Friday, June 12, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Door in the Wall: Did he see it like that?

One more exercise from "The Door in the Wall," by H. G. Wells.

It's a convention in non-realistic storytelling (fantasy, science fiction, and literary versions thereof) to end the tale with the question: Did this really happen? We've seen this, for instance, in "The Overcoat," and I've previously touched on it in "The Door in the Wall." If I were going to wander down the po-mo garden path, I might blather on about the "narrative frame" and the "frame" that is the door itself--which means this story is about fiction itself, as all stories are. But where does that really get us? Down the rabbit hole, to either death or paradise.


The trick of these endings is to create a knife's edge balance between "yes" and "no" that can never be resolved, but instead spins out more questions. What is reality? What is fiction? What role does fiction play in creating reality? And if fiction plays too great a role, does that equal madness, or a different form of sanity? Wells states the matter starkly:

They found his body very early yesterday morning in a deep excavation near East Kensington Station. It is one of two shafts that have been made in connection with an extension of the railway southward. It is protected from the intrusion of the public by a hoarding upon the high road, in which a small doorway has been cut for the convenience of some of the workmen who live in that direction. The doorway was left unfastened through a misunderstanding between two gangers, and through it he made his way . . . . .

My mind is darkened with questions and riddles.

It would seem he walked all the way from the House that night--he has frequently walked home during the past Session--and so it is I figure his dark form coming along the late and empty streets, wrapped up, intent. And then did the pale electric lights near the station cheat the rough planking into a semblance of white? Did that fatal unfastened door awaken some memory?

Was there, after all, ever any green door in the wall at all?

I do not know. I have told his story as he told it to me. There are times when I believe that Wallace was no more than the victim of the coincidence between a rare but not unprecedented type of hallucination and a careless trap, but that indeed is not my profoundest belief. You may think me superstitious if you will, and foolish; but, indeed, I am more than half convinced that he had in truth, an abnormal gift, and a sense, something--I know not what--that in the guise of wall and door offered him an outlet, a secret and peculiar passage of escape into another and altogether more beautiful world. At any rate, you will say, it betrayed him in the end. But did it betray him? There you touch the inmost mystery of these dreamers, these men of vision and the imagination. We see our world fair and common, the hoarding and the pit. By our daylight standard he walked out of security into darkness, danger and death. But did he see like that?
Yes, it's a trick ending, but I think it's a lovely one. The narrator cannot get the storyteller, Wallace, out of his head. He knows he will never understand what happened, but he chooses, perhaps for his own consolation, to think that Wallace did reach his paradise.

"Did he see it like that?" is a pressing question for our own time. Even mild depression, shyness, fatigue, and restlessness are now called "syndromes" and instantly medicated, perhaps erasing the reality checks we all need. I'm reminded of Margaret Talbot's recent New Yorker article on neuroenhancing drugs. Students and workers are now using Ritalin, Adderall, and other drugs as cognitive performance enhancers rather than just treatments for illnesses. But, as one psychiatrist puts it: "Maybe it’s wrong-footed trying to fit people into the world, rather than trying to make the world a better place for people." In other words, maybe the problem is not the peg, but the hole we're trying to hammer it into. There's also the fascinating article on on schizophrenic brains, which aren't fooled by the optical illusions that the rest of us can't help seeing. Now, I have no desire to be schizophrenic; but it's deeply unsettling to think that "crazy" people see the world as it really is. What's really out there might be impossible to handle. These thoughts also bear on religious faith, of course. What did Wallace see, when to the outside world it appeared he fell to his death?

This is all starting to sound a bit like 3 a.m. in the dorm, bong optional. Well, what of it? Has anyone successfully dealt with these questions? If not, they remain the territory and the imperative of fiction.

So: if you're looking for a story idea, try writing about a character who sees something others don't see. I would suggest having him or her see something very specific and concrete, like the door in the wall. (Not: "I see dead people.") That person should seem otherwise quite rational, but he or she could end up unsettling the world.

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