Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Tragedy is mundane

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time there was a person who struggled with adversity -- and lost. They lost their loved ones, saw their hopes and dreams dashed, got humiliated and hurt, possibly killed -- all for no good reason, achieving nothing. The end.

Did you like the story? No? Well, this happens every day in the real world. Stories of pointless suffering and cruelty are typical of real human lives. And I'm not interested in fictional accounts along these lines. I feel betrayed and disappointed when an author introduces a sympathetic main character, places them in a quandary, and makes them lose.

For instance, take a plot thread from China Miéville's celebrated Perdido Street Station (2000). Spoiler warning.

Once upon a time there was a struggling artist who received a commission to make a statue of a crime boss. She worked hard and it looked like the piece would become her greatest achievement ever. But while she was working, the boss erroneously got the impression that the artist's lover was trying to muscle in on his turf. He then imprisoned the artist and had his henchmen starve, beat, rape and mutilate her. After weeks of this, she was rescued by her lover, only to be attacked by a soul-sucking monster that left her severely mentally handicapped and unable to care for herself. The statue was left unfinished. The boss continued his business. The end.

Like it? I don't. I think it's a pointless, cruel, realistic story. I like fiction that is not like the real world with its mundane randomness. I want redemption, wrongs righted, and just deserts for all.

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7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved that book, and I think you're doing it an injustice. The subplot you described is deeply unpleasant, but the main story is a victory with a very steep price - that while the protagonists do the right thing and eventually succeed in the Quest, the cost is high, maybe too high.

In a similar vein, I very much liked the deeply depressing The Constant Gardener in movies earlier this year.

28 December, 2005 03:00  
Blogger Martin said...

By all means, let main characters go down fighting, casualties in a battle they've chosen.

But the main story you mention is a victory for a male character, while the steep price is paid in pain, fear and random humiliation by a female character who is never even allowed to understand what's going on. It's as if Sam Gamgee would come home to the Shire after the war and find Rosie Cotton's beat-up corpse hanging from the Party Tree.

28 December, 2005 14:30  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Given China's vitriolic views on Tolkien, he would probably have been pleased with this distinction. And I do in fact think the damages to the Shire in RotK suffer from being too impersonal. Sure, they cut down the Party Tree, but that is almost described as the worst casualty of the war...

I can appreciate books where Things Work Out as well as ones where the plot isn't really resolved (The Scar is an even greater offender here - the grand plan is in many ways beside the point - and even so I think it's the best Miéville book) and the wicked go unpunished.

Although actually I like the middle ground best, which is where you find, for instance, George R.R. Martin.

/Akhôrahil

28 December, 2005 17:45  
Blogger Johan A said...

Heh. You are wrong and China is right. :-p

No, seriously. I am happy that there are people out there writing real fantasy with real grief and real grit, including pointing out the grim meaninglessness of some things. And Rosie strung up, buthcehered and raped, would have been a better ending to most fantasy novels. Not to the LotR, though, but that's because of internal consistency reasons and because the LotR isn't that kind of story.

29 December, 2005 23:38  
Blogger Martin said...

Perdido Street Station is at heart a story of pest control. The threat that is overcome is as mindless and random as an ant infestation. While the real thinking baddies are left untouched.

31 December, 2005 19:09  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well...

That the good guys win such spectacular victories as they do in most modern fantasy is in a way far less realistic than the goblins and fireballs. The bastards in power don't let go that easily in real life.

/Akhôrahil
(who would very much have liked to read a reasonable description of Aragorn's monarchic takeover of Gondor at the very end of the Third Age)

01 January, 2006 23:14  
Blogger Martin said...

Aragorn was clearly a representative of the Master Race of Nûmenor. I assume that the people of Gondor simply recognised themselves as Untermensche in need of his benevolent leadership. It was his birthright, you know. (-;

01 January, 2006 23:23  

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