Saturday, 27 October 2012

Fiction & Unreality

Back when I was a student, a girl I knew moved in with her boyfriend.

A few months later she turned up at the door of my shared house one evening, shaking with tears and clutching herself.

"He hit me!" she said.

We ushered her inside, made her cups of tea, put on music we knew she liked. "It just doesn't feel real," she said. "I don't know what to do, I can't even think about it..."

Of course for us outside it seemed real enough, and we knew exactly what she should do: phone the bastard to tell him he was dumped; have some wine and stay the night on our couch, and then tomorrow we'd go round with her to help her collect her things and...

"It just doesn't seem real," she said as we suggested these things to her.

I think a lot of people have had this feeling - when something traumatic happens, it just doesn't seem real. The implications might be so vast, so life-changing that temporarily our brains just don't want to deal with them. This can be a helpful coping mechanism (particularly if it doesn't last long) but it can also leave us with a feeling of dislocation from reality, a shell-shocked inability to understand the world any more.

But conveying this feeling in fiction is tricky, because if the writer just simply and realistically depicts the events that might affect his or her characters in such a way, if doesn't follow that the reader will feel such a dislocation - they are outside events and whilst they might well find the story disturbing or depressing it will likely seem real enough to them. After all, traumatic events happen every day to other people.

And I wonder if that's where the appeal of 'strange stories' comes from - by depicting events that are literally unrealistic do they allow the writer to explore these very real feelings of unreality in a way that realistic fiction, for all its mimetic triumphs, can't?


Alain Gomez said...

It's a hard thing. It's like writing good dialogue. What reads well is not actually how "real" conversations sound. It's finding that tricky balance of conveying how we think things occur vs. what actually does.

Ooo... trippy thought for the day!

MRCosby said...

To me "strange" fiction is like seeing things out of the corner of one's eye rather than studying it. My interest is in the reaction of the protagonist to something fantastic in the midst of banality; like you say, without the restraints of realism. Everyone likes to be able to suspend their disbelief. Don't they?

James Everington said...

Hi Alain - yes , in an English class we once had to read some real realistic dialogue - a straight transcript of a real conversation. It wasn't 'realistic' at all.,,

MRC - I dunno, I've met a few people who seem unable to suspend disbelief at all...!