Pullman, plots and stories

Metafilter had a posting on the ideas behind His Dark Materials a while back. It contains links to the video of a documentary where Melvyn Bragg interviews Pullman, as well as to articles discussing his literary influences, from Blake and Milton to Arthur Ransome.

The Plot

This set me to reading the books again. I enjoyed them. Pullman’s a craftsman, and the books show off both his skill in writing and his imagination. I still found the ending, the final separation of Lyra and Will, rather forced. Nick Lowe wrote The Well Tempered Plot Device, which partly deals with authorial insertions, not of a character who stands for the author, but of an object which stands for the Plot, so that, for example, we can say that “Darth Vader has turned to the Dark Side of the Plot” (this is also the essay which introduced “Clench Racing”, a sport for as many players as you have Stephen Donaldson books). scribb1e riffed on this, explaining that at the end of His Dark Materials “there can only be one hole in the Plot”, the one which leads out of the land of the dead.

Pullman’s stories are satisfying because they borrow from the greats: the Bible, Milton, Book of Common Prayer (where else does anyone learn the word “oblation”?) and the the English hymnal (“frail children of dust”). I doubt the Bible’s or the BCP’s authors would approve of His Dark Materials, but, as lisekit says, great art is characterised by its ability to sustain more than one interpretation.

The authors

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that God doesn’t exist, and that evangelicalism is like fandom (the latter wasn’t entirely an original idea of mine: livredor defines midrash as Biblical fan fiction). All these people who claim to be in a relationship with God obviously aren’t, so what are they doing? I think they’re not writing fan fiction but living it, creating their own stories in a world they see as belonging to the divine Author, stories which occur after their canon has ended.

In fandom, inserting yourself into the world you’re writing fan fiction about is seen as passé by the experts. There’s a disparaging term for characters who are obviously authorial self-insertions, Mary Sue. In religion, it’s not quite the same. You can and should insert yourself into the story, but you’d better not get too far above yourself if you do, unless you’re very convincing (this isn’t that dissimilar to fandom, since the real objection to Mary Sues is that they’re too perfect). C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere that Christians do not know whether they will be given bit parts or starring roles, but their job is to play them as best they can.

The disagreements within religions which are based on the same book are similar to the disagreements within Harry Potter fandom before the final book came out, about whether Ginny or Hermione should end up with Harry. The bitterest disagreements are always about sex, as illustrated by the perpetually imminent division (Rilstone wrote that in 2004) of Anglicanism into the ones who believe God hates shrimp and the ones who don’t believe in God.

Unlike Potter fandom, in Bible fandom there’s no-one who can produce the universally recognised Word of God, settling the matter with a final book (if you want to remain within the canons of your religion, that is: the Mormons and the Baha’i have taken the approach of adding a new book, as Christianity itself did to Judaism), so people end up grouping themselves into communities which more-or-less share a view on the One True Pairing, and the ideas of each community become fanon to those within it. The Bible is rich soil for this sort of thing because it is great art and so admits multiple interpretations.

The Story

What’s the point of living this way? To be in a story with meaning. lumpley speaks of the fun of roleplaying games as coming from three possible sources: one, wish-fulfilment; two, strategy and tactics; and three, “the fun of facing challenging moral, ethical, or socially informative situations”. He splits up games into two approaches:

Approach one: “made up journalism.” The conceit is, the characters and events of the game are real. The lives of the characters don’t have meaning, the same way that our real lives don’t have meaning. Approach two: fiction. Fiction, unlike life, is all meaning all the time. I prefer approach two. In particular, it’s very difficult to take approach one and yet get fun type three.

What does he mean by “our real lives don’t have meaning”? That shit (notably death) just happens. Wash’s I’m a leaf on the wind/I’m a leaf on a rake death scene in Serenity is shocking, and Anyone Can Die is a rare trope in fiction (except if you’re watching something by Joss Whedon), because we expect fiction to give us meanings for significant events.

So then, God is the Plot, in Lowe’s sense of the word, and if you believe, the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse. If you die, it’s what the Plot wanted. Your community knows they’re reading the canon the right way, that Harry really loves Hermione, that God disapproves of gay sex, or whatever, and everyone else has misunderstood the Plot. Of course, it’s not just about reading the book: you have the spirit of a dragonGod in you, however odd that sounds.

The reason Lowe can mock the Plot is that bad fiction leans on it so hard that it becomes ridiculous. The reader becomes too aware that they’re reading fiction and loses their suspension of disbelief. Why lose it? Because all readers know deep down that reality doesn’t come invested with meaning in that way.

One thought on “Pullman, plots and stories

  1. great art is characterised by its ability to sustain more than one interpretation

    Hmmm. On the other hand, bad writing is often characterised by its failure to leave the reader with a clear idea of what the hell just happened, which can look quite similar on the surface; the trick is to draw a clear distinction between the two properties. It would be a cop-out to say that great art is characterised by its ability to sustain more than one interpretation in a good way, but it’s not clear to me that it can be defined any more sensibly than that.

    Perhaps the distinction is that great art admits multiple interpretations all of which make sense, so that if you are confused about which interpretation to select it is at worst because several of them could plausibly have been the one intended by the author / most relevant to you / the One True Way / etc; whereas bad art leaves your brain confusedly ping-ponging back and forth between interpretations because none of them is sufficiently self-consistent and satisfying to make you think it’s the right one (for, again, any definition of “right” you happen to care about).

    Where does that leave the sort of second-rate stuff that has one interpretation only and explains it clearly to make sure you’re in no doubt? Perhaps it’s stuff that avoided failing by not even trying.

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