THE METAPHYSICS OF FICTION: alchemy through prophecy

(Sherril Jaffe)

Our desire for narrative manifests early. I know a three-year-old who asks her dad every night for a story starring a three-year-old with her same name, a story that derives its plot from the events of her day. Can we not have our experience until it is made into a story? Do stories about us, or stories we find our own stories inside of, redeem our lives for us? Narrative is the mechanism by which consciousness constructs—and unconsciousness processes—reality. In the seventies there was a noble movement that rejected narrative—Language Poetry—it endeavored to get beneath narrative to the essential stuff of what was. It was a subversive movement and brave—daring to go naked in the blinding sandstorm of the world. I loved the Language Poets, but I also loved narrative, narrative that generously organized experience for us so we could apprehend it, as syntax did the words of a sentence.

And it gives us pleasure.

And more than that, I have noticed, fiction is an alchemical medium that can materially change reality. Two-dimensional ciphers on a blank page cause people, settings, and actions to come alive inside our heads!

It is an existential dilemma that we are just ourselves, but in stories we escape the prison of the self and live other lives. For this reason and many others fiction, for most of my life has been—or was, until January 12, 2009—a god I believed in. On that January day when my husband died I lost my belief in everything, writing included.

Except for a few lines of poetry, I was now unable to read, and I eschewed writing altogether. It no longer mattered that I was a writer; I would not write any more. I needed to make a sacrifice to the God of Death. This didn’t make sense, of course, because the purpose of making sacrifices in general is to fend off disaster, and disaster had already hit. So perhaps this was some type of penance, because if I had been struck with disaster, it must be that I had somehow deserved it, and if I didn’t, there was no justice in the world. The bottom line, the slim lifeline I clung to, was the idea that there was some sort of justice in the world.

Writers must believe there is justice in the world in some form, since we traffic in meaning, balancing the scales with metaphor in stories, which themselves resolve into metaphor; and writers endeavor to add to the bounty of the world by creating structures that are more than the sum of their parts.

For my entire life, writing had been to me the most important thing to do, but in my sudden widowhood it reeked of triviality. I did not want to write a widow’s story. Grief was too sacred; I did not want to benefit from it in any way, to enjoy any profit from it or make of it any use. Grief was fresh and made of lead, complete in itself, a closed system; it could not have a use. In addition, I was now terrified to write, because to write anything was to bring it into existence—I now saw this, for the last story I had written, which I completed a few days before my husband’s sudden death and which he had read with pleasure, had in fact prophesied this change in our relationship, this place we have come to where we are separated by a barrier we cannot cross, the line between life and death.

On some level, I have come to believe, all of literature is prophetic. The story had not been derived from our biography in any way, but was based on an item from the news about a homeless woman in Japan—I made her a homeless woman here—who takes up residence in a man’s closet and lives there undetected for two years. In my story, the woman is watching the man through the slats of the shuttered closet door. She falls in love with him and believes he loves her, too, even though he is not consciously aware that she is there. That is how I continue to love my husband now that we are separated by death.

What can be done against death? My husband’s death was sudden and unexpected, but greedy for him over the years I had already cannibalized his life including that part of it that had transpired before I came upon the scene, and I had knitted his experiences into stories, where they could exist forever, in eternity, and sometimes the characters in the stories based on my husband would be experiencing what I had experienced, and so my husband and I became a single thread independent of our individual lives. And, of course, the stories have a life of their own, independent of my husband’s and my individual lives, where the two of us will continue to exist between the letters and paragraphs. In stories, we exist in another dimension; stories are the fitting room where we try on what is to come; they are a taste of the afterworld. As long as these stories last my husband and I will be together. And the rose grew round the briar!

In April of 2009 out of the blue four months into my writing-fast, I got an offer on a manuscript I had sent out months before, a novel with the title Expiration Date. One press had held on to it for months, but finally rejected it because it was about old people and death. Their marketing department thought these weren’t subjects readers would find interesting, or, rather, that these were subjects readers would prefer not to think about. Stories, of course, can allow us to think about what we are afraid to think about in perfect safety.

I was very surprised to get an offer on the book now because I had completely forgotten about it. Or rather, I had lost my belief in everything, including stories, and I was trying to purify myself by avoiding all pleasure. Stories are pure pleasure, even sad ones. But when the offer came, I saw I was getting a message from the Cosmos: “Dear Sherril, It’s time for you to remember that you are a writer and that writing stories is a meaningful activity to engage in. Here’s the proof: your story meant something to someone else, a perfect stranger.” Although it took another year of grief before I would allow myself to end my writing-fast, I am grateful to this little book, Expiration Date, for saving my life.

Can a book really be sent to us on heavenly wings to save our lives? I think so—or at least I’d like to think so. “When through the old oak forest I am gone/ do not let me wander in a barren dream,” writes John Keats in “On Sitting Down to read King Lear Once Again.”

I had written Expiration Date two years before my husband died, taking a leave from teaching for a semester to do so. Its subject was aging and death, not in any sentimental way I hoped, nor hopeless—just as real as I could get it. Its material was derived from the life of my mother, her escapades in her late eighties. My mother, with whom I had not been close, had moved with my father and his nurse near me when she was eighty, and I made it my mission to get to know her more deeply so the feelings I felt toward her—love and fear—wouldn’t be so unbearable. And so it began to happen as I started weaving her life into stories, weaving her life with my life in these stories, and thus somehow purifying our relationship.

When I told people I had written a book with a protagonist based on my mother, they frequently quipped, “Does she have to know?” and I knew why they asked. It’s dangerous to use your family and friends as material for your stories. They may not like the way they are portrayed. The only hope is to create every character with compassion; the only hope is if we can fully imagine our characters and inhabit them from the inside out. The fact was, I had written Expiration Date as a communication to my mother. Mom, this is how I see things. Mom, I need your protection. In fiction, I could speak sincerely to my mother perhaps for the first time.

When the contract was signed, I told my mother about the book, and the incidents in her life it was based upon, and she was excited and looked forward to the publication date. She did not ask to see a copy of the manuscript, and I was glad, because I wanted the story I had woven to be as real as possible for her, as real as an actual book she could hold in her hands. She read the pre-publication reviews as they appeared with joy, for they were glowing, and I could see that I had given my mother a great gift, and my joy was double, because I could see I had written a book which had given gifts to the reviewers as well.

By this time, my mother was quite old, and there was some concern that my mother would not live to see the publication date. She had been in good health with her mind intact up until now, but shortly after her ninety-second birthday, part of her memory fell away like ice calving off a glacier. She could still drive; however, now she didn’t know where she was going. And then the book arrived.

In the book, the character based on her is dragged into the sea by a rogue wave, as my mother was herself, a few years ago walking on a beach in Oregon. Miraculously, she survived. The memory of this, however, as well as many other significant memories, calved away from my mother’s memory-bank last August.

Not to worry. She is recapturing her life now reading Expiration Date, over and over. There is a slight glitch, however. Not every action performed by her character was appropriated from her biography. Some are from mine. It is strange to me that my mother should be losing her memory just as it is being fixed forever in the book, enmeshed with mine. My mother is old; she will die soon, but my mother and I will continue together forever, entwined together inside the book.

Expiration Date turned out to be prophetic, as well, of course, for in following my mother’s escapades it starts at the moment of her widowhood. I had to imagine what that would feel like from the inside in order to render it truthfully, thus rehearsing my own impending widowhood. My widowhood is not hers, but it addresses the same questions. This is my subject now, and I am weaving stories to contain it. I am glad to have work to do.

Recently a few people have contacted me to ask me to tell them what happens to the other protagonist in Expiration Date, the one based on me, a translation of something I am, as it is not spelled out at the end whether she lives or dies. I have replied that in life we cannot know the date of our death. And I tell them this character, Flora, lives forever inside the pages of the book and then ceases to exist when the last page is turned. And I remembered the moment when I found the final image I would use in the book. It was on that last trip to Italy with my husband, in the Uffizi Gallery, standing together before a Dutch painting of a finely dressed woman, her white hands lovely with rings emerging from the lace cuffs of her bejeweled sleeves. And now as I tell this story, my husband and I stand hand in hand before her, though from this perspective, I can only see us from behind. And yet will we live happily ever after.