Saturday, December 8, 2012

Musings on the Grotesque

          What is the place of grotesque and even unnerving characters in fiction? Can we as writers, particularly Christian writers, include characters whose morals may be corrupt or whose outward appearance startles the reader? I venture to answer that yes, we can and at times even should engage in such a thing. In Hayao Miyasaki’s anime film Spirited Away, a young girl accidently stumbles into a world populated by spirits. Some of these spirits are inherently friendly; others wreak havoc and attempt to satisfy their malicious desires through various means. All of the characters in this film in some way exhibit grotesqueness, whether subtly as in the case of Haku, a young boy who can turn into a dragon at will; or not so subtly, as in the case of No-Face, a lonely white-masked spirit who tries to make friends in a very ineffectual way. One of the movie’s characteristics is the odd and the strange, yet all of these unusual characters are critical to the story, because they establish the story’s point and plot. Similarly, most fantasy novels—that is, novels either set in an imagined world or somehow connected to one—also bear an element of the grotesque. Tolkien’s infamous character Gollum, for instance, at times makes one cringe at how twisted he is. Yet Gollum (or Smeagol) dominates the story from the inside. The entire trilogy would not really exist without his character to forward its plot.
            As Christian writers, one of our models of storytelling should be Scripture itself. It cannot be denied that Scripture is rife with such characters. In Fiction Writing class a few weeks ago, we discussed the technique of taking biblical stories and writing their modern equivalents, using the story of Rahab and the spies for an example. Though Rahab was obviously not an ideal character in any sense, her faith and her action as a result of this faith was the entire point of the story. Countless other examples abound; every character in the Bible is strange in some way, often in more than one area of his life. The point is, God can use every type of David or Saul or Rahab to further His purposes.
            In a similar way, I think, we as Christians and especially as Christian writers have the ability to see man as his Creator sees him, and as such we are able to incorporate characters such as populate the pages of Scripture into our own stories. When Christ redeemed us, He redeemed us wholly, not simply our souls or our bodies, but all parts of us, including our imagination. This imagination enables us to see past imperfect or undesirable appearances to what the character is inside, how his character advances the story, and what the author intended for him. This ability, I think, encompasses both the tangible everyday world in which we live and the world of stories and novels.
            Now my point is not to say that every grotesque or strange character is redeemed, or that we should focus on such characters at the cost of dismissing others. Figures such as Gollum and No-Face have their place in literature, but there are occasions when we shouldn’t let them venture outside their boundaries. In other words, writers should know when to avoid depicting people or situations whose nature would disturb their readers beyond what is acceptable, or to cause them to stumble. Author Flannery O’Connor’s work often contains sickening levels of the grotesque, and as such needs to be read carefully, with the knowledge of how much one can take. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka also uses an extreme (perhaps even more than O’Connor’s work) of the grotesque to make its point. His story, I think, takes the grotesque too far. Something can be disturbing, or it can be disturbing beyond the limits of taste and morality. As Christian writers in particular we should be aware of the distinction and should approach such works from a perspective oriented toward Christ.
            What makes Flannery O’Connor’s stories so difficult is their portrayal of the distortion that can exist even in ordinary people and events. In reading the newspaper one experiences the same kind of horror at how close such things can be. Again, we have a great gift in our ability to write. I propose that a method of dealing with our fallen world is to write about it. In my Fiction Writing class with Dr. Aikman this method has suddenly bloomed and come alive to me. My most successful stories in this class have been based either on actual events I read in the newspaper or on conglomerations of characters and events garnered from my actual experience. One such story I based on an article telling of two young men who bound themselves to a pact that stated one would “pull the plug” on the other if his friend suffered a life-changing injury. One of them became a quadriplegic through being mugged one night; the other waited a number of years before killing this man and subsequently killing himself. Their story arrested me as soon as I saw it; I knew I had to write about it. Such a story is compelling because of its horror, which is why, I think, it demanded a story from me.
            You see my point, I hope. There are different levels of the grotesque; there are limitations to how we can and should employ it, certainly. Yet we shouldn't simply dismiss the grotesque without understanding how it can be used rightly in literature. G.K. Chesterton’s book Alarms and Discursions discusses the Gothic idea of art: even grotesque beasts such as gargoyles can glorify the Creator. Chesterton writes, “The medieval Christians summoned all things to worship their [god], dwarfs and pelicans, monkeys and madmen. The modern realists summon all these million creatures to worship their god; and then have no god for them to worship. Paganism was in art a pure beauty; that was the dawn. Christianity was a beauty created by controlling a million monsters of ugliness; and that in my belief was the zenith and the noon…Christianity, with its gargoyles and grotesques, really amounted to saying this: that a donkey could go before all the horses of the world when it was really going to the temple.”[1] As Christian writers, we have the authority to show this understanding in what we write. We can write about Haku and No-Face and Gollum to the glory of God.

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Alarms and Discursions (NuVision Publications, 2008), 9.

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