Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Within the Door: Portal-Quest Fantasy in Gaiman and Mieville

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Within the Door: Portal-Quest Fantasy in Gaiman and Mieville

Article excerpt

[L]anguages do not exclude each other, but rather intersect with each other in many different ways ...

Mikhail Bakhtin

Fantasy fiction is an evolving literary mode. Indeed, as the world changes and new crises and traumas manifest, the methods for comprehending them follow suit. For China Mieville, the gestalt-shifting trauma that drives Weird Fiction (or Radical Fantasy), often the territory he is said to inhabit, is a response to "the First World War, where mass carnage perpetrated by the most modern states made claims of a 'rational' modern system a tasteless joke" ("Weird" 513). Similarly concerned with fantasy's historical associations, William Burling suggests that modernist and postmodernist fantasies contextualize a palpable "unease with the rapidly changing capitalist world order [...]" (329), and "a world more or less acclimated to the omnipresence of technology and commodity exchange" (329) respectively. What both Burling and Mieville succinctly reiterate is the extent to which fantasy is a literature intrinsically situated at intersections: the intersection of history and culture; the intersection of ideas; the intersection of literary traditions; and the intersection between worlds. (1) And insofar as fantasy (2) generally juxtaposes the possible and impossible, this paper is concerned with interrogating and reenvisioning one of its most visited intersections: the portal.

From Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) to David Mitchell's Slade House (2015), portals, both literal and figurative, perforate the categorical membrane separating real from unreal, accommodating travel from the everyday into the variegated landscapes of so many wonderlands. That many of these wonderlands have led into an aesthetic cul-de-sac (in)famously attacked by Darko Suvin and Fredric Jameson is no fault of the underlying functions of the portal as a structural device. Consequently, it may be revivified, but only after stripping back some of its more problematic elements. Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (1996) and American Gods (2001) and China Mieville's The City and the City (2009) and King Rat (1998) are potent examples of a subversive (or potentially progressive) model for fantasy. That is, they eschew its conventional tendency for conservatively monophonic, closed narrative loops, instead producing a subjectivity that offers a radical alterity counter to the status quo. These atypical, self-reflexive, satirical fantasies express how writers position readers (not unlike their protagonists) in alternative conceptual realms, disturbing the everyday realities often taken for granted. By producing a counternarrative to the traditional portal-quest structures, Gaiman and Mieville are two vital figures in a continuing push to reorient fantasy toward a radical reconceptualization of the portal and its uses via a self-aware methodology of iteration, satire, and suspicion.

Anywhere but Nowhere, Everywhere but Here

Farah Mendlesohn suggests that from "1977 onward, quest fantasies [...] came to dominate the bookshelves of many bookstores, to the degree that in many minds, it was thought of as the default form of fantasy" (43). Arguably, this domination was in no small way a direct offshoot of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-55), discovered and popularized in late 1960s North America. (3) LotR appealed to an audience shocked and incensed by the increasingly violent horrors of modernity, and sympathetic to nostalgic golden-age pastoralism, heroic sacrifice, and a moral philosophy designed to "cleanse" our vision in order to intellectually "escape the evil ugliness and evil around us" (James, "Tolkien" 66). And while this sentiment and Edward James's summation are somewhat reductive, they are not without merit when considered against the effect that Tolkien's epic still has on fantasy--an effect amplified by formulaic reiteration.

Effectively, Tolkien's paradigmatic work was harvested, diluted, stripped down, and its basic seeds sown repeatedly into the multi-volume epics of the late 1970s through to the early 2000s. …

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