Saturday, January 26, 2013

Thank you, Diana Wynne Jones

Once upon a time, I was given a book. It was called The Ogre Downstairs, and it was about ordinary kids with the sort of problem a ordinary author would have given an earnest, well-intentioned plot to: they were a newly mixed family, and the two groups of kids hated each other on sight. It was more complicated that that of course, like life is: they liked each other in odd combinations that in real life might or might not be overtaken by their stories about how they hated each other. But in this story, there was a magical chemistry set, which made toys come alive, gave them the ability to fly, made you invisible, and all sorts of other things. And it caused misadventure after misadventure, like a fever-dream that keeps waking up into real life. Bathroom floods, strandings on rooftops, great heaps of toffee that threw themselves onto radiators to melt, a gang of ancient Greek toughs in motorcycle helmets who threatened to beat them up. Over and over, their dreams of Marvelous Things happening went bad.

It was a marvelous book, and the start of almost forty years so far reading Diana Wynne Jones' books.

Once upon a time, I met Diana Wynne Jones. Well, first I sent a letter to her, then bolluxed that up sending a second letter. Then I met her at two science fiction conventions, and I think I was the scary fan who might be mildly schizophrenic or otherwise just a little too much. Someone with the last name Kase, a Dutch SF fan who is a little overenthusiastic, showed up in one of her novels, and I know she put people she encountered into her books, not always in the most complimentary life. I have suspicions. She had a strange relationship with her stories: they kept coming around and coming true in one way or another, and biting her in the rear. She returned the compliment. In one of the pieces in her book of essays, which I'm reading now, she talks about how she drew on her life, but had to tone it back because "no one would be live it." Her life was too full of bizzarities to make a coherent plot (even a coherent fantasy).

Once upon a time, I read another book. It was the Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula Le Guin, and it was about a man, George Orr, whose dreams keep turning, upon his waking, into the way the universe always has been. His dreams change the world, and not in the metaphorical way we expect from Dr Martin Luther King Jr's speech. His unconscious does the most horrible things when he tries to make them stop, and trusts a psychiatrist to work on stopping his dreams. With Dr Haber's Augmentor (an enhanced EEG/biofeedback device), his dreams solve racism by making everybody gray, solve world war by creating invading aliens, solve overpopulation by killing off six out of seven people in a plague. Then one of the aliens his dreams created—a strange, sea-turtle-like Taoist alien who in his changed-upon-changed world is his boss—advises him how to regain balance by handing him a record of the Beatles' "A Little Help From My Friends."

Once upon a time, quite recently, I had a vivid dream where dreams (not mine specifically) came to life. It was enormous, like George Orr's dilemma. Lots and lots of people had died. There was magic elsewhere in the dream, and it was also scary: things catching on fire, and big books in sinister libraries. I don't remember how now, but I was working as a short-order cook and dishwasher, and there wasn't much left to do, because the world was suddenly so empty. So I got off work early and went for walk out in the hills, which somehow looked like an enormous diorama of hills, with little houses with electric lights flickering inside them. It was peaceful, and I felt greatly relieved by the thought of all those people in all those houses, just dealing with their lives.

Once upon a time, about an hour ago, I had a dream that Diana Wynne Jones had come back, in her full self, to visit from the dead. She said she didn't know why. I didn't know why. I realized I was supposed to ask her a question. We went round an round, chatting about other things than what we were there for, and then I half-woke in my real bed, and thought about her books, where dreams and ordinary life twine and twist around themselves, but (usually) all work out in the end. I thought to ask her, half awake, "should we live so that our life is as wonderful as dreams, and dream so our dreams are as vivid as life?" and she answered something like, "well, that would be a neat package, now wouldn't it?" And I remembered George Orr, and how trying to make his dreams follow orders turned out so poorly. That kind of balanced statement is like a bad reflection of the Tao.

No, you can write stories that make things come out in neat packages, but life is not like that. You fall in love and raise a family, but also get into horrible car-crashes and get cancer and die in real life, like Diana Wynne Jones did. And maybe you can make a neat, balanced package even out of that. Maybe your dreams will help you make sense, forget what you need to forget just to stay sane, create a narrative that lets you get on with what you need to. But if we're honest, the kinds of stories that deal with dreams don't end neatly in life itself: the neatness is window-dressing.

Life in and of itself doesn't make sense. Once upon a time I dreamed it did. It's not a coherent plot, and improbable things keep happening at inappropriate times. It's too much, and so we tell stories, to make it make sense. Those come out of us, a part of us that wants life to be fair, that wants to believe in karma and justice and balance. And there is balance in the universe, but not the balance of a judge weighing souls with certified scales. It's the balance of: here's where all the chaotic whirl of the universe has settled for now, every atom doing what it does because that's what atoms do. Plants creating out oxygen, animals breathing out carbon dioxide. Cold breathing out of the arctic, heat breathing out of the tropics. People waking up in the morning and seeing sense and nonsense whirling around them, then going to sleep at night and dreaming dreams.

Thank you, Diana Wynne Jones, for all the marvelous, maddening chaos in your books. Thank you for being alive. And thank you for the visit last night. It didn't end with a neat answer, like your books often went to convoluted ends to achieve. And that's OK. I think maybe that's what you came back to tell me.

I get by with a little help from my friends.