Today I will be presenting on urban fantasy and how it relates to the conditions of combined and uneven development.
Modern fantasy as a literary form has diversified since The Lord of the Rings (1954) and its subsequent paperback imitators. Stereotypically set in medieval or pseudomedieval kingdoms with dragons, elves, and faeries, these paperbacks were rarely set in cities, but usually in the countryside or in a sublime, pre-Raphaelite wilderness. As a form, what provided the historical impetus to the rise of modern fantasy, as early as the late nineteenth century, was the rise of literary realism and the modern novel, the techniques of which authors began to apply to older, or residual forms, such as chivalric romance and epic. Fantasy is therefore a quintessentially modern form even though its settings might be throwbacks to medieval forms. With urban fantasy, a subgenre that originated in the 1980s, fantasy continues to employ residual literary forms such as fairy tale, folktale, romance, and epic, but places the fantastic content within a modern milieu—the contemporary, usually North American, city.
Charles de Lint, a Canadian author resident in Ottawa, has been called the Father of Urban Fantasy. Fantasy novels set in the modern world have older antecedents, such as the supernatural detective stories of Charles Williams, but ‘urban fantasy’ per se, as a market category, emerged during the 1980s, when de Lint wrote many of his classic works, including Moonheart (1984). De Lint’s fiction sets fairy tales, myths, and folktales derived from Celtic, Romany, and Native American traditions—as well as urban legends—within urban space, with novelistic, modern protagonists who interact with mythical, otherworldly figures. Instead of imposing the plot of a conventional fantasy novel onto urban space, de Lint is interested in how ordinary people interact with the fantastic and the numinous on their own terms, and he does so with a social conscience.
Urban fantasy lends itself to an analysis framed by the concept of combined and uneven development because it can claim to represent an uneven modernity in its content as well as its form. But first we must ask, “What is combined and uneven development?” The Warwick Research Collective, referring to Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, describes combined and uneven development as “a situation in which capitalist forms and relations exist alongside ‘archaic forms of economic life’ and pre-existing social and class relations” (WReC 11). Uneven development rears its head whenever you see a high-rise financial district skyline within close proximity to seemingly ‘backwards’ and impoverished slums, or when agrarian farmers are wrenched from the cotton fields they have tilled for generations right into the disorienting presence of advanced industrial machinery. Capitalism must be understood as a world system that encompasses the whole globe under a single, though uneven, modernity—not just as a European development that has spread outward across the globe, bringing modernity with it. This understanding refutes the idea that some societies, especially former colonies, are somehow ‘backwards,’ or behind modernity. Although societies across the globe experience the modern age differently, they are all irreducibly modern, part of one combined system. Neocolonialism may establish hierarchies between one singular modernity and another, but this simply makes it an uneven, combined system, rather than two distinct systems.
How does all this tie in to urban fantasy? Just like the world-system, the form of all modern fantasy is itself combined and uneven, since it joins residual forms that originated in pre-modern periods with the modern novel. In a sense, this is true of all novels, even in realism, where displaced romance forms the novel’s deep structure. But modern fantasy differs from realism because it displays this structure upfront, often as a self-conscious imitation of pre-modern forms, the magical content of which, however, it retains. These disjunctures deepen in urban fantasy, which blends the pre-modern and the modern on the level of content as well as form. The disjuncture between elves, mermaids, fairies, spirits, and goblins coexisting with a modern, urban setting becomes explicitly represented and narrativized in urban fantasy. We can read this disjuncture as an allegory of the combined and uneven system.
This system also describes the dynamic in the hierarchy between the city and the country that urban fantasy mediates. The city dominates the countryside but this relationship nonetheless joins the two spaces. In a similar way, urban fantasy appropriates the pastoralist content of fairy tales and folktales, joining residual, rural culture with the dominant urban culture. This combination of disjunctive content allegorizes the hierarchical relationship of the city over the country. However, urban fantasy does not simply reflect urban dominance as much as it appropriates the natural and the rural to awaken a utopian desire for a less alienated existence within the urban.
Western culture, as Cat Asthon describes in her essay on de Lint in The Canadian Fantastic in Focus, traditionally treats the idea of nature and wilderness as a cure for alienated modernity. However, de Lint’s fiction recognizes the truth that an escape to pure nature is an escape from history and responsibility. Nature is, after all, a cultural construct produced by humans, an aspect of modernity even though it describes a non-human world. Instead, de Lint adopts an urban environmentalism in which his fiction seeks what spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre would call a “renewed right to urban life” (“Right to the City”).
Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the right to the city, which counters urban alienation, finds common cause with the politics of de Lint’s urban fantasy. “The right to the city is like a cry and demand,” Lefebvre writes, a revolution of space that places “appropriation over domination, demand over command, and use over exchange” (“Space as a Social Social Product”). Since the city dominates space and nature by transforming it into exchange value—for example, by exploiting natural resources for export and by constructing vast condo projects—Lefebvre calls for the production of socialist space, in which the working classes will use, or appropriate, space for themselves. Nature is the source of all use value, and asks for nothing in return. The city will become a healthier environment if people can use it, rather than it using them.
In the remainder of my presentation, I will demonstrate how two of de Lint’s books—the novel Mulengro (1985) and the short story collection Dreams Underfoot (1993)—respond to the call for the right to the city while also representing the conditions of combined and uneven development in North American cities, specifically Ottawa and de Lint’s fictional city of Newford.
Mulengro is a ghost story about the community of Rom living in Ottawa, mixed with a police procedural subplot. A series of gruesome “Gypsy” murders around Ottawa has the cops lost for any plausible explanation. Janfri, a Romani fiddler, watches his home burn down with the Rom symbol for marhime, meaning unclean, painted on his house. Since the Romani are nomad, owning a home is a sign of defilement, an unacceptable adoption of Gaje, or non-Rom, ways—or at least this is what the arsonist’s gesture implies. As the criminal murders more Rom, the elders decide to flee the Ottawa. They know the culprit to be a ghost named Mulengro, a survivor of the Nazi persecutions who has come back to cleanse the Rom from their Gaje ways. Ola, a Rom who practices draba, or magic, flees her house after being attacked by local ruffians, and Mulengro targets her. She hides out with Zach, a hippy living off the land in cabin country. Eventually Janfri makes a final stand with her and the police against Mulengro and his feral wolf minions.
Mulengro denies the Rom the right to the city. His reasoning for committing the murders is that he sees the Rom’s impoverishment as a result of their being marhime, owing to their adoption of Gaje ways—in a word, because of their modernizing. However, the novel’s resolution makes clear that cultural identities are not so clear-cut, that it is possible and even favourable to partake of modernity and retain connection to traditional ways of life, including magic. The Rom are a non-modern culture living a quintessentially modern life. Furthermore they are subjected, like the native peoples of North America, to a settler culture that seeks to manage and even criminalize difference.
What are we to make of the role Mulengro himself plays, a revenant who consumes the souls of doomed Rom? The imagery of consumption calls upon vampire lore—and the Gothic vocabulary in Marx that references vampiric capitalists who extract surplus value from the working class. Mulengro harasses those Rom who own real estate and thus live between the worlds of capitalism and the Rom pre-capitalist, handicrafts mode of production. In other words, he consumes the souls of those most aware of the unevenness of modernity. As the Rom become incorporated into the capitalist economy, most importantly through the real estate market, they experience sudden change. The replacement of use value with exchange value in their increasingly commodity-filled lives leads the Rom to feel cognitive dissonance between the capitalist system they inhabit and their traditions, where a belief in ghosts and the law of marhime still holds sway. Mulengro’s horror represents a structure of feeling among the Rom, a social formation in the process of developing. The ghost is an allegorization of how their society experiences the turmoil of poverty while living on the margins of modernity.
I now turn to Dreams Underfoot, which is more centrally focused on urban experience. Here the urban underworld becomes a faerie Otherworld unnoticed by most denizens of Newford, although occasionally glimpsed by the bohemian artists, street kids, and homeless men that distinguish de Lint’s fiction. The Tombs, for instance, used to be a developer’s dream for a sprawling yuppie paradise, but when this late capitalist urban planning venture failed, the ruins of the city blocks that were demolished remained behind—now a refuge for winos, bag ladies, and the homeless. The Tombs, abandoned by the city government after the attempt to produce exchange value from its space, has now fallen into a state of nature or wilderness and become appropriated by the underclass. Although it is a dangerous area of the city, the Tombs is where the underprivileged can tactically appropriate their right to urban space.
A space they share with colourful characters derived from fairy tales and urban myths. In one short story, “That Explains Poland,” a young photographer finds Bigfoot in the Tombs, which is not so unusual a discovery, because of the various disenfranchised people who live in this wilderness-like area. In another story, “Winter was Hard,” the presence of certain genii loci, or spirits of a place, in the Tombs contributes to making the city a tolerable place to live, while their departure signals the moment the city takes on a more haunted, less homelike character. The right to the city is thus tied directly to the presence of these pre-modern fairy-like creatures. They are pieces of agrarian European folklore transplanted to a North American city and they directly oppose alienation. If we believe in them hard enough, they might come back and restore the city.
The story that concludes Dreams Underfoot strongly suggests that de Lint sees his own fiction as a way to counter urban alienation and foster a sense of community. The fictional urban fantasy writer Christy Riddell, a stand-in for de Lint, finds his muse in Tallullah, the spirit of Newford itself. But Tallullah must leave Christy because of the rise of urban crime and a loss of connectivity among people, which drives her away. In the end, Christy holds the hope that his story collections might restore a sense of community to city dwellers and bring her back.
Dreams Underfoot and Mulengro both use fantasy to question the Enlightenment epistemology and to assert that if this epistemology does not extend to everyone, everywhere, equally—if, for example, it is still possible for people to believe in ghosts and fairies—then modernity itself cannot be evenly developed. While a text asking you to believe in fairies and spirits might seem flaky, seeing as this gives us no solid program to reclaim the city, such faith does awaken the desire to see the postmodern, uneven city restored from its ruins. It implies that there is more to modernity, and that the residual survives and coexists with the modern. De Lint’s fiction arouses our desire to become instruments of social progress. This is the utopian imagination and the power of fantasy.
This concludes my presentation, which could not have been possible without the financial assistance of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I thank them, and I thank you for listening.
The following has been a transcript of a talk given at the English Department of McGill University’s MA colloquium on 10 March 2016 in Montreal.
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