Sunday, April 10, 2016

Book 25: So really I'm just sort of rambling here but go easy on me I've had about 3 hours sleep in the last 17 days.

This was another Xanth book that it turns out I actually read long ago, although less of this one stuck in my mind, so I must not have read it very much.  When I was a kid, I used to re-read books all the time. My old library card number at the Hartland Public Library was "4002," and in those days books were checked out with a card that they stamped with your library card number.  In some books, there would be a string of 4002 4002 4002 on line after line, books that I loved so much I wanted to read them forever.

I must have, I figure, owned Man From Mundania at one point, because I didn't check the Xanth books out of libraries (or at least I don't recall doing that) and because by the time this one came out I'd have been living in Milwaukee and going to college and I don't recall ever checking a book out of the Milwaukee library or the college library.  So I guess I owned this book and must have lost it or given it away or sold it back when I sold boxes and boxes of books, five or ten years ago or something like that. I must have read it when I was getting to the stage of my life where I didn't have time to read and re-read books, where my reading time got limited by classes and work and parenting and being so tired sometimes at night that I can barely focus on anything, let alone on reading.

That's one reason I like these Xanth books, as well as some of the other lighter stuff I'm reading; especially the past week, I often am so exhausted by 8 or 9 that I'm literally bleary-eyed, and reading heavier, harder-to-understand stuff is almost beyond me. Between work and the boys and my asthma, sometimes it's all I can do to make it to 9 just holding my head up.  It's easier to read stuff that I can just sort of float along on.

Anyway, the thing I really want to talk about with this book is the idea of a character refusing to believe what happens to them, and thinking it's a dream/trick/hallucination etc.   In Man From Mundania, the storyline from Heaven Cent continues, with Princess Ivy using the "Heaven Cent" to try to find the Good Magician; the Cent sends her to Mundania, where she meets Grey Murphy, who likes her and decides to help her try to get back to Xanth even though he thinks she's delusional.

Grey doesn't believe in magic, or Xanth, which is understandable in that they don't exist in his world; he just goes along with Ivy because he likes her and thinks she's pretty. But they make their way back into Xanth, and Grey even then refuses to believe in magic or Xanth. He goes into a giant gourd, finds himself in a new place with a castle and plants that move and even a giant river of blood coming from a chained giant, and a magically appearing statue that is the Night Stallion who runs the world of dreams, and through it all Grey keeps thinking it's special effects or he's imagining it; it's not until about 1/3 of the way through the book, after Grey has met a centaur and goblins and a giant dragon and exploding pies that he starts to actually believe magic is real.

It helps with Grey's disbelief that his own magic is the ability to cancel or nullify other magic, but even then the disbelief began to bother me when it stubbornly stuck around; it went beyond what seemed credible for a character and began to feel like a plot device that had been stretched too thin.

The point of Grey's disbelief, in the story, is that it makes Ivy realize he really does like her, because he doesn't think she's a princess or magical, so Ivy knows Grey doesn't want her just for those things; but that could've been accomplished without making Grey seem quite so stubborn/dumb.

Like the "people forget technology and textbooks are a thing" of post-apocalyptic stories, the "I don't believe this because it's not possible" thing also strikes me as overused and kind of silly. I don't know that I've ever in my life been exposed to something so far outside of my experience or understanding of how things work that I wouldn't believe it; I can't think of anything like that offhand. So I don't know for sure how I'd react if something supernatural or unimaginable happened to me.

Although I have some clues, and those clues are that I'd probably accept it pretty quickly. Remember that time I thought we maybe had a poltergeist in our house because the door was flapping slightly back and forth with nobody in the room? I didn't, when I thought briefly that there was something weird happening, think oh I must be imagining this or that's not possible. I thought oh man this is cool that door is moving for no reason whatsoever.

So I feel like maybe I'd be pretty quick to just say yep this is happening and magic it up, but then I think about Bible stories, where God would appear to Moses as a burning bush or angels talked to shepherds, and I wonder what would happen if that kind of thing actually happened: not some low-level thing like a door moving for no reason, but a big honest-to-God happening.

I'm not so sure I'd believe that, or even talk about it. I think my first thought really would be that I was going insane.  I remember reading A Beautiful Mind and learning that John Nash thought at times that he was a toe on God's foot; he really honestly believed that, among his other delusions.  Back when my mom was first becoming a nurse she told us about a psychology class she had to take, in which one of the people was a case study. The guy thought that two pigeons that sat outside his window frequently were talking about him; also, he believed that one of the pigeons was Napoleon.  Travis Walton still swears he was really abducted.

So if I really began to think something supernatural was happening to me, I suppose I wouldn't say anything at all to anyone, at least until it got scary -- like people who say God told them to kill someone or something -- or until I thought I had proof. But what would proof be if you're really crazy? Or hypnotized? (Note: I don't believe in hypnotism. We had one come to our school once and I am pretty sure that nobody who claimed to be hypnotized really was under some sort of hypnotic suggestion.) The guy who thought the pigeons were talking about him was convinced he had proof: he could see the pigeons talking about him.

I think the main thing to me would be someone else would have to see it independently before I would bring it up around them. Like if I thought a UFO came down in my yard, I doubt I'd say anything until someone else said they saw it, before I ever mentioned it. If someone else said hey did you see that table just lift up and tip over, I'd probably believe it really happened.

Although to be fair, then I might not automatically think ghost notwithstanding my previous instantaneous thought that we had a poltergeist. If I were sitting around and a table suddenly flipped over on its own, and other people saw it, I suppose I'd reach for more natural explanations, first: maybe there'd been a tremor? Or it was a trick rigged by someone? Or ... swamp gas?

The thing is, something that makes us unwilling to mention it to other people because it's so weird isn't going to have a rational explanation.  When I see lights in the sky, I don't flip out because they're doing what lights in the sky are supposed to be doing: traveling steadily in one direction, or just being stars.  But something like this:

doesn't have a rational explanation, and it would be about 1 minute into it that I'd be thinking okay I'm crazy and two minutes into it when someone else experienced it where I'd stop saying it was swamp gas.

I guess where I end up is that it's simply not that believable for characters to spend inordinate amounts of time saying I must be dreaming or That can't be real or whatever. I think Close Encounters of the Third Kind actually did a great job of showing how I imagine I, and most real people, would react: when Richard Dreyfus first sees aliens, he doesn't spend the next 14 years saying I must have been dreaming or it was all some sort of trick.  When something's real it's harder to shake off, and reality can be shown by physical effects: a table flipping over or a sunburn on half your face or, in Man From Mundania's case, by magic actually working.  So when characters continue to insist that it's all a fake or imaginary long after being shown that magic/spaceships/God actually exists, it starts to ring false.  The more I read this year, the more I'm noticing all these little author gimmicks and tropes that really serve more to detract from the book than to enhance it.  I think, like  civilization-has-fallen-apart, the I-can't-believe-it trope really speaks to a dearth of imagination, which is a weird thing to say about a guy as prolific as Piers Anthony; like will-they-or-won't-they on romantic sitcoms, it's a false setup that gets played on too long because the writer can't drum up dramatic tension any other way. I suppose eventually I'll stumble across a book in which a character wakes up in a post-apocalyptic world where they live like medieval times, and he finds someone he's totally attracted to but also somewhat bugged by, and he just won't believe it and will have to repeatedly be convinced it's all for real. That book will sell ten trillion copies because apparently that's what people want in a story.

PS I had to stop watching that Close Encounters clip because that scene really freaks me out.

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