Apr. 28th, 2014

decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
Today I am thinking about the question of believability in fiction. A vital question--if you can't make your audience believe in the story you are telling, then what's the point of telling it?--but also a slippery one. What makes one story more believable than another? Why can one writer make me believe things that seem entirely implausible from another? What makes a story feel true when I know perfectly well that it is a fiction? It can be easy to assume that the answer is realism, or that believability and realism are interchangeable ideas, but I don't think that's true. There are works of fantasy, strange dream-like works, outlandish bits of magical realism that have felt more believable to me than stories that take place in the most realistic of settings.

So what is it? Consistency is part of it, of course, and character is perhaps the most important component of all--it I don't believe in the characters, if their actions seems artificial or their words ring false, then forget--there is not likely to be anything that will redeem the story for me. But it's not just that, of course. It is a quality unto itself, something ineffable, something fundamental to the act of creating fiction. Some stories don't strive for it. Satire, for instance, is rarely rooted in believability. And some writers actively undermine it, like Ian McEwan, who seems to have made his name in literature by writing stories that purposely highlight their own artifice. And that's fine. Stories can be entertaining without being believable; they can have interesting things to say; they can be ironic or clever or funny or beautifully written. But I have never felt a deep emotional resonance with a story in which I could not wholeheartedly believe. I have never loved a story I did not wholeheartedly believe.

I am thinking about this today because last night I finished a book with a believability problem: The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. The book concerns three women: Tony, a tough-minded historian; a flaky New Ager named Charis; and Roz, a garrulous but highly successful business woman. The three are ostensibly friends, though we scarcely see them interact with each other and they seem to have nothing in common besides the fact that, at one time or another, all three of them have been manipulated, duped, and had a man stolen from them by a mysterious and mysteriously powerful woman named Zenia. Atwood gives us the back story of each of the three friends in turn--first her childhood (each one difficult in its own way), next her relationship with the man in question (each one dysfunctional in its own way), finally the fateful entry of Zenia.

And it seems funny that I had trouble believing these stories because none of them, on the surface, are that farfetched. It's not impossible for people to fall in love with people who are bad for them. It's not impossible for people to want desperately to keep a relationship alive, even when anyone can see that the relationship was unhealthy. It's not impossible for people to believe a whole pack of lies, especially when the lies are specifically constructed to be something they want to believe. It's not even impossible for people who are intelligent to do all of these things. Yet when the women in Atwood's story did them, I couldn't believe in it. What is missing from the story that would make me believe? What would it take to get me to feel for these women whose lives are so stagnated that they can't get over what Zenia did to them so many years ago? I don't know. I couldn't feel for them. I could only say, "Are you kidding? It's been decades, and all three of them still think about this shit every day? Are you kidding? None of the various abuses, abandonments, and deprivations they suffered as children taught them the resiliency to deal with this situation? Not one of them has taken the time to reflect on whether or not the man that Zenia stole was really all that great to begin with?"

Not everything about the book was awful, of course. There were individual scenes that were highly compelling, and I really liked the way Atwood presented Charis's nutty New Age beliefs sincerely, in the same way Charis herself would have presented them. Tony was an interesting character, and her individual narrative the strongest of the bunch. But in the end the fact that I could not believe in the story or the characters sunk the book for me. Ah well. It is interesting to note that Surfacing, my favorite of the Atwood novels I've read, tells a story that, on the surface, is much more far-out than the story of The Robber Bride, yet I had no trouble at all in finding that one believable....
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