The Fantastic

The Fantasticbook by Tzvetan Todorov

annotation by Kate Maruyama

This is a book which looks at the genre of the fantastic. It is a more academic approach to writing than I usually read, but I was turned on to it by Dodie Bellamy, a teacher I admire as a big thinker who is always able to rise above literature to see its patterns and sociological impact. I found the book incredibly useful and appropriate to what I am working on. It was a solid reminder that our fiction can be informed by everything we read.

This book rang true on a lot of levels with me and, while it went further into Freudianism than I needed to venture for my purposes, it celebrated, examined and cross-examined a genre in which I am completely entrenched with my novel.
The fantastic is defined in many ways throughout the book, but it is essentially that point at which a character and/or the reader can apply two definitions to what is happening: “There is an uncanny phenomenon which we can explain in two fashions, by types of natural causes and supernatural causes. The possibility of a hesitation between the two creates the fantastic effect.”( 26)

Todorov speculates that the moment a story is defined as one or another, i.e. a) it was really the landlord disguised as a ghost, or b.) it was really a ghost– we have left the realm of the fantastic. But if the majority of the story takes place in the realm of the fantastic, it cannot be disqualified. Whether or not my novel qualifies for this academically dreamed up genre is not really the point, but an examination of how the story can be read is well worth musing over.

Todorov not only explores this space of belief/disbelief, but states plainly that this state of the fantastic serves the mechanical function of the story by providing tension, suspense and the general action of the story. He talks a great deal about allegories and how the metaphor can become physical, elevating the story from commonplace to whimsical. He missed out on recognizing magical realism, but defines it in various examples of the supernatural becoming reality in Spanish literature.

As I go through the book again, I hope to play a bit more with the physicality of my hero’s universe. I’m certain things exist which I have defined only physically that can be elevated or played with without ruining the story. The physical can, in turn, become metaphor. This cold analysis of techniques was helpful in making me mindful that the machinations found in genre, while frequently organic, can be exploited a little. Just for fun.

The entire concept came together for me, through Todorov’s eyes, in his speculation that Kafka has, over and again, achieved the impossible in creating this “fantastic” by changing the rules so that they become normal. In Metamorphosis, it is not that Gregor has supernaturally become a bug, it is that he continues his life embarrassed by this change in himself, trying to carry on in as ordinary a way as possible. Kafka brought the insidiousness and dysfunction of Gregor’s family into relief against Gregor’s astonished, but workaday approach to being a bug, but he also managed to create the perfect fantastical world: how Gregor got that way, what occurred to make it happen does not matter, it is his environment’s reaction to the normal abnormality of his being a bug that makes the story so brilliant.

Todorov writes,”what in the first world was an exception, here becomes the rule.” (174). He then quotes Jean Paul Sartre, who wrote, “…if we have been able to give the reader the impression that we are speaking to him of a world in which these preposterous manifestations figure as normal behavior, then he will find himself plunged at one fell swoop into the heart of the fantastic.” Which is a fancy way of saying, make the world real, make the rules consistent, trust the reader and you can tell your story.

What to do with this information is the question. It will probably give a sharper eye for this revision and allow a bit more play. It is a reminder that literary criticism is something that happens after something has been written and revised. A reminder that genre is something that is frequently found out after the fact (the term Noir only came along years after its inception as a literary genre…and it was applied to film and literature was termed retroactively). I do think it’s important to be aware of the genre in which we write, its rules, precedents and cliches. I hope to make the world of my book real, make the rules consistent and trust the reader.

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2 thoughts on “The Fantastic

  1. Pingback: Kafka on the Shore | Annotation Nation

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