A friend of mine, who had never read Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, was less than impressed with the movie (in some circles, this is darkest blasphemy).
He wrote a story in which normal, contemporary people are plunked down in the midst of an epic fantasy battle between good and evil, but his protagonist is less concerned with that battle than with his terrible, excruciating toothache, and the other nonepic humans devote their time to various desperate, nonepic attempts to help him in an era of nondentistry. His critique circle dubbed this story The Fellowship of the Tooth.
One member of the circle, however, was not pleased with the story and felt his genre was being demeaned. Was it? You decide, but while you’re thinking about it, let’s also consider what kind of fiction The Fellowship of the Tooth actually is—and, just as important, isn’t.
Most of us, most of the time, write mimetic fiction. This means that stories “mime” reality. Most of the advice in this column, and in this magazine as a whole, is aimed at making your fiction seem more real—that is, more plausible, more believable—to your reader. This is true even if the work is a ghost story, an epic tale of elves or a science fiction story set on another planet. Yes, the reader knows those tales didn’t happen, and perhaps couldn’t happen, but the idea is to make him feel while he’s reading the book that it’s all real. Thus, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is, in fact, mimetic fiction. While you’re in Middle Earth, you believe.
But not all fiction is mimetic. You may choose to write nonmimetic fiction, which includes surreal fiction, slipstream, comedy and satire. Each of these has a different goal, and, to reach that goal, employs the usual techniques of fiction differently.
Surreal fiction is a sophisticated art form. Events happen divorced from conventional logic, as events in a dream may happen. But unlike dreams, everything in the story contributes to an overall coherent point, impression or emotion.
A marvelous example is Donald Barthelme’s Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby, which establishes the surreal note right from its opening:
Some of us had been threatening our friend Colby for a long time, because of the way he had been behaving. And now he’d gone too far, so we decided to hang him.
And they do, but not before elaborate arrangements are made about the invitations, the music, the drinks, the budget for the event, and what object would be tasteful to have Colby jump off as the noose tightens. Clearly, this story does not try to describe reality; neither friends nor hanging victims behave this way. And yet the story all adds up to a powerful point about the ways that social censure keeps us all in line, “strangling” unacceptable behavior and instead putting enormous emphasis on the rituals of entertainment.
Surreal fiction is not easy to do well. If you wish to try, here are some points to keep in mind:
In Barthelme’s story, we never find out what Colby did, but we participate in minute decisions about the types of gibbet, noose and music. This grounds the preposterous in the factual.
If one were going to plan a friendly hanging, outline the necessary steps.
There must be an overall point, subtly but definitely made. A bunch of weird happenings strung together do not add up to a story, surreal or otherwise.
It’s hard to sustain the reader’s semishocked, semi-amused interest in the absurd for too long.
Slipstream fiction is usually defined as fiction with a contemporary setting in which story elements are mimetic (that is, seem real)—except for one or two eerie strangenesses. Unlike outright fantasy, these are not explained or integrated into an alternate-reality setting. And unlike ghost stories or supernatural-evil stories such as Stephen King’s works, the nonmimetic weirdnesses don’t usually drive the main plot. They just sort of creep in around the edges, an inexplicable breeze of the mysterious blowing through everyday life.
A strong example is Alice Hoffman’s best-selling novel Seventh Heaven, which concerns the interactions of a group of suburban neighbors in the 1950s. Most characters and events are completely mimetic, but in the midst of the normalcy live Nora Silk and her young son Billy. Billy can sometimes foresee events before they happen, although no one believes him. And Nora, although she herself is unaware of it, somehow influences people to be their best selves, perhaps just from her own good-heartedness or perhaps from some supernatural activities. The author never tells us whether Nora is a witch. The novel thus slips into the unreal … maybe.
Like surreal fiction, slipstream is not easy to write well (or to sell). But it can be lovely storytelling. A few guidelines:
Slipstream is the effect of a whiff of magic upon reality, not of a different magical reality. Keep the fantastic elements very light.
You need complex, multidimensional people because the story lines are usually ordinary (such as the goings-on in Hoffman’s suburbia).
This is a literary type of fiction, and its fans usually want the pleasures of graceful, even eloquent writing. If your style is more serviceable than distinguished, you may be better off writing a different type of fiction.
Comedy ranges from gentle whimsy to crude farce. Not all comedy is nonmimetic; some creates humor out of completely real foibles and behaviors of flawed human beings. However, much comedy depends on exaggeration, and the exaggeration can be strong enough to take the story clean out of the possible and into the nonmimetic.
Complicating this is the fact that different people find different stories funny. But let’s take as an example of non-mimetic comedy the classic Woody Allen story The Kugelmass Episode, in which a nerdy professor of literature is transported into Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary and has an affair with Emma Bovary.
Clearly, we’re not to consider this as a mimetic alternate reality. It’s pure absurdity. What makes it work is the author’s witty comments on that absurdity. Emma, for instance, speaks “in the same fine English translation as the paperback.” And my favorite moment in the story, after Kugelmass takes Emma back with him to New York:
“I cannot get my mind around this,” a Stanford professor said. “First a strange character named Kugelmass, and now she’s gone from the book. Well, I guess the mark of a classic is that you can reread it a thousand times and always find something new.”
It’s a well-known truism that there are no clear rules for writing comedy. Therefore, I offer only the broadest suggestions:
Comedy relies on the un-expected.
Kugelmass, a pushy New Yorker, is an amusing contrast to Flaubert’s provincial 19th century French village.
Present the absurd in a deadpan manner, as if it were normal.
Nonmimetic comedy must race along. The last thing you want is for the reader to start thinking too closely about your story.
Satire is a specialized comedy in which a specific person or situation is held up to ridicule. Very often it’s intensely topical. For instance, Connie Willis’ satire At the Rialto is very funny—but only if you know something about quantum physics. All the scientists in her story unwittingly behave like the exotic theories they are discussing at a scientific conference: entropy, chaos theory, the Uncertainty Principle, entanglement at a distance. It’s a hilarious satire on the gap between human knowledge and human behavior, but it illustrates a key point about satire: If readers aren’t familiar with the original topic being satirized, they won’t appreciate the humor.
A more accessible example of satire is Carina Chocano’s recent New Yorker piece, How To Lay Off Your Kids. This takes as its subject the guidelines industry uses for “painlessly” laying off employees. By applying them to laying off your children in times of “household budget cutbacks,” Chocano underscores the smarminess of assuming that the loss of a job need not be a “harrowing experience”:
Parents must establish a documented, justifiable reason for the layoff of a child. Eliminating a position (i.e., middle child) as a pretext for replacing one child with another of a different name could result in litigation.
Here are guidelines for making satire effective:
This depends partly on your intended markets. Readers of The New Yorker, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and Sports Illustrated have different tastes and expertise.
Make the details of your invented situation parallel as closely as possible the details of the original topic. This both amuses readers and points up the absurdity of the original.
Act as if what you are writing is perfectly reasonable and logical.
In At the Rialto, the point is that human behavior is fully as contradictory and weird as particle physics. In How to Lay Off Your Kids, the point is the insincere posturing of corporations.
All nonmimetic fiction is a balancing act between “reality” and the obviously unreal, with no attempt by the author to make the latter seem like the former. Sometimes it’s not an easy tightrope to walk. But when it succeeds, such fiction can brilliantly illuminate the human condition.
This article appeared in the July 2002 issue of Writer’s Digest.