Genrefuck: Deconstruction

The goal of fiction is to create a more “perfect” version of reality. This has nothing to do with ideals, really. If the purpose behind writing was just to plug your ideals, then every writer would be Ayn Rand and every screenwriter would be Aaron Sorkin.

Fiction is a lot cleaner than reality. It’s the burger you see in the ad rather than the one you’re served at McDonald’s. In life, people have stupid motivations for trivial pursuits and hardly ever learn from their experiences. In life, dialogue is full of more ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ than a drunken toast from John F. Kennedy. In life, stories don’t really come to a definitive end, they just sort of peter out after awhile.

Likewise, in fiction, at least good fiction, characters have interesting motivations for worthy goals and grow from the mistakes they make and the challenges they face. Their dialogue is either seamless or comically/dramatically obtuse. And, nine times out of ten, their stories have a defined beginning, middle and end. There are of course exceptions but this tends to be the truth.

These discrepancies tend to create a very noticeable rift between reality and fantasy at times, sometimes to the point of implausibility. And while something can be impossible in a story, it can never be implausible. When an author attempts to bring a trope or genre into the harsh light of reality, bridging that rift, it is called a deconstruction.

The process behind the deconstruction involves taking a genre, finding a small hole of implausibility within it, and then sticking your finger in the hole and making it so big as to change the course of the story. The implausibility becomes the focus.

Most deconstructions ask a question about the genre they deconstruct. Watchmen asks “How fucked up do you have to be to become a superhero?” Neon Genesis Evangelion asks “Why would you throw children in giant robots up against alien horrors and expect things to go well?” Duck Amuck asks “How do cartoon characters deal with the nonsensical nature of the worlds they inhabit?” The answers to these questions are rarely given; the point is that there really are no easy answers to the problems with the genre.

There are a few things to look for in a deconstruction in order to understand what the author is trying to say. First, find the misguided fool who thinks that the world he lives in really does follow the rules of the genre being deconstructed. This fool is you. Next, there tends to be a single character, event or element that either literally or metaphorically kicks the shit out of him. That’s the author.

Now, the conflict in the story comes from the confrontation of the misguided fool’s expectations and the author’s harsh truth for him. The fool acts as though he is a character in a classic example of the genre and is, either immediately or over time, shown that the world works a little bit differently than that. It’s really that simple, although quite often, other aspects of the genre are explored.

Let’s take this formula step-by-step through one of the deconstructions I mentioned previously, Neon Genesis Evangelion. This one is a bit tricky to nail down, as the misguided fool is not, in this case, the protagonist. The protagonist, Shinji Ikari, is all too familiar with the world in which he lives. He has no illusions about the horrors that fill his world or the series’ warped status quo. The misguided fool is, in this case, a minor character by the name of Kensuke Aida. Kensuke is the type of giant mecha fan this series seeks to educate, I suppose you could say. His uninformed beliefs act as a sort of entry point for the viewer.

We see the deconstructive element come into play almost immediately, though, and we see it in a number of different forms. The first comes when the first monster of the week is nuked. Now, this being Japan, the use of nuclear weapons carries with it a certain connotation that westerners are unable to appreciate. Suffice to say, putting that element into the story so quickly is a really good way to set the tone for a series full of rough edges and harsh truths. The hero’s call to adventure is also played in a much grittier way: Shinji is emotionally blackmailed into fighting to save the world. To understand this, one has to have a certain understanding of how giant robot stories tend to begin: typically, the hero will either accidentally find his way into the cockpit of a humongous mecha or will steal it. Rarely if ever is he forced by another person to do so. Another thing that should be understood is that the protagonists of these shows tend to be teenagers of about fourteen to seventeen. You add together the fact that Shinji is being forced into this and the fact that he is fourteen and suddenly our hero is less of a prodigal champion and now more of a child soldier; which is an elephant in the room all-too-often ignored. Through all of this, we begin to see the holes in the genre and the uncomfortable questions become harder and harder to look away from.

Now, what happens when an author wants to answer the questions posed in the deconstruction? More on that next.