Immersed in the Fiction of the Museum of Jurassic Technology

To finish out our weekend at AWP, we make our way to the museum, which is in Culver City around the corner from a surprisingly unassuming, corporate-looking Sony Studios lot.  We leave the sun and heat and enter the eye-straining gloom of the museum.  In the dark I find myself bowing down to read the peeling placards—pale text on black backgrounds—leaning so close my eyes hurt.  The first exhibit I see is a glass box bearing a sign that reads, “Exhibit out of order.”

In the display case box are five glass dishes, each filled with a powder and labeled with numbers 1 through 5.  Beneath the box is a legend: each number, it seems, correlates to a word.

One of the five glass dishes is smashed, glass dish number 5.

Lean closer, and you’ll see that number 5 is labeled “Reason.”

And so begins the immersive experience that is the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a world filled with the inescapable allure of the illogical and haunting sounds that pull you from room to room.

In a way, the Museum draws our attention to the experience of living in fiction.  Is the exhibit with glass dishes truly out of order, or am I meant to interpret it as a symbol, a warning, that this is a place where reason is to be left at the door?

The magic of the Museum of Jurassic Technology is that its exhibits function like good fiction, perhaps even especially like good fairytales or well-done flash fiction.  The placards present self-contained worlds; at the same time, we are invited to follow the narrative as it spirals beyond the displays in front of us, to consider implications and the logic of what remains unsaid.

Take, for instance, another display: in this glass case, there is a model bed, tiny and disheveled.

The caption reads: “A woman after childbirth is the most dangerous thing on earth.  All sorts of uncanny things are around the mother and infant, and if she goes to a river to wash, the fish will go away.”

I found myself agreeing with this caption: yes, this conveys a certain truth.  A woman after childbirth is a strange and dangerous thing; in giving birth, she has, as Maggie Nelson says, “touched death along the way.”  It is no wonder that a person who has experienced such an uncanny thing could be said to drive the fish away.

The caption’s turn to the river is an unexpected turn, but one that feels natural.  It’s an example of Kate Bernheimer’s “just-so stories”: because of the way the description is written, we as readers believe (we want to believe) that the events of the caption happened exactly as we’ve been told.  That is, a woman has a child; a woman after childbirth is an uncanny thing; the uncanny woman thing drives the fish away.

Beyond telling a fiction (or is it?) in which we might recognize an aspect of human experience, this caption calls beyond itself and invites the visitor to contemplate the exhibit’s implications.  For instance, for how long will a new mother keep the fish away?  Is our uncanny woman supernatural in nature, able to pollute the river and banish the fish forever?  Is it possible that the woman is simply a particularly aggressive bather, and her splashing scared the fish away?

Put aside the caption; consider again the stark display of the empty, unmade bed.  Now we’re left wondering: for how long has our uncanny mother been gone?

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AWP 2016: Beyond the Definition of Weird

Unreality was the name of our game last weekend at AWP in LA.  On the last full day of the conference, Carlea and I attended two panels concerned with the “unreal,” what some might call “weird.”

The first panel, “In the Realms of the Real and the Unreal,” featured panelists Sofia Samatar, Kelly Link, Carmen Machado, and Alice Sola Kim, moderated by Katharine Beutner.  This panel addressed a question we as readers and writers of weird fiction likely often encounter: what exactly is weird fiction?  Readers and writers of any genre are likely familiar with this question and the difficulty of establishing what, exactly, weird fiction is.  What is this thing?  Can we even pin it down?  How does it work?  What are its rules?

In response to this impulse to define and name, moderator Katharine Beutner asked Sofia Samatar about her belief that her “favorite sub-genre is both over-named and nameless, but it still believes in the power of names.”  When we talk about weird fiction, what do we mean?  The weird?  Slipstream? Literary fantasy?  Interstitial?  Sci-fi, speculative, absurd?  The list is endless, and this is what Samatar is getting at when she points to the abundance of names for this particular genre.  The impulse to categorize fiction is indisputable, but as Sofia Samatar said on Saturday, “defining stories piece by piece might be making us dumber.”

The question of definition will likely be one that we at Read Weird will take up sooner or later, but putting aside the question of definition allowed the aforementioned panelists to productively discuss how to make speculative/unreal fiction successful.  For Kelly Link, weird fiction works through the language, in the way its pattern, repetition, and code resemble music, and the way in which the “musicality or stasis of a story moves a reader through a series of emotional responses.”  Samatar, too, focused on language, saying that the “strangeness of fiction returns language to itself.”

Ultimately, the panel turned to a discussion of the underpinning ideas of unreal fiction, and these underpinnings align remarkably across genres: writing is play, there’s beauty in precision and pattern and rhythm, but also in having our expectations upended.  I’d be surprised if we couldn’t all agree that these are the reasons we keep reading and writing, regardless of our respective pet genres.

So then, as moderator Rob Spillman asked at the final panel of the day (“Speculative Fiction: Defining the Rules of a Rule-Breaking Genre,” featuring Ramona Ausubel, Marie-Helene Bertino, Manuel Gonzales, and Aimee Bender): what is at the emotional core of why not hyperreal?  Why pursue genres that make any use of the unreal?

This question, though it contains interesting theoretical implications, seemed to elicit emotional responses.  The panelists each offered their own beautiful and telling insights: responses included the ideas that the “magical feels so much cleaner than the real world,” and that it’s “boring for writers to tackle the realist stuff”; Bertino also told of needing to defend the weirdness in her stories, that “that’s just what it’s like inside [her] head.”

It seems like certain types of readers and writers have an affinity for weird genres, that for one reason or another, weird fiction can do something, scratch some itch, in a way that realistic fiction cannot.  Weird stories, the “Speculative Fiction” panelists decided, can make simultaneous use of literal and metaphorical readings; speculative fiction is not weird simply for the sake of being weird, but rather that weirdness allows readers and writers to access a fragile, emotional core at the heart of an experience.