I heard the term ‘slipstream’ to identify a certain kind of contemporary narrative effect for the first time a couple of days ago, and since then I have become very intrigued by it. My encounter with it was on a post in Torque Control, and having asked Niall to define it for me, he produced an extremely lucid explanation. The term, he tells me, was coined by Bruce Sterling in 1989 to designate “a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.” A kind of writing, it seems to me, that makes the reader feel off kilter, out of their depth, disorientated, vertiginous. Now this is so interesting to me, as my research at the moment is all about figuring out how the fantastic has changed from the end of the nineteenth century (where it was a prominent and important genre) to the end of the twentieth, and one of the fundamental effects of the fantastic is to make the reader feel profoundly unsettled. The classic configuration of the fantastic stages the upsurge of the supernatural into an otherwise realistic setting, provoking radical uncertainty in the reader as to whether the events being recounted can possible be considered ‘true’ and therefore meaningful. One of the trickiest novels of the fantastic is Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (which I will post about one of these days). It is impossible to know whether or not the governess has actually seen the ghosts she contends are maliciously threatening her charges. It is equally plausible that they are products of her overwrought sensibility and her ecstatic guarding of the children’s moral purity. But ultimately we just don’t know what the truth of the matter is, which is probably the reason why more critical analyses have been written about this novella than any other work. Anyhow, having proposed to Niall that ‘slipstream’ as a literary effect was close to the classic characteristics of the fantastic he replied that: ‘Probably the most common usage is something close to yours: use of fantastic elements in an atypical (for the current literary environment) way, to unsettle. As mentioned in the interview, Kessel and Kelly have edited the first slipstream anthology, and include a very interesting critical introduction in which they try to pin down how slipstream does what it does.’ He goes on to quote most helpfully from that introduction:
‘Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “the true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time and still function.” However, it is our fate to live in a time when it takes a first-rate mind just to get through the day. We have unprecedented access to information; cognitive dissonance is a banner headline in our morning paper and radiates silently from our computer screen. We contend that slipstream is an expression of the zeitgeist: it embraces cognitive dissonance rather than trying to reduce it.
1. Slipstream violates the tenets of realism.
2. Although slipstream stories pay homage to various popular genres and their conventions, they are not science fiction stories, traditional fantasies, dreams, historical fantasies, or alternate histories.
3. Slipstream is playfully postmodern. The stories often acknowledge their existence as fictions, and play against the genres they evoke. They have a tendency to bend or break narrative rules. (pp.xii-xiii)’
I really like this idea of ‘cognitive dissonance’, with its implications of a dangerous overload of information, producing a kind of force field of bristling static in the reader’s mind. I’m also fascinated by the way that slipstream is different from the fantastic, although it contains echoes of it. Niall also said that ‘a key point, I think, is that you can get a slipstream effect without using fantastic elements (in much the same way that you can get psychological horror; it’s about the effect more than the tools used to achieve that effect).’ Another blogger, Martin, was kind enough to point me to a post of his own on slipstream that contains a very useful list of novels that are recognised as employing this device, including Don Delillo’s White Noise and Iain Banks’s The Bridge.
This is as far as I have reached with my understanding of this term, and would love to know more about it from anyone who has knowledge or experience of ‘slipstream’ effect in novels. Can you think of a novel that fits this description, and do you have any further insight for me into what slipstream means when it appears in a narrative? I’d be very grateful for litbloggers thoughts on the matter.