In Stephen O’Connor’s short story, “Ziggurat,” (from his short story collection here comes another lesson) a Minotaur discovers a new girl sitting at the computer playing Ziggurat, Panic! And U-Turn. “This was the pine-paneled section of the Labyrinth, which is where the Minotaur had been hanging out lately, mainly because he didn’t remember ever having been there before, and he liked sleeping on the pool table.”
In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” (translated by Gregory Rabassa and J.S. Bernstein) Pelayo enters his courtyard and finds a “very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his enormous wings.”
In Haruki Murakami’s short story, “Sleep,” (in the short story collection The Elephant Vanishes), the narrator tells the reader in the opening sentence, “This is my seventeenth straight day without sleep.”
And then there’s Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” in which Gregor Samson wakes up and finds he’s no longer a man but “horrible vermin.”
To read a piece of fiction, the fiction writer asks the reader to suspend his disbelief and step into his or her story world. Coleridge identified this as necessary to the experience of literature. For the writer of realism, the task is to create a world familiar to the reader, invoking an actual setting and inhabiting it with characters who speak and act in ways that are recognizable. If the story fails, it’s usually because the reader doesn’t find the characters believable or plot drives the story rather than character (which is another way of saying, I don’t find this character believable).
When you venture into something other—surrealism or magical realism, for instance—you are, I believe, asking more of the reader—more of his disbelief must be set aside. If the reader balks at the Minotaur—wait a minute? How can a Minotaur exist in a labyrinth? Why isn’t the girl scared?—the reader never fully enters what John Gardner calls the narrative dream. The reader can’t shake that nagging thought—but it’s a Minotaur, for God’s sake. Ultimately the story fails.
So what do you do if you have a Minotaur as a main character? Or a bug? Or a very old man with wings? Or someone who is defying the laws of nature and not sleeping for seventeen days straight, yet is coherent?
You use the same tools employed by the writer of realism. How can that be?
Let’s turn to Flannery O’Connor who says in her essay, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, “The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions.”
The writer of magical realism (originally called the marvelous real) or surrealism or fantasy has an even greater task than the writer of realism to convince the reader of his world. Hence, the appeal to the senses through precise details becomes even more paramount. What you are essentially doing is providing evidence through precise details that such a world exists or possibly could exist. You are in many ways acting as a lawyer does, presenting your story through evidence called details. As Gardner says, “In all the major genres, vivid detail is the life blood of fiction.”
Let’s go back to the opening examples. Stephen O’Connor helps the reader accept his world by putting the little girl in front of a computer, a familiar object. And she’s in the pine-paneled section of the labyrinth, which has a pool table. The reader can imagine this room. We know pine-paneling. We know a pool table. Now he’s ready to introduce his Minotaur.
How does Marquez ease the reader into a world inhabited by a very old man who has enormous wings? Marquez lands his old man face first in the mud. It’s a very visceral image. But Marquez doesn’t stop there: he pulls in even tighter using sensory details. “He (the very old man) was dressed like a ragpicker. There were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth. His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever entangled in the mud.”
Kafka uses precise details that invoke the sensations of sight, motion and touch: “He (Gregor) lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections.” (translation by David Wyllie)
Murakami takes a slightly different approach—convincing the reader through the voice of an intimate narrator who addresses a doubt possibly held by the reader: “I’m not talking about insomnia. I know what insomnia is. I had something like it in college—“something like it” because I’m not sure that what I had then was exactly the same as what people refer to as insomnia.” The reader recognizes the psychological workings of this narrator’s mind who has thought about her condition.
At the heart of all fiction, then, you will find the use of precise details to create verisimilitude, which allows the reader to suspend disbelief and gracefully step into your story world.
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