Once upon a time, I read a book about an ordinary woman in everyday contemporary society who wakes up to find an elf in her kitchen. She says, “Hey, what are you?” and he says, “Me? I’m an elf.” They proceed to have coffee and chit-chat, as if nothing at all is out of the ordinary.
Now, there’s a fantasy novel where that could happen — where people regularly confront the supernatural, where they have no understanding of boundaries in their natural history, where the extraordinary is absolutely ordinary.
But there was nothing about this book that made me believe that the kitchen-owner lived in such a world. Every aspect of her world was presented as identical to the one that I live in. And I can tell you that if an elf showed up in my kitchen — be he a tall, glamorous, Tolkien-ish elf, or a small, green-and-red Santa-ish elf — I would not settle down to java and gossip.
I would pinch myself. I would question my sanity. I would find a mirror and make sure that I was still myself. I would phone a friend and ask if I sounded normal. I would reach out (tentatively, I’m sure), to touch the elf and make sure that he was real.
I would question the existence of the elf with every one of my sense and all my mental faculties. And even after I confirmed the existence of the elf, I would continue to ponder what it meant that he was in my kitchen. Even if he joined me for a cup of caffeine, I would constantly be circling back, in my own mind, about what this extraordinary event meant.
Ever since reading that book (or, more accurately, reading the first 25 pages of that book — I threw it across the room after the second chapter), I’ve used “elf in the kitchen” as shorthand for extraordinary events that our ordinary narrator tends not to notice. This isn’t a phenomenon limited to speculative fiction. In a recent episode of CALL THE MIDWIFE, the nuns and nurses complete fail to react to the fact that (SPOILERS AHEAD, STOP READING NOW, IF YOU CARE) one of their patients lives in a polygynous marriage. In London’s East End. In the late 1950s. I can’t imagine that at least one nun wouldn’t clutch at her cross. Or that at least one nurse might not speculate about how the trio manages their daily (and nightly) life. But no — the facts are recited (“two women walked into a church; they walked out with a man between them”) and nothing more is said. Really? The priest just married the trio? Without a word? HUH?!?
It was an elf in the kitchen moment. And it threw me out of the story.
So, do you find elves in your literary kitchen? What strategies do you use to normalize the unusual? To show your characters adapting? Are there authors who you read who do this particularly well?