More and more, I find myself attracted to innovative writing that isn’t afraid to leave great gaps within itself, that doesn’t try to stick the world onto a postage stamp, but rather puts a postage stamp in the middle of the world’s unfathomable complexities. There was Leena Krohn’s short “sort-of novel” Tainaron, a book that I preferred to various massive novelistic tomes of erudition and insight that I have abandoned, a book that felt like it expanded within my mind rather than a book I had to squeeze into the cluttered space of my cranium. I feel the same way about Mac Wellman’s script “The Sandalwood Box” — I would happily go to see a production of this play, while I tend to dread going to the theatre much anymore, because the time is so often fizzled away with banalities, stock language, clunky character arcs, and desperate attempts to use whizzbangs to take hostage the attentions of an ever-more-distracted audience of tourists seeking live movies, the simulacrum dreams of imaginations colonized by Hollywood.
Leena Krohn has, with a slim volume of thirty letters written from an imaginary city of insects, given us a lens of words through which to consider reality, a microscope to reveal yearning and wonder, a telescope to look for what it means to be human, a window and a mirror and an eye other than our own.
In the world of fractal complication we inhabit, maybe what we most need are not grand gestures and multi-volume compendia, but sharp-edged shocks of concentration and reflection, little gems of language and action that don’t try to sum up their own themes or explicate themselves, but rather give a rich glimpse of imagination and possibility, of gaps and fissures, of vitrified catastrophes with just a touch of ontological whigmaleery.
Tainaron is about identity and empathy and metamorphosis and death and life and humanity and—
“A city of insects, you said?”
Yes, indeed, a city of insects, of human-sized bugs, but more than that — and of course you’re thinking of Kafka at this point, of the city Gregor Samsa (who woke up one morning after a night of fitful sleep to discover he had metamorphosed into a monstrous insect) dreamed of escaping to from the tiny bedroom where his family tormented him — but no, this is not Kafka, this is less portentous, less angst-ridden, more wistful and –
“But I don’t like bugs. Why would somebody write a book about a city of bugs?”
Because sometimes it is best to use fantasy to imagine our way back to where we actually are.
Leena Krohn: “When I wrote letters to (from!) Tainaron, I never thought it as a sci-fi or fantasy novel, nor would I name myself a sci-fi writer. As I have written it, there is only a little bit of fantasy in Tainaron, but many facts of life.”
Laird Hunt’s The Exquisite takes place in New York City, more or less now, though the hardboiled tone of the narration sometimes makes it feel like an imagined New York in the 1940s, a New York that exists only in memories of black and white movies. The city is as important a character as any of the people in the tale, and some of the best passages in the book give vivid glimpses of life there. The setting and language of its evocation are inseparable, the sounds and rhythms of the sentences providing as much architecture as the landscape they create.
In the nonfictional epilogue to her fictional travelogue Hav, Jan Morris ends with words from the German Romantic writer Novalis: “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.”
History’s shortcomings are the impetus, material, and theme of Hav, a remarkably subtle book, a novel of indirections that presents an imaginary (and richly imagined) geography and history for a Mediterranean nation called Hav, a country that incorporates the potentials and mysteries of various real societies and cultures. Morris takes the details of recorded histories and visitable places and turns them into the stuff of a vivid dream, then uses the dream to meditate on the currents of history that shape the world we perceive as real, the present moments that get abstracted and represented by historians.
Hav is an alternate world, a possible place, a nation found only on lost maps and in imprecise memories.
Leena Krohn: “I liked so much the sound of the name Tainaron. I have never visited Greece, but I read that Tainaron in southern Greece is a rocky cape, like Helsinki, my birth town. In Greek mythology there was a cave entrance to the Underworld at Tainaron.”
Barry Lopez’s “The Mappist” is in some ways an homage to Borges, as it tells of a narrator’s obsession with a pseudonymous author of remarkable travel guides and maps, works of such detail and care that they capture the “essence” of whatever city they describe. The narrator eventually tracks down the creator of these works, the reclusive Corlis Benefideo, and visits him, viewing new maps Benefideo has created, maps of remarkable depth and brilliance. Benefideo states his philosophy:
I could show you here the whole coming and going of the Mandan nation, wiped out in eighteen thirty-seven by a smallpox epidemic. I could show you how the arrival of German and Scandinavian farmers changed the composition of the topsoil, and the places where Charles Bodmer painted, and the evolution of red-light districts in Fargo — all that with pleasure. I’ve nothing against human passion, human longing. What I oppose is the blind devotion to progress, and the venality of material wealth. If we’re going to trade the priceless for the common, I want to know exactly what the terms are.
The story ends with the narrator asking if Benefideo will serve as mentor to his daughter, and then driving off into the darkness. It’s a quiet ending, one of many possibilities, with a final paragraph of sentences perfectly balanced against each other, a final image which resonates with as much power as any I have encountered.
The story could have been an attempt to proselytize for Benefideo’s values against the values of modern consumerist society, but it is far more nuanced than that. The narrator’s own flaws and limits ground us in the complexities and contradictions of the human world, and while Benefideo is presented as a kind of god or wizard, he does not strain credibility because of the story’s mythic air, which permits us to believe in such impossible perfection. Benefideo is a beacon indicating the potential humans possess when they are willing to observe the world around them with care and sympathy. We are the accumulation of our details, he seems to be saying, and so we must start with the details if we are to discover our truths. In the face of chaos, why not try to create some beautiful maps?
The first Jorge Luis Borges story to appear in English was “The Garden of Forking Paths”. It was published in the August 1948 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in a special “United Nations Issue” of the magazine. It has one of the more remarkable tables of contents of any magazine issue I know, with stories by Cornell Woolrich, Ferenc Molnár, Georges Simenon, Karel Čapek, and Anton Chekhov.
The EQMM “Garden of Forking Paths” appeared in a translation by Anthony Boucher, which means that Boucher was not only a well-respected writer of mysteries and science fiction, not only an important and influential reviewer of mystery fiction, not only the man whose name is honored by the annual World Mystery Convention (Bouchercon) and its awards (the Anthonies), not only the man who co-founded The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, not only an important mentor to many writers, including Philip K. Dick — he was also the man who first brought Borges’s work to the United States. Later translations would become the standard ones (as far as I know, Boucher’s has rarely been reprinted), but Boucher was first.
Borges is one of the incontrovertibly great writers of the 20th century. When discussions of the Nobel Prize for Literature turn to listing the major writers who never received the award, Borges’s name comes quickly to mind. And yet it was not in the pages of The New Yorker or even of a small, prestigious literary journal that he made his U.S. debut. No, it was in the pages of a saddle-stapled digest mystery magazine. It appeared between a story called “Being a Murderer Myself” (by Arthur Williams) and a story called “Killer in Khaki” (by Edgar D. Smith).
Instead of The People of Paper, Salvador Plascencia should have called his first novel The Book of Extended Metaphors, to go along with one of the books between its covers, The Book of Incandescent Light. He should have called it The Book of Heartbreak or The People of Sorrow. He should have equipped it with warning signs and seatbelts to protect those of us naive enough to get caught up in the fairy tale first pages, those of us who ignored for a moment that this is a book for mature adults, people with scars, people who should not expect a book about a childproof world. He might have dropped a few more hints, might have whispered: “This book will lock you in a shed of tears.”
I don’t know of another book where the metafictional games are so necessary to the ultimate emotional effect, where the fireworks explode fantasy and reality to rain down not wonder, but heartache. The experiments of typography do not create any real difficulty for the reader, but instead evoke a visual and sometimes even physical analogue to the narrative, bringing the story beyond words. Watch the colors, for instance. It is no coincidence that dominoes are a passion for so many characters here — letters combine into words and words combine into sentences like a game of dominoes with twenty-six numbers to place together in infinite possibilities, to stack up in paragraphs and knock down in pages, the black dots of ink on the white tile of paper. Notice, too, how little color is in this world, how much depends upon green lettuce, the green rind and pulp of limes, a green dress. Little drops of poison. Paper cuts, each.
Leena Krohn: “Tainaron is a distant place that reminds us of every place in the world in its plasticity, strangeness, frightfulness. But its properties are the properties of our own heart.”
I am hardly the first or only person who has been known at times to state that weird fiction has a relationship to what might be perceived as metaphor that is different from the relationship mainstream or allegorical fiction has to what is necessarily perceived as metaphor — in science fiction and fantasy, the monster is a monster first and foremost, not a representation of the id/ the evil at the heart of humanity/ the moral panic of the moment/ fathers-in-law/ whatever. This concept is fine as far as it goes, but the best SF makes it so simplistic as to be nearly meaningless. China Mieville’s The City & The City, for instance, is the sort of book that does just that — the basic premise is wonderful purely for its own sake and for the sake of the care with which it is conceived and explored, but the metaphors it suggests (for urban life, for certain historical and political realities, etc.) are just as important to what makes the novel work so well — The City & The City starts with the literalization of a metaphor, but it doesn’t end there, because ultimately it is not literalizing one metaphor but is, rather, literalizing an idea that is rich with metaphorical potential. It’s the difference between writing a story based on the idea, “What if a guy woke up one morning and discovered he was a giant bug?” and writing the story that follows the opening sentence, “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.”
In Guy Davenport’s story “Belinda’s World Tour”, Franz Kafka is a guest for tea at the little girl’s house when the girl, Lizaveta, returns with her nurse. “Her father and mother were at a loss to comfort her, as this was the first tragedy of her life and she was indulging all its possibilities.” Herr Doktor Kafka offers Lizaveta the comfort of a story, saying that Belinda met a little boy (“perhaps a doll, perhaps a little boy, I couldn’t quite tell”) who asked her to travel around the world with him, and so she has gone off to do so, but has promised to send postcards chronicling her adventures.
The rest of the story consists of the postcards. They are charming, gentle, and utterly bizarre, as Kafka’s Belinda presents Lizaveta with a picture of a world in which Londoners all wear clothes that cover their entire bodies (“the buttons go right up into their hats, with button holes, so to speak, to look out of, and a kind of sleeve for their very large noses”), everyone in Japan “stops what they are doing ten times a day to write a poem,” and at Niagara Falls newlyweds can get in barrels and ride over the falls (“you bounce and bounce at the bottom”). Belinda also has good luck meeting great writers and artists — in Copenhagen she encounters Hans Christian Anderson and Kierkegaard, in Russia both Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, in Tahiti Gauguin, and in San Francisco Robert Louis Stevenson.
A little knowledge and reflection prevents us from accepting the postcards as having been written by Kafka (or, at least, the historical Kafka). They are artifices, just as the places Belinda visits are artifices. The character of Kafka uses the names of real places to create a certain sort of verisimilitude, but it is the verisimilitude of legends, stereotypes, and the ridiculously (or amusingly) contrived sort of historical novels where ordinary characters encounter one famous figure after another. Belinda’s chronicle of her travels collapses world culture into greatest hits and greatest myths, a delightful concoction for a child, certainly, but by teasing our desire for innocence and whimsy, “Belinda’s World Tour” also poses unresolveable problems of fantasy and reality. The names of real people and places within the story suggest connections and allusions in the reader’s mind, but those suggestions simultaneously tell us that the only reality the story adheres to is its own.
The anomalies in “Belinda’s World Tour” remove the story from any world other than the reality of its words, and so the actual items of life — names, books, places — become tools of fantasy. Details from real histories and real cultures function in the story as props for a fairy tale about a fairy tale. The effect is unsettling, like staring at a particularly clever optical illusion. Also unsettling is how delightful the story is, because the tale remains a closed system, separate from the realities it seems to reference.
The absurd portrayals of various cities, countries, and cultures in the postcards are occasionally based on misperceptions and generalizations that, in the reality of history, produced nightmares and bloodbaths. The presence of Wild West Indians in a few of the postcards recalls not only the one-sentence Kafka story “Wunsch, Indianer zu werden” (“The Wish to Become an Indian”), but also the genocidal policies and actions that constituted the reality hidden beneath the tales of brave cowboys and noble-savage injuns. The tales we tell of history and culture are as fanciful as the tale of a doll going off on a world tour.
The wondrous, disconcerting fantasies of “Belinda’s World Tour” rely upon the reality they seem to extend from, the reality they so beautifully brush away. Without its references to particular people and places, to real history and to real history’s lost dreams, the story would lack the paradoxes that provide its most satisfying meanings. The genius of the story is that it works at every level one might read into it. A reader who knows absolutely nothing about any of the names or places invoked is likely to find the tale a bit perplexing, perhaps, but, I expect, on the whole amusing. A reader who knows a bit about the various characters and settings will probably find the story to be charming. A reader whose mind, like mine, sometimes gets tangled on details and paradoxes might focus on those things, and also find considerable pleasure, though probably not satisfaction — which is fine, because once a paradox is satisfied, its fascination evaporates.
A generous definition of allegory would suggest that all fiction, regardless of its label or merit, possesses an allegorical connection to reality: fiction is the shadow on the walls of Plato’s cave. It provides an imaginary Real that renders briefly visible selected elements of a vast, intangible reality. In the theatre, where the audience sits in what each member thinks is the real world while actors create an imaginary world on the stage, a narrative propelled by the friction of reality meeting fantasy is nothing to remark on, because fantasy and reality are equally imaginary in such a setting.
Prose fiction achieves its greatest moments not by celebrating some narrow sort of reality at the expense of fantasy, but by keeping every imaginative and imagined option open.
One of the tendencies of Len Jenkin’s work is for the characters to be enlivened stereotypes. His novel New Jerusalem, like many of his plays, feels like a mosaic of bits of American pop culture from no later than the 1950s. Unlike some post-modernists, Jenkin doesn’t patronize or beautify his stereotypes, he doesn’t use them for any obviously ironic intent. Mostly, he seems to like the language they produce. He likes to listen to two-dimensional characters talk, and to put them in situations where their talk is definitely odd, but also oddly appropriate. While many of his characters and settings seem to come from classic film noir, Charlie Chan movies, and old comic books, they are made to play their hands and smoke their cigarettes and plot their triple-crosses in a world where nothing is absolute, and endings seldom arrive. (Unlike many of Jenkin’s plays, New Jerusalem not only follows a linear plotline, but it has a real conclusion. Dark Ride’s ending sums up the feeling many of his characters get to, though: All of the actors end up saying, or chanting, “I’m not interested in philosophy. Just tell me how it ends.” New Jerusalem suggests that this is a fatal wish.) It’s like Edward Whittemore with fewer spies, and though there are plenty of conspiracies, they only affect the conspirators.
Kelly Link’s story “Stone Animals” both employs and parodies the basic elements of suburban psychological realism, the sort of scaffolding John Cheever and so many other writers hung their words and laundry on: a family buying a house and moving into it, a father commuting to a desultory job in the city, a pregnant wife who is uncertain about her marriage, suspicions and allegations of adultery, existentially anxious children, a controlling boss, stressful dinner parties, a lawn.
The world of the story is a world of binaries, a world falling apart for lack of grey areas. Catherine and Henry’s daughter Tilly divides the yard in half, with one side for herself and one side for her brother, Carleton. She likes to name things and “when the new baby is born, her mother has promised that she can help pick out the real names, although there will only be two real names, a first one and a middle. Tilly doesn’t understand why there can only be two.” Similarly, everyone seems conscious of what is “male” and what is “female”, though there are cracks in the borders — a group of women get together, for instance, to discuss the quintessentially “male” novel Fight Club. Eventually, everything may fall apart, and the binaries will not hold. Work and home, city and country, husband and wife, daughter and son, boss and worker, awake and asleep, reality and dream, there and not-there; all of it is getting confused. The children can’t inherit their parents’ patterns, so they start talking to the rabbits. Life just wants to be interstitial. (Is it any wonder that some of the women in the story yearn to write books? As if the borders they desire to cross are ones that can be breached with words.)
Tilly, like Alice before her, finds a door with a rabbit behind it, and follows it down some steps to a wonderland unrevealed to us, crying out “Hairbrush! Zeppelin! Torpedo! Marmalade!”, perhaps in a desperate cling to vestiges of childhood and innocence, as if nothing will open Sesame Street. Meanwhile, Carleton won’t stop attacking the rabbits with a stick. Catherine, like a woman of royalty, or perhaps Mrs. Dalloway, prepares for a dinner party, one to which Henry will, of course, be late. The binaries are breaking apart. The mother seeks solace in pregnant pauses of sociability, the daughter disappears, the son perpetuates pointless violence. Meanwhile, the father comes home to discover himself locked out of his life, so he rallies the rabbit around him and discovers “the others” are waiting with him for the dinner party to end, and for Henry, who wields a phallic spear and rides a fertility symbol, to bounce into the Agincourt that came with the house, . Except we don’t know who “the others” are, and we don’t know if this is Henry V or Henry VIII.
Summarizing a story as rich, allusive, and ambiguous as “Stone Animals” is always an effort against inevitable nonsense (or, at best, cleverness, which some people may not find preferable to nonsense). The only durable representation of the story is the story itself.
Within the mysteries of The Exquisite, plenty of the herrings are red, but they’re part of an entire rainbow — or, to switch metaphors, an ocean of tributaries filled with plotting fish. No resolution is for sure, and every version of the truth tells some sort of story, with each story being as valid as the other — the point is not the resolution, but the pleasure of the telling, just as the joy of murder stories is not in how they end up, but in the planning, preparation, and execution that lead to the end. Cut out all possibility of an end, and most of the pleasures still remain, while new pleasures reveal themselves.
Leena Krohn: “Fiction and so-called reality live in an odd symbiosis. Our civilization is not based on any rational fundament. Let’s think about money, for instance. We think it as something material, but alas! — what else is as speculative, as illusionistic, as liable to metamorphoses as money? What is ‘real’ money? Not banknotes or coins, which are only images of money, not even digital conditions. Money is a phantom phenomenon; it’s about our speculations of the future, our dreams of security. They are real, or ‘real’ (you choose).”
What makes Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation powerful is not its surprises, which are mostly superficial, but rather its unified uncertainty. It is a novel that is nothing other than itself; it is a hermetic structure. We cannot know what is “real” except the words that are provided for us. The book seems to reference a recognizable reality, but then it undermines that reference by positing other realities, and never settles obviously for one or the other. Everything could be a delusion. Everything is a delusion: the delusion that is fiction. We cannot choose what is true or what is imagined, because both are presented with the same techniques.
If the pages had become unworded, if the story was now untold, then it meant I could start again.
Blankness. Emptiness. Possibility. Nothing.
End? Beginning? Real? Unreal?
There’s no way to know. Peter tells a story about seeing a room differently from his sister. But Peter tells many stories. He tells stories about islands we have never heard of and distant wars we didn’t know existed. He tells stories, too, about places whose names we recognize and events we know happened in the world we think we live in, the past we call real, the one that created our present.
The narrator tells stories so that he may try to find himself, find some truth, remember something that was somehow lost, bring life to the dead past. He tries again and again. The something remains lost, the past stays dead.
He does not know who he is. Nor do we. All we have are words.
I tend to be wary of anything which uses the events of September 11, 2001 as subject matter, because the dangers are immense: forced emotion, simplified meanings, the crass use of tragedy to sell a story. There have been a couple of good plays using September 11 as a setting (Where Do We Live by Christopher Shinn and The Mercy Seat by Neil LaBute), a poem or two (“When the Towers Fell” by Galway Kinnell), but Lucius Shepherd’s “Only Partly Here” is among the few works of fiction I’ve read which uses the results of that horrible day to create a real work of art (another is Richard Bowes’s “There’s a Hole in the City”). What makes it work is its modesty, its willingness to be little more than a portrait. The element of the fantastic at the end is not tacked-on, it is handled with subtlety and grace — here is a writer who has enough confidence in his work that he feels no need to stretch the story beyond what it can bear.
Would we read “Only Partly Here” differently if it had been published outside of the SF genre? For me, the fact that Shepard sent it to Asimov’s makes me read the ending more literally than I would had the tale been published in a non-SF market. Actually, I like the less literal, more ambiguous reading better, one which leaves open the possibility of the supernatural, but also suggests the protagonist may be jumping to conclusions in his interpretation of events.
The quiet elegance and careful, slow accretion of detail in “Only Partly Here” show Shepard’s mastery — few SF writers would, it seems to me, be willing to let a story like this go without mucking it up with plot developments or government conspiracies or alien interventions. Is it wrong of me to think this story owes less to the archives of Asimov’s than to the work of writers such as John Cheever or Bernard Malamud, both of whom used fantastic elements to illuminate the inner griefs and struggles of their characters, though of course Shepard is very different writer from either. But it seems to me that when we look at a story which veers (or shuffles) away from the strict limitations of realism, we will see that it does so for one of two main reasons: either to indulge the fantastic elements themselves, or to reflect on the realistic elements. Neither is better or worse, but the choice can have a profound effect on the way a story is told, and Shepard made the right decision with “Only Partly Here” to let the implied supernaturalism of the ending grow directly from a painfully realistic situation, because to have worked backwards and imposed fantastic elements on a setting as fraught with meaning as Ground Zero would have been to compromise the meaning for the sake of a cheap effect, something innumerable time travel and alternate history stories do.
What stories such as “Only Partly Here” do by avoiding tempting pitfalls of genre and cheap narrative effects is help us reflect on the painful contours of reality. Literature has hardly ever made anyone a better person, but the body of great literature has civilized readers a little bit by helping them cast their thoughts and emotions beyond themselves and what they know.
J.M. Coetzee filled in some of the outline of his earliest days with Boyhood, which was labeled by different publishers with the subtitles “A Memoir” and “Scenes from Provincial Life.” It was, and remains, one of Coetzee’s most straightforward and accessible books, with the only obvious complication being the third-person point of view. There is certainly a long history of third-person autobiographies and memoirs, but a contemporary book marketed as a memoir is generally expected to be written in the first-person, and a deviation from that highlights the assumption. Most readers will unquestioningly accept the mode and rhetoric of a first-person autobiography unless the writer creates obstacles to such acceptance.
The acceptance of the mode and rhetoric of memoir is what leads to such situations as that created by Oprah Winfrey’s re-evaluation of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces in 2005 and 2006. While assuming the book to be a memoir, and thus an accurate representation of Frey’s own life and experiences, Winfrey chose it for her influential Book Club and then, when it was revealed that much of the book was fiction, Winfrey said she felt “duped” and her audience “betrayed,” and she summoned much righteous anger and indignation in an attack on Frey on her show. Some of the fury of the response was good melodrama, of course, and it certainly didn’t hurt the book’s sales or the show’s ratings, but beneath the bombast lay an interesting situation. The words and sentences of A Million Little Pieces had not changed, nor had the audience’s actual relationship to the author (since the relationship the readers had was to the text and not to the person), but the context of their understanding of the text had shifted. Winfrey and her audience conceived that shift as if it were a wound, then used their feeling of betrayal to heal themselves and shape the energy of their indignation as a weapon to, in turn, wound Frey, who was willing to play along and accept his public humiliation, to recontextualize himself as at least a version (less preening, perhaps, less confident) of the survivor and sufferer he had first been sold as. It was great theatre. The effect was to solidify a narrow concept of truth-telling and to strengthen the idea that memoirs are and should be verifiable accounts of a life. The genre’s boundaries were policed and fortified, the transgressor was punished, and the inherent ambiguities of autobiographical writing were buried in a tomb of unasked questions. In their silence, those questions were, in fact, banished to the realm of the unaskable, because once we know that “memoir” and/or “autobiography” means always x and never y, to wonder the y is to talk about something that is not memoir or autobiography, and is therefore irrelevant and, more likely within such a conversation, invisible.
Coetzee’s memoirs assault the genre boundaries of autobiography. They do more than simply render questions about such writing’s inherent ambiguity visible, relevant, and askable. They make them a necessary part of the reading experience.
We are all one self full of countervoices telling stories and seeking truths.
Stories — fantasies — make the vastness of the universe more particular; they tame it, organize it until it is bearable, but when it’s organized and bearable, it is no longer vast, no longer honest. Delusion is dangerous not because it is delusion, but because it is inexorable. In The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison, one of a triumvirate of friends, Lucas, writes a story and creates a persona to try to capture and tame the effects of the force that haunts them:
He and Pam had been telling themselves the story of the Coeur for twenty years: its worth as an invention — never mind as solace — now depended as much on his ability to convince as on her desire to be convinced. This was the moment of greatest danger.
The desire to be convinced and the desire to convince are the twin aches of fantasies and lies, and both leave their bearers naked and vulnerable.
Concepts can affect habits of perception, and those habits of perception can be manipulated in a wide variety of ways for a wide variety of purposes. Conspiracy theories can be a tool of misdirection and control — used to divert attention from systems (and even conspiracies) that are more banal, insidious, and obvious than the baroque fantasies of the paranoid.
Invitation to a Beheading refuses to create a stable fictional reality for the characters or for the reader, and, as with much of Vladimir Nabokov’s best work, there are multiple plots at once: the surface plot of what’s happening in the story, the subtextual plot of things “really” going on that the characters either aren’t aware of or are hiding, and the plot between the text and the reader (or sometimes the narrator and the characters). It could be that, in the last sentence, Cincinnatus has broken through to a “real” reality, but we have no way to know, because it is all a matter of perception — his wishful, imagined double achieves life in the second before (during?) Cincinnatus’s death, and he walks toward what he thinks are “beings akin to him”, but he is able to judge only by their distant voices. The characters who persecuted him have all metamorphosed into tiny, pathetic creatures. The funhouse mirrors have been turned. Body and spirit are inverted, but no-one can say which is which.
This is not a “it was only a dream!” ending, though, because the reality of the book is the reality of Cincinnatus’s perceptions, and he has not perceived the world he has escaped to be a dream — indeed, the hopefulness of the last sentence is predicated on everything before it having been, for Cincinnatus, utterly true and real. A shallow political interpretation of the book would have trouble with the ending, I expect, because such an interpretation would see the ending as suggesting that totalitarianism can be escaped through imagination, but what the book shows with nearly every sentence is, instead, that imagination is anathema to totalitarianism of every sort. Nabokov was no sentimentalist, however, and Invitation to a Beheading demonstrates as relentless a fight for purity and rigor of imagination as do his Lectures on Literature — Cincinnatus does not, after all, walk down a path toward beings who might be akin to him until he has been within a second of having his head chopped off.
Cleverness is not enough. None of us need to read any more stories that are merely clever. A less sophisticated writer than Thomas Disch would have created a clever and inconsequential story from the central idea of “Descending”: a man gets on an escalator that never ends. From this idea, Disch builds a story that can be seen as an allegory, as a study of psychological breakdown, as a social critique. It does not scream a meaning at us, but it is rich with careful details that suggest as much as they say. Samuel Delany, in his introduction to Fundamental Disch, points out how well lists are used as a method of characterization, and this is, indeed, true, but the virtues of the story don’t simply rest on that technique, because the situation of “Descending” enhances the characterization as well, and the choice of complications all reveal more about the character’s personality. The lists are not only for characterization; as James Schoffstall has noted, they support the themes as well. Many elements of the story similarly serve multiple purposes — they keep the action moving, they reveal aspects of character, they lend texture to ideas and implications, they evoke mystery from concrete imagery.
From Tainaron: “And then there are those who cannot bear such a situation, those who wish to see everything face to face and to reveal, open, show the whole world the nakedness of things.… Now and then the temptation becomes overwhelming to them, and they split open the house of some poor unfortunate. I awake to shrieking, sigh and turn over — and soon fall asleep again.”