Have you heard? Rabbits can speak English! So, by the way, can cats, dogs, foxes, horses, pigs, lions, tigers, snakes, penguins, spiders and more. That’s not the only strange thing. Nosy septuagenarian ladies living in tiny English villages can solve murders that baffle the police. Little clones of Hitler have been raised in ordinary American homes. Clowns are aliens. Army nurses time travel. You wouldn’t believe it, but you do.
In fiction, that is. Why? Novels—and stories in other media—posit scenarios that are patently impossible, and yet when we read and watch we abandon our grounding in reality and go along with situations that are unlikely if not ridiculous. We do so voluntarily. We do so with pleasure. We do so because we recognize that there is a reason for twisting reality. Things in stories are heightened so that we will not miss a story’s point.
At the same time, we place value on fiction’s reflection of reality. We expect that a novel will capture, in some way, life as it is. We journey to fictional times and places because they remind us of where we are from. We relate to fictional people because they seem like us. We accept all manner of coincidence and outlandish events in stories, yet violently object when characters’ behavior skews wrong or our moral sensibilities are offended.
In short, we want stories to transport us beyond the normal yet also cause us to agree, or at least be persuaded by a story’s people, behavior and outcomes. All stories are to some degree unreal; all stories are to some degree authentic. All stories must somehow achieve a balance between the magic of the unreal and the assurance of authenticity—but how?
The Authority of Realism
Must all stories heighten human experience in some way? Isn’t it worthy to simply hold a mirror to ourselves and see what is actually there?
Literary Realism arose in the Nineteenth Century as a reaction to Romanticism, influenced by a new faith in science and awareness of social conditions particularly the depredations of the Industrial Revolution. The social critique and frank earthiness of Madam Bovary and The Rise of Silas Lapham shocked readers of their times yet ultimately achieved a prestige that persists to this day. From Mark Twain to Martin Amis, the realistic depiction of ordinary life is granted esteem and accrues an authority that more heightened stories struggle to match.
But is “realistic” fiction genuinely real? Stories of working-class conditions, proletariat struggle, regional singularity, and kitchen sink banality have their place yet documentary texture cannot by itself produce drama. For that, cowardly soldiers must seek bullet wounds to cure their shame. Unwitting bond traders must become icons of racial oppression. Black twin sisters must diverge into two different worlds.
In other words, in “ordinary” worlds characters who capture us tend to be different, do extraordinary things, or have experiences that go beyond the everyday.
There hardly could be a more ordinary world than that of Keiko Furukura, protagonist of Sayaka Murata’s novel Convenience Store Woman (2016). Keiko has worked in a convenience store, or konbini, for eighteen years, where her speech, dress and behavior are prescribed by a corporate manual. Her work and life are the height of banal servility yet the author herself works at convenience store and does not see Keiko as oppressed.
In fact, in spite of her life of conformity Keiko sees herself as “different”, and she is as is evident from an episode in her early childhood: [Read more…]