Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sensawonder: Can Mystery Have It?

Scott D. Parker

My son is a storyteller. His imagination overflows with great concepts and tales that only can come from a young person unfettered by adult knowledge. Be it Lego people, stuffed animals, or things he just made up, he is always telling stories, sometimes with only the school day getting in the way. There have been a few times when we've walked to school and he's telling me some important detail about something and he has to stop when the school bell rings...and, upon leaving school, he literally picks up where he left off in the morning.

His current fascination is with the game Plants vs. Zombies. For those that don't know, this is a basic tower defense game where you deploy cute plants to do battle and protect your house from cute zombies. Since our entire family has beaten the game, my boy is inventing new themed levels that he would like to see. In these imaginings, he goes all out. Zombie Smurfs, Zombie Mario, and Zombie Thomas Jefferson each attack in their own unique way, and, more often than not, there are "a trillion" zombies with which the plants have to fight. There's that rational, now-adult logical part of me that wants to say, "Dude, you can't have a trillion zombies because the plants would not stand a chance. Heck, they wouldn't even fit on the screen." I refrain, however, and allow his young mind to wander as far as it will.

All of us, dear readers, are likely adults reading this essay. (If we got some young people, hello!) Unless we have young people around (our own children, etc.), chances are we've forgotten the sense of wonder through which the young see our world. I'll admit that I, grown-up kid that I am, still forgot things until my being a parent helped me remember the glorious awe through which children sometimes see our world.

The science fiction genre has a term for that: Sensawonder, an amalgamation of "sense of wonder." In many an SF or fantasy book or movie, the hero beholds wonders beyond the imagination, be they alien or man-made. There is a bigness to some stories, an awareness by the hero of things larger than himself. We, as readers or viewers, get to experience that feeling, too. What did you think when Lucy first went through the wardrobe? Or Alice through the looking glass. Or Dorothy in Oz? Or Luke Skywalker when he saw the Death Star? Or Dave Bowman when he saw the monolith? Or when Marty McFly drove into 1955?

I’m currently re-reading the first few Martian tales by Edgar Rice Burroughs in advance of next month’s release of the “John Carter” movie. That, and my SF book club picked them. They are fun reads and, aside from the first volume, I have not read them in over thirty years. That first book, A Princess of Mars, is one of the few books that can simultaneously take me back to a time when I was ten and I can travel there without any adultness in me. That is, I can still feel the wonder I felt back then with all the stuff the intervening three decades brought to me. Oh, and the writer part of me also stays at the door way. Sure, he pokes his head in every now and then to remind me that this was Burroughs’s first book, but he discretely and quietly exits without too much fuss.

Recently, I’ve started to wonder if sensawonder is confined only to the SF and fantasy genres. Can you have it with a mystery? As an adult reader, when I page through a mystery story, my sensawonder is at the prose, the story, the structure, and the author’s prowess rather than the story itself. Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny was a remarkable book written by an author in complete command of her skills, and there were a few scenes where I smiled at the twists, but I’m not sure I experienced wonder. Same for the Boone Daniels novels by Don Winslow. They are fantastic books that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and, with The Dawn Patrol, experienced a physical reaction to while reading, but no wonder. And don’t the sensawonder only applies to children reading SF. In the past five years, I’ve read China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and Dan Simmons’s Hyperion and both expanded my mind like nothing else in decades.

Is the setting crucial to sensawonder? Most mysteries are set on earth no matter the year. The J. D. Robb books are set in the future, but they are small enough not too feel too different. Historical mysteries have for me, a trained historian, more a quality of “I wonder if [Insert Historical Person] will show up” rather than wonder. The closest I’ve come to sensawonder with mysteries is Robert Harris’s Fatherland and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, both alternate history/mystery stories, the former taking place in a Berlin where Germany won World War II, the latter set in a Jewish country in Alaska. Chabon's book was nominated for both an Edgar (lost) and a Nebula (won). Go figure.

Setting maybe is the crucial ingredient. But I still pose the question: can you have a true sense of wonder in a mystery story?

Album of the Week: Van Halen's A Different Kind of Truth.
I'm only a casual VH fan, one who did not get up in arms when David Lee Roth left and Sammy Hagar replaced him. But this reunion with the Van Halen brothers (and son!) with Roth had me curious. It is exactly like you'd expect a Van Halen album to sound. That's both a good and bad thing. A good thing that they are back together, making some great rock music, bad that it sounds like it's from 1984. I"m not complaining about the sound. I'm too busy playing steering wheel guitar and bopping my head. And, while the lead single, "Tattoo," is the song you're most likely to hear, it's a good tune, but not the best on the album. Give it a spin and see if you think that old magic is back.

1 comment:

Dana King said...

I think it's possible, though it's difficult. I got a bit of a similar sensation while reading John Connolly's THE BLACK ANGEL.

Much of it has to do with setting, and the settings of mysteries are, often of necessity, not the kinds of places where a sense of wonder kicks in.

As for real life, I still get it. Standing outside with binoculars watching a lunar eclipse, during thunderstorms, and after last summer's earthquake, when I had time to think of how far away the actual event had taken place and what had to happen for it to shake my house as it did. (This was after I changed by shorts, of course.)