Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How do you know when the girl is imaginary?

Imaginary GirlsThe first thing I did upon finishing Nova Ren Suma's extraordinary book, Imaginary Girls, was to flip back to the beginning and read it again. Though I reread a lot, the one other time I have done so immediately is with Gene Wolfe's Peace. This is fitting, perhaps, as it is Wolfe's definition of good literature - "that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure" - that came into my mind as I was reading Imaginary Girls.

Upon finishing again, my thoughts turned from the sublime to the practical. I thought, "Huh. I wonder where they are going to shelve this." I can see Imaginary Girls being described both as "the realistic book all genre readers should pick up" and "the work of the fantastic guaranteed to appeal to all readers of realistic fiction." I can see where both those descriptions are accurate, and both contain the important part - everyone should read this book.

Suma herself describes it as magical realism. I don't disagree, but I am going to talk about Imaginary Girls specifically in terms of the fantastic. I'll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, but to talk about this book, I need to talk about how it ends.

Imaginary Girls is the story of two sisters, the narrator, Chloe, and her older sister, Ruby. Ruby is one of those magical girls who seems brighter and shinier, more blessed and more lucky, than everyone around her. Ruby is the pivot point on which everything turns.

One night Ruby tells a group of people at a party that Chloe can swin across an entire lake, and bring back a souvenir of the drowned city below its surface. On her way, Chloe finds a dead body in a boat, and everything changes. The girls are separated. Two years pass.

Then Ruby brings Chloe back to live with her, and Chloe discovers that London, the girl she saw dead in the boat, one of her classmates, isn't dead. The story is that London went to rehab. Everything is normal again.

Nothing is normal where Ruby is concerned.

Jen's essay talks about Todorov's definition of the fantastic as a moment of hesitation, where the events in the story have not yet been firmly fixed as either fantastic or mimetic. Todorov is not normally a theorist I gravitate towards (I am beyond old-fashioned in my theory, a New Critic with New Historicism in the mix for seasoning) but in this instance, he is exactly the right tool to think with.

Because, as it turns out, Ruby truly is a magic girl, who can bend the universe - or at least her small corner of it - to her will. London really is dead. Except when she is alive. The events Chloe remembers, the night she was sent by Ruby to swim the lake, really did happen.

Except for the part where they didn't.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing Suma does in Imaginary Girls is to extend Todorov's moment of hestitation throughout almost the entire book. The powerful bond between the sisters helps to obscure - both for Chloe and for the reader - the truth of events until that truth becomes inescapable. This creates almost unbearable tension in the text, but the payoff is tremendous.

The thing I found most interesting is that, because of that extended moment of hesitation, Imaginary Girls becomes almost impossible to classify in terms of neat genre categories. By the end of the book, it is clear this is not a work of straight up mimetic fiction, but for so long, it seems like it might be. And Imaginary Girls is not the sort of book where knowing the reading conventions normally associated with a work of fantastic fiction will help the reader make up her mind about the truth of what she is reading.

The only thing to do is turn the page, go back to the beginning, and say Nova Ren Suma's Imaginary Girls is an extraordinary book.