Fabulism or Realism? Putting Words to the Unspeakable

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photo credit: Pinterest via highexistence.com

Finding the Language

Earlier this month on Twitter, I asked how with over a million words in the English language is it still insufficient when talking about visceral topics? Rumi met me through a Google search to say, “Words are a pretext. It is the inner bond that draws one person to another, not words.” And for the moment I was good; it felt like being reminded something all humans innately know.

But in the context of story, which is where this writer’s head is most of the time, Rumi’s ruminations left me staring at the words (that matter so much) of one of my short stories. I wanted to better express the emotional rifts physical violence inflicts upon my male protagonist and how it connects to a character in Greek mythology.

Then I read “Diving into the Faery Handbag: On Fabulism,” an article by Melissa Goodrich that crystallized a couple things. For one, my question needed more focus: What can a writer do with language and the elements of a story to encompass more of the visceral reality of their characters? And secondly, although I’d been lazily searching for answers in both fabulism and realism, while reading and writing around in work that approaches the body as landscape (because it pertains to my stories and interests), I should do it more consciously. For starters, I should get clearer on the terms fabulism and realism and how other writers use them in narratives.

According to Goodrich, “Fabulism has much greater agency” than realism and has the ability to make “the emotional reality” of characters “the actual reality.” She uses Toni Morrison’s Beloved as an example and says the presence of the ghost-child in the flesh has a bigger impact than only seeing that child as a memory, because of what the body can do. “A body meddles,” she says. “A body holds grudges.”

The body’s undeniably memorable in literature given the infinite ways it’s rendered – as a subject examining, as an object being examined, as a conduit for…fill in the blank. There’s the meaning a body’s gestures can accrue, and its physical and mental yearnings that demonstrate and explain.

With fabulism, the unfortunate event my protagonist may have, for example, of being jumped and stabbed by a group of men, can expand his bloody wounds until they unite with the distant lightning ordained by Perun, all to express his pain and anger. It can rip a new scene in the world where the violators disappear to a parched and barren planet for eternity. (This doesn’t really happen, by the way.) The swiftness of this action can mean a myriad of things, though: that we should check our own rage and reactions, perhaps, or that we should reevaluate the value we place upon our own bodies, or that we should simply recognize how powerful we are.

Fabulism can exponentially acme events in a narrative, tunnel out the emotions a character experiences, and offer multiple messages for the reader to take away. It’s like a gulp of ordinary and a swig of monotony meet a guzzle of fantasy, flare, and flame. But under a skilled hand, realism can handle those elements too.

What a Realist Can Do with the Body in Nonfiction

It doesn’t get much realer than nonfiction, but Lia Purpura’s essay, “Autopsy Report,” demonstrates how a realist can still amplify those deeper emotional leanings when it comes to the body in literature. She zeros in on the elusive boundary of life and death miraculously, calling the body a sanctuary, “a safe, closed place like the ark from which the Torah is taken and laid out on the table to be unscrolled.”

Aside from beautiful sigh-worthy prose, Purpura gives the body a sense of permanence by comparing it to the verisimilitude and longevity of natural formations: “I shall stand beside sharp pelvic bones,” she writes, “his mod hip-huggers stretched tightly between them. His ribs like steppes, ice-shelves, sandstone. His wide-open mouth, where a last breath came out.” The lens is then pulled back a little and the spotlight shifts onto a potential cause of death and then to the glaring contrast between the deceased and the bodies in the room that are still very much alive: “And there are his feet [and] the stuff of his death,” she says, “a near-empty bottle of red cough syrup, yellow labeled and bagged by police.”

More realism than anything else, yes, but soon thereafter she strokes something fantastic that pulls me from the technical procedure underway. And it provides an image that aptly encompasses and expresses her feeling of being consumed: “Death [is] gowned and dancing, scythe raised and cape blowing, leading the others, at dusk, over a mountain. In silhouette. Fully cinematic.” Her fantastic reads as personification, and it pushes me where I think she wants me to go – right to the fragile ridge of life and death. Once there, I can’t help but ask how I could’ve ever perceived them as opposing forces when clearly the line between isn’t so distinct. Maybe it’s time I reevaluate the whole black and white dichotomy thing.

But before I really take off, she grounds me again in realism. “The calm came to me,” Purpura says, “while the skin behind the ears and across the base of the skull was cut from its bluish integument.” The imagery gets real graphic – a face pulled back over a head, assistants, unmasked and possibly ingesting particles of the deceased’s skull. Here, such graphic details act like concessions, bridges leading away from the flying into the night image, back towards the tangibility of the autopsy room, the body, and its death as an anchor, which quiets and helps make sense of this violent and intimate act.

Oh, but the Fantastic Freedom of the Body in Fiction

In fiction there’s even more freedom. In his short story, “The Island,” Mark Haddon takes me to the same delicate place life and death occupy. His protagonist is a princess deserted on a beach by her fiancée who sails off with his crew, and she hasn’t the gusto or skills to survive. Although the environment around her is vital – there’s the roaring sea and blackbirds flying overhead, etc. – her body is quickly deteriorating. “Hunger wakes her before dawn,” Haddon writes, and “she wonders how long it takes to starve.”

Will it be tomorrow that she dies? Later today? In a few hours? I consider, as she, fatigued and malnourished, wrestles with the idea herself. There are no lab coats with sharpened instruments and an affinity for skull dust as in Purpura’s essay. So I imagine a soon to be decomposing body like that of the rotting otter she finds on a cluster of rocks.

To expedite the wretched reading experience of watching her slowly die, a group of people step onto the island from a boat. Their leader rapes the woman who’s so weak she can hardly open her eyes, and then they proceed to dismember her. “They are on top of her,” Haddon writes, “the men and women, biting, tearing, ripping her skin, pulling out her hair, breaking her fingers, gouging her eyes, hacking out the fat and muscle, pulling free the greasy tubes and bags of her innards, till she is finally free of her body.”

The reader’s again close up on a body, inside it, violating the landscape through a sort of ritualistic process. If looking for the differences between this story and Purpura’s essay, the most obvious is a motive not to find the cause of death but to bring it on.

Then Haddon’s touch of fabulism takes the protagonist from helpless and lifeless to capable again. He writes, “Rising now, she looks down at the skeleton lying on the rocks, gulls picking at the remaining shreds of meat and gristle.” She’s peering at the remnants of her own body as she floats away from the shrinking island “till it is no more than a lump in the fastness of the sea…an azure tear on the surface of the great globe itself.” Quickly, she moves “into the great black vault of space, a cracked bowl of seven stars, Corona Borealis, the northern crown,” where she’s not only alive again but “she is immortal.”

I was relieved after reading these few fantastical lines that seem to redeem the story and right or, at least, balance out the devastating. Whew, she gets to live forever…good. And I took it as a very literal thing. That’s the beauty of fabulism; seamlessly, an author can recycle an age-old belief that although the body may die the soul doesn’t, and make it a reality the reader won’t even question.

Purpura could be attempting the same with her image of death dancing. Effortlessly, she also drums up and breaks open her acute observations to invite a new scene, while disregarding those all too important phrases used to indicate and signal the shift: I envision, imagine. I wonder if…

Which takes me back to my own story. What if my protagonist and the seriousness of his wounds don’t truly requisite a cataclysmic chain of events to divulge his emotionality? It’s the story it is. A few strums of the fantastic to drive the reader towards reassessing the emotional implications of violence upon the body and the god of lightning ever present in my protagonist’s psyche might be enough. In other words, there’s a way to do both, partner fabulism and realism to get at or speak to the unspeakable.

But just so we’re straight, that is one of our aims as writers and readers, right – to find ways to expand the language and put words where we need them, even if they sometimes don’t exist?

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