Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Five Wounds: A Fairy Tale

Traditional fairy tales have a kind of casual viciousness entirely alien to modern sensibilities, which distinguishes them not only from comic books (with which they otherwise have much in common), but also from the lavish gore of modern crime fiction. In fairy tales, there is never any attempt to ‘explain’ cruelty in psychological terms. It is not motivated by trauma and it does not result in trauma. It is simply there, an accepted part of the fictional world, just as starvation, premature death and casual violence were an accepted part of the lives of those who first listened to such tales in pre-modern Europe.

The violence in fairy tales is described in a matter-of-fact tone or (even more scandalously) is relished for its comic possibilities. Its cruelty is thus doubled. The narrative not only subjects the characters to all manner of ghastly events, but it refuses to acknowledge their right to be psychologically damaged, or to grieve.

This use of violence underlines the fact that fairy tales are not 'realistic,', by which I don't just mean that they feature magical plot devices. In general, their events do not occur as a result of modern, scientific relations between cause and effect; their characters are not explicable according to modern, post-Freudian notions of personhood; and the context in which their narratives occur is often composed only of a few isolated and impressionistic details. To put this last point in terms familiar to consumers of modern science-fiction and fantasy novels, fairy tales are not at all interested in 'worldbuilding.' Connections - between successive events, characters or apparently separate contextual details - are often made according to the same principle that links the two terms in a metaphor: i.e. by means of a violent imaginative leap.

Style is not just a matter of how you write. It is also a matter of what you miss out: what you do not feel it necessary to explain. Fairy tales take this principle to an absurd extreme. The wild imaginative leaps they make, and the gaping holes in their narrative logic, are another kind of cheerful violence that matches on a formal level all the amputations and violent transformations and deaths that occur in the content of their stories. These absences, taken together, constitute their distinctive voice, but that voice, judged according to the more familiar terms of a realist narrative, sounds like that of an affectless sociopath with a tenuous grip on reality.

Five Wounds takes the disturbing contradiction between fairy tales and realist narrative as its starting point. The five protagonists begin the story as irredeemably traumatised, and this trauma manifests itself physically, as deformity, but this is their natural condition, which they take for granted, and which in turn defines the world they live in and the limits of their choices. Those choices do not change their natures, but rather reveal them. Everything is simultaneously overly literal and overly symbolic. Everything is fixed in advance and everything is subject to arbitrary reversal.

This should not be taken to imply that Five Wounds is cold or detached. On the contrary, it is a boiling pot with the lid pressed down tight.

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