Friday, May 4, 2018

Is Anything Mysterious Anymore? Guest post by Derek B. Miller

Today I welcome back Derek B. Miller, author of Norwegian By Night, The Girl in Green,  and American by Day.

Is Anything Mysterious Anymore?

I remember when the children opened the wardrobe and found Narnia inside. At the time, and for me, it was beyond imagining what they might find there. I was not reading a story when that happened; I was not entering into someone else's imagination or following a plot that already existed (or, worse, had been read by someone else). I was simply inside Narnia. Being inside Narnia was specific to the story, but the sense of being disembodied and reconstituted in another place — another life — was an instance of what John Gardner called "the fictional dream." The ink, the paper, the words, the gravity … these things all fell away. I was complete and entire and I was there.

The wonder could come from even more modest stories. I remember Bears in the Night — a book with only some twenty five repeated words — and I still remember how outrageous it was that the first bear actually went down the tree in search of that sound out in the woods. That yellow lantern in the woods would symbolize, for me, the ultimate fortitude in facing the unknown.

What I learned from all this, and understand now in a more reflective way, is that there is magic in the world, and some of it is the product of two minds working together — a writer and a reader — to create something neither one could have created alone. That fictional dream is, and must be, a co-production — a co-creation— and is, moreover, one that can never be truly shared. It exists and doesn't exist. It is mutual and solitary. It is social and personal. It embodies a duality on almost every level, and if that isn't magical I don't know what is.

True, I was a child then. These were children's stories. We can chalk up these magical experiences to youth, on the one hand, and the wistfulness of an adult looking back on that youth. And yet.

Even as an adult I can still fall into that fictional dream when I read something exceptional. Sometimes I can do it while writing because I'm a novelist. I still search — and not in vain — for moments of wonder in science fiction, or fantasy, or contemporary fiction.

When I say, "moments of wonder" I am evoking the wardrobe moment. Not only the surprise, but the full loss of one's self into the story. Sometimes, when I'm feeling cynical about the world myself, I think that some writers (and, heaven forbid), some readers have given up on that and have decided to settle; settle for stories that "twist" or narrators who "lie" or thrillers that "shock."

According to back cover of every commercial crime, mystery, or thriller these days, there is someone writing with exclamation points and saying, "lies to you from beginning to end!" whereas the thrillers "slam your head against a wall and leave you for dead!" Apparently — if sales are an indication – people are happy to plunk down their twelve bucks for that. Part of me has to wonder, though: Isn't all of that just a cheap stand-in for the magic? Or is it because we have given up on the magic because nothing is really mysterious anymore?

It used to be that everything was mysterious. Mary Shelley was in Geneva, where I lived for over a decade. She visited Chamonix in France and saw the glaciers there and Monte Blanc; a mountain I have climbed to the top and a glacier I have skied to the bottom. Coming from England, she had never seen anything like that. When Frankenstein chased his monster across the north pole, it was Chamonix she had in mind, and when her readers experienced that, it became the North Pole — a place no one had ever been to in 1818, and wouldn't until about 1908. And even then, how many people would see pictures? That took decades more. Today we can find a picture in seconds.

To Europeans, Africa and the Middle East and Asia were mysterious. The naivety and the ignorance had political ramifications, but it also created new literary possibilities. But of course, that was a two-way street. I toured the Pentagon once, and the tour guide said that in Vietnam, black American soldiers who were POWs were subjected to torture with steel wool and bushes because the Vietnamese were convinced their skin was dyed to make them better camouflaged in the war. They had never seen people of African heritage before.

Once, we were all discovering one another. Now we can Skype to friends or family in Japan, or Chili, or Cameroon on a whim. We still don't all understand one another very well, and our cultural differences remain significant and vibrant, but our friends can flip the cameras around and give us a tour of the neighborhood so we can gain some measure of insight into that.

I'm increasingly of the opinion, as I consider technology and our growing encounters with the world, that the mystery of discovery is giving way to what I think of as the mystery of understanding.

Today, we can observe almost anything. And yet, what do we understand about the world around us? The anthropologist Clifford Geertz once said the purpose of anthropology was to "reduce the puzzlement" of inter-cultural encounter. We needed to reduce it because it was inherent and real and there; because, at a very fundamental level, we didn't understand what people took to be the meaning of what they were doing. We could observe the dancing, or the voting, or the wars, but we could only surmise at the "why." I would say we still don't understand and the puzzlement is increasing because the rate of encounter exceeds our rate of learning.

For some writers and some readers, there will be a tendency to re-trench. To try and go back to the provincial and familiar and find something new there through intensity if not necessarily imagination: more violence, more sadism, more lies, more thrills, more twists and turns in ever-complex plots. The same-old same-old but on steroids. For me, though, I want something more. I want the wonderment. I want the fictional dream. And that direction — at least for me and my sensibilities and curiosities — isn't where I'm going to find it.

What I now think is that, if the mystery of discovery is fading away, then the mystery of puzzlement is what might take its place; a mystery to unravel, and untangle, and try to reach new understandings of brave new worlds that are visible but inexplicable, thereby opening space for exciting and new literary possibilities — new mysteries to solve. The genre, in other words, has a chance to radically grow and evolve. Unless, of course, if decides to cower and flee.

Today, with technology, the wardrobe is becoming real. We can almost literally step through it. If we have the courage to do that and seek new stories and take new risks and ask new questions, as writers and readers, what we might find on the other side could be the greatest mystery of them all.


DEREK B. MILLER has worked on international peace and security for think tanks, diplomatic missions, and the United Nations. He is the author of Norwegian by Night, which won the Crime Writers' Association's John Creasey Dagger Award, and The Girl in Green, which was long-listed for the Gold Dagger. His latest novel is AMERICAN BY DAY.

No comments: