the dog saw coffee

There’s a particular kind of feeling on discovering a fresh pot of coffee–a sudden, savory reassurance that there is regeneration and renewal in the world.  The rabbis teach us that the world was only made to exist for six days, but every Shabbat it’s renewed to exist again.  That’s the kind of feeling I’m talking about. 

It’s similar, in fact, to the feeling I had when I read today’s Guardian interview with Malcolm Gladwell.  The demigod of the New Yorker, Gladwell can conjure multi-million dollar advances on his books, even while other bestselling authors predict the demise of print media.  His latest book, What the Dog Saw (London: Little Brown, 2009) republishes the best of his New Yorker essays.

I’ve not yet read Gladwell–a fact which I intend to alter as soon as possible–but I like what I can see.  Certainly there’s a disarming sincerity to the man who can admit,

I lead an astonishingly boring life. I always wake up at 8.30, unless I’ve set the alarm for 8.30, in which case I wake up at 6.30. Why is that? I’m not one for breakfast; just a cup of tea maybe at one of the cafes down the street from my apartment, where I sit and try to figure out what’s wrong with whatever it is I’m writing.

What caught my eye, however, was the headline quote, apparently Gladwell’s writing credo, and the key, it’s claimed, to his boojum-like success:

“I’m interested in slightly dumb, obvious questions, right,” he says. “I’m not interested in really deeply weird, obscure things. My tastes are not idiosyncratic. What I’m interested in turns out by happy circumstance to be what lots of people are interested in.”

At first, this may seem like an affront to genre fantasy.  ‘Deeply weird, obscure things’ are, after all, our main staple.  That’s what we write about.  Normal fantasy should not exist.  We write on the edge, on the borders, the clash of consciousnesses where we lose our grasp of what normality is, where the weird overruns us and the obscure obscures everything else.

But that clash on the shadowy marches, however, turns out to be our ‘happy circumstance’.  A lot of people are interested in it.  The weirder we are, the more people are drawn to us.  People turn to fantasy because they desire the subversive voice echoing in their minds.

What Gladwell has recognized about his own writing is what we should recognize about ours.  He is, in fact, whether knowingly or not echoing the great Flannery O’Connor.  There is, she says, a particularly about fiction.  By becoming as narrow as an individual, a place, a dialect, fiction carries the potential to grow as wide as the world.  The writer understands that a bomb in Hiroshima has immediate and lasting effect on life in Bryan, Texas.

That we are writing fantasy, in sub-created worlds, on unknown borders, does nothing to relieve us of this responsibility.  If anything, it intensifies it.  The best fantasy, while it may be caught up with intergalactic wars and ancient forces of magic, deals with the particular.  With particular individuals, locations.  The immediacy of its effect is less the immersion into the strange and weird, but the reality of the people so immersed.

Fantasy writing, like all fiction writing, consists of a series of ‘slightly dumb, obvious questions’.  What sort of sword would you take with you to slay a Jabberwock?  What do you do when you’re stuck in a crack in the ground under a rock you can’t move, with no chance of rescue?  Why not just kill that horrid Gollum creature and have done with it?

Fantasy concedes what realistic fiction often does not–that the weird is normal, life is not reasonable, but wild and tragic.  That concession can, perhaps, is solitude.  In solitude, nothing exists but the immediate and tactile.  The structures and imaginations of a obscure society are torn away.  But in solitude, the world opens to receive the individual.

The solitude of individual experience becomes a sort of Shabbat–the soul regenerates to live another day.  The immediate becomes the eternal.  The discovery of a full coffeepot becomes the discovery of new life the morning after Shabbat.

Read Ian Sample’s review of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book here.

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