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    genre fiction and reality

    I've been dwelling a lot lately on the question of why I think conspiracy theories are often more compelling or more frightening than fiction.

    I think part of it comes down to the idea that a conspiracy theory makes a claim to truth that fiction, especially genre fiction, doesn't often make. You may not believe that Cathy O'Brien has been a victim of mind-control enslavement, but you can't deny that her book purports to be a factual representation of reality. Trying to square her picture of reality with my own is an experience that's at least a bit unsettling—and the fact that we exist in a perpetual state of occlusion means that it can never really be done definitively, which sort of squares the "unsettling" factor.

    I like to be unsettled, and I like being exposed to far-out ideas, and it would seem like these two tastes of mine would be pretty neatly fulfilled by the genres of horror fiction and science fiction, respectively, but the way that most pieces of horror or science fiction seem so content to exist only within the confines of their own market-driven boundaries causes most of their power to ebb away. Increasingly, if I want to be unsettled I'll turn to something like a conspiracy theory; if I want to be exposed to far-out ideas I'll read something like fringe physics or books about the current (postmodernist) state of warfare: books that are making actual claims about the real world, in all its frightening, confusing magnitude, that are attempting to do more than just "tell a story." (It occurs to me that my favorite horror author—H.P. Lovecraft—and my favorite science-fiction author—Philip K. Dick—may in fact be my favorites for the very reason that their fiction bleeds through these genre boundaries: their works interface with the real world multivalently, in ways that are complicated enough that it becomes less easy to dismiss them as "just stories.")

    So-called "literary fiction" exists in sort of a middle ground that I haven't fully thought through yet: although literary novels or short stories are, by definition, fictional, the standard "realistic" novel is also engaged on at least some level in making claims about the functioning of the world that we inhabit. Is this why "magical realism" stories convey mystery more potently than a more genrefied fantasy novel? Is this why the science-fictiony elements of a writer like Don DeLillo (the watch that tells the future in Cosmopolis, or the Technicolor supersaturation of the world of White Noise) seem more "charged," more insightful somehow, than they would if they were to appear in a more traditional science-fiction novel?

    I feel like this way of thinking about it is over-simplified somewhere, and the existence of books that exist with an uncomfortable relationship to both genre and realism (like the "slipstream" books on this list) further complicates this question, but, well, I'm still thinking it all through.


    Friday, March 03, 2006
    11:28 AM


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