Fantasy as constraint

I’ve been listening to an audiobook version of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, an entertaining fantasy set in early nineteenth-century England, and enjoying how the book thinks about magic, in two different ways. First, simply the variety of the magical inventions; second, the way it integrates the essentially unbelievable aspects of the story—the magic—into what otherwise presents itself as a realistic situation, complete with pseudo-scholarly footnotes about the magical texts and personalities. It’s historical fiction, with recognizable figures (e.g. the Duke of Wellington, King George) and situations (the war with France), but it blends these conventions with a matter-of-fact presumption of the existence of magic, so that the characters going about their daily lives in London or at war in Spain take it for granted that magic and magicians are real. The book pulls this off quite well, and part of the pleasure of reading is the amusement in recognizing how it renders such implausible material as if it were completely ordinary.

It struck me this morning, as I was chuckling over it again, that in effect what I’m admiring is how the book sets itself a certain arbitrary constraint—presume the existence of magic—and then finds ways to accommodate that constraint while telling a persuasive story. Continue reading


Cubist Grammar and the Ambiguity of Pi: Charles Hartman’s “Tambourine”

One spring evening many years ago I stood in the balcony in a bar in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, waiting for the next act in the Seattle Improvised Music Festival to begin. Two percussionists laid brass gamelan keys, blocks of wood, glass bottles, a metal sheet and assorted other objects on the floor next to an antique washing machine. This was a large enamel tub with a spindle in the center driven by an electric motor. Jutting out from the top of the spindle was a short wooden arm, to the end of which a piece of string was attached, and at the end of the string was a small hard rubber ball. As the spindle turned the arm the string yanked the ball around, and the ball bounced against the deeply resonant enamel walls of the tub. The turning of the spindle and the shape of the tub gave the sound its regularity, its pattern, while the play of the string and the bounciness of the ball gave it its random quality. It was never quite clear from moment to moment if the machine would keep the beat or change it, but it always seemed to return to some fundamental ur-rhythm, not an actual rhythm but a potential for many rhythms. The musicians improvised with this lunatic metronome, using mallets on the things they had laid out next to it. The biggest challenge they faced was not to fall into any set rhythm, but instead to respect the irregularities of their guiding instrument—to listen carefully, not to let their playing become stereotyped, but constantly to hover around the edges of rhythm, maintaining the tension between the ear’s desire for pattern and the arbitrary fluctuations of the apparatus. It was one of the most lucid demonstrations I have ever witnessed of that basic tension in all art, between the desire for order and the demands of the contingent, whether in the world at large or in the materiality of its medium.
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