Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Heroes in Exile

For some time now, I've been trying to plow through a stack of unread books, lamenting both my changing tastes and my inability to resist stacking up paperbacks at Half Price. I tried to stack things I really wanted to read beneath things I "should" read and ended up just cherry-picking the stacks.

This has brought me both stomach-churning treats and a desire to mention the Hero's Journey. As in, I am too old to be taking the standard hero's journey and I'm not really interested in reading 8 million books about young people who are discovering their own special edges and coming home to be the incredibly brilliant cog in a now-familiar wheel. I just can't get all that worked up about the girl from the far village who goes to the magic university/great palace/sparkly vampire ball.

Let me stop to say that it's mostly fantasy that seems to be deserting me. Mystery novels are still fun. Modern gothic chick lit is still creepy and heartwarming (Reese's Peanut Butter Cup reading!!) Fantasy, though...it's either gruesome or YA or as familiar as my favorite trails in the Arboretum. Which is the problem--my tastes are provincial.

The best stuff isn't familiar until you're finished. Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes, for example. I wanted, oh how I wanted an explanation for what was going on throughout the novel. For the author to let her protagonist off the hook. To be able to understand on what kind of freaky moral judgments her universe was based. Her protagonist was alive, the side characters were alive, and after I finished I was alive to the judgment calls and assumptions around me. I wanted the woman at the heart of the novel to be okay.

After I finished Zoo City, I picked up an anthology of short stories and my reader's high was smacked right off. Here was something that was "the best" of some previous year and it was recycling some familiar images and handing out a tidy moral--you adults, get the heck out of fantasy! It's a kid's game! Find a random kid, pass it on!

What the heck? Was I supposed to turn this anthology in to the nearest daycare center? Apologize for wanting to stick with a genre I've enjoyed? At moments like these, I remember the cover of my dad's Tolkien books. Bilbo riding a barrel toward Laketown, drifting with his head up and waiting for the next turn of the water. Even though that first book was more of a children's story, Frodo's story was not. He didn't bring fire back to his village, marry the most bodacious Took, and populate Bag End with Frodolings. Instead, his journey is one of exile.

Perhaps that is the hero journey that most appeals right now. For whatever reason, I have come to a place where the idea of setting out and not coming back or not coming back to the same place makes sense, to where the idea of hero is confused with the idea of excised pathogen.

This gives me hope. For if I am to be exiled from fantasy itself, there is perhaps a more miraculous story that is waiting to be discovered.

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