Shreds of a novel outline: Edward and Jasmine, attractive cosmopolites, youngish, bright, socially aware (if not quite engaged), committed partners but with something unfulfilled – stillborn whisperings – troubling their union. Edward, an out-of-work physicist (funding for the Texas Super Collider he was helping to build has collapsed), joins an international team investigating the lapses, leaks and lies around the Fukushima reactor disaster of 2011. Jasmine, a freelance science writer, is polishing a profile of Ernest Rutherford, whose epochal 1911 experiment revealed the nucleus of the atom when, to Rutherford’s suprise, the heavy charged radium particles he expected to pass through thin gold foil sometimes bounced straight back, repelled by something small and dense within the gold atoms. In Japan, Edward, callow but decent, gets an eyeful of malfeasance, cover-ups, sacrificed workers, cancers, tainted lands and foods. The pain behind the formulas. Impelled by outrage that surprises him, he joins an anti-government protest, gets roughed up and arrested. Back home, Jasmine, obscurely restless, suspecting that her Bikram yoga and Jungian analysis are hot/cool versions of treading water, embarks on an affair with a young lesbian editor. Her passion, like Edward’s, takes her by force. Expecting to shimmy through thin gold, each is deflected by the unguessed massive. What will happen? We are not yet at page 100.
This is farcically schematic, but alas, not implausibly so. Any reader will recognize in its shuffleable tokens of personal and social distress a type of realism dominant on bestseller and awards lists. Properly massaged, such an outline could prove catnip to agents and editors. The novel’s prose will be present-tense lean, translator-friendly, with lyrical (poetic) highlights; it will deftly deploy brand names and period details; with its short scenes of drama and epiphany, in exotic locales, it will almost film itself.
Working title: Nuclei.
It could do well. Disciplined to internationalist style, with a cover blending a yearning soft-focus woman (nude or nearly) with lethal flooded ruins, it could garner far more “Fans” than pans.
What is wrong with it? Bogusness, in a word. Its engagement with the larger world is factitious, a way to make more marketable, by seeming to raise the stakes, the “tame stuff” of “domestic and domesticated fiction” that Patricia Robertson so eloquently decries in her recent essay “Against Domesticated Fiction, or the Need for Re-Enchantment.” With Air Miles and Wi-Fi, your personal quest – the “worship of self,” as Lydia Millet, quoted by Robertson, puts it – easily goes global. But it comes back just as easily, ready to deploy in the home bedroom and office the insights won abroad. Black Robe, Brian Moore’s page-turning 1985 novel set in seventeenth-century Quebec, jumps to mind here, because the Jesuit protagonist can’t and won’t go home, ever. His faith is a one-way ticket. Obedient to his “solemn vow,” he will stay for the rest of his life, far from comfort and his own culture, ministering to the sick and dying Hurons in a “vast, empty land.” (What a downer comes the first tweet, with glum emoticon.) In Nuclei, by contrast, though the canvas is big and turbulent, issue-fizzing, the main subject, the privileged perturbed self, hunkers impermeably compact and immobile. Selfbound is homebound in the strictest sense.
Now imagine another, starker constellation of shreds, less fashionable lately though making a comeback as all things do. Children stray into a dangerous forest where monsters await to eat them, some foolish or unlucky children get gobbled, a wary one or two escaping to tell the tale. Other magical figures, benevolent or malign, may intervene.
Fable, we call this one. Fairy tale. Again, the recognition is instant – and the tweets, pro or con, composed almost as quickly.
But categories, especially assured ones, are usually well worth questioning. In this case the question might be: How much of our so-called realism is actually a mash of comforting fairy tales, and, flipping the question around, how often is the so-called fairy tale really a species of the hardest realism?
Skeins of comforting fables surround us, masquerading as established facts. What makes the “searingly relevant” tale of Edward and Jasmine obnoxious and, to me, unreadable is its cozy assumption that Personal Growth and Socio-Political Engagement and First-World Privilege all make fine bedfellows, that while snuggling under a well-stitched quilt of prose you can seriously grapple with a bevy of Big Psyche, Big Idea, Big Issue, Big History. Without ever breaking stride, Nuclei can visit the glories and perils of science; gender and sexuality; corporate crimes; nuclear power and the environment; domestic evasions, the bliss of passion . . . right on out to the origins and fate of the universe. Rutherford’s atoms came from, and are going, somewhere. As are yours and mine.)
This is duvet realism. Helping you to think you are thinking about Big Things without ever challenging you to venture beyond the bed of comfy reassurance (disguised as radical inquiry) you are ensconced in.
It never brings a sword. Only the fun of play-swords and the peace of sweet, self-justified sleep. To disrupt such slumber would need what commerce forbids: the lacunae and deranging strangeness of dream. Estrangement is the passport of travel. If, as a physical or mental traveller, you encounter only what and whom you can readily “relate to,” what is “accessible,” you can be sure you have never left home.
Hard to leave? Oh yes. Hard as throwing back warm humid folds in the middle of the night and setting a tender foot on a cold, hard floor. You remember? There was a creepy forest with monsters, lost children, some eaten. Fairy tale – or straight realism? All children know beyond a doubt that in the forest of the world there are monsters who want to eat them. Small creatures can’t mistake these things. That is, you sense the demons in the forest, though because they are often shape-shifters, you may not be able to recognize them in time. So you tread lightly, listen for odd noises, and carry all the charms you can find – whether the forest is called Mount Cashel Orphanage or central Africa or a bungalow in Port Dalhousie, and whether the child-eaters disguise themselves as the Christian Brothers, Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, or a young married couple named Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo.
And these are only the most obviously gruesome ways in which the forest can gulp you down. Hospitals and shelters and streetcorners – almost anyplace, finally – will attest to the endless variety of more insidious gnawings. In fact, classic fairy tales dispense with topical markers altogether. They simply take for granted that there are witches and trolls who mean to bake and gobble us, but also talking frogs and fairy godmothers willing to save us. Real, messy (and meaningless) death; real salvation (after trials, usually at a price): reacquaint yourself with these supreme stakes and the quasi-enlightenments and exquisitely observed rapprochements of duvet realism can start to feel less like comfort and more like suffocation.
In life as in art, the real story is often just a fairy tale repeated so often it becomes a mantra, a sourceless soothing given, and the fairy tale may just be the real story no one wants to talk about.
I know it doesn’t do to get all strident and off-meds about this, and though it is probably too late in this trepanning to say so, I don’t think a slice of common experience – a breakup scene in a Starbucks, say – is a bad thing in a story, or unreal (it certainly happens every day), or somehow inauthentic or trivial (it is vital enough to those involved, which at some time or another includes a lot of us). I have served and enjoyed being served many such slices. Nor do I think the inclusion of a magical creature or event – a wizard, a vampire, flying, casting spells – automatically confers significance on a story. Far from it. It’s not what happens so much as it is the attitude towards what happens that is implied. Or maybe stance is a better word than attitude: what position is the character in relative to events, what stakes are involved? No risk, no reality is a law that all fantasy but the sheerest whimsy obeys. What makes Harry Potter so boring to anyone over the age of twelve – or at least I would have thought so, though Amazon rankings give me the lie – is that it is basically 4,178 pages (three times as long as War and Peace) of wish-fulfillment, mixed with very manageable troubles to texture the glide, ending in marriage, home ownership and parenthood.
As comfort food, this is a no-fail recipe. But as literature?
Realism can mean a hard look at difficult things; hard meaning honest and clear-eyed, not necessarily glum and despairing. It can also mean – and it means this worryingly often, I think – the snuggle-inducing, struggle-simulating duvet brand of Serious Fiction. The duvet is a padded stitching together of the safely near and the safely remote. Either familiar relationship problems tout court, or those problems piggybacked on historical disasters to give them stature. How We Got Together/Broke Up/Came To Ambiguous Terms, with atrocity background. Pretty? Hardly. But perhaps a little more real, like two half-realities holding hands: the little something that sort of happens here and now, and the big something that definitely happened there and then. Though can two half-lives ever make a whole? Isn’t a realism built up from spongy assumptions, coyly rebranded as tough insights, bound to be – to coin a term – enfabled?
And nothing is further removed from the fabulous real than enfabulous swaddling.
Fables, fairy tales: these can be cute whimsy, yes, and delightful as such. At their richest, though, their bubbling narrative streams constantly turn over hard mineral questions – who is friend? who foe? how must I live? what price change? – that duvet realism, for all its pre-dawn ruminating (latte in trembling hand), works to avoid.
Real fable confronts the actual: the enfabled real concocts, often with charming plausibility, ways to forget the actual exists.