After reading a bunch of books with crappy characterization I wanted to remind myself
that good characterization actually does exist. So I turned to
by Geoff Ryman, which is probably my favorite prose novel. It was the last book on the
syllabus of a seminar I took my last semester at Berkeley called "The Fantastic in
Literature," taught by Ojars Krātiņš and another strong contender for the
best class I had in college. I was actually a little apprehensive when I returned to it
— what if it turned out not to be as good as I'd remembered? What if the book was
populated by crash test dummies with nametags, just like every other book I'd read in '05,
and I'd just done a better job filling in the blanks the last time I'd read it?
Luckily, this turned out not to be a problem. The magical thing about this novel is
that Ryman keeps tossing in characters, and each one has more depth than most authors
manage to achieve for any character they ever write. And somehow he manages to convey
a sense of this depth in a matter of a few lines. Even the most incidental characters
end up feeling more real than the protagonists of most stories. Hell, they feel more
real than most people I know in real life.
Some of this might be a side effect of the basic project of the novel. Ryman describes
himself in the afterword as "a fantasy writer who fell in love with realism," one deeply
concerned with the intersection of fantasy and reality (which was also the theme to which
Prof. Krātiņš returned to with every book on the syllabus). Was
takes a fantasy — The Wizard of Oz, both book and movie — and weaves
several stories around it that could hardly be more thoroughly grounded in reality. He
tells the story of the "real" Dorothy, growing up as an orphan in Kansas in the 1870s and
'80s, and he's been to the Registry Office of Manhattan, Kansas, and he's been to the
Riley County Historical Museum, and he actually knows who lived in the town where he sends
his Dorothy and where all the buildings were and stuff. He tells the story of a young
Kansan in the 1950s who meets Dorothy in her old age. He tells the story of a dying
Canadian horror-movie actor whose childhood was tangled up in Oz. He tells the story of
L. Frank Baum. He tells the story of Judy Garland. The list could go on. And the way
he plays the stories against one another is quite masterful, and the novel turns The
Wizard of Oz into a palimpsest of resonances and it's all very literary and so forth.
But what separates Was from an empty exercise like The
Hours is that each story, on its own, is a tour de force. The core of the book
is Dorothy's story, and it's the most heartbreaking thing I've ever read. I tend to do
most of my reading in little scraps of time here and there, waiting for food in restaurants
and waiting for tutoring students and such, but this book made that difficult — I'd
say, "Okay, do this drill," and while the student was working through a page of geometry
problems I'd flip over this book and within moments I'd be blinking away tears and lost
to the world.
On Myers-Briggs tests my results tend to come out heavily biased in favor of
introversion and judging and moderately biased toward intuition; thinking vs. feeling,
however, is a coin flip. Recently I've tended to score as an INTJ more often than as
an INFJ, but the more sophisticated algorithms call me an INXJ. And while the MBTI is
an arbitrary and unscientific personality schema, it does reflect my taste in art pretty
well. The stuff I like tends to be pretty evenly split between cerebral stuff (The
Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, say) and stuff that is technically quite simple
but emotionally transcendent (Nirvana). And of course I especially like things that
are 50/50, or rather 100/100, appealing both to my brain and my heart: The Sweet
Hereafter, Three Colors: Red... and Was
falls into this category. But the emotional side is hard to talk about. Part of
it's the "dancing about architecture" problem, but a lot of it is simply not wanting
to pick apart exactly how Ryman uses squiggles of ink to make me cry. I would rather
reply not by writing an analytical article but rather by writing my own stories. There
are a couple of things on the intellectual side that I'd like to mention, though.
I was very much struck by the way that Was shows that Dorothy's life doesn't
occur in a vacuum — that there is no Sein outside of Dasein, no
existence outside of existence in a particular place and time, and that the tragedy
of Dorothy is just a patch in the quilt that makes up the tragedy of Kansas. That
history isn't just a bunch of names and dates to choose from in marking up a Scantron,
but is the web of cause and effect that determines what our lives will be like. To
my students, the Kansas-Nebraska Act is an obscure footnote in history, often confused
with the Missouri Compromise, and the section on Bleeding Kansas offers the opportunity
to giggle at the phrase "border ruffians" and not much more; but to Dorothy, Ryman
shows us, they are among the root reasons that her life is so hard, though she doesn't
know it. Similar observations could be made about all of us.
There's another reason Dorothy's life is hard: she's surrounded by people who hurt her.
So's the actor. So's Judy Garland. So's everyone. It's not on purpose, not usually.
There's a point at which the actor, as a baby, realizes that he's going to have to learn
language to communicate with his mother, that she won't automatically understand him
just out of love — and that shock recurs again and again for all sorts of different
characters in all sorts of circumstances, the shock that love isn't all you need. People
can love each other, genuinely and deeply, but that doesn't automatically make them good
for one another. One character, in 1953, wonders, "If we're together for such a short
time, why do we make life so hard on each other?" Seventy years earlier, another reflects
that the members of her family "had all failed, failed in the most fundamental way —
to make a way of life that was possible," and realizes that it wasn't because of hate.
Instead, "they had all stood back-to-back, shouting 'love' at the tops of their lungs, but
in the wrong direction, away from each other." Pharmacies have computers to check
prescriptions because helpful medicines can combine to make poison. The tragedy of
Was is that loving hearts can do the same.
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