reactions and resolutions) likewise scattered throughout, manifested as allusions. As a representation of the world, of life, the pataphysical narrative tells us that there are no arcs, no stories other than those we construct from the hints and suggestions of a greater coherence.

As in the cyclic narrative, in this narrative we might well call cubist resolution lies in the concretion of the narrative itself as an abstract and formal pattern, a dynamic balance of conflicts. But more: in the pataphysical narrative there is no concreted moment of resolution in the ending-as-return-to-beginning (because any moment may be both beginning and ending, equilibrious and resolutionary); and in accepting the duality of conflict as a form of balance, the pataphysical narrative ultimately accepts even the deeper abstract and formal symmetry of harmony and discord as yet another type of balance. If the conventional narrative is an arc and the cyclic narrative a circle, the cubist narrative is a polygon with every moment a facet, the narrative to be understand from an atemporal perspective, as a whole -- as if, in stepping back from a cubist painting we suddenly see it resolve into the representation that it is.

To many this type of narrative, its linearity often fractured, will read as no more than the chaos born of an inability to craft a plot, to tell a story as it should be told, starting with a beginning, going on through the middle, and finishing at the end; to those unable or unwilling to step back and let the resolution take place in their own imagination the writer has simply failed. In all fairness, it's entirely possible that the writer has failed. Where each narrative unit has to function in its own right as an act of narrative -- a discrete event containing enough disruption, recognition, reaction and resolution to sustain interest -- but also as one part of a greater whole unclear until the narrative is completed and the shape of it concreted in the reader's imagination, there is a point of failure in every unit (where it may lose the reader's interest), a point of failure in every act of positioning (where the juxtapositions simply don't work), and an ultimate point of failure in the abstract form as a whole (where it all just doesn't add up). The bastard of it is, of course, from a writer's point of view, you can seldom tell whether a critic who saw only chaos has simply failed themself to take that step back or whether -- the worst case scenario -- they did take that step back but saw some very real failure(s) that you missed. This kinda sucks.

Still, there's a part of me that finds that sort of story not just more interesting because of the complexity but somehow... truer, more honest. Life has its arcs and its episodes, no doubt, but I'm wary of the grand narratives we project upon the world and the roles we write ourselves into within them. In the cubist narrative, every scene is a story in its own right, rich with tension, rich with meaning, an act of transformation, change as exchange. And it seems to me that if the cyclic narrative presents the base condition of the world as dynamic rather than static, the cubist narrative offers a view in which there is no base condition, figure and ground folded into, around and through one another.

Ultimately then, I'm most interested in the potential of Todorov's model as a springboard into the processes; and given the time and energy I'd be tempted to relate all this to the strange and to the sort of tensions of subjunctivities I've been exploring in the post on narrative grammars. But I'll leave that for a later date and let it rest at this for now. There's more musing to be done.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Support Your Local Experimentalists

Just a quick note to get the word out about the Farrago's Wainscot Fund Drive.
'Tis a worthy cause and, hey, the more you donate the more worthy they can be.

So, yeah, nuff said.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Narrative Grammars

1. An Interesting Comment

On an earlier post on genre, Once More Into the Fray, Jakob Schmidt posted an interesting comment that I thought I'd deal with up here, since I didn't have time to respond to it on the actual entry, what with Christmas and all:

To be honest, I'm not too convinced by your set-subset model of fantasy and sf ...

If I'm understanding it right, your argument at this point rests upon the notion that

a) sf and fantasy narratives have certain "elements" (dragons, ftl, huge hairy monsters)

b) These notions can either be rationalized with regards to our contemporary paradigm of the world (sf) or not (fantasy, which would make it the more general set).

But I'm not sure if the distinction between the elements and their rationalisation holds, or, put differently: why don't we regard rationalization itself as an element, alongside dragons, ftl and huge, hairy monsters?

If we would do so, however, a distinction based upon the presence or absence of this one particular element would seem even more arbitrary. But that might turn out as a win rather than a loss, because we would be forced to look more closely at the narrative structure of fantasy and sf stories instead of the elements they feature (for example how a certain type of fantasy narrative is typically about the return of the "old" order of things, how certain types of sf are about establishing a "new" order, how certain types of horror are about realizing how fucked up things are in the first place). The question, after all, is not if something essentially IS sf or fantasy (or both at once), but why certain narratives strike us as fantasy and others as sf - and why this perception may vary from reader to reader. This may be less due to the presence of certain elements and more about the question of how a narrative is structure (and how "competent" we are individually in detecting and recognising certain structures).

What I'm getting at is actually John Clute's model of narrative grammars of the fantastic genres, which is less interested in making clear distinctions between them, and more in how narrative grammars of different types of the fantastic are structurally similar - and still very distinct in certain regards. He recently gave a very short summary of this model:

I'd recommend taking the time to follow the link through and give Clute's essay a read. Go on. It'll only take a few minutes.


OK. So...

2. Fantasy as a Subset of Fantastika

Really, my earlier post is not so much an attempt to distinguish genres as it is an attempt to analyse the distinctions already at play, to unpack the politics of the argument(s). My own take on it is that the set-subset model of Fantasy and SF is just one model, that it's in conflict with the alternative subset+subset model in which SF and Fantasy are both contained within a larger superset. I may not have been clear enough in expressing my own belief both models are flawed. Truth is, I think the whole debate is fucked up beyond all reason, degenerated into endless disputes over semantic boundaries because the basic terms are overloaded. We end up talking at cross-purposes when we use these terms; some will mean the marketing category, some will mean works of a specific formula associated with that category, some will mean works of a particular aesthetic form they consider characteristic of that category, some will mean works of a multitude of aesthetic forms that are all published in that category, and some will mean the sum of all works in all those varied aesthetic forms, whatever category they were published in.

Clute acknowledges that the terms SF, Fantasy and Horror are problematic, but in accepting that we're stuck with them I think he fails to deal with this problem. In taking the subset+subset model as a given, treating SF, Fantasy and Horror as subtypes of the larger set of fictions he refers to as "fantastika", he presents his narrative grammars as the additional A, B and C which distinguish these genres from each other. But this approach, directly linking each label to a particular aesthetic form, is at odds with many who would use the terms as signifiers of a loose aggregation of works in multiple aesthetic forms, or who would see the underlying aesthetic form as something much less rigidly circumscribed in terms of narrative.

Essentially, in fact, the way he describes fantastika is indistinguishable from the way proponents of the set-subset model would describe fantasy -- as "fictional works whose contents are understood to be fantastic" -- with the word fantasy referring simply to work which utilises that literary technique. The problem of overload is pressing enough that there's a tendency to use capitalisation to distinguish Fantasy as a market-defined genre (upper case) from fantasy as a literary mode (lower case), but for many that's enough. As far as they are concerned Clute is simply relabelling the literary mode they would happily call fantasy, and it's hard to see much value in choosing his coinage over the more straightforward term given that it comes from the same root, carries the same denotative and connotative baggage and is distinguished only by the elevated register that it garners from the exotic ending -- fantastika rather than fantastic. How does that make it any more apt as a label when it comes to "fictional works whose contents are understood to be fantastic"? Why should we not refer to these works characterised by their fantastic content as works of fantasy written by fantasists, if the alternative on offer is simply a rather rarified way of saying the exact same thing?

But from that perspective, in which fantasy is simply those "fictional works whose contents are understood to be fantastic", there's a deeper problem with Clute's approach to "fantastika" and "Fantasy". Regardless of the fact that his model is grounded in narrative grammars rather than tropes, Clute describes Fantasy entirely in terms of a particular aesthetic form characterised by all those tired cliches of heritage ("the old ways"), noble blood ("the hero... the king"), the pre-industrial pastoral ("the harvest... the Land"), and military spectacularism ("battle after battle"). In Clute's model Fantasy signifies what others would say is very specific subgenre variously referred to as Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy or Heroic Fantasy.

His narrative grammar holds a lot of interest for me as a critical approach. And there's no question that this type of Heroic Fantasy is commonly perceived to be characteristic of the genre. But if we question the validity of that common perception we also have to question the validity of using the term Fantasy in that context, just as someone widely read in the field of SF would question a view of SF that characterised it purely in terms of Space Opera.

This is the core of the problem for me: when you have so much of what Clute calls fantastika published, referred to and thought of as fantasy, when the dealer's room at the World Fantasy Convention has way more of that sort of fantastika than it has Heroic Fantasy, when the fantastika actually seems more representative of the field (or at least its cutting edge) than the works which fit Clute's narrative grammar, when the fantastika features so prominently in nominations for the World Fantasy Awards (c.f. the 2006 awards where the shortlist included Ellis's LUNAR PARK, Murakami's KAFKA ON THE SHORE and Joyce's THE LIMITS OF ENCHANTMENT) -- then Clute's approach becomes, for me, as problematic in its exclusion of that type of work as a notion of SF that excluded everything that wasn't stereotypical Sci-Fi.

A large part of the issue here is political. It's all too common to see this deeply narrowed (one might even say blinkered) view of Fantasy accepted implicitly, especially on the SF side of the debate, common enough that I'm sure Clute's conflation of Fantasy with Heroic Fantasy would go unchallenged by many people, his narrative grammar of Fantasy seeming broadly valid. But there's a whole host of writers and readers for whom the term fantasy has sod all to do with heritage, noble blood, the pre-industrial pastoral and military spectacularism, for whom Fantasy is a much broader field basically equivalent to Clute's fantastika, and for whom that preconception of Fantasy as Heroic is a stereotype to be taken apart. For them the set-subset model is a stance against that stereotype of Fantasy, and against the attendant recategorisation of any Fantasy that doesn't fit the stereotype.

If anyone should get this, of course, it's the SF community. The application of a stereotype to a genre and the subsequent relabelling of every work that doesn't fit that stereotype as not really part of the genre? Where have we heard that one before? Cause, yeah, Science Fiction is all about the robots and the aliens and the spaceships, right? That's what Sci-Fi is -- sorry, Science Fiction, whatever. What's that you say? NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, you say? Well, you can't really call that Science Fiction. It's just fiction.

So, yeah, that's where the idea of Fantasy as a subset of fantastika is going to be a problem for some.

3. The Fantastic and the Strange

Still, as much as I find that stereotyping infuriating, as much as I think it's hypocritical, disingenuous and (perhaps wilfully) ignorant of the range of approaches within Fantasy, I don't blame people for buying into that stereotype. No more than I blame those who have the exact same attitude to SF. If you want to go back in time, create a pulp genre called War Fiction which is dominated by generic, formulaic dross, and then sell CATCH-22 alongside Commando comics and novelisations of The Sands of Iwo Jima (maybe even in a specialised shop that carries Action Man figures and toy soldiers too!), you can't expect people who aren't fans to have the remotest inkling that "War Fiction" is anything more than the stereotype they're familiar with. Especially when generations of writers, readers and critics have spent decades arguing over whether or not CATCH-22 actually counts as "War Fiction" given its lack of military plausibility.

This is the real crux of it, that the confusion inherent in our current critical vocabulary -- in which one man's fantastika is another man's fantasy, and one man's fantasy is another man's Fantasy, and one man's Fantasy is another man's Heroic Fantasy -- just leads us into a tiresome fuckload of genre slapfests born of incompatible terminologies. This is why I'd rather torch the whole shithouse of rotted names and start from first principles, ditching the overloaded label of Fantasy completely, and using the term strange fiction instead, to refer to that broad set of "fictional works whose contents are understood to be strange".

Of course, you could query this on the same level I've queried Clute's fantastika. Why should we not refer to these works characterised by their fantastic content as works of fantasy written by fantasists, if the alternative on offer is simply another way of saying the exact same thing? Well, the apparent inability of anyone who doesn't consider themselves a fantasy writer or reader to get to grips with the notion that fantasy does not necessarily equate to magic and elves and dragons and shit is one purely pragmatic reason. Hell, the fact that even the genre's most respected critic applies the term "Fantasy" to a narrative grammar defined entirely in terms of the Heroic has to be some sort of indication that the word is not going to lose those associations any time soon.

More importantly though, I'd argue that "strange" offers a distance from those associated meanings that are introduced whenever we talk of the content of Fantasy, SF and Horror at a genre-specific level. When we talk of the "novum" or the "uncanny" it may be more obvious than when we talk of the "fantastic" but all three terms carry their own set of associations -- desire, dread, wonder, hope, novelty, practicality, impracticality. Maybe the real problem with the wider use of the term "fantasy" is that for many it is simply indelibly coupled with a sense of desire, of yearning, with compensatory daydreams and wistful reveries. In that context I think the logical end result is the exact deadlock of conflicting definitions we find in the SF/Fantasy debate.

I'm less concerned with fighting a side in that debate than I am with breaking the deadlock by identifying the exact point(s) of contention, so for me, the term "strange" offers the neutrality of a fresh slate. It nixes these associations. It carries no further proposition, explicit or implicit, about the nature of the unusual / abnormal / anti-mimetic "contents" by which we can characterise this type of work . Or rather, to be more accurate, it carries no implications as to how we respond to these contents. It simply says that they breach our expectations that the narrative will function as a representation of a pseudo-reality modelled on our own.

4. Shifts in Subjunctivity

While I talk about fantastic elements and rationalisation in that earlier post, these are parts of the inherited terminology of the SF / Fantasy debate that I've tried to get away from elsewhere. Even Clute is defining his fantastika in terms of "contents" that are "understood to be fantastic". But as much as I do think that the conceit plays a hugely important role in strange fiction, I'm more interested in how these are constructed out of breaches of expectation than in treating them as tropes (dragons, FTL, etc.), as "ingredients" that suddenly transform the genre of a narrative just by being dropped into it. Or, for that matter, that suddenly transform the genre of the narrative again if we only add another "ingredient" of rationalisation. Essentially, I'd reverse the polarity, treat those "fantastic elements" as the end results of a literary technique of estrangement, the effects of strangeness rather than the cause. Where I talk of fantastic elements, I don't mean genre tropes -- dragons, spaceships, magic, FTL -- as things which, in and of themselves, make fiction strange. Rather I see those as the epiphenomena of an underlying process where the sentences of a fictive text function as propositions with subjunctivities.

This is riffing off Delany's essay on genre, "About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words", where he defines genre in terms of subjunctivity:

Suppose a series of words is presented to us as a piece of reportage. A blanket indicative tension informs the whole series: this happened. That is the particular level of subjunctivity at which journalism takes place.

Delany contrasts the representation of actualities, events that "have happened", the level of subjunctivity we find in reportage, with the representation of possibilities, events that "could have happened", the level of subjunctivity we find in naturalistic fiction. He goes on to characterise Fantasy as the representation of impossibilities, events that "could not have happened", and speculative fiction as the representation of non-actualities, events that "have not happened", even going so far as to suggest in a note that naturalistic fiction can be seen as a subset of speculative fiction.; after all, the set of events that "have not happened" includes not just the set of events that "have not happened yet" (the hypotheticals of SF) but also the set of events that "have not happened but could have" (the counterfactuals of Alternative History), which is basically another perspective on the level of subjunctivity we find in naturalistic fiction where events "could have happened (but did not)".

I think it's a bit more complicated than that. The way I see it, all fiction performs acts of mimesis, each sentence presenting itself as an act of representation of an ersatz actuality. We know that the representation is an artifice, that the events described "have not happened", but for the sake of the narrative we suspend our disbelief. We read the sentence and play a game, pretending to ourselves that the narrator is not in fact breaching Grice's Maxim of Quality ("Do not say that which you believe to be false or that for which you lack evidence"). Unless the writer starts dropping hints that the narrator is unreliable, we take the text on face value, as a representation of events that could have happened. As long as these events are not impossible in a logical or nomological sense, as long as there's no inherent self-contradiction, no contradiction of the laws of nature as we understand them, these events are viewed as temporal possibilities. They contradict the actual history of the world, but that actuality is considered contingent. The events could have happened elsewhen.

All fiction constructs such an elsewhen in our imagination. Where fiction is seen as naturalistic, realistic, it is because that elsewhen is so closely modelled on the world we live in that most of the events described could have happened. All strange fiction contains naturalism in that sense, the mimesis of sentences that function on this level of subjunctivity. What makes it strange is that it also involves a shift of subjunctivity from "could have happened" to "could not have happened", wherever the narrative performs a sentence that cannot be read as simply mimetic. In some sense -- logical or nomological -- these events are just not possible. They contradict the very nature of the world as we understand it.

While Delany views each genre as having its own essential level of subjunctivity however, I think our suspension of disbelief requires that the sense of "could have happened" persists through the reading experience, reinforced by the mimesis even as it's disrupted by sentences with a subjunctivity level of "could not have happened". In this theory, all strange fiction involves a tension of subjunctivities, our suspension of disbelief at odds with our sense of incredulity, generating a pervasive estrangement, a cognitive dissonance.

Where genre comes in is largely a matter of what type of impossibility we ascribe to those events that "could not have happened". In the "literary" camps of both SF and Fantasy, and in allied territories like slipstream and postmodernism, where experimentalist approaches are par for the course, we may well see logical impossibilities, outright self-contradictions, but for the most part the impossibilities we're dealing with are nomological. The event shown contradicts what we think of as "how the world works", the set of contingent truths -- laws, principles and actualities -- that limit our physical and technical capabilities.

This is where, I suspect, many would seek to make a distinction between Fantasy and SF, arguing that the former allows physical impossibilities -- events that "could never happen" -- while the latter rules these out, allowing only technical impossibilities -- events that "could still happen", because although we currently lack the technical capacity this may not always be the case. We can't travel between the stars, talk with aliens or build sentient robots, but only because we lack the technology to do so at the moment. These are only impossibilities in terms of how the world works now.

My argument in the previous post (and elsewhere) is that this view is disingenuous, that only "Hard SF" is anywhere near so restrictive, that SF in general is happy to use physical impossibilities like FTL or jaunting, and that the Paradigm Shift Caveat (the idea that our understanding of "how the world works" may change radically) is essentially an act of wishful thinking that seeks to disguise such physical impossibilities as merely technical impossibilities. In fact, if we analyse the elsewhens of strange fiction as temporal displacements -- forward into the future, sideways into parallel worlds, or away into the secondary worlds orthogonal to both dimensions -- and the way these displacements manifest as hypothetical, counterfactual or metaphysical conceits, any honest appraisal of SF ultimately has to, I'd argue, admit of the presence of all three dimensions of strangeness.

Ultimately, I have no problem with the idea that SF requires a greater degree of plausibility than other forms of strange fiction, but I think it's important to distinguish the subjective perception of greater possibility from the objective reality of greater possibility. That subjective sense within the reading experience can be achieved by various mechanisms in the writing, only one of which is to limit the strangeness to technical impossibilities.

Disguising a physical impossibility as a technical impossibility, masking a metaphysical conceit (like FTL or jaunting) as hypothetical, by simply presenting it as a future reality, may be effective in its own right, given the general applicability of the Paradigm Shift Caveat (hence Bester gives us jaunting in the future rather than the present). We can literalise the "paradigm shift" by presenting the conceit as a product of an entirely alien culture (hence the prevalence of extinct ancient races leaving behind technology advanced beyond our understanding). If others have used the conceit before us then the conventionality it accrues also makes it easier to swallow, situating it in its own ersatz nomology (hence the acceptance of FTL as a tradition of how the world works within genre SF, and hence the growing popularity of tropes like wormholes, stargates and jump-points as a more recent tradition). We can create a greater sense of the conceit having reasonable foundations through the act of world-building, burying the metaphysical impossibility among hypotheticals (hence Bester puts jaunting in the context of spaceships and asteroid mining, and hence the common adage in SF that the writer is allowed "one impossible idea"). Working a little scientific or pseudo-scientific explication into that world-building doesn't hurt (so Bester and a myriad of other writers present a magical power like ESP and jaunting as a future-historical development, a "next stage in human evolution").

None of these techniques make the physical impossibilities any more rational as actual speculations -- which is why proponents of Hard SF scorn them -- but they do facilitate the rationalisation of these impossibilities. They offer the get-out clauses, cyclic arguments and cover stories by which we construct and sustain an artificial sense of contingency, of a potential alternative nomology. They persuade us into a further shift in subjunctivity, from "could not have happened" to "could have happened if..." where what follows that "if" may amount to a wholesale revision of how the world works validated more by self-delusion than speculation. So the strange becomes the novum of SF, with this conflict of subjunctivities creating a more palpable type of cognitive dissonance between the nomology in which the events presented "could not have happened" and the nomology in which they "could have happened". Where I talk of rationalisation as if it were another element, it's this process I'm really referring to, an act that takes place as much in the reading as in the writing.

The disparities between how far different readers are ready to rationalise the impossible, the differing effectiveness of different mechanisms for different readers, the multiple points of contention over where and how the nomological revisions become so wild as to be "just plain silly", where and how the sense of plausibility collapses -- these go a long way, I think, to explaining the disagreements between readers as to what does and what doesn't constitute an SF narrative.

5. Boulomaic Modality

Where it all becomes more complicated is in the way, I'd argue, additional subjunctivities may be introduced into the narrative and used to generate a sense of modality that shades the subjunctivity. In so far as subjunctivity is to do with levels of possibility, this may be stretching the meaning of the term, but in so far as our notion of nomological possibility, of "how the world works", is experienced as a sense of natural order, bound to and coloured by our aesthetics and ethics, of "how the world should work", I think it's worth our while to extend the term to boulomaic as well as epistemic modalities. If the events portrayed in strange fiction "could have happened" or "could not have happened" according to our sense of nomological possibility, then there is also a degree to which, according to our sense of aesthetic and ethical necessity these events "should have happened" or "should not have happened". I don't think it's hard to see how a reader's reaction to the strange may add exactly this sort of boulomaic modality, particularly with Horror, where the strange becomes the uncanny, where the transgression is as much moral as nomological, where the events not only "could not have happened" but "should not have happened"

This is where, I think, Clute's narrative grammars come into play and fit, for the most part, with this idea of strange fiction as produced by shifting subjunctivities and the tensions between them. So I'll start with the Stage One(s) that Clute identifies for Fantasy, SF and Horror:

1) Wrongness. Some small desiccating hint that the world has lost its wholeness.

1) Novum. Darko Suvin’s term for that aspect of the SF world which differs measurably from our given world.

1) Sighting. Some small sour lesion in the world is suddenly visible, even in daylight.

To my mind, Clute's Stage Ones for Horror and SF make a lot of sense, but even if we come to terms with the narrowing of scope as regards Fantasy, accepting Clute's narrative grammar as referring specifically to Heroic Fantasy (and to belabour my point about this type of Heroic Fantasy not being the full story, we only have to look at a work like GORMENGHAST to find a "Fantasy" narrative at odds with this), his identification of "wrongness" as the Stage One is, I think, mistaken. Rather I think it's the "wholeness" we should be focusing on, the sense of enchantment that comes from the extent to which the secondary worlds of Heroic Fantasy embody our desires and daydreams, our nostalgia for the simplicities of childhood and the past as they are reconstructed in our idealising imaginations. All of the features by which we're identifying this type of fantasy and by which many examples of this fiction are judged (by writers like Moorcock in his WIZARDRY AND WILD ROMANCE, for example) to be infantilist and reactionary -- heritage, noble blood, the pre-industrial pastoral, and heroic spectacularism -- fit neatly, I think, with an idea that the strange is used initially to construct a sense of the idyllic, a sense of "rightness" rather than "wrongness". What we're talking about is the introduction of a "should have happened" subjunctivity..

There's an interesting point here, I think. Where the strange kicks off the narratives of Horror (in the shape of the uncanny) and SF (in the shape of the novum) by establishing a tension, with Heroic Fantasy it simply sets the scene. To get to the "wrongness" which Clute takes as his starting point for Heroic Fantasy, you have to introduce something else that disrupts the base level strangeness of the idyll. In the grand-daddy of this type of fiction, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, it's another level of strangeness that disrupts the bucolic idyll of the Shire in particular and Middle Earth in general -- in the shape of Sauron, the Ringwraiths, the Nazguls, the whole host of Mordor, and the ring itself, of course. I don't think it's unfair to look at Heroic Fantasy in general as utilising the strange in the same manner as Tolkien, disrupting the idyll by introducing supernatural evil, "unnatural forces". What Clute calls "small dessicating hints that the world has lost its wholeness" might well be seen in the exact same terms he applies to Horror, as "small sour lesions on the world."

Where hobbits, dwarves and elves impart a subjunctivity level of "should have happened" in our yearning for the fabulous then, from the first grave warning of Gandalf through to the destruction of the ring the reader is constantly encountering the subjunctivity level of Horror, faced with the demonic events of past and present, that which "should not have happened", and the dreadful events of the future to be averted, that which "must not happen". In both modes of fiction the uncanny already is happening in one sense -- this is why we have these small dessicating hints of wrongness, these small sour lesions on the world -- that which must not happen has already begun. But it has also "not happened yet", not wholly, and so the possibility of prevention kick-starts the narrative.

(A quick note: It's tempting to suggest, when we look at THE LORD OF THE RINGS in particular, that some of these "small dessicating hints" or "small sour lesions" are open to a reading as a sort of novum -- or perhaps anti-novum would be a better term -- that in these worlds of Heroic Fantasy backdated to the agricultural era, the strangeness that the hero must face is to some extent the strangeness of modernity -- i.e. that Heroic Fantasy manifests the futureshock of the reactionary in the face of the novum we are confronted with in present reality, albeit rearticulated in the vernacular of the mediaeval peasant, as the dark mechanics of black magic. It doesn't seem too much of a stretch when you watch Peter Jackson's take on the trilogy with Saruman's transformation of his realm into an almost Blakean "dark satanic mill". But this is kind of off-topic, food for thought more than anything else. Anyway...)

If we find the uncanny as narrative trigger in Heroic Fantasy it is important to note that we may also find the idyllic as background in Horror. Given the degree to which Gothic Romanticism underpins much of the work published as Horror, we should not assume that the world in which the Horror narrative is triggered by the manifestation of "small sour lesions" will necessarily be modelled on normative reality. Rather we may discern Horror narratives in which the strange (initially) embodies our desires and daydreams as much as it does in Heroic Fantasy. In the fiction of Anne Rice or Poppy Z. Brite, for example, the foundation is not our given reality but rather the dark idyll of the vampire's night-world. If Heroic Fantasy can be critiqued as infantilist in its preoccupations, this type of Horror might well be critiqued as adolescent. Embodying perverse idealisations of sex and power as acts of transgression, it is the libertine's idyll, the fetishist's idyll, the decadent idyll of the teenage rebel at odds with moral authority but defined entirely in terms of that antagonism; but it is nevertheless an idyll. The impossibilities it presents as realities are just as much articulations of desire. We can clearly discern a subjunctivity level of "should have happened" at work here.

If we are seeking the key differences between Heroic Fantasy and Horror, then, in terms of the narrative grammars that structure them (viewing narrative as static composition), or in terms of the narrative logic that drives them (viewing narrative as dynamic process), I am not sure Clute's Stage One offers a clear distinction. Fundamentally, the hero in each is cast by Fate into the role of combat with unnatural forces that the narrative will gradually reveal as being behind all those "small dessicating hints" / "small sour lesions". In such a situation, in both Heroic Fantasy and Horror, the hero is faced with the challenge of that which "must not happen", but backed up by the fact that it "has not happened yet". It may be better to look at how that combat plays out as where the distinction between the two genres is born.

6. Epistemic Necessity

As that combat begins, even at the very start, the narrative may provide an optimistic or pessimistic representation of how those larger forces relate to the world, whether they embody an unacceptable lie (Heroic Fantasy) or an unacceptable truth (Horror). Through negations or validations of the authority of the uncanny (presenting it as alien and fundamentally illegitimate or alienated and fundamentally legitimate), combined with representations of the activity or passivity of the hero (presenting the hero as empowered or disempowered), a sense of epistemic necessity may be instilled in the reader, a sense that the outcome is inevitable, whether it involves the hero as victim, as in the case of Horror, or as victor, as in the case of Heroic Fantasy. In essence, when it comes to those events that "must not happen" but "have not happened yet", the Horror narrative is ascribing a subjunctivity level of "will happen" while Heroic Fantasy is ascribing a subjunctivity level of "will not happen".

We can look at these narrative grammars as narrative logics, generated from conflicts of subjunctivities, and involving the interplay of boulomaic modality and epistemic necessity. If we do so, I think Clute's Stage Two offers an intriguing parallel:

2) Thinning. The diminution of the old ways; amnesia of the hero and of the king; the harvest fails, the Land dries up; diversion of story into useless noise; battle after battle.

2) Cognitive Estrangement. Suvin’s term — modified from Vikor Shklovsky and Bertolt Brecht — for arguable and therefore structured defamiliarization of the world, which derives in part from the fact of Novum, and which allows the defectiveness of the ruling paradigm to be seen whole.

2) Thickening. The protagonist is mired deeper and deeper in the falseness of the world. The plot literally thickens around him. Fatally, he may think he understands himself, but in fact every move he makes deepens his amnesia, which coils through Thickening like fog; intensifies his resistance, his golem-like rigidity at the threat of change. It is a Gnostic phase: the truth is occluded, which allows us to lie to ourselves constantly.

In these stages, what Clute calls "thinning" and "thickening" is, I would argue, the manifestation of tensions designed to counteract the sense of epistemic necessity that the narrative logic imposes upon the outcome. Narrative requires at least an illusion of unpredictability, so that same narrative logic requires that we persuade the hero (and the reader) that the outcome might be exactly the opposite of that which, we are becoming increasingly certain, is inevitable. The more obvious it is from the start how the story will end, and the more obvious it becomes as the narrative progresses, the more the narrative must provide an insistent counter-argument in order to sustain our interest by sustaining the tension between that counter-argument and the epistemic necessity of the outcome, the more it must manifest a denial of the resolution that is coming.

So, where the authority of the uncanny is validated in Horror we have a pessimistic view in which, ultimately, the world itself is against the hero. The unacceptable truth is an intrinsic part of the underlying structure of the universe. Fate itself as part, of that Natural Order, is against the hero. So both hero and world must be strengthened by their conflict with each other, in order to raise the stakes with heightened drama in each encounter. The hero must become more entrenched, more defiant, even as the forces of the unacceptable truth are proven more and more authoritative in each encounter. So we have Clute's "thickening", the world mirroring the protagonist's increasing resistance.

And so, where the authority of the uncanny is negated in Heroic Fantasy we have an optimistic view in which, ultimately, the world itself is on the hero's side. The unacceptable lie is an extrinsic imposition upon the underlying structure of the universe. Fate itself, as part of the Natural Order, is on the hero's side. So both hero and world must be weakened by their conflict with the other, in order to raise the stakes by increasing their peril. The hero must be brought closer and closer to the very edge of defeat, the forces of the unacceptable lie made to seem more and more authoritative in each encounter. So we have Clute's "thinning", the world mirroring the protagonist's deteriorating resistance.

In both cases we can see these, I think, as logical responses to the epistemic necessity developing within the narrative, understanding Clute's grammars as emergent features of the dynamics of subjunctivities rather than as structural frameworks of plot / theme. From the dialectics of boulomaic modalities and epistemic necessities and of epistemic necessities and their counter-arguments, what we get is two potential paths of development through which we interpret a narrative as this genre or that rather than a narrative that essentially is this genre or that and that therefore simply has the basic architecture of that genre.

7. Restoration and Revelation

Following these narrative logics through to their resolutions, the outcomes for Heroic Fantasy and Horror in this model also map quite well to those in Clute's narrative grammar:

3) Recognition. The key in the gate; the escape from prison; amnesia dissipates like mist, the hero remembers his true name, the Fisher King walks, the Land greens. The locus classicus of Recognition is Leontes’s cry at the end of The Winter’s Tale (1610) on seeing Hermione reborn: “O she’s warm.”

3) Conceptual Breakthrough. Peter Nicholls’s term, from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979), for the thrust of release when a defective paradigm collapses and the new world — the true world — is revealed. A sense of wonder is often felt, sometimes in spaceships.

3) Revel. The story saves us. The rind of the world is peeled off, we see our true face in the mirror, carnival rules, what we see is what we get, the high are made low: where we belong. There is an almost infernal glee in learning the simple dreadful monistic clarity of the truth. Compared to the foggy parsimonious Marlow, Kurtz is pure glee.

Where Clute talks of "recognition" and "revel", I think "restoration" and "revelation" would be more apt, but otherwise his characterisations of the resolution stages of Heroic Fantasy and Horror fit quite nicely with a view in which these outcomes are understood as the authentication of epistemic necessity.

The end-point of Heroic Fantasy, driven as it is by the "should have happened" subjunctivity, is to restore us to the serenity of idyll, to make everything right again in the world, as it was in childhood, as it was in the past, with the land enchanted, the rightful king on his throne, and so on. So Clute describes this stage in terms of restored freedom ("the key in the gate"), restored memory ("amnesia dissipates"), restored identity ("his true name"), restored health ("the Fisher King walks") and restored world ("the Land greens"). Since the epistemic necessity being authenticated here is, to all intents and purposes, the victory of the "should have happened" boulomaic modality around which the world is initially constructed, it is only logical that it should be articulated in the symbolism of restoration, of return to the idyll.

The end-point of Horror, driven as it is by the "should not have happened" subjunctivity, is to reveal to us the authority of the uncanny, to strip away this illusion of control, the lies of reason, the lies of sanity, to force upon us the unacceptable truth of our own damnation. So Clute describes this stage in terms of discarded illusion ("the rind of the world is peeled off") and revealed truths ("what we see is what we get"), truths about who we really are ("our true face"), how morality is a sham ("carnival rules"), and how what seems noble is actually base ("the high are made low"). Since the epistemic necessity being authenticated here is, to all intents and purposes, the surrender of the "should not have happened" boulomaic modality which occludes the reality of the world in its denial of the uncanny, it is only logical that it should be articulated in the symbolism of revelation and the overthrow of orthodoxy.

These differences in resolution could be traced back to the idyllic basis of Heroic Fantasy, if we consider the whole narrative grammar as fulfilling a consolatory function. In this analysis the use of the "should not have happened" subjunctivity -- the use of the uncanny -- could be seen as simply part of a larger narrative strategy, a means to an end. It is simply that in order to exploit the "should have happened" subjunctivity fully we must create a sustained tension, a state of thwarted desire until the inevitable resolution. In so far as the idyll is a signifier to which a real world referent can be attached -- pre-industrial culture, medieval society, etc. -- we might be dubious of a restoration that is essentially an act of validation.

In fact, in so far as the uncanny is also a signifier to which a real world referent can be attached we might be even more dubious. Where we have an idyll under threat from the uncanny we would be well to ask ourselves if there's a conflicting paradigm being demonised here, what exactly it is about this paradigm that makes it transgressive, whether we should truly dread it, and whether we really support the validation of the idyll. There is a large extent to which the narrative grammar of Heroic Fantasy is not so different from the narrative grammar of reactionary propaganda.

This risks, however, de-emphasising the complementary artifice of Horror, where Heroic Fantasy's dubious consolation of our desires made flesh -- threatened, weakened, but in the end restored -- is replaced by the equally dubious conviction of defeatism, of our dreads made flesh -- defied, denied, but ultimately triumphant. In this analysis, the strategy is to exploit the "should not have happened" subjunctivity directly, playing other subjunctivities off against it to maintain a state of rampant dread until the resolution of revelation. And in so far as the uncanny is a signifier to which a real world referent can be attached -- the bestial amorality at the heart of human nature, the id unbound -- we might be equally dubious of the acts of validation carried out in the revelations of Horror.

In fact, in so far as the uncanny presents its revelation as intrinsically unacceptable, we would be well to ask ourselves if the demonisation of a paradigm which is held to be true as nevertheless innately transgressive, innately dreadful, innately horrific, is not perhaps a little pathological. In presenting the "truth" as morally abhorrent, reifying aesthetic and ethical boundaries in order to exploit them, Horror may well open itself up to critique as an endemically neurotic form manifesting the very restraints it is arguing against. In its bleak insistence on the inevitability of failure and the ultimate authority of the monstrous and malevolent -- supernatural or natural, divine or human, diabolic or brutal -- we might well see it as a literature of despair as much as a literature of dread, the depressive's self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat.

If this sounds like I'm damning both Heroic Fantasy and Horror for embodying the self-delusions of optimism and pessimism respectively, well, I do think these narrative modes require to be critiqued on those terms, but at the same time I think Clute is right to put his narrative grammars in the context of a Romantic "world storm", a response to the Rationalism of the Enlightenment, to characterise what I'm calling strange fiction and its relationship to mimetic fiction in terms of a return of the repressed. It seems to me quite natural to link a fiction founded on the strange and its exploitation of desire and dread to the Rationalist antipathy to passion and its attempt to control it. When it comes to reason and passion, when it comes to the psyche, to control means to repress, and to repress means to render it Other -- alien, weird, strange.

In a psycho-political sense then, we might well argue that the restoration that takes place in Heroic Fantasy is at heart an assertion of the validity of desire in and of itself, while the revelation that takes place in Horror is at heart an assertion of the validity of dread in and of itself, that each narrative grammar is, in its own way, re-enfranchising a Romantic aesthetic disempowered by Rationalism, reclaiming a place in the psyche for passion, avowing the import of the irrational, and allying itself to an aesthetic of the sublime that has been marginalised for over a century as a result of the Enlightenment's valorisation of reason.

Actually, I think there's a lot more to it even than this... but we'll come to that.

8. The Narrative Grammar(s) of the Cryptic

So far I've been dealing entirely with Heroic Fantasy and Horror. With SF we have a form in which boulomaic modalities take a more complex role than they do in Heroic Fantasy and Horror, but there are many points of similarity to be discerned, and I think it's important to note that -- from its origins in the pulps, through the Golden Age, and right up to the present day -- SF has often had a similar dynamic of subjunctivities at play within its narratives.

Many of the novum which have been used to establish the fictive environments of SF -- space travel, cyberspace, the singularity -- carry a "should have happened" level of subjunctivity just as much as those which construct the Heroic Fantasy idyll. The pastoral may be translated to the frontier idiom of the Western, scaled up and out into space, the desire may be expectant rather than nostalgic, for the promised land of the future rather than the lost paradise of the past, but this is still the stuff daydreams are made on. In fact, as yesterday's novum are conventionalised by generations of reuse, I'd argue, they have become equivalently folkloric -- comfortably familiar as genre tropes. The result is that much SF exhibits an equivalent base stage to that of Heroic Fantasy, in which the strange is initially used, for the most part, to establish an elsewhen of manifest desires that the narrative will subsequently disrupt with a second level of strangeness.

Similarly, many of the novum of SF which are introduced to carry out that act of disruption and thereby kick-start the narrative -- doomsday devices, artificial intelligence, nanotech -- carry a "should not have happened" level of subjunctivity of the sort we find in Horror in their capacity to destroy civilisation as we know it, cause the end of humanity if not life itself, unravel the very fabric of the spacetime continuum, and so on. When we talk of "sense of wonder" in SF we are talking of the same desire and dread we find in Heroic Fantasy and Horror, of futureshock and awe.

In constructing the elsewhen of the future rather than reconstructing the elsewhen of the past, in adopting hypothetical rather than metaphysical conceits, and in presenting the threat of the unknown through the imagery of technological advance rather than supernatural incursion, SF may give the illusion of offering something that is more Rationalist mechanics than Romantic magic and monstrosity, but behind that illusion we can often see, if we only look a little closer, the same dynamics of desire and dread at play. In fact I'd argue that it's not at all unusual for the SF narrative to play out from this in the same way as it does in Heroic Fantasy or Horror, to exploit the exact same dynamics of boulomaic modalities. Which is to say, Clute's narrative grammars of Heroic Fantasy and Horror can also be applied directly to much that is classified as SF.

In SF, of course, the introduction of epistemic necessity that I'd consider crucial to those narrative grammars is entirely optional. SF includes works that are clearly in the Heroic mode and works that are clearly in the Horror mode, but it also includes works with narrative grammars that would best be described as Noir/Thriller or Mystery/Adventure. In these narrative grammars the world itself is riven with the tension between subjunctivities of "should have happened" and "should not have happened". The uncanny horror of crime is an integral part of the urban environment, but in its very seediness the underworld is also wonderland, the cityscape of Chandleresque Noir/Thriller fiction shot through with the same romanticism we find in vampire fiction, with a sense of the city at night as dark idyll, as decadent's playground, embodying our adult desires for sex and power. In Buchanesque Mystery/Adventure fiction, where the backdrop is not limited to the dark and urban but ventures out to far-flung exotic locales, the flavour is more orientalist than decadent, but the horror is scaled up in line with this, war replacing crime as the all-too human horror.

What these narrative grammars have in common is that in their worlds built from (broken, human) dreams, where the "small sour lesions" that disrupt them are understood as part and parcel of human nature, there is no fate to be for or against the hero, and so there can be no epistemic necessity, no certainty of the outcome. The Fisher Kings are phonies and the Carnival a scam; they may even masquerade as each other. The hero is on his own, with his own strengths and weaknesses, as any human being is, drawn by pure chance into the games of these Powers That (Would) Be. So here the strange manifests as the cryptic, as conspiracy and intrigue, at the root of which is that very doubt as to what those games are, who exactly is playing them, what they are playing for, and how it will all pan out.

It is not too hard to see, I think, where the downbeat idiom of Noir shades into the pessimistic certainty of Horror, where the upbeat idiom of Adventure shades into the optimistic certainty of Heroic Fantasy, to see how all four narrative grammars fuse into a single spectrum, but this should only enrich our understanding of the processes at work here, allowing us to better see the extent to which these different narrative grammars are fundamentally permutations of a single grammar of narrative, and offering us a framework for analysis . At the extremes of that spectrum we have that fiction where epistemic necessity is at its strongest and where counteracting tensions must be introduced to compensate. At the centre-point, meanwhile, in a region we might well call Thriller/Mystery, is that fiction where epistemic necessity is at its weakest, where we are least sure of the outcome and where uncertainty itself is sufficient to drive the narrative on.

What interests me in these narrative grammars of Noir/Thriller and Mystery/Adventure is that they are, I think, undeniably recogniseable in SF, with all technothrillers, much of cyberpunk and many contemporary Space Operas exemplifying that exploitation of the cryptic. Taken together, moreover, as Thriller/Mystery, they might suggest to us a second stage more comparable to the "thinning" and "thickening" Clute associates with Heroic Fantasy and Horror than the abstract "cognitive estrangement" by which he characterises SF. Here, to use Clute's metaphor, the process might be thought of as a struggle through inconsistency, a struggle to attain equilibrium. In this Stage Two the hero moves on in fits and starts, bogged down in the lie here, staggering out into the truth there, alternately lost in amnesia and dazed by illumination. The problem is not that the world is against him and he refuses to recognise it (the thickening of Horror), nor that he is too weakened by the fight to believe that the world is with him (the thinning of Heroic Fantasy). The problem is that half the world is for him and half the world is against him and he does not know which is which.

And the end result? The end result may be restoration or revelation, or both or neither. Neither is a dangerous and difficult outcome for a writer to try and pull off, to have the hero fail in the end, but I'm sure it can and has been done, though I suspect in most cases there is some sense of restoration and/or revelation for the reader even if not for the hero. When the narrative is driven by intrigue, by a sense of the cryptic, a lack of solution, for the reader, is likely to be experienced as a lack of resolution.

9. The Narrative Grammar of the Conceptual

All of this, I think, illustrates the key problem with Clute's schema, highlighting the implicit narrowing of focus in his labelling. With Fantasy the focus is narrowed to spotlight the Romantic mode of Heroic Fantasy and exclude modes of fantasy with other narrative grammars. But in the vampire fiction of Rice and Brite, and in other works classed as Dark Fantasy or Urban Fantasy -- the works of writers like Neil Gaiman, for example -- the very reason they are often thought of and talked of as some sort of hybrid of Fantasy and Horror is that they are essentially utilising the narrative grammar(s) of Noir/Thriller/Mystery/Adventure as freely as SF does. Regardless of the label slapped on them -- Fantasy or Horror -- they are not bound to the narrative grammars of Heroic Fantasy or Horror as outlined by Clute. Writers like Gaiman stand, I think, as evidence of a narrative grammar in Fantasy that is at odds with the one Clute labels "Fantasy" and identical to the narrative grammar to be found in much SF. I'm sure the same can also be said of Horror.

With Clute's narrative grammar of SF, meanwhile, the focus seems to be similarly narrowed to spotlight that mode where it is most "literary" in its Rationalism, excluding the Romantic modes where it is essentially, in terms of narrative grammar, equivalent to Heroic Fantasy or Horror. In the abstraction of the characterisation -- in terms of novum, cognitive estrangement and conceptual breakthrough -- I'm not sure I even see any recognition of the importance of the narrative grammar(s) of Noir/Thriller/Mystery/Adventure which I would argue are blatantly obvious in the field. I think there's an implicit inequity in approach here which smacks of the tiresome privileging of SF over Fantasy, whereby a blind eye is turned to generic Romanticism in the former and to everything but the most generic Romanticism in the latter.

It is not unfair and not inaccurate to distinguish the SF narrative by the more palpable cognitive dissonance at the heart of the novum. And in so far as strangeness in the form of novelty is not intrinsically valuated as positive or negative, does not automatically accrue a boulomaic modality of "should have happened" or "should not have happened", it is by no means unfair or inaccurate to say that the SF narrative is capable of exhibiting an entirely different narrative grammar to any of those outlined above. The novum of SF, in this view, may not present us with the emotional crisis of an idyll under threat and/or an irruption of the uncanny, and where they do not we should not expect to find the narrative grammar of Heroic Fantasy or Horror. They may not (even if they often do) function as the mysteries and MacGuffins at the heart of the narrative grammar(s) of Noir/Thriller/Mystery/Adventure. But the same can be said of Fantasy if we simply refuse to relabel the "literary" fantasies of VanderMeer, Ford, Link, Joyce, etc., as magical realism or fabulism or postmodernism or slipstream or whatever. And why should we if we are not doing the same for an SF which fits the narrative grammars of generic Romanticism as often as not?

It is, I would say, entirely possible for the SF narrative trigger to be situated wholly in the novum, in the degree of measurable difference from our "given world", for this to generate a wholly conceptual conflict, a conflict of nomologies, played out through cognitive estrangement to conceptual breakthrough. The construction of an SF elsewhen out of novum can be an intellectual ("arguable" and "structured" -- i.e. Rationalist) reimagining of normative reality rather than an emotional (irrational and unstructured -- i.e. Romantic) act of fabrication or disruption. SF can and often does function as analysis through conceit, the future re-presenting the present, defamiliarising it in order to expose its faults, to allow "the defectiveness of the ruling paradigm to be seen whole". The narrative grammar at work in SF can be the articulation of an argument between the ruling paradigm of the world as is -- or as we think it is -- and an alternative paradigm of the world as it is reconstructed by and filtered through a matrix of conceits, extended and concretised metaphors, the points of difference highlighting, figuratively or by exaggeration, the precise defects of that ruling paradigm. But the same can be said of Fantasy if we look at the work of Peake, say, where the elsewhen of Gormenghast is perhaps the best example I can imagine of a defamiliarising re-presentation, brutally exposing the deficiencies of the ruling paradigm of British society in the early 20th Century through the conceit of the "Big House".

The resolution of SF can be and often is the conceptual breakthrough at the completion of this argument, the synthesis of antithetical nomologies as we come to fully understand the alternative paradigm and relate it back to the ruling paradigm, understanding the re-presentation and understanding that it is a re-presentation. We might well call this stage realisation, for it is the point where the last piece of the puzzle is put into place, the conceit finally fully realised, and it is also the point where the hero (and the reader) grasp the reality of what is going on, realise the root of the struggle that has shaped the narrative. But again the same can be said of Fantasy.

There is one point of difference, within this narrative grammar, between some SF and Fantasy. There is a subset of SF -- dystopian fiction such as Orwell's NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, for example -- where the extrapolative novum read as caricature rather than metaphor, capable of being read as literal predictions even if they are not meant as such but rather as exaggerations designed to focus our attention on the real defects they represent, defects neglected in the ruling paradigm. So the world of Big Brother, Newspeak and so on caricatures the surveillance and control culture of Stalinist society in particular and totalitarianism in general. And so these novum can be read as either symbolic warnings or literal predictions of what might be.

The plausibility of the novum is crucial in this type of SF because the argument being made in these narratives is that the ruling paradigm, the accepted nomology in which the events of the narrative "could not have happened", is false, and that the hypothetical nomology, the alternative paradigm in which the events "could have happened", is in a very real sense, a truth of temporal possibilities. In the straightforward polemics of dystopian fiction, the ruling paradigm is the complacent thesis that "it couldn't happen here and now", the alternative paradigm is the antithesis where an absolute dystopia is a very real possibility in the future, and the synthesis is the revised paradigm in which we recognise the real possibilities of the future represented by the novum because we recognise a part of them is possible here and now. It is the conceptual breakthrough where we realise that, in reality, there is a Winston Smith in us that could well be made to believe that two plus two equals five.

But with only a minority of SF's novum, I'd argue, meant to be read as literal prediction, the majority of these hypothetical conceits meant to be read as figuratively as the metaphysical conceits of Fantasy, I'm not convinced that plausibility has much impact on the narrative grammar. Whether the strangeness takes the form of a novel and plausible conceit or simply that of a conceit has little effect on its capacity for re-presenting the world. Through the looking glass or through a scanner darkly, the effect is still a deliberate, sustained and coherent estrangement designed to re-present the world in a warping lens and to lead us to a resolution of realisation.

Ultimately then, it seems to me that this narrative grammar can be found in both Fantasy and SF, and as such to call it a narrative grammar of SF is a misnomer. In fact, how far it actually even constitutes a narrative grammar when compared to those outlined above seems somewhat arguable. Stripping away the aspect of defamiliarisation as a means of commentary on reality, how much does it really tell us about the narrative over and above a basic model where equilibrium is disturbed, struggled for, and finally re-established in a revised form? If we take away the distinctive feature of the strange (novum or otherwise) used as extended and concretised metaphor to integrate plot and theme, do we have anything more than a model of narrative itself? Couldn't pretty much any plot be fitted into that narrative grammar?

Which is, I would argue, exactly how it should be for a type of fiction which is being identified entirely by its conceptuality. Because ultimately I would argue the real meaning of the term "literary" as it is applied to SF, Fantasy and Horror is just that -- conceptual. It indicates that the strange is being exploited as a conceit rather than for the affect that it produces -- idyllic, uncanny, cryptic -- that the narrative is not therefore bound within the narrative grammars of Romanticism but rather has adopted a Rationalist narrative logic of realism. Or that where it is working with the Romantic grammars it is simultaneously subverting them through that conceit and/or the narrative logic of realism, creating a hybrid form that is essentially Modernist or Post-Modernist.

In essence then, I think Clute's schema of narrative grammars is flawed in where it places its labels and in what it disregards because of that, but I think it opens up two distinct (and distinctly useful) lines of approach to a text, one focused on the conceptual use of the strange in all of three "genres" of fiction, the other focused on a set of narrative grammars crudely understandable as a sort of spectrum running from Horror through Noir/Thriller and Mystery/Adventure to Heroic Fantasy but open to a more sophisticated view in so far as those genres are viewed as superficial interpretations of an underlying dynamics of subjunctivities, boulomaic modalities and epistemic necessities.