Monday, May 10, 2010

In Search of a Sense of Wonder in Fantasy: Some Thoughts on Lost and Not Found – Director’s Cut

Teel McClanahan III was kind enough to send me his novelette Lost and Not Found - Director's Cut. I read many novels and the occasional short story, but the hundred page novel is an experience in its own right that does not come around very often. This is certainly not an easy genre to work with. I can think of only one truly great short novel, Stephen King's Shawshank Redemption. The pitfall of writing at this length is that it is too long for the simple short story concept and not long enough to establish the character and plot of full length novels. This certainly applies to McClanahan's whimsical account of an unnamed former lost boy, who returns to Neverland as an adult and runs off with Tinkerbell. I was intrigued by the main character and some of the world's McClanahan describes, but there is no real plot or character development to allow for a meaningful story. While it might be acceptable to the world of post-modernism to eschew plot and character, as a reader of fantasy, I have distinctively old fashioned tastes and literary values. Most of all I desire from fantasy a sense of magic and wonder, something that establishment post-modernism can only look askance at.

McClanahan's attempt rethink the Peter Pan story has its parallel with the movie Hook and Dave Barry's Peter Pan prequels. His deconstruction of fantasy has its parallel in Neil Gaiman. Post-modernism and deconstructionism get a bad rap as a means for academic elites to sit on their thrones and arrogantly heap scorn over anything that does not fit in with their politically correct values and sense of what counts as literature. The thing that I admire so much about Gaiman, with his Sandman graphic novels and American Gods, is that while he is busy deconstructing mythology he does it from a perspective of love and admiration for it. One never gets the sense that he is talking down to his material. Rather it is his desire to find a way to make mythology meaningful in a post mythological age. I would contrast Gaiman with Gregory Maguire and his Wicked series. While I loved the musical version of Wicked, I find his books to be effused with this arrogant cynicism. His deconstruction of the Wicked Witch of the West seems to stem not just from an innocent desire to rethink the world of Oz, but as a put down to L. Frank Baum as a sexist male. To me, fantasy is about a sense of wonder. Even if we go into dark places; it should be as a sense of tragedy. If the hero is going to go down it should be in saving the world that he loves and that we the reader love in turn. A good example of this, again in a fantasy with a strong deconstructionist element, is Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series. Snarky moralist preaching of either the traditional or post-modern kind has no place in fantasy. While I love C. S. Lewis, this is the major weakness of the Narnia series. I think Lewis serves as a good lesson here, though, in that he can get you to overlook his Christian moralizing with the sheer sense of wonder he offers in Narnia. (That and a killer sense of satire that allows you to take his preaching with a wink and a nod.)

Lost and Not Found falls into the camp of Maguire. McClanahan walks into the world of Neverland not out of a childlike sense of wonder, but out of an adult's cynicism. I do not get this sense that he loves Neverland or Peter Pan. On the contrary, Peter is a contemptible child and Neverland, a child's world, is to be replaced by something more "adult" like Haven. The one thing about Neverland that he seems to like is Tinkerbell. If I were to sum up the novel it would be as his personal sexual fantasy with "Tink." (I assume it is not for nothing that the main character goes unnamed.) Not that McClanahan's love scenes, while numerous, are that graphic. That being said, they felt out of place and wrong and in that sense pornographic.

As a lover of fantasy literature, I look forward to the day when fantasy achieves the literary respect it deserves, when Lord of the Rings is seen as not just great fantasy, but one of the greatest works of twentieth century literature period. As much as I want this, I would not have it by selling out to post-modern deconstructionism. Fantasy should be the bastion to stand against such cynicism. If that means that we never get the respect of the "literary" types then so be it.

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