Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Alternating Currents of Reality

Novels, motion pictures, and television dramas set in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and midtown Manhattan, suggesting their characters find readily available places to park and/or experience little or no delays in traffic are properly labeled historical if these activities are set in the past. If parking and ease of traffic are meant to be twenty-first century, such narratives are correctly labeled fantasy.

The Gifted English author Philip Pullman, sets his stories in the contemporary university setting of Oxford, where there are regularly scheduled dirigible shuttles to London and each character who comes on stage is accompanied by his or her familiar, an animal guide. With the exception of fictional characters being added and the presence of these familiars, all other elements in The Golden Compass Series represent reality pretty much as it is.

Pullman's novels are shelved under the general heading of fantasy and the more accurate and sophisticated subheading of Alternate Universe. The premise for AU stories is quite simple: Somewhere out there in the vast sea of Reality is a universe quite similar to our own. There are one or two differences which are spelled out for the reader as early as the opening pages of the first chapter.

In a broad-but-useful sense, you find comfort in thinking of all novels as alternate universe, particularly given the narratives are related by different writers. Your own experiences as a reader, a book and magazine editor, and a teacher of both literature and writing leaves you no doubt that each author creates an alternate reality each time he or she approaches their preferred medium for composition. 

Some writers such as the late Ken Millar, who wrote as Ross McDonald, or Dennis Lynds, who wrote under three pseudonyms, or Sue Grafton, who wrote under her own each wrote about a city anyone living in Santa Barbara would recognize as Santa Barbara. Yet each of the three called it something else, then wrote about that "something else" as though seeing a place and resident culture different from the reality conveyed by the other two. Once, when you were hosting a panel discussion in which all three were participants, you even asked them why they chose not to call their Santa Barbara by its real name. As if to prove your greater point, each gave a different answer.

Your greater point speaks to each author seeing a different Reality, shaping it from his or her actual and imagined experiences. The reality of each writer shapes the tone and composition of the story. Your own preference for writers is in some major way your own response to the Reality created by that individual. You're aware of the dark, gritty Reality you can expect each time you pick up a novel by James Lee Burke. Even though the novelist Donna Tartt has hundreds of thousands of fans, you know from your experience that her visions of Reality hold no interest for you, nor are you convinced of the solid, cohesive nature of her Reality.

On the other hand, a novelist such as Michael Chabon, in a matter of paragraphs, causes you to enter a Reality you know for a certainty does not exist and never did. Yet you have no trouble with his Alternate Universe concept of the state of Israel not working (as indeed it appears to be fracturing even now), and all its inhabitants being moved to, of all places, Alaska, where a new Jewish state is created.

On yet another hand, your own, in fact, you have the understanding of the rush of excited feelings when you are able to create a Reality that poses the literary equivalent of a laboratory for you, via a thematic concept, which you set about designing laboratory rats or characters for, then turn them loose in a maze you construct as you go along, its design appearing before you in concepts expressed as far back as the days of the philosopher and scientist, Aristotle.

The more outrageous the vision, the greater the sense of adventure and enjoyment, another reminder that you read and write to escape the quotidian Reality in search of one with a different filter or structure or sense of risk or the reward of a potential understanding well beyond the more simplistic and reductionist ones of the Reality in which you live.

Only yesterday, to your complete surprise, you encountered an alternate universe that is at once intriguing, mischievous, and guilt-inducing. You already have a full plate, so this offered alternate reality is clearly a distraction, taking you as far back in time as your first round of mid-term examinations in your first semester at UCLA. At the time, you had no choice; you accepted the risk of consequences by allowing yourself to be led away from the Reality of your studies, into the Reality of your imagination.

You have defined this new Reality to the point of having  four characters, one of whom is currently not at home because he is attending a book signing for his recent novel, held some five miles away from his home.

Approaching the home of the individual whose book is being celebrated this evening is the narrator of the story. Although a career coach in her mid forties, she reminds you somewhat of a character in another story, Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People," in which a door-to-door bible salesman knows his goal is to steal the wooden leg of another character. Your narrator, Margo, has the agenda of stealing the third individual in the story, a marmalade tabby named Phyllis, who belongs to the man having the book signing.

You have advanced Margo upon her target. At the turn to Mitch's street, Margo felt her purpose scurry away from her as though seeking an escape route the way she imagined Phyllis would when she attempted to fit Phyllis into the cat carrier.

The fourth individual will appear within a paragraph or so. He is Matt Bender, another friend of Phyllis' owner. Within minutes of their meeting, Margo will suspect Matt Bender is present for the very reason she is: to steal Phyllis.

In Reality, there are any number of places for individuals, even those such as Margo and Bender, to acquire cats without stealing them, much less stealing them from a friend. And so your Alternate Universe captures you, holds you hostage in its mystery you must somehow solve.

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