At this time of year, I’m inclined to throw off my cynicism. There aren’t many times you can walk through a crowded train station and have a huge group of stressed passengers, simply smiling at each other as they listen to a band or a choir singing some carols. Giant flashing reindeer may not be your thing, but there’s something about seeing twinkly lights flicker on as the sun goes down that just makes things seem a little more cheery. And it’s all about belief. From the little kids scribbling letters to Father Christmas, to the charities pouring their adverts into our homes, to the priest preparing for an advent service, we’re all encouraged to believe in hope, the power of love.
People are more inclined than you’d think to suspend their disbelief. It’s something writers have relied on since the first story tellers around the campfire decided that the one about the hunt was a bit boring. They could spice it up by adding a monster lurking in the forest, or a benevolent spirit that helped them out just at the right time, so they trapped enough dinner for the whole village. Done well, it enhances and lifts a story out of the mundane, and takes the reader somewhere truly magical.
I finally got around to reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. In fact, I started reading it as a ‘travel’ book (the one that sits in my bag and comes out whenever I get a seat on the Underground) but I could tell from the first couple of pages that I would need to devote a bit more serious time to it. So I took it on holiday, so I could devote the entire four hours of the flight to reading it. Almost from the outset, we’re placed into an alternate world. It’s recognisable, but with enough extravagant details to make it special. Flying carpets, the spirit of a man occupying a room for over a hundred years, a woman that inspires virility in her cattle, people marrying their own sisters (Eugenides book Middlesex is still my favourite incest story – never have I been so supportive of a brother and sister finding happiness together). Part of the reason it works is because it is so very simply stated, in no way made to seem unusual, and not even commented on. What it allows the writer to do is expand on our ideas of the effect of grief (the woman that never spoke again after her husband shot himself) and tragedy (the man that goes mad and is tied to a tree for the rest of his life). Admittedly awful sentiments are given a wider and more encroaching context, and this dabbling in magical and unexpected elements give the story a true sense of excitement and spectacular reach. Through something unbelievable, it becomes more poignant.
There are occasions where it just doesn’t work. While I adored The Time Traveller’s Wife, the second novel by Audrey Niffenegger, Her Fearful Symmetry, didn’t manage to pull it off. Partly, it was because the ‘ghost’ in the story turned up so late. At no point were we given an indication that ghosts could be real in this particular version of the world, yet one suddenly turned up part way through the novel, and it just didn’t ring true. The time travelling in the first novel is part of the entire premise for the story, and is given credibility through the way it is treated as an almost medical and hereditary condition. The rule is, either explain it and give it credence, or make it part of the world your characters inhabit, without commenting on it.
In a collection of short stories I’m currently reading, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, by Aimee Bender, the opening of one of the stories starts with this detail:
“One week after his father died, my father woke up with a hole in his stomach. It wasn’t a small hole, some kind of mild break in the skin, it was a hole the size of a soccer ball and it went all the way through. You could now see behind him like he was an enlarged peephole.”
They go to the doctor’s and try to figure out what’s happening with his internal organs, but other than that it is simply reported as a fact of the narrative. In the same way, this becomes a physical representation of the grief at losing his father, that he had been permanently altered by his loss. Another story starts with the line, “There was an imp that went to school with stilts on so that no one would know he was an imp.” Not only is she a fantastic storyteller, she creates magical pockets in the world, seamlessly blending the fantastical with the mundane.
That’s the beauty of fiction, that you can play with the expectations of the reader, the laws of physics, and the manifestations of experiences and feelings. So make me believe. Take me somewhere new and interesting, but do it with conviction, don’t let me see the seams between the real world and yours.