Master Class: The Fantastic

The fantastic as a category–or genre–of books has always been one that fascinates me. The first short stories that I wrote fell somewhere in the realm of either magical realism or the fantastic. When I wrote a review of an out-of-the-ordinary Philip K. Dick story, the comments section had me thinking back to my favorite genre and other works I think fall in this category.

In the aforementioned story, Dick deals with the possible breakdown of a marriage set in a familiar 1950s suburban melodrama, but what he does differently is add a possible sentient cuckoo bird who resides in the wife’s clock. This is a perfectly natural part of the story and allows Dick to investigate a scene of domestic life that we are so familiar with and then flip it. The story is fantastic and does not fall within his normal sci-fi oeuvre.

But before I continue, perhaps, it would be best if I try to define the fantastic, which is a concept formally originated by Tsvetan Todorov in his work, The Fantastic: The Structural Approach to a Literary Genre.¹ He writes,

In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils, sylphides, or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world…The concept of the fantastic is therefore to be defined in relation to those of the real and the imaginary.

Citing just two sentences is a hyper-simplification of Todorov’s premise and he goes on to assign works as marvelous, uncanny, fairy tales, and because of certain reasons, excludes some texts from the genre of the fantastic. Todorov attempts “to create a theoretical methodology that would apply to genre study generally.”² The rules he sets tend not to allow for works to overlap; here my theory of the fantastic evolves from his proposal. Although, I do agree that a strange story that might first appear as fantastic, but ultimately can be explained by a very human force (think “madness” or mental disorders) does not fall into the fantastic genre. What comes to mind are “Diaries of a Madman” and Atmospheric Disturbances, which can be explained in outdated terms such as the result of an abnormal and deteriorating mind.

Here I proffer my definition of the fantastic based on Todorov’s original premise, influences from my university study, and own reader experience. It is designed to help a writer pen a story in this genre and for a reader to understand why they are accepting the unordinary.

  • A story, which at first appearance, resides in our known human world.
  • It becomes quickly apparent that something is unreal about the situation.
  • The reader is able to believe the fantastic before them, because the author has skillfully presented the “rules of operation,” allowing them to accept notions of irrationality that, if appeared in reality, would make them hesitate.

Has this helped at all? Maybe, a little? Works of the fantastic that have succeeded are written by authors who have begun with something ordinary and then masterfully crafted the rules around it right from the beginning. The reader needs to have a sense of what is allowed in a fantastic story.

Below are examples of short stories and novels that I believe fall into the genre of the fantasticTodorov’s methodology might not work for all of these and he would nix them if he was writing this, but based on my three-point criteria above, they are worthy choices. Like Todorov, I equate the fantastic with works of fiction and exclude poetry from my selections. This list is in no way close to being comprehensive, only those that come to mind right away and which I enjoy with the exception of one.³ Clicking on an image will call up further information.

Reading List

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¹ If you don’t have a copy of the book, free samples can be viewed through Google Books.

² From The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 20, No.2 (Summer 1976) accessed through the digital library JSTOR. This is a great resource. You might be able to access it for free through an affiliation with your university, library, alma mater, or other institution. Otherwise, you might have to pay a fee to view complete articles.

³ Okay, I really disliked Remainder. I think Tom McCarthy is super smart and an imaginative human being, but I wanted to hurl this book out of the window. However, it is an excellent example for this post and fans of existential investigations will be interested.

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Finally, do you have any suggestions for the reading list? If so, please leave a comment.

6 comments

  1. “The Time Traveler’s Wife” counts, right?

    Some short stories:

    Almost anything by Julio Cortazar. “The Night, Face Up” is my favorite (I was afraid to sleep after the first time I read it), and “House Taken Over” is commonly anthologized.

    “Afterward” or “Pomegranate Seed” by Edith Wharton

    “Footprints” by Karel Capek

    There’s more, but that’s off the top of my head.

    1. Thanks for adding to the list. I haven’t read any of these but I have read other works by Cortazar, Wharton, and Capek.
      I’m trying to collect some good examples.

      I haven’t read The Time Traveler’s Wife, but by the wikipedia page it describes the novel as sci-fi (although, I put a couple on my list, they generally don’t go with the fantastic). Also, the reason for his ability to time travel is a genetic disorder? If so, maybe not. Because this explanation, although remarkable, is a “rational” one. But, I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know.

  2. Great post, it gave me food for thought! To be honest, I rarely classify books as “fantastic.” I think that it is not easy to differentiate between fantastic and grotesque (which I’m interested in); or, fantastic and magic realism. Some of the works you put on your reading list I would call grotesque, for example “Metamorphosis”. Maybe the aspect of humor is what makes a crucial difference. Here is an interesting chapter (a fragment at least) about this short story if you are interested http://books.google.pl/books?id=lUGr-dickqYC&printsec=frontcover&hl=pl#v=onepage&q=metamorphosis&f=false.

    As to other books I might suggest, I think that “The Land of Laughs” by Jonathan Carroll fits your criteria.

    Also Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” comes to my mind, I don’t know if you would agree.

    1. For me, differentiating between the fantastic and magical realism is a harder task. But with that all said, there are definitely overlaps between genres and categorizations. The Metamorphosis probably does fit with the grotesque (although, my study of the grotesque is limited–I usually equates the grotesque with works that grapple with themes, events, and things that frighten us. I’m thinking of Frankenstein, works of Poe, as well and maybe Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?). I’m sure the uncanny is a unifying idea.

      The fantastic does have some contenders that are humorous but this doesn’t necessarily exclude other works. It’s a tricky classification!

      Ooohh…thanks for the rec. I haven’t heard of that book but I’ll look into it. It’s been ages since I’ve read Cat’s Cradle, so I’m hesitant to comment (I don’t recall much), but of course, I would argue that Slaughterhouse Five is in the fantastic. I think defining this genre relies a lot on the very beginning pages, especially the opening lines.

      p.s. I follow your blog and it’s great!

      1. I agree, it’s tricky to classify. Grotesque, well, it also needs definition, and I’m still developing one. ;) I think that the main point of grotesque is not horror or humor but exaggeration. Some things are pushed beyond the norm. The cockroach man, the walking nose or the March Hare are great examples.
        It’s an interesting that you mentioned Frankenstein. I read a lot about him and his relation to the Monster. The Monster might be considered grotesque because of his appearance and the sense of pity mixed with horror that he evokes. The genuine emotion underneath the macabre and humor is also part of the grotesque.
        I truly recommend Jonathan Carroll, it would be great if you could review his books here. After this one, you might like his other stuff. Shame he isn’t more well-known.

        p.s. Thank you so much! It means a lot to me as I’m just starting and your blog is one of the best about books that I’ve read! And thanks for following me on twitter! :)

      2. I’ll put that Jonathan Carroll book on the list for my next round of books. I hate to admit this, but I don’t think I’ve heard of him. Another oddball book that I adore is The Tetherballs of Bougainville by Mark Leyner.

        Also, in regards to the grotesque, have you seen Der Golem? This might play well with the monster/Frankenstein read.

        Looking forward to more from your blog! You might also like yesterday’s post about Kafka. Perhaps, that photo counts as the grotesque? http://wp.me/pc1LK-14I

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