Monday, February 28, 2011

The Magical World

I've been reading a lot of Neil Gaiman lately, both his short fiction and novels. I'm currently about three-fourths of the way through American Gods, which is based on the premise (no spoilers, don't worry) that the gods of every culture that ever came to America were carried here in the hearts of the travelers and then gradually forgotten and left to fend for themselves in the modern world. It's a fascinating idea, and, like any story that deals with the mystical, oddly stirring.

I wonder if these kinds of stories have the same effect on other people as they have on me. I tend to believe that the Harry Potter books, for example, are so beloved because they take place in a world that we wish existed. I think that as children, we all experience the world as a magical place, even if it isn't the good kind of magic. We believe we are at the mercy of the universe, that anything could happen at any time. Gaiman is especially adept at portraying the terrifying potential of such a universe, but it's not all the dark side with him. In fact, one of the things I find so appealing about a lot of his work is that it almost completely ignores the boring dichotomy of good vs. evil, focusing instead on the unfathomable complexity of life and human nature. The universe is a huge and complicated place that only fools claim to understand absolutely. I don't know about you, but that's something I need to be reminded of from time to time.

I think the reason that writers like Gaiman or J.K. Rowling get such a passionate fan response is because their work hints at the possibility of more. Gaiman especially cultivates the pleasing suspicion that he isn't merely making things up, but that he knows something. It's a tantalizing idea, that there is in fact something to know, something beyond the common sense of what is real and accessible.

Sometime in my early twenties, I bought and began reading a single volume that contained three of Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan stories. By the time I got to the third one, Tales of Power, my perception of reality was feeling so fragile that I had to stop reading before the end. The edges of my vision seemed to shimmer and shake with the unseen and I felt, in a very disconcerting way, that anything could indeed happen. Looking back, I wonder what I was afraid of, but I do remember being somewhat afraid. That fear surprised me then, as it still does, because that stirring quality I mentioned earlier feels a lot like wistfulness; it's a longing for the possibility of magic. I remember, as a child, feeling that the world was a magical place, and I miss that feeling. But the Castanada experience showed me that my adult mind is also very attached to the feeling of control, to reality as I know it. I guess most people take that self-knowledge for granted, but it's a little hard for me to accept.

I try to maintain a sense of the wonder and beauty of life and the physical world, and sometimes I'm good at it, and sometimes I'm not. The other day I was at a park with the kids, walking with Genevieve on a paved path around a small, man-made pond. She ran ahead of me, pigtails flying, and I became aware of the whole scene: sunlight glinting off rippling water, scarves of blackbirds twisting and streaming across an oddly blue sky, a beautiful and perfectly innocent child on a path bordered on the other side by tall old trees.

"Stone speaks to tree, tree speaks to sky," I thought as I walked along behind her, wanting to believe it.


Rita said...

Reading this entry, I really, really think that you would get a special kind of enjoyment out of Lev Grossman's book The Magicians. He explores quite a bit of exactly what you're talking about in that book, and then even more when he does his talks about what it's like to be an author raised on a steady diet of fantasy.

I have yet to read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I tried it a while back and just was not in a frame of mind where I could submit myself to it, and I didn't want to do a half-assed read and come away not enjoying it as much as I could have as a result. That's the same reason I haven't started Gaiman's Sandman yet.

Sassy Molassy said...

I will definitely put that on my list!

Sassy Molassy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sassy Molassy said...

I also meant to say that I was surprised by how much I loved Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. It showed me that it's not really Austen's style I dislike (I already knew I hated the characters), because the style is very similar. There was something very soothing and calming about that book for some reason. I can see why some people find it slow, but I think it's well worth it. I might read it again this summer, although now I want to read Herodotus like i meant to after The English Patient.

Rita said...

I do want to read it, but you're confirming that one does need to be ready to receive it. It's not something that someone can just pick up on a lark and breeze through it.