Monday, September 29, 2014

Don't Write This: Fiction in Danger Zones

Senility as wish fulfillment.
I've already written a full review of Jo Walton's My Real Children, but I want to talk about something not in my review, and in no review I've yet read. The novel follows Patricia Cowan as she suffers a peculiar senility, forgetting most of her life, and then seeming to recall two different lives in high detail. Late in the novel, we see how the onset of senility hits her in both lives, and in one her lover dies. Patricia immediately hopes her senility will make her forget the death happened. This excited me. 

For the last two years of his life, I called my grandfather every night to make sure he had at least a little daily contact with a family member. He hated living in an old folks home, and was very demented on top of that. Our nightly contact made him remember me more than the other grandchildren, though there were still calls when he mistook me for his son, friend, and on one night, his mother. Living that intensely with a disability can stifle the way you think about it. It's easier to default to a somber, anodyne mode, both in avoiding conflicts, and in taking your mind off of things. It takes a different mind to see something so painful and be creative with it.

In reading that paragraph of Walton's novel, I wasn't offended. It was enlivening to read someone subvert our default thoughts of dementia, and simultaneously, tap into those desires, because in moments of weakness we've all wanted to forget things. In the moment, I could only compare it to FX's Archer.

I'm probably the only person to parallel My Real Children and Archer, but one of Archer's great strengths is its anarchic sense of humor. People mistake the show as dark, but it features the lightest hearted graphic tiger mauling I've ever seen. The series uses the drug trade, asphyxia fetishes, eco-terrorism, homophobia and the Oedipal complex as fodder for amazing character humor. It is neither didactic nor cynical; it's creative enough with its deployment of highly flawed characters to avoid offense while depicting the people themselves as intensely offensive. This is great for some audiences (like me), but also stifles how others think about creativity in danger zones, making them think it has to be transgressive.

Archer is often transgressive, as is most comedy about touchy subjects, because that's the easy edge for a laugh. But take George Carlin's early performances of The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television. For the first six he's juvenile and profane – and then he hits "fuck." It's the beginning of life, he says, and yet it's something we use to hurt each other. Very rare for George Carlin, he isn't sure about his footing on a topic, and only has one joke, before saying he'll try to make a full bit out of it next year. He did, and the later versions have never been as interesting to me. That he's vulnerable and unsure about something so touchy, after being so flippant about the other touchy subjects is a haunting deviation.

As I've aged, I've become increasingly attracted to artists who can remain creative in danger zones. It seems either the hardest thing to do (plausible) or so risky to market that it's avoided (also plausible). Certainly if you botch your attempt at a new angle on pedophilia then you can offend a wide audience. But if you try, you might get John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let the Right One In, and that scene wherein the pedophile Hakan rents a child prostitute, but is then so disturbed by how the boy is treated that he tries to give him enough money to run away. This foreshadows the compassionate angle Lindqvist later casts over the vampire/familiar relationship. The compassion of a pedophile in an otherwise uncaring world was so unexpected that it gave me goosebumps, where most vampire stories give me boredom. 

A predator in need of companionship.
These deviations stir me up. In most art you can get a sense of how touchy subjects will be handled; Grimdark Fantasy will probably slouch into rape, and a children's cartoon will probably avoid or didactically instruct about disabilities. Predictable paths are not always wrong, and often writing from a place of reliable sensitivity can avoid opening wounds. But I don't accept the failure state of attempted creativity in a danger zone as loathsome. My general reaction is discomfort for an author who probably knows they screwed up on something meaningful. It reads like seeing someone fall when both of us thought they should have flown.

Maybe I'm so attracted to these because I haven't figured out their parameters yet. There's a strong attraction for some people mired in what we don't yet understand. But to remain flexible with in writing about topics as tender as senility and pedophilia is too much for most artists. It's why most won't touch it at all. That might be why the few that can do it, even for a paragraph are so precious.


  1. It's a fine line to walk and I'm sure most don't know how to do it, which is why they fail in their attempts. I admit I stay on the light side. I know my boundaries and what I can do.

  2. Thank you. I don't know either the book or the show, and will track down the book. I have a book of George Carlin's letters - and love the way they romp across a range of topics, a range of feelings, a range of 'selfs'.
    I veer towards dark humour myself. It keeps me sane(ish). Not trivialising difficult subjects - but shining a different light on them. I am terrified that my disease will eat my brain and loved it when I came across the joke about the best thing about having dementia. And someday yes, I probably will be able to hide my own Easter eggs.

  3. Yow, yes. My dad has Alzheimer's now. I've managed to catch him mostly on good days, but he thinks it's getting worse quickly. I might have to give that one a look.

  4. Some excellent points here. I agree that when taboo subjects are handled with intelligence and twists that make people think it can be a really good thing, but yeah, also really hard to do and often done badly. When someone actually pulls it off, it's genius.

  5. I enjoy (that's maybe not the right word...appreciate?) when an author can take something difficult and not tiptoe around it, but express it in a way that stands out.


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