Last month I went to see Manchester by the Sea, and re-read Geoff Ryman’s Was.
Manchester by the Sea was funnier, and not as unrelentingly grim, as I had been expecting (and fearing) from the reviews I read beforehand. It tells the story of Lee, a man to whom something terrible happens (I won’t spoil what exactly), something that changes his life, and his family’s lives completely, that affects his entire community. Years later, he has to go back home after his brother dies, and his now teenaged nephew needs a guardian.
The thing that makes this such a good film is that there is no clear-cut redemption, there is no feel-good happy ending; Lee’s life changes, but he isn’t ‘fixed’, he’s never going to be ok, ever, but his life still goes on, still damaged. It’s a good film because it handle’s this with respect, it never feels voyeuristic (even though we have to wait to see exactly what happened that caused Lee to leave town), it never feels like the character is being tortured to death by the story for the sake of it (or for the sake of ‘proving’ some bizarre ideological point); it shows that life doesn’t have any larger purpose, or higher meaning, terrible things happen, but people still carry on, scraping something together for themselves.
Was, published in 1992, combines the stories of Judy Garland, the filming of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, an actor dying of AIDS in the 1980’s, Frank Baum, and the ‘real’ Dorothy Gael who inspired him.
Geoff Ryman is one of the most compassionate and humanist writers I have read (ages ago, I found a description of literary humanism I really like, in this review of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker: “authentic humanism, meaning a consideration (both celebratory and cautionary) of human doings and undoings”); he is an author whose works I return to again and again – I have lost count of how many times I have read Was, and I would also particularly recommend his books Lust and Air, and his short-story collection Paradise Tales (if the story in that collection about the Angel of the North doesn’t move you, nothing will).
Was also covers difficult subjects, death and loneliness and the abuse (emotional and physical and sexual) of children, and describes people continually striving to live meaningful lives; but, as with Manchester by the Sea, it is never there to shock or titillate. Ryman shows compassion for all his characters, even the bad ones, without ever making excuses for them.
Ryman also does his research! He travelled and read and researched what Kansas was like in the late 19th Century, and the real-life accounts he discovered expanded and enriched his own story telling.
In his afterword, Ryman says: “I am a fantasy writer who fell in love with realism. Because I am a fantasy writer, I am particularly aware that every work of fiction, however realistic, is a fantasy. It happens in a world that is an alternative to this one.” He later adds:
I fell in love with realism because it deflated the myths, the unexamined ideas of fantasy. It confronts them with forgotten facts. It uses past truth – history.
I love fantasy because it reminds us how far short our lives fall from their full potential. Fantasy reminds us how wonderful the world is. In fantasy, we can imagine a better life, a better future. In fantasy, we can free ourselves from history and outworn realism.
Oz is, after all, only a place with flowers and birds and rivers and hills. Everything is alive there, as it is here if we care to see it. Tomorrow, we could all decide to live in a place not much different from Oz. We don’t. We continue to make the world an ugly, even murderous place, for reasons we do not understand.
Those reasons lie in both fantasy and history. Where we are gripped by history – our own personal history, our country’s history. Where we are deluded by fantasy – our own fantasy, our country’s fantasy. It is necessary to distinguish between history and fantasy wherever possible.
And use them against each other.