Every so often (weekly at the moment), I’ll be writing a commentary about a story from EMPTY ROOMS LONELY COUNTRIES. I’ll tackle the stories in the order they appear in the book. Given the nature of this exercise, I cannot guarantee that I won’t spoil specific details from the story. So you may want to return to the commentaries here when you’ve finished reading the book. If I don’t address an aspect of the story you were interested in, by all means leave a question at the end of this post and I’ll do my best to answer it.
“PANCAKES, WISHES AND OTHER TALES”
This story takes place in November of 1999:
This is my twenty-fifth Thanksgiving and the first one ever spent alone.
This fact doesn’t bother me as much as I would have expected it. What bothers me the most, I suppose, is my unusual sobriety, for normally at this time, I am stuffed and buzzed beyond belief. Not this year though; for I have not yet eaten and I am as sober as a detached thumb.
The frame story wrote itself, as it happened as I wrote it. The story within the story is a fairy tale, and the stories within the story within the story are from notes, pieces that never worked in other stories or simply never found a home. The first one was edited from one of the Washington DC stories, as you’ll see Jenny and Mandy making an appearance. The second one is from my notes when I was on the road in Virginia Beach, a week that proved particularly difficult. Again, I’m surprised how dark this one gets, and it’s a sad reflection of how bad things were for me when I was doing the corporate dance. And on top of that, as you can probably figure out from the story itself, there was a woman.
Isn’t there always?
So yes, the talking dog and the princess are real people.
The trails are twisted and deceiving in the Forest of Desire, and Christian eventually found himself in the company of witches. They lived in a large mansion and invented spells without patents. They fed him stew and gave him board in exchange for some of his stories. Most of his stories amused the witches, however, one of them, the one about the turtle who got lost inside the world in his shell, offended one of the witches. That night, as Christian slept in the bedroom above the Kitchen of Enchantment, the offended witch placed a spell upon him, and when he awoke in the morning, he discovered that he had no hair. Another witch, one who found delight in the story about the cactus who dreamt of Winter, felt sorry for Christian and placed another spell on him. This spell allowed any wish to come true by rubbing his bald head. However, though the witch meant well, she was not the best of witches, and the spell allowed everyone’s wish to come true except for Christian. And because witchcraft seems to be such a funny business, with prices to be paid and sacrifices to be made, there was another catch soon discovered: for every wish granted, Christian had to suffer a bit.
I taught a brief lecture on metafiction this morning at one of the schools I work at. One of the students asked what the point of metafiction if it was inevitably going to knock the reader out of the story. It’s a fair point, which is one of the reasons why metafiction has a tendency of turning off more reader than winning over. But when examining simple metafictional devices like a story within a story within a story, that sort of thing, sooner or later the reader has to turn the concept on its ear and consider the remote possibility that if you are reading/watching someone reading/watching someone, then someone could be reading/watching you. The levels are infinite going the other way, so why do we automatically assume it begins with us? Anyway, the point is, when we are watching the audience watching the play in Hamlet, why are we so confident that it’s meant for us? How secure are you that this reality is any less fictitious than the one you’re reading? It’s the possibility for doubt that makes metafiction so exciting.
What’s the point, Christian?
My point is, “Pancakes, Wishes and Other Tales” is a clear line of demarcation of when I began to fully embrace the more fantastical elements, instead of merely hinting at them. The next story “Maintaining” crosses over into something different, and it’s those kinds of stories where people have a difficult time understanding how I can say these stories are true.
One of the most controversial uses of metafiction in recent memory is Stephen King inserting himself into his The Dark Tower series. This device is nothing new, writers like Miguel de Unamuno, Grant Morrison and Kurt Vonnegut, to name a few, have pulled this off effectively over the last hundred years. However, King – who almost died ten years ago when he was struck by a van driven by a drunk driver – has his characters enter our world to save him from dying from said accident. Now, King is still severely injured and everything happens as it happened, but by the characters being present, they save King. Now, if I met King – how awesome would that be? – and he told me that his characters really did enter our world and saved him, I wouldn’t debate it. Who’s to say that’s not how it happened? Nothing in the book contradicts what happened in real life. If that is what King wants to pass off as reality (and I’m not saying he is), to me it’s no more different than telling me a story about what happened to you yesterday and changing the details so you look wonderful and the other guy is the jerk. I in turn tell the story to my wife the way you told me and she passes it along the same way, and eventually (if the other person doesn’t appear to contradict the story) it’s all agreed that the story is true. This seamless mixing of what is true with what is untrue is reality.
I love how families create mythologies that work in exactly the same way, pushing together what is true and false until it becomes something else entirely. When I was a kid, me and my brother had a pet rabbit who my father didn’t like, mostly because he was the one who had to clean the cage and take care of it. One day, my father tells us that he is going to the clean the cage and he wants us to stay inside. From the kitchen window, my brother and I watch my father set the cage down outside of the garage. He removes the rabbit from the cage and sits it down next to the cage. My father then walks into the garage. The rabbit, sensing the kind of opportunity that only comes once in a lifetime, immediately darts off. We watch the little guy hop off at light speed until it disappears into the woods behind our house. Me and my brother run outside, screaming and shouting about the rabbit. My father comes out of the garage looking flabbergasted, and says, “I don’t know what happened, guys. I told it not to move! Why would the rabbit do that?” And just like that, we were suddenly mad at the rabbit for not listening to our father.
Now, that’s a true story, even though my brother insists that I was not there when it happened, and I insist that he wasn’t there. But over the years, as the story gets retold, somehow we are both there to watch my father get rid of our rabbit. And because our memories are funny things, when I think about that afternoon, my brother is right next to me at that kitchen window, even though one of us really wasn’t there, and neither of us were even tall enough to see out that window.
This was just a long way of writing that I saw little people. As you’ll see next time in “Maintaining”.
#1 “Cowboys and Indians”
#2 “Little Conundrums”
#3 “The Illusion of Swing”
#4 “Kicking Love’s Ass”
#5 “On Being Velma-less”
#6 “Muted Porn”
#7 “Defying Gravity”
#8 “The Fifth Ocean”
#9 “One Dead (Potted) Plant”
#10 “Remembering Drajra”