The Fantasies That Made Sense of a Senseless Year

In Depth
The Fantasies That Made Sense of a Senseless Year

There’s a feature of old Irish folktales, which is the notion of a land somewhat parallel to our own that belongs to a magical, beautiful, aristocratic, and frequently cold and remote people called the fae. It’s over the hill and around the bend, or in the vicinity of an ancient barrow, or across the ocean—somewhere just up yonder, out of reach. Time moves differently there; in one famous story, the bard hero Oisín marries and follows a faerie woman to the land of Tir na nÓg. When he returns home for a visit after what he thinks to be a few short years, he finds centuries have passed. He falls off his horse, and when he hits the ground, he’s transformed into an old man, his own time having suddenly, all at once, engulfed him.

I think of those old stories now, the sound of crickets pouring through my half-open window. At the end of every summer, their song reaches a crescendo before autumn takes hold and everything dies, or at least goes to ground. But there’s something uncanny about their symphony this year, because it seems impossible that the summer is already gone—it seems like summer never even happened, like we’re permanently suspended in March. But there are the crickets, loudly insisting that it’s October, marking the passage of a year eaten by coronavirus.

I have no idea what to do with the feelings that I have bottled up as tightly as possible over the last six months, in the interest of continuing to put one foot in front of the other and getting through this with my career intact and my household functioning. The sheer magnitude of the experience of this year is too much to get a solid grip on it at once. Instead, I’ve caught myself processing it indirectly: again and again, moving through the weirdly misshapen time of this cataclysmic, vertiginously weird year marked by illness, unrest, brutality, and disaster, I have found myself turning to the fantasy genre, steadily working my way through a pile of fat novels about outer space, about dragons, about transformation, about faeries, about doors opening onto alternative worlds, even as I struggled to read anything else.

This isn’t borne of an escapist impulse. Rather, as walls of our agreed-upon reality have melted around me, it’s simply that realism felt unreal, too limited, an artifact from a dead world. Fantasy novels are the only things that make sense anymore.

I would have been excited to receive the long-awaited second novel by Susana Clarke under any circumstances, but as it happened, it arrived like a well-timed messenger in a pulpy sword-and-sorcery doorstopper. It’s unexpectedly slim, considering that she’s best known as the author of the sprawling fantasy masterpiece Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It’s also unsettling: Piranesi is written in the first person, presented as a series of journal entries by a man who knows himself only as Piranesi, who inhabits an endless house full of enigmatic statues and an equally endless ocean. The house is the world, and the world is the house, and Piranesi remembers nothing else: “Outside the House there are only Celestial Objects: Sun, Moon and Stars,” our narrator tells us.

Much of the book follows its protagonist as he roams his limited but nonetheless rich world, following the massive tides of its infinite ocean, living an existence that is at once subsistence and bountiful: “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite,” he tells us. The story follows his dawning, destabilizing realization that his understanding of the world and his place therein is incorrect, or at least foundationally incomplete. It’s a surreal book—the very title refers to an Italian artist famous for his fantastical renderings of prisons—about somebody’s sense of themselves and their world coming unglued.

And yet, it felt almost comforting to read, cracking open my advance copy in early June, several months into a year spent largely in my home. This has been a period of interminable waiting—to see how bad the pandemic would be, for the curve to bend, for a vaccine, to see whether the fall would bring a worse onslaught. Even those who aren’t literally staying in their houses are stuck in an existential waiting room, caught between the beginning of the pandemic and its end at some unknown, distant date—an endless house, booming with the sound of distant, powerful, uncontrollable tides. Depictions of what was contemporary life until February feel surreal, delusionally detached from what is now our reality; depictions of the fantastical now feel almost grounding, like an unintentional acknowledgment of the upended state of the world.

My year of fantasy started with The Absolute Book—when news of the virus was growing louder and louder from China—which I ordered from New Zealand after reading an effusive review in Slate. I raced through this dreamlike book after I twisted my ankle and found myself stuck on the couch, which, though I didn’t know it, was a preview of coming attractions. I loved it, but my friend and I laughed a little bit at the description of the protagonist who, finding herself in a fantastical set of circumstances, casually lifts her iPhone and takes a few pictures. We found this strange; who would do that? Of course, now my own iPhone camera roll is filled with pictures of my preschooler wandering around deserted public spaces with a cloth mask over her face, something that would have seemed science-fictional a year ago.

The slow-motion cataclysm that is coronavirus has fractured my sense of the passage of time. I think of the summer between the second and third grades, when my house flooded. I don’t mean my basement had to be pumped out; I mean that my family evacuated our home shortly before dawn in a tiny metal boat, just as reeking brown water swept across the floors where I learned to walk, much like the Tides of Piranesi’s House surge across its marble floors. I went to bed and it was raining; I woke and the view outside my window—already six feet off the ground, to protect against the seasonal vicissitudes of river life—was a boiling expanse of fast-moving water. It is only as an adult that I understood what a miracle it was that none of us drowned; ultimately, the water would reach the tops of the windows, another image that I found strangely familiar when reading Piranesi. But it happened, the waters receded, and we picked up the pieces.

This is different. I’m lucky, and many of the contours of life are the same as at the beginning of the year. I haven’t lost or had to flee my home; I’m still with my family, wearing the same clothes, talking to the same coworkers every day on Slack. I listen to the same two radio stations while working from the same kitchen table. Only, all the DJs make reference to their home offices and technical difficulties. I go to the same grocery store and shop for the same four standard recipes, but I push the cart down one-way aisles and listen to announcements about how ShopRite has everything I need to keep my family safe, interspersed between the same grocery store oldies playlist. Mask and hand sanitizer ads jostle uneasily against Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.” It has the uneasy feeling of the protagonist of Children of Men stopping off for coffee and looking up to watch the news of the youngest person on Earth dying. At the moment, it felt perfectly natural for Kamala Harris to accept her VP nomination in an empty auditorium; it’s just that the image has lingered with me for weeks afterward.

How do you metabolize moments like that? Well, it hasn’t been by turning to religious literature, or earnestly serious literary fiction in a conscious search for meaning. Instead, I’m burrowing into upside-down worlds that echo some aspect of my own experience. For instance, I devoted a full two weeks sometime in June to “Fireblood Dragons,” a Kindle Unlimited series by Ruby Dixon, who is most famous for her Ice Planet Barbarians series about Earth women stranded on an ice planet with a species of extremely sexual giant blue aliens. This is a spinoff series, a post-apocalyptic saga with the premise that sometime around 2015, a crack opened in the sky and out poured hundreds of enraged, unhinged dragons who completely torched the earth. (Who’s to say they didn’t?) Something about the Earth itself profoundly scrambles their brains, and the only thing that stabilizes them is a psychic connection with a human mate. Each book seems to have a set-piece where a human woman scavenges a big-box store in suburban Texas while her naked protective golden dragon—in human form, obviously, because even Kindle Unlimited isn’t that kinky—watches. Each time I read about some woman ransacking endless aisles of chocolate and more practical supplies, I wondered idly about the state of the Costco where I used to shop.

Mostly, though, my choices have been wilder. I raced through Gideon the Ninth, a world of deep-space far-future pseudo-Catholicism, in which the protagonists spend much of the book roaming an abandoned rotted-out palace, attempting to solve a series of inscrutable puzzles for mysterious purposes, attended to by a series of skeletal servants. Literally, they’re reanimated skeletons—this is a world that has colonized space using the power of necromancy. What could be more suited to the moment, to the ambient sense of dread that permeates everything? More importantly, the canvas for far-future space opera and world-spanning fantasy novels is big—big conceptually, and big emotionally. “Sprawling” is the word that comes to mind, not just because the characters often cross vast swaths of time and territory, but because they aren’t hemmed in by the rules of realism. Not infrequently the genre jumps the tracks into camp, and that’s satisfying, too, because camp is also characterized by bigness. And despite the fact that I’m walking around going through a similar set of motions to those in January, I know perfectly well I’m sitting on a powerful underground river of grief.

You see, it’s not a vacation I’m after, exactly, so much as a kind of sideways processing. This, too, is a fantasy concept—the idea that magic operates in the corner of your eye, and to stare straight-on doesn’t quite work. And there’s so much to process. Despite the March/October time-warp feeling, we are very much not frozen in a pocket of immovable eternity, as anybody who has watched their child grow suddenly taller in quarantine can attest. At one point, I convinced myself that my hair was falling out, in a sign of the hormonal changes associated with getting older; my friends assured me that I looked no different, but I have certainly had plenty of time to stare at my face and see that I am in fact aging and it has not stopped even as life as been suspended in animation. In the words of John Prine, who died of covid-19 earlier this year, the years just flow by like a broken-down dam, and nothing about coronavirus has changed that, it’s just made it more readily apparent.

None of this is to say that I have returned to the fat sword and sorcery classics of my youth. If anything, Tolkien and his sword and sorcery imitators have become profoundly off-putting, with their reactionary preoccupation with homelands and hideous alien outsiders at the margins of those front-page maps included in all those books. Instead, I think of Octavia Butler, whose Parable of the Sower haunts me more than ever as I doomscroll through pictures of the red California sky, fires rendering the landscape as Mars, a preview of the coming century. This year’s disruptions are just the beginning.

But if there’s unease and even grief in transformation, there’s also potential. At one point, I almost laughed to find myself reading Alix Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, a book that imagines a system of doors between infinite worlds. The first door depicted opens onto a world that evokes both Earthsea and a heavenly Greek coastal vacation. What an absolutely stereotypical choice of reading material for this misfire of a summer, I thought to myself. But in one of the story’s climactic moments, the heroine carves herself a door in the very fabric of reality, using silver and her own blood and sheer determination.

The world is on fire—literally, in the case of California—and so many things are happening, and every day brings new fears and disappointments. But it’s also worth asking: what doors to new worlds could we carve?

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