In many ways society has moved beyond the traditional Western stories, largely because most people have a much more rounded view of history that does not allow for straight forward narratives about heroic cowboys on some empty American frontier. An understanding of the colonial process and the long term impacts of how the United States formed makes purely celebratory westerns seem somewhat naïve if not disrespectful to the experiences of indigenous peoples so these kinds of stories do not enjoy the same kind of wide spread popularity they used to enjoy. However, in recent years there have been several successful novels that return to the western genre with new goals. Books like The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt and The Devil’s Revolver by V.S. McGrath (interestingly both written by Canadians) lean heavily on exploring the flaws in the traditional western albeit in very different ways. The Sisters Brothers is dark comedy bordering on satire which plays up the archetypes of the western to make their absurdity obvious to the reader. In contrast, the heroes of McGrath’s fantasy western fit more closely to the cowboy hero but undermines traditional westerns by taking place in a world that includes the suffering and oppression that was erased in older westerns. These new westerns reflect new understandings of history and show how beloved genres can be brought into the current day.Read More »
Picking up a fantasy book is an investment, one that may or may not pay off, but usually requires putting lots of time into reading very large books and then even more time waiting for the next book in the series to come along and continue the story. However, there are occasionally exceptions that break this paradigm and offer a fantasy experience in a single volume. Books like Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Scott Hawkins’ The Library at Mount Char are oddities of the fantasy world that are both wildly popular and without sequels. Reading either of these books is an experience of becoming quickly immersed and attacked only to be confronted with a letting go that isn’t normally required at the end of a fantasy book.
World building is about making the setting of a book seem just as believable and consistent as the real world that readers are moving away from. The Night Circus and The Library at Mount Char both abut the real world, with characters moving between the reality readers will recognize and something much more unique that the author has constructed. This actually changes very little of what is required to make the world believable. Instead of worrying about geography between cities these authors must create a sense of space inside a building like in The Library at Mount Char or a feeling of connection through a sprawling city of tents in The Night Circus. The consistency of these details is much easier to maintain over a single book than a multi book series which is ones of the great benefits of single book works. And a single book is certainly enough time for a reader to fall in love with a world. Ultimately these authors are very successful, they draw readers in an create worlds that are memorable, believable and very consistent.
For a reader who enjoys fantasy and tends to read a great deal of it these kinds of stand-alone books can be a shock to the system. There is an immediate urge to find the next book, if not in that series than in that world, but that book ends up being absent and you feel stranded in the real world since the prospect of future escapism to that particular local has been ripped away. Readers of fantasy are used to epic sagas that take potential decades (and possibly multiple authors) to complete like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time or George R.R. Martin’s as yet uncompleted Saga of Ice and Fire. There are also authors like R.A. Salvatore who create immense worlds that unrelated stories can take place in while still providing the enjoyment of that particular fictional universe. Even stories that are fantasy only in the loosest sense like Davies’ What’s Bred in the Bone are expanded to a series where the mechanics of magic and other strange happenings are consistent with that first book. If fantasy is about heading into a different world than stand alone fantasy places tight restrictions on what is possible because in the end there is a limit on what you can fit into a single physical book.
In this way stand alone books are also a commentary on the author and the world building process. It isn’t necessarily that the author is lazy or unwilling to put the work into world building, The Night Circus and Library at Mount Char both contain incredibly compelling settings and magic as established earlier, so the choice to abandon those worlds is actually impressive. Hawkins hasn’t published anything since Library at Mount Char but Erin Morgenstern actually has a new book coming in November of 2019. World building once is hard, so it is unsurprising that most writers of fantasy spread that development over a whole collection of books rather than starting from scratch for each project, but Erin Morgenstern has done just that. She has left the much beloved world of the circus and has instead started building anew. The book isn’t out yet so it is impossible to say how close it will be to the world of her first novel but the simple choice not to write a sequel says something interesting about Morgenstern as a write. Just as the reader reaction will say something about what people look for when they become invested in a given author’s creation.
The value of reading fantasy fiction is often debated but regardless of what is decided in that discussion of value there are general things that most fantasy readers expect from the worlds that they enter. Singular fantasy books move against the grain of these expectations and show how fantasy cn be successful even without the promise of multivolume series of epic novels. Books like The Night Circus or The Library at Mount Char demonstrate the depth which is possible even within a single book. The worlds in these books are still incredibly enjoyable despite the fact that there are no follow ups, but the stand-alone nature of their stories leaves the reader with a great sense of loss at the end. The sense of loss reinforces the idea that reading fantasy is a form of escape, but the popularity of Morgenstern and Hawkins work shows that singular fantasy fiction offers an experience that is enjoyable on its own.
P.S. I am about to post this and was googling to check spelling on Scott Hawkins’ name only to discover that at some point while I wasn’t looking (ie this summer) his website got updated and apparently, he to might have another book coming. It isn’t a direct sequel to Library at Mount Char so I think this post still stands but maybe not with the kind of strength the idea had when I originally started writing this post.
Names and naming are a fascination in literature in general, and fantasy in particular but sometimes the lack of naming can convey an even stronger message bout the characters. Some names have symbolism or convey inherent character traits such as the JK Rowling’s incredibly literal Wolf-Wolf in Remus Lupin while other characters remain largely nameless like C.S Lewis’s White Witch who’s first name is rarely mentioned. Religious allegory is another place in which names serve a very particular purpose and the characters are identified by the singular trait that they represent in the story. Both allegory and science fiction rely heavily on symbolism and the way the reader engages with the created worlds of the texts which makes the role of naming clearer than it is in other genres. Examining the way characters are identified in the John Bunyan’s allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress and Jeff VanderMeer’s science fiction The Southern Reach Trilogy shows how the namelessness of a character can communicate their journey to the reader.
These are characters that are one dimensional and who’s entire being can be summed up in the singular word that serves to identify them. They rely on the reader’s preconceived notions that accompany the identify whether that be a trait like Virtue or Christian like in The Pilgrim’s Progress or professions like the biologist or surveyor in The Southern Reach Trilogy. These characters do not expand beyond the singular characteristics identified by their title and the reader may find it harder to attach a personality to their existent ideas attached to that title. Namelessness restricts the ways in which a character can grow and the ability of the reader to connect with that character which is often used intentionally by the author to further thematic aspects of their work.
Reading the Southern Reach Trilogy the reader finds themselves searching for names that just do not appear. The Biologist is not really a person, her story isn’t even happening in real time and it isn’t until she is replaced by a more complex creature that Ghost Bird begins to truly function as a name that is associated with a particular person. She is separate from the biologist of the first novel and the other characters view her as a distinct being. The biologist on the other hand is trapped nameless in her journals and remains in that state even as she transitions into the creature that is identified as a monster who was once the biologist. She is a watcher of nature as identified by her title but she is no more than that even as the plot advances around her.
Ghost Bird and the biologist have very linear trajectories in relation to their names but there are other more complex uses of naming in VanderMeer’s trilogy. Control’s journey from namelessness is a complete circle, he begins as Control and he ends as Control but much his arc revolves around this transition. The second book of the trilogy, the first in which he appears, is his progression from the brainwashed Control through his fight back to the moment where he ultimately reclaims his name while standing in the wilderness with the also recently named Ghost Bird. However, the complexity and self determination that Control gains when he takes back John Rodriguez is quickly lost as he is consumed by Area X. His departure as Control is in fact what brings Area X into a new, perhaps more stable state, and just as the allegorical figures in The Pilgrim’s Progress live into their identifiers so to does Control.
Contrary to the audience of The Southern Reach Trilogy, the readers of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress the challenges of reading an allegory would be familiar as it was a key part of the Christian tradition. This means that for the original readers of the story there would be no search for other names or characters in the same way that the modern readers of VanderMeer’s work do. There is also no expectation of growth in an allegorical text like Bunyan’s. Christian’s journey is not one to acquire a name like Ghost Bird but rather he is simply growing into the title he begins the story with. The name is true of villainous figures in the text like Formalist or Hypocrisy, the identifiers assure the reader of exactly what kind of behavior to expect. Where VanderMeer uses namelessness to show character journey Bunyan – and allegory in general – use namelessness to create static characters who do not develop.
The decisions that authors make about what to call their characters is central to how the reader with interact with those creations. Ghost Bird grows on the reader as she develops beyond the biologist and earns a name of her own while Christian’s journey into his faith feels inevitable and probably comforting to Bunyan’s original readers. When names come full circle like with Control it is a demonstration of how closely tied naming, even of fictional characters, is to a sense of identity. Allegory as utilized by writers of the past uses identifiers rather than names to show a character claiming of the traits that tied to that word while restricting their ability to develop beyond that trait. In modern fiction however, those who are nameless are without depth or identity, while the journey into a name is a journey of growth into person hood.
Book recommendations can be difficult even when the story that is being explained is relatively simple or familiar. However, some stories are beyond what can be easily described in a blurb while trying to recommend the book to a friend because they are simply too strange to be explained. Novels, Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, and The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman both fall into this category but they handle their own strangeness in very different ways. The former leans into its own strangeness while the latter creates an environment that feels oddly close to normalcy – demonstrating the ways that genre is constructed.
As magic is not a reality of the world that readers live in speculative fiction in any of its many varieties must occur in a world that is not our own. However, there is a large difference in the experience that results from reading about from an entirely created world like Middle Earth rather than one that exists in parallel to that of the reader like in Harry Potter. Welcome to Night Vale and The Tiny Wife are both set in magical realities that run parallel to the reader’s real world. The young people of Night Vale occasionally try to escape into the wider world, and Carlos the scientist comes from a place that is implied to operate exactly in the way that the real world does. In The Tiny Wife the characters don’t go to some different place but rather magic intrudes on them in the real world after a robbery at a bank that causes the book’s namesake woman to start shrinking while other experience all sorts of magical afflictions. These are both stories that contain a great deal of strangeness, in fact the strangeness of Night Vale is actually far more consistent and explainable by the end of the novel than the magic of The Tiny Wife, but The Tiny Wife is set much closer to the world of the reader in a way that is quite typical of magic realism.
In both novels there is a character who is new to this strange world, someone who can appreciate the bizarreness of what is going on. In Welcome to Night Vale that character exists at the periphery of the story and is viewed through the lens of the characters for which all of this is normal. Carlos the scientist pops up periodically to remind the reader that the real world is out there, and to assure them that someone else thinks this is really weird too. Carlos is curious but also frustrated by the lack of scientific reality within Night Vale and his appearances break any sense of status quo that the reader may have been developing. He is an intruder in the same way that the reader is an intruder to the strange happenings of Night Vale.
Kaufman’s The Tiny Wife also employs an outside character in the form of the husband who is also the narrator of the story. However, the husband’s place as both spectator to the strangeness and narrator for the reader is done in such a way to make his shrinking wife seem as normal as possible. Both the narrator and his wife acknowledge that the shrinking is quite out of the ordinary and attempt to work with the other magically affected characters in the story to find a solution but they at no point exhibit the extreme confusion, anger or curious mania that Carlos demonstrates as he confronts Night Vale. The husband may be an observer to the strangeness that has enveloped his wife in the same way that Carlos spectates the happenings of Night Vale but Kaufman’s narrator is calm and adaptable in a way that normalizes the magic of the novel for the reader. That normalcy is central to the creation of magic realism and Kaufman is very effective in his usage of the husband as an interloper to the magical in order to reinforce the reader’s view of the fantasy elements in contrast to the way Carlos plays up the reader’s perception of the bizarre event in Night Vale.
The challenge of wrapping up a novel that contains magic or strangeness of any kind seems to lie in degree to which the oddities need to be explained away to the reader. Fink and Cranor leave the strangeness very much intact: yes, the mystery of Troy has been solved but there are no implications that Night Vale will suddenly become some normal town where everything is exactly as one would expect if you drove in from our world. This is fairly typical of a lot of genre writing because part of the joy of reading these types of stories is escaping out of what is normal, and it is comforting to know that the more exciting world continues even as the story ends. The Tiny Wife on the other hand is magic realism and at the end of the novel Kaufman shows the way back to the true normal of the real world. The tiny wife begins to grow and although not everything is fixed there is a sense that the strange events of the novel are just a blip in the road which are being corrected. Both conclusions are satisfying endings to the stories that are portrayed in the two novels but there is a distinct difference to how the authors choose to leave their created worlds for the reader.
Trying to explain either of these novels to someone else is going to inevitably make them sound incredibly strange – probably in very similar ways – but the actual tone of these stories is vastly different. Welcome to Night Vale leans into its on campy sci-fi/horror feel while The Tiny Wife manages to slip subtly into normalcy. This is the dividing line between magic realism and other forms of genre writing, they are constructed in different ways which shape the reading experience of the audience. Neither is necessarily better than the other, but they require divergent strategies for handling similar elements which create parallels that are strange to think about in their own way as well.