Friday, July 22, 2005

When Sherlock Met Vivian Relf or, Mundane Fantasy

In Michael Chabon's novella The Final Solution, Sherlock Holmes comes out of retirement in the 1940s to solve the case of a young Jewish refugee's missing parrot and, eventually, a murder. Although Holmes--his body weakened, his mind failing, and his thoughts constantly on his impending death--solves the murder, he fails to unravel the central mystery of the story--the significance of the strings of German numbers the parrot recites. A Rosebud-like secret that not even Holmes could ever hope to penetrate, it is revealed to the readers in the book's final pages.

The detective story, in the Sherlock Holmes mode, is about the triumph of rationalism. The detective strides onto a scene in which the moral order of the world has been upset and, using his wits and powers of observation, sets the world aright. It's an empowerment fantasy, too: all that is required to repair the world's ills is sufficient intellect and determination. Holmes himself is the paragon of 19th century rationalism, of an Empire the sun would never set on; the stalwart and honorable emblem of the Victorian age (with, of course, a secret opium habit and an unrequited crush on his best friend).

When confronted with the irrational horrors of the 20th century, Chabon's Holmes crumbles. What can a detective--even The Great Detective--do to right the wrongs of the Holocaust and the World Wars? What form of rational inquiry is powerful enough to make sense of them?

Despite the rather absurd comparisons to the Harry Potter series, The Final Solution was the book that came most powerfully to my mind when I read Susannah Clarke's bestselling fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell earlier this year. Both books examine the Victorian conviction that the mysteries of the world can be solved with good old-fashioned English common sense, ingenuity, and perseverance. In both books, the inherent irrationality of the world overwhelms the best efforts to comprehend it.

John Clute has described Strange & Norrell as being a story about "the unthinning of the world". Standing at the other end of the Victorian era from Chabon's Holmes, the magician Norrell announces the return of practical magic after years of merely theoretical pursuit. Deeply paranoid and greedy for fame and recognition, Norrell hoards England's magical texts and attempts to encourage a new, rationalist approach to wizardry. His magic is devoid of mystery, mysticism, and wonder.

Of course, what Norrell and his sometimes pupil and friend Strange discover is that whether you want them or not, mystery and wonder are the unavoidable side effects of working magic. They attract the attention of a fairy, who proceeds to wreak havoc under their oblivious noses. By the book's end, and despite Norrell's best efforts, England has slipped back into an era of wonder.

The meeting of the magical and mundane, the rational and irrational, has been a staple of the fantasy genre since its inception. We could add Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist--in which the middle-class merchants of Lud-in-the-Mist banish their feudal lord and his fairy friends from their town, their language and their consciousness, only to watch as their children are carried away and fairy culture seeps back into their lives--to the list of books that chart the defeat of rationalism in the face of wonder. Neil Gaiman, having a great deal more sense than publicists and journalists, pointed out that Mirrlees' book is a clear progenitor of Strange & Norrell, and in Gaiman's novels he also places modern, rational protagonists in magical, irrational settings (Richard Mayhew, kidnapped into London Below in Neverwhere; Tristran Thorn, whisked off into Faerie in Stardust; Shadow, imbroiled in the affairs of the gods in American Gods. Apparently, Charlie Nancy has a similar journey in the upcoming Anansi Boys).

Traditionally, these rational 20th century types are quickly taken over by the mystical world they've entered. Bringing a modern sensibility to fantasy, as Gaiman, for example, is often credited with doing, actually means tinging the modern with the magical and the insane. But a new generation of fantasy writers is calling that assumption into question.

In China Miéville's Bas-Lag novels, magic is a science, and although his characters frequently find themselves facing terrible danger after meddling in magical affairs, these dangers are always comprehensible. Ian R. MacLeod's over-praised novel The Light Ages works so hard at making magic mundane that the entire book becomes an exercise in dullness. In the Harry Potter books, the art of learning magic is as simple and transparent as attending classes and handing in papers, calling for no more sacrifice than that required of any other student. Rowling's magic is ordinary because her story is one of a world emerging into rationalism, rejecting its history of prejudice and lawlessness.

Miéville and MacLeod's books are usually lumped in the Steampunk sub-category of fantasy. With some reservations, we might place Rowling there too. Steampunk, of course, is all about the 19th century--the age of industry, of scientific inquiry, of the triumph of intellect over superstition. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, or Susannah Clarke's title characters, the protagonists of Steampunk novels usually have no illusions about the moral rectitude of the world they live in, but neither are they eager to return to the pastoral and the feudal. It's interesting to note this turn towards the mundane in fantasy fiction, which has occurred at a time when mainstream or semi-mainstream fiction begins to incorporate genre elements in an attempt to express the world's inherent messiness.

Which brings me back to Michael Chabon and his McSweeney's anthologies (McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and the vastly superior McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories). Chabon's stated purpose in these anthologies is to reinvigorate the literary short story by infusing it with genre elements. To abolish, or at least strenuously ignore, genre boundaries, Chabon insists, is to make all literature stronger. I had some quibbles with this thesis, and with the success of Chabon's experiment, which I expressed when I reviewed Enchanted Chamber on Amazon (and got myself into a bit of trouble with Poppy Z. Brite too, although it all ended well). It seems that I'm not the only one who thought so, as suggested by Jonathan Lethem's intriging contribution to Enchanted Chamber, "Vivian Relf".

Vivian Relf is a young woman who keeps meeting our protagonist, Doran Close, at various points in his life. Although they both feel an overpowering sense of familiarity with each other, Vivian and Doran are strangers. Readers of genre fiction know how this story is supposed to play out: Vivian and Doran were lovers in a previous life, or they met but have had their memories of the meeting erased, or they're both aliens stranded on Earth who recognize each other on a cellular level. Lethem doesn't travel down any of these paths. Instead, he ends the story with Vivian and Doran meeting one last time, at a party given by Vivian's husband. As Doran watches in horror and despair, Vivian transforms their ethereal connection into an anecdote.
He suddenly wished to diminish it, in present company. He saw now that something precious was being taken from him in full view, a treasure he'd found in his possession only at the instant it was squandered. ... He might have known Vivian Relf better than anyone he actually knew, Doran thought now. Or anyway, he'd wanted to. It ought to mean the same thing. His soul creaked in irrelevent despair.
This is what happens, Lethem seems to be saying, when the mundane and the fantastic meet. Mix a dose of magic into your everyday life and what you'll get won't be new and exciting but curdled and sad--a slaughtered unicorn; a Monet painting reduced to grams of dry paint.

So who do you agree with, Chabon or Lethem? Is 19th century rationalism merely a fantasy, a brief interlude of reason between wonder and horror? Is the world fundamentally unknowable? Or does any mystery, too closely scrutinized, yield nothing but a disappointing secret?


Anonymous said...

I guess I'm in Chabon's camp, though his "savior of genre" routine makes my teeth ache. I just don't buy the idea that understanding equals disappointment.

HH said...

Hey there!:)

I belive in everything and I suggest you do the same. One of the comic books that deeply efected my life was "The Invisibles" ( by Grant Morrison ( is also into Chaos Magic (
It'd make some good reading for you I belive:)


Anonymous said...

Your blog is great! It's hard to find blogs with good content and people talking about Sherlock Holmes, these days! I have a new blog and a new website if you want to come leave me a comment or two! May I put a link to this blog of yours on mine? My name is Jan Manzer and I'm new to blogging. Would appreciate you checking out my site at Jan Manzer dot com. I tried a light-hearted spoof on this new site about my favourite detective, Mr. S. Holmes. I took some of the stories and did a search-and-replace on my own name. Kinda weird but kinda cool at the same time. Let me know what you think. You could try A Scandal in Bohemia first. it's located at Jan Manzer & the Scandal in Bohemia dot com.

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