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Carnivale, Water for Elephants, and my SFnal Heart
So I read Water for Elephants a few weeks back, mainly because I had heard everyone raving about the awesome ending. How perfect and surprising it was, and sometimes I read books for artifacts like that, to see how a thing is done. Also, Depression era circuses = thumbs up.

And I learned something about myself I am still trying to sort through. 

Let's get that ending out of the way.

I can't figure out if when people talk about the ending mean "the elephant did it" or "the 92 year old ran away with the circus." If it's the former, I don't know, I guess it's interesting? The elephant was certainly the only character I really loved, but it sort of conveniently absolves our heroes of any wrongdoing at all and leaves them morally free to be the heroes. It would have been more interesting if Marlene was less that completely perfect, the way heroines in these kinds of books tend to be. Also, it's so fast if you blink you'll miss it--and deeply foreshadowed by the hamfisted prologue that really obviously uses only pronouns and not names so that you know that the actual identities will prove Shocking in the end. If they mean the old man running off with the circus, I don't even know, I found that so unbelievably unrealistic it made me roll my eyes. And not unrealistic in a nice science fictional way, but in the "he's the hero so strangers do impossibly generous things for him for no reason" way. People not acting like people. Honestly, I want to think it was a dementia episode and Jacob is still in the hospital, that's how little I credit the idea that a hardened carnival man would take on the care of a 92-year old invalid for no apparent reason but that the old man who escaped from the hospital says he was in the circus back in the day. I was nonplussed by these endings, to say the least.
But that's not really my beef. It's a competently written book, reasonably engaging, if full of strangers acknowledging the Protagonistness of the hero, and thus doing unreasonable things for him for no reason. I was impressed with the physicality of the main character--many authors, when writing a gender they are not, miss the physical details. I loved Rosie. But then, it's easy to make your audience love an animal character.

My problem is, I've seen Carnivale.

Carnivale, for those of you who don't know, was a criminally short-lived television show which was also about a Depression era circus, and also about a hapless and orphaned young man who gets hired on when the show sweeps through his town. But it is also about the death of the magical medieval world and the birth of the nuclear century, about the scars of WWI, about a peculiarly American mythology full of ghosts, boom towns, and wastelands, about magic, death, incest, and religion, about avatars of light and dark--but so deftly written that even in the end you were never sure which was which. It was about family and the road and show business and each character was fascinating, even when the hero was onstage.
And Water for Elephants is about a kid who falls in love while working for the circus and then complains about everything in a nursing home.

This is my issue. And my terrible confession. The stakes were nothing in WFE, pretty much only whether Jacob and Marlene would end up together, Notebook-style. And that's fine, but it doesn't satisfy me. Especially when I've seen an SFnal treatment of the same material done with such power and daring and grace. The novel felt like a very elaborate set on which a terribly small story was played--the spangles were all there, but no one brought the horse act, you know? 

I want to say I don't need all my stories to be SFnal, but is that really true anymore? What does that say about me as a reader? Something pretty shitty, I'd guess. Maybe I'm the worst kind of geek, who can't identify with simple human stories anymore.

But I don't think I'm that broken. I'm reading A Moveable Feast and loving it, many of my favorite novels are realist books. I can handle straight fiction just fine. I try to read several non-SF books a year, so as not to get blinkered. Some of them I really love. I'm not a genre warrior in that way. (Not that straight fiction doesn't dabble in fantasy all the time.)

But I find that the best speculative or genre or what have you gets to deeper truths these days. It's not just that circuses during the Depression were pretty cool and treated animals kind of badly, but that it was an indelible part of the American consciousness (with a European consciousness riding in the last car) for a reason, and it played a morality show in every town, just as mummers always have. That everyone who works in a circus is an avatar, that the whole thing is about the use and sale of archetypes. That in the early part of the 20th century there was a very real battle for the soul of this world, and it is incredibly unclear who won, if anyone did. Carnivale reminded me what American mythology could be like when people stop scoffing at the very idea, it kept my up nights wondering and imagining, it made me catch my breath. And it had one of the great villains of all time. 

I just can't care that much if the story is only about who gets to have sex with the perfect blonde woman, and the villains (who are clearly marked by beating animals and old people) are defined by standing in the way of that correct intercourse. 

I do sometimes amuse myself by imagining how mainstream tv and books and movies would be improved by adding monsters or other SFnal elements. I think this is how a lot of shows and books get made: Buffy is 90210 with monsters (filmed in the same high school, even), The Vampire Diaries is pretty much Gossip Girl with vampires, The Hunger Games is American Idol/The Amazing Race with added death. But I hate to think I'm so ensconced in my idiom that I have to have those things to enjoy it. Maybe that's wishful thinking. I do think True Blood gets to have more interesting stories than a straight Southern soap opera (with bad accents) would, that Doctor Who can get to me on a level that no amount of procedural cop shows can. There is an opportunity for deeper and bigger stories--not one that's always seized, but that's anything. In the end, the story of two young monogamous straight people getting together is only a tiny part of the experience of a lifetime, yet it is way over-represented in literature. Jacob's entire adult life with Marlene is dealt with and done in a couple of pages. Even if there's an elephant involved, I want more from my stories, something more arresting and dire, something with higher stakes and more ambition. I want more color and light , not just the bland literary "colorful" that gets put on the backs of books. I feel guilty that those mainstream stories don't grab me anymore, and of course their style rarely rises above the story, because if you're not minimalist you're nothing, these days. Mainstream fiction feels like a desert in which I find, every once in awhile, a cactus I can crack open for water. There is occasional loveliness. But nowhere I'd want to live.

Once you've seen the dark of the forest, the pleasant parlor doesn't really have the same excitement. 

Yes, that's how we dress when we're ruined, said she.

I love Carnivale -- I own both seasons. Just the way you can taste the dust. And the ambiguity, and the magic, and attention to periphery.

And I love A Movable Feast. I think I just read it last year. Have you ever read Down and Out in Paris and London ?

If you haven't, you may be in just the right mood for it.

Edited at 2011-08-18 08:34 pm (UTC)

Big up to Down and Out in Paris and London!

I sort of love you right now.

Also, I am totally going to watch Carnivale.

Ditto to both of those!

...there was a "Murder She Wrote" where the elephant did it.

And that's about all I've got to say about that.

carnivale is one of my all time favorites. i loved it so much that i almost stopped watching after a few episodes, knowing already that it was cancelled to much teeth gnashing and rending of garments due to unfinished story lines.

i also read water for elephants with high hopes and was totally unimpressed. i passed it right along to my dad though and he dug it. :)

I read Ape House and after the requisite 50 pages, I just put it down and then read reviews to find out that it was stupider than the early pages led me to believe. She takes a great concept of monkeys being taught to teach sign language and forming their own community and 86'd it in favor of some dopy story about kidnapping the monkeys and putting them on a reality television show. It even includes a hamfisted "parody" of Westboro Baptist because if there's ever a group that is not quite hated enough it's them.

I'm told I'd love Carnivale, and I figure that's probably true.

Edited at 2011-08-18 09:03 pm (UTC)

I ADORED Carnivale. It's such a shame that it was cancelled.

Yes, yes, all of that about Carnivale. I got through boxed-set watching knowing it had already been cancelled because enough people assured me that the writers finished a story arc and it was the kind of story that was perfect unfinished (and I think they were all right). Also because it is shot such that every time one pauses the movie, there's an award-winning photograph on the screen, and I am a photographer and a theatre tech and thus a sucker for that. Thanks for warning me off a tale that would have been personally disappointing with well-worded praise for one of my favourite stories in the world.

I constantly recommend Carnivale to people. So much amazing weirdness, women characters who were 3-d and passed the Bechdel test on occasion, and the whole style of the show was right up my alley.

I love that you quoted "The Ruined Maid". :)

OMG Carnivàle, I loved that show so much. There is the small consolation that it has a closure of sorts, even if it's just the end of Act One instead of the whole play.

And the 'small stakes' thing is why romance-only stories leave me cold. I want a story where the romance is part of everything that's happening, not the only thing of importance around which the whole world bends and becomes less relevant. If you were to ask me for, say, a nice romantic comedy I'd choose Romancing the Stone over The Ugly Truth any day.

Good timing on this post, from my perspective; I watched the film on the way to Japan. It was fine, but not memorable, and largely for the reasons you cite: ultimately it was really just about two young monogamous straight people getting together, and not anything more.

I think what makes fantasy work for me and mainstream stuff not is -- well, several things, but most of them sound like me ragging on mainstream lit and aren't really relevant here anyway -- the way fantasy gets to play with the full dynamic range of its metaphors, up to and including treating them as full-bore reality. Mimetic literature has to keep them metaphorical, and even mainstream stories that dabble in the fantastic often feel like they're handling the metaphors with three-foot tongs labeled ALLEGORY on the side. Because if it doesn't clearly Stand For Something, then it's like you're buying into the fantasy, like those folks over in the genre ghetto do.

(There are books published as mainstream that don't do this. But a lot of them do, and for me at least, it explains why I don't find them at all compelling.)

I loved the book (had the luck of reading it before the hype got all hype-y), and thought the movie was dreadful. It was shot and edited to be extremely static, and Robert Pattinson was all but invisible; his performance is completely forgettable.

I loved the setting for Carnivàle, and the characters, and the mood, and the title sequence. But the week-to-week plot advancement drove me nuts, because there wasn't any.

I suspect the things that make us love spec fic are the exact same things that drive mainstream readers away.

I don't think that's quite fair. It was slower-paced than most TV, but there was a lot of character development and a considerable amount of plot movement with a few getting the pieces in place episodes. Much less filler than, say, Lost.

My experience of Carnivale and Water For Elephants was much the same as yours. It was great to have the lingo and general atmosphere of Carnivale to flavor my reading of WFE, but ultimately Carnivale just so completely outshone WFE in every way that mattered to me.

Regarding your observation about genre fiction, I think that most genre fiction has a sense of wonder that mainstream fiction so often lacks. The sense of wonder I'm talking about isn't really the "gosh-wow this fantasy world is so much more interesting than the real one" feeling. It's more that genre fiction requires a perspective that allows that more things are possible than in mainstream/realistic fiction. And I think that the sense-of-wonder perspective colors the fiction itself.

Case in point, I enjoy William Gibson's books for how he describes locations and small details. His most recent three novels have essentially been written in the present day, yet he continues to describe places and objects as if he was writing about an SFnal future. When I'm reading those books, his locations just feel more real to me.

I'd even go so far as to suggest that the genre-writer's perspective--that much more is possible than intuition or common sense might suggest--is often the more realistic perspective.

I'd even go so far as to suggest that the genre-writer's perspective--that much more is possible than intuition or common sense might suggest--is often the more realistic perspective.

This. And this is why fantasy and SF (and particularly books of fantastic realism -- or magical literary fiction or modern urban fantasy or pick your poison -- where the "real" and "unreal" elements mix subtly) are so much more appealing to me than straight up fiction. Works of fantasy actually reflect my view and experience of the world. There are more things in Heaven and Earth...

Once you've seen the dark of the forest, the pleasant parlor doesn't really have the same excitement.

This, so much.

(Deleted comment)
A.S. Byatt is generally an author I read more for beauty than for plot, but her books about the Potter sisters are, I think, one of my favorite discussions of being clever and female.

I don't think it is just you, I think there is something small and shallow about a large number of books that get giant (read unfairly out of proportion to their merit) acclaim.

I did not read this one, in part because I'd read two others of hers and found no there there - shallow characters, forced tension and stupid behaviour standing for plot.

I had the same trouble with a set of kid's books; the Penderwicks. Giant, loud, acclaim and awards and I found it merely meh.

So I am thinking that people praise books for being easy and pleasant to read, instead of (or as well as) being interesting, dense and layered.

Apparently this one and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at least have the distinction of being not terrible.

Unlike Twilight and The Da Vinci Code.