It’s surprising how many novels and short stories are not about the real shit. They’re about something: characters doing things in places in a fashion that involves steadily rising action. But there’s nothing real about them. These aren’t real problems and real emotions: they only resemble real problems and real emotions.
It’s hard to explain. What I mean is that fiction is like language: it’s mostly composed of stand-ins for real experience. The word “horse” isn’t a horse, it just makes us think of a horse. Similarly, Gatsby’s obsession with social status doesn’t resemble a real obsession–it’s too abstract and too grand–…it just makes us think of all the things in our lives that we’ve wanted and been unable to get.
And that’s fine. But it risks impoverishing our minds and our language: stripping us of our ability to see and refer to real object. Stories start being about other stories and they lose their connection to the way that people live. We can go weeks or months or years without seeing anything in a story that resembles, in its specifics, something that we might actually do.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to read The Rider on the White Horse. It was written in like 1870 or something (and it’s also kind of a ghost story), but it’s still real!
The novella is about a dude in a German-speaking part of what is (I think) Denmark, sometime in the mid 1700s. He is born, grows up, becomes obsessed with dams, and becomes the town’s dykemaster–the person who is in charge of organizing the local citizens to build and maintain the system of levees that stop the sea from washing away everything they own. He’s a very important figure in the town, but also a very odd one. His job does not resemble anything that we have in the modern day.
That’s what I love about it. There’s a tremendous specificity to it. This is a guy whose job is build and operate an incredibly important set of public works. And that’s what the story is about (as well as love and loss, etc). It’s about him walking along the embankment and staring into the ocean and seeing seagulls. It’s about how him finding peace with his daughter being mentally handicapped and learning to get along in a town where no one else has as much foresight as him. Every page of it is so specific. Even though there’s not much of a plot (and the little amount of plot that there is feels very contrived), meaning boils out of the realness of the text.
And he also becomes a ghost.
This might sound like an indictment of science fiction. And, in some ways, it is. Much science fiction cannot be real in the way that I am describing, because it takes place in a wholly imagined future, and the human imagination is never going to be able to create a world that feel as strange and specific as the real world. That doesn’t mean science fiction can’t be good, just that I think it’s very difficult for it (unless it takes place in the very near future) to have this kind of realness. Not all stories need to be real. Not even most stories need to be real. But it is nice, once in a while, to read one that is.
Fantasy, on the other hand, can easily . Most fantasy stories take place in the here-and-now, and there’s no reason that they can’t show something of how life really is.