Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Prestige (in a literary sense) and Neil Gaiman

Every great magic trick consists of three acts. The first act is called "The Pledge"; The magician shows you something ordinary, but of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn"; The magician makes his ordinary some thing do something extraordinary. Now if you're looking for the secret... you won't find it, that's why there's a third act called, "The Prestige"; this is the part with the twists and turns, where lives hang in the balance, and you see something shocking you've never seen before.
Cutter, played by Michael Caine, from the movie "The Prestige"

In the same way, this is how speculative fiction works. I don't want to say much about other genres that I'm not familiar with, but the principle of The Prestige may very well apply to them. What I find interesting is that successful speculative fiction sets up quite similarly to a magic trick. Let's take an example from Neil Gaiman's short story about the Holy Grail from the book Smoke and Mirrors. He presents us with something ordinary, in this case, the old woman buying something antique. The turn comes from the realization of the fact that this is the Holy Grail she has purchased and it is being sought after by young Sir Galahad. But the prestige occurs when we, the reader's, realize that this whole story is simply one of a probably many, with the magic lamp hiding in the antique shop.

However, the truly beautiful prestige at the end of a story is a prestige that goes beyond mere entertainment or escapism. I believe that what makes a work truly great is the use of the prestige to articulate a deeply human truth, a philosophy of sorts. There is something a bit disheartening about the way Gaiman ends his stories, specifically Stardust and Neverwhere. At the end, when Yvaine is staring up into the skies, or when Richard Mayhew is completely cut off from his former existence and he turns back to the underground world, the reader is left with a sense of alienation, enstrangement and a sense of longing, as if the alieantion itself is a loss. Contrast this with Camus or Dostoevsky, where enstrangement is part of existence itself, to be wrestled with but not regreted (more Camus than Dostoevsky).

Gaiman's "prestige" is hollow in this sense, it doesn't fill the reader with a new insight, instead offering a look into the immersion of the subject in an escapist world.

I think that speculative fiction can be more than mere escapism or entertainment. Presenting something wierd and wonderful is cool, but not intellectual or fulfilling. To break into a more cerebral plane, speculative fiction must present a truth in the veil of fantasy.

I like the example on the blog of my friend "Trivial Inanities", the entry The Golden Stair. It's a statement about the uselessness of believing in fairy tales, about the futility of chasing ideals that really don't have a real end.

That's what fiction is about; it's presenting a sort of magic trick that, in the end, really isn't about magic at all, but about the audience, the reader.


No comments: