14th January 2013 - Gavin Read
One of the attractions readers often cite as their explanation for their passion for books is the opportunity for escapism they offer. But sometimes, suggests Gavin Read from our Charing Cross Road branch, the new realities we encounter bear little or no relatoin to the realities we're leaving behind.
Perchance I've succumbed too readily to the sense of doom abound in Lovecraft's close, prolonged, if somewhat samey tales - but it seems like this is building up to something. Perhaps I've transmuted those wondrous and mystical, if overtly romantic works of Borges into magical thinking - but I believe this is real. Or maybe the neurotic cynicism, the cartoon fatalism of Philip K Dick has me damning myself from the start - but surely this has to be a sign of something.
Moving back in time there's Ballard, Aymé, Krzhizhanovsky, a bit of Dick, some, and Borges; ahead of me Vonnegut, Lovecraft Kobo Abe, H G Wells and more. I never ever used to read short stories, but this predilection for the literary miniature with which I've been stricken - this hunger for snacks - has blossomed and swamped the last and next years of my reader's life.
And it's getting worse.
Conventional speculation might have this diminuendo as the inevitable symptom of modern urban living; broadening the scale, the result of our fractured experience of a post-everything Internet age, plugged into, etc. But causality - ever a leap of faith - yawns too wide on this one, at least far as I'm concerned. It's true I'm busy, frantic, scatterbrained; I haven't had a primary experience in two hundred years and I'm not sure I even believe in the faculty of concentration outside orange juice. It's true, moreover, that all is symptom - that all those phenomena and paradigms floating among us, plankton-like, are indicative, if not wholly representative, of our psychic demeanour - from being made of mind to begin with. Anything we mobilise - choice, explanation, idea, book, noise - must instantly, necessarily be considered suspect - symptomatic - for worse or for better.
The question of why we read is a huge one, but the classic (if often armchair) argument of fiction as escapism does in fact hanker after an element of truth. These are other realities, other layers of experience we dip into, and we dip for a reason or reasons.
I think the collection of short stories can be apprehended as a defence against time. Time - the branching tree of possibilities, 'The Garden of Forking Paths' - is held open by an anthology; at every point in its progress we stand before multiple simultaneous options, multiple beginnings and multiple ends. While the novel or novella might well wrangle cacophonous strands, we start at the beginning and are led through, teased - we flow, attend - to the end. And the end of the literary monad - however ambiguous, however haunting - is more final than the collection, whose multiplicity of ends undermine, rewrite, counteract their finality. The short story collection is an explosion all-at-once; even that of a sole author is a cycle, not a line. Read chronologically, it can well be a journey, but it remains thematic, psychic, redressive.
But what does it mean for time to be held open? Of what is this drive symptomatic? Time, change, possibility, decision, responsibility: to stand before them is not yet to have committed; to step back to before the critical nexus of made mistakes, opportunities lost, things you should have said. Fiction and fact are the other worlds we can immerse ourselves into, the virtual reality headsets we can don to evade being unable to deal with the absolute horror of our universe - of time having moved inexorably on, of being unable to go back, without losing our minds.
The authors I've been reading are, of course, pretty well-disposed to unorthodox senses of time and reality, and the true subject of almost all of them is the substance of mind. But I think even the most realist, most grounded or, alternately, most humdrum of shorts, when apprehended as a collection, is to some degree mobilised in this way. The question of why we read is a big one. These are other realities, other layers of experience we dip into. We might say there's an element of escapism to the thing, or we might better ask ourselves - is there really an alternative and, if indeed there is, is it any more real?
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