Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Searching for Plot in Fairy-Land

We generally think of memories getting “fuzzy” as the years wear over them. But some memories do just the opposite: they contract and become focused on one or two details. For instance, I lived in Georgia for a few months when I was six and seven years old, and I had a best friend that I hung out with every day. We must have done a lot together, but I only remember three things about him (other than that he was my best friend): (1) his name was Len Matlock, (2) he liked drawing monsters, and (3) he thought it was rude to say “Thanks” instead of “Thank you.” That last memory stands out in my memory very vividly indeed, even though almost everything else has disappeared.

As a second example, most people call Ishtar the worst big-budget film ever made. But even though I’ve forgotten almost everything about the movie (maybe because it was the worst ever made; I don’t know) my clear and present memory of one detail serves me very faithfully: Ishtar contains the funniest song-writing scene ever made. When all has faded, that one scene is now what Ishtar means to me. My memory of that scene is the drawer in which my impression of the whole movie is stored.

I didn’t like George MacDonald’s Phantastes the first time I read it. Until about three weeks ago, thousands upon thousands of the details had escaped my active memory entirely, but still I held on to an impression of the book, a headline that all my memories had coalesced into. What I called my memory of the book was simply this: near the beginning the protagonist finds a magical woman who runs away and hardly ever shows up again, a salient symptom of the complete absence of coherent plot. For about twenty years, that was Phantases in my mind: a book I didn’t like because it had no plot.

This time through, though, MacDonald’s fantasy pleasantly surprised me. Anodos found the woman (it turns out she was made of white marble), and she took off, and I said to myself, “Don’t expect to see her again anytime soon.” And then, freed from this weird assumption that one particular living statue would have to lie at the center of a narrative structure, or that there would be a unified linear structure at all, I went wandering with Anodos through the woods of his Fairy-Land and enjoyed every scene, including all the diversions and stories within stories.

Suddenly just a few days ago, while thinking about how much I enjoyed wandering through Fairy-Land this time, it occurred to me that I had written blog posts about “wandering through the woods” with characters in other books – books I absolutely love. Faerie Queene. Le Morte D’Arthur. In fact, just last month I blogged about how much I enjoyed the scarcity of plot in Moby-Dick. And yet all my memories of Phantastes had boiled down to “I didn’t like it because it didn’t have enough plot.” What was I thinking?

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