Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Trauma of Fantasy

I just finished Deathless by Catherynne Valente. Only one other time has a reading experience made me so utterly depressed that I never wanted to read another fantasy oriented book ever again. That was The Magicians/The Magician King by Lev Grossman. I'm not saying that these are bad books. On the contrary, all three of these books are very good - quite breathtaking, nearly impossible to put down, and so beautiful at times that reading them hurts. It's the hurting part that got me though, because these books still hurt (or will hurt) long after the reading experience is over.

Like most people who read fantasy, I read it for escapism. I have a good and happy marriage. I love my library job. I love my cats. I have good friends. But I really wouldn't mind being an expert swordsman or knowing magic. Or the ability to fly. I could go on... But none of these things are going to happen, so I read.

I would fall for this.
Fantasy literature was more powerful for me as a kid and teen. Without going into details, I had a fairly unhappy growing up experience. There wasn't nearly as much young adult oriented fantasy then (way back in the ancient decade of the 1990s) as there is now, but I obsessed over what I could find. I was reading both YA and adult fantasy from the time I was about 12. I would sit outside at school during recess and wish for a talking white horse from Valdemar to come over the hill and take me away. Or to stumble into Narnia, or for some cosmic being to come knocking on the door in a storm and ask for my help in saving the universe. I would have settled for developing mutant powers, as long as they weren't lame like Jubilee's. The first Harry Potter book didn't come out until I was a freshmen in college, but if I had been younger I probably would have cried over the Hogwarts letter that never came. I wanted these things to happen so very badly. Obviously, they never did, but I ended up growing up and living more or less happier ever after in a non-fantastical way.

"Go to your room and think about how shitty your mutant power is."
However, there is still a sense of trauma that comes from reading fantasy literature because I think that no matter how old we get or how happy we are, a part of every true fantasy lit. fan still wishes they would stumble into that magic world that we've always known was there, lurking but never showing itself. This is why books like Deathless, The Magicians, and The Magician King hurt so much. They are all about real people who wish with all their heart for these fantasy worlds and when they do finally stumble into them, they completely blow it.

In Deathless, Marya Morevna sees her three sisters all get married to birds who turn into men. She cannot wait until this happens to her and just when she thinks it's been too long, that no bird will ever come for her, one does. She marries Koschai the Deathless but eventually leaves him and the magical Country of Life to return to Leningrad and starve to death. Grossman's protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, gives a giant middle finger to the fantasy world not once, but twice. He is first accepted to a very exclusive school of magic (Brakebills) his senior year in high school. He excels at magic but then graduates and returns to the real world and squanders his knowledge, becoming an emo, alcoholic asshole and doing nothing with his days and nights. He then discovers that the magical land of Fillory that he loved as a child (heavily based on Narnia) is real. He and his friends go on a hero's quest in Fillory, but not even this magical land makes Quentin feel whole. He completes this quest but ends up going back to the real world again after the girlfriend he cheated on dies.

Marya and Quentin make me so very sad. There is a tiny part of me who still wishes to fall into a fantasy world. I don't know if I'll ever stop looking for magic, even though I'm way beyond puberty - the time when magic generally shows itself. For those who don't read fantasy, think of Marya and Quentin having won the lottery and then setting all the money on fire. These books are dangerous. They are beautiful and well written and worth reading if you aren't as wrapped up in the idea of a different reality as I am. But for me, they're also toxic and I almost wish I had never read them. That feels like a terrible thing to write. Maybe it is, but it's true. They just plain hit too close to home.

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