Thirteen years ago [has it really been that long?] I wrote an essay called “Literature & math: imaginary gardens with real toads.” The phrase following the colon quotes from Marianne Moore’s characterization of poetry, but I was connecting it with math in that essay. Now I want to connect it to a subject that is perhaps closer to poetry: novels.
Recently I read Christopher Swann’s Shadow of the Lions, a coming-of-age novel in the great tradition of stories about elite prep schools, usually in England or New England. But this time it’s Virginia. With the feel of a memoir, it traces the story of a novelist (of course) from his days as a student at the aforementioned school until his return there as a teacher, skipping all the intermediate years. The story is interesting enough, being something of a mystery, but I have a real problem with the characterization and plotting. Instead of giving us imaginary gardens with real toads in them, Swann has given us real gardens with imaginary toads in them. Here’s what I mean: Any good work of fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, has to set up an imaginary world (the garden) in which the reader can believe, accepting Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief”; after that, the details (the toads) have to feel real, in order to let the reader continue to buy into the premise. But Swann has accomplished something that’s mostly the other way around. The outer framework, especially the prep school, is completely real and even routine (unlike, say, Hogwarts); the actions of characters, however, are jarringly unbelievable. Parts of it are like one of those bad horror movies where you want to screen at a character “No! Don’t open that door!”
And then, of course, that’s exactly what they do.