So I read Water for Elephants a few weeks back, mainly because I had heard everyone raving about the awesome ending. How perfect and surprising it was, and sometimes I read books for artifacts like that, to see how a thing is done. Also, Depression era circuses = thumbs up.
And I learned something about myself I am still trying to sort through.
Let's get that ending out of the way.
I can't figure out if when people talk about the ending mean "the elephant did it" or "the 92 year old ran away with the circus." If it's the former, I don't know, I guess it's interesting? The elephant was certainly the only character I really loved, but it sort of conveniently absolves our heroes of any wrongdoing at all and leaves them morally free to be the heroes. It would have been more interesting if Marlene was less that completely perfect, the way heroines in these kinds of books tend to be. Also, it's so fast if you blink you'll miss it–and deeply foreshadowed by the hamfisted prologue that really obviously uses only pronouns and not names so that you know that the actual identities will prove Shocking in the end. If they mean the old man running off with the circus, I don't even know, I found that so unbelievably unrealistic it made me roll my eyes. And not unrealistic in a nice science fictional way, but in the "he's the hero so strangers do impossibly generous things for him for no reason" way. People not acting like people. Honestly, I want to think it was a dementia episode and Jacob is still in the hospital, that's how little I credit the idea that a hardened carnival man would take on the care of a 92-year old invalid for no apparent reason but that the old man who escaped from the hospital says he was in the circus back in the day. I was nonplussed by these endings, to say the least.
But that's not really my beef. It's a competently written book, reasonably engaging, if full of strangers acknowledging the Protagonistness of the hero, and thus doing unreasonable things for him for no reason. I was impressed with the physicality of the main character–many authors, when writing a gender they are not, miss the physical details. I loved Rosie. But then, it's easy to make your audience love an animal character.
My problem is, I've seen Carnivale.
Carnivale, for those of you who don't know, was a criminally short-lived television show which was also about a Depression era circus, and also about a hapless and orphaned young man who gets hired on when the show sweeps through his town. But it is also about the death of the magical medieval world and the birth of the nuclear century, about the scars of WWI, about a peculiarly American mythology full of ghosts, boom towns, and wastelands, about magic, death, incest, and religion, about avatars of light and dark–but so deftly written that even in the end you were never sure which was which. It was about family and the road and show business and each character was fascinating, even when the hero was onstage.
And Water for Elephants is about a kid who falls in love while working for the circus and then complains about everything in a nursing home.
This is my issue. And my terrible confession. The stakes were nothing in WFE, pretty much only whether Jacob and Marlene would end up together, Notebook-style. And that's fine, but it doesn't satisfy me. Especially when I've seen an SFnal treatment of the same material done with such power and daring and grace. The novel felt like a very elaborate set on which a terribly small story was played–the spangles were all there, but no one brought the horse act, you know?
I want to say I don't need all my stories to be SFnal, but is that really true anymore? What does that say about me as a reader? Something pretty shitty, I'd guess. Maybe I'm the worst kind of geek, who can't identify with simple human stories anymore.
But I don't think I'm that broken. I'm reading A Moveable Feast and loving it, many of my favorite novels are realist books. I can handle straight fiction just fine. I try to read several non-SF books a year, so as not to get blinkered. Some of them I really love. I'm not a genre warrior in that way. (Not that straight fiction doesn't dabble in fantasy all the time.)
But I find that the best speculative or genre or what have you gets to deeper truths these days. It's not just that circuses during the Depression were pretty cool and treated animals kind of badly, but that it was an indelible part of the American consciousness (with a European consciousness riding in the last car) for a reason, and it played a morality show in every town, just as mummers always have. That everyone who works in a circus is an avatar, that the whole thing is about the use and sale of archetypes. That in the early part of the 20th century there was a very real battle for the soul of this world, and it is incredibly unclear who won, if anyone did. Carnivale reminded me what American mythology could be like when people stop scoffing at the very idea, it kept my up nights wondering and imagining, it made me catch my breath. And it had one of the great villains of all time.
I just can't care that much if the story is only about who gets to have sex with the perfect blonde woman, and the villains (who are clearly marked by beating animals and old people) are defined by standing in the way of that correct intercourse.
I do sometimes amuse myself by imagining how mainstream tv and books and movies would be improved by adding monsters or other SFnal elements. I think this is how a lot of shows and books get made: Buffy is 90210 with monsters (filmed in the same high school, even), The Vampire Diaries is pretty much Gossip Girl with vampires, The Hunger Games is American Idol/The Amazing Race with added death. But I hate to think I'm so ensconced in my idiom that I have to have those things to enjoy it. Maybe that's wishful thinking. I do think True Blood gets to have more interesting stories than a straight Southern soap opera (with bad accents) would, that Doctor Who can get to me on a level that no amount of procedural cop shows can. There is an opportunity for deeper and bigger stories–not one that's always seized, but that's anything. In the end, the story of two young monogamous straight people getting together is only a tiny part of the experience of a lifetime, yet it is way over-represented in literature. Jacob's entire adult life with Marlene is dealt with and done in a couple of pages. Even if there's an elephant involved, I want more from my stories, something more arresting and dire, something with higher stakes and more ambition. I want more color and light , not just the bland literary "colorful" that gets put on the backs of books. I feel guilty that those mainstream stories don't grab me anymore, and of course their style rarely rises above the story, because if you're not minimalist you're nothing, these days. Mainstream fiction feels like a desert in which I find, every once in awhile, a cactus I can crack open for water. There is occasional loveliness. But nowhere I'd want to live.
Once you've seen the dark of the forest, the pleasant parlor doesn't really have the same excitement.
Yes, that's how we dress when we're ruined, said she.