Mark Mayer, author of “Aerialists,” recommends novels with hidden realities
Rabbit holes, magic wardrobes, subtle knives — my favorite moments in my favorite books were always when we got to step out from one world into another one, the hidden world that had been here adjoining ours all along. Whatever wackiness or magic waited inside Oz or the Chocolate Factory, it would be hard to find anything more wonderful than that threshold between worlds. The sensation of the mothballs transforming into snow as they crunch underfoot at the back of the wardrobe — that was what I wanted when I wanted a story.
A world within the world is what all fiction offers, and in such looking-glass moments, we catch a reflection of ourselves, readers, with our heads in one world and our chairs in another. In Julio Cortázar’s tiny, perfect thriller “Continuity of Parks,” it’s the reader’s green armchair that becomes a dangerous portal, the real place toward which an imaginary killer comes tiptoeing, knife in hand. In the One Thousand and One Nights, the happy vertigo of stories within stories within stories quakes the ground of each new world we enter: we’re never certain when a new rabbit hole will open beneath our feet — an effect W. G. Sebald, Jesse Ball, and Rachel Cusk all exploit in novels that, in their own brilliant ways, thread hidden passages among stories and worlds. Even when we put down books like theirs with stories within stories and worlds within worlds, we can’t shake the feeling that there must be new worlds hidden everywhere. “Behind every word a whole world is hidden that must be imagined,” Heinrich Böll says. Seems true to me: every person, place, thing, and word — a chamber of secreted histories.
When I was working on the stories in Aerialists, I started thinking of them as realisms with holes in them. No matter the premise I started from, each story soon enough revealed another reality that peered into it. One character imagined finding a pattern in the kitchen linoleum that would unlock a world he calls The There. Another character created a virtual replica of his lost neighborhood world. Another imagined a portal into her disabled friend’s mind. I’m not sure why my stories kept opening into such alternate worlds — maybe a reality, in order to feel real, requires some vantage outside of itself, just as waking consciousness requires dreams. The list here assembles some of my favorite literary works of worlds within worlds, some of the post-YA portals I’ve loved.
The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish
In 1666, Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, published The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, a bizarre and delightful work of feminist science fiction and utopian experiment. A young woman kidnapped by a seafaring merchant is shipwrecked at the North Pole. Merchant and crew freeze to death but the young lady, kept alive by “the light of her Beauty, the heat of her Youth,” slips through into another world, ablaze with vibrant stars, that is conjoined to hers pole to pole. There she’s greeted by Bear-men, Fox-men, and Geese-men and made the empress of this new world. As empress, she’s mostly concerned with questions of natural philosophy, which she debates with the Magpie-men and Jackdaw-men, but she also organizes an invasion of her home world, deploying “Fire-stone” to burn down her countrymen’s wooden ships. To be read alongside Daniel Dutton’s brilliant novel about Margaret Cavendish, Margaret the First.
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is a marvelously surreal and linguistically brilliant novel by Yoruban Nigerian author Amos Tutuola. The narrator, a seven-year-old boy fleeing a slave war, runs into the bush not knowing that this bush is the Bush of Ghosts, “banned to be entered by any earthly person.” He lives there among the ghosts, moving from ghost village to ghost village, befriending burglar-ghosts, having ghost weddings. My favorite ghost is the “flash-eyed mother” of “fearful, dreadful, terrible, curious, wonderful and dirty appearance.” Large as a “vast round hill,” with a mouth that can “swallow an elephant uncut” and eyes that are always “bringing out splashes of fire,” she rules the 13th ghost town where baby-sized ghosts feed her bush animals all day. The bush world is a chaotic mix of Christian and Yoruban imagination, violent, comic, and vibrant.
Tropisms by Nathalie Sarraute
The most bewildering world within the world, strangely and obviously, is one’s own black-box interior. Before it gets refined into conscious thought and emotion, inner life is a weird world of unnamable churning sensations. One of the strangest and subtlest attempts to represent the alien inner world is Nathalie Sarraute’s first book, Tropisms, a beautiful series of spare prose experiments in which she attempts to show the “movements” of our inner weather, movements “hidden under the commonplace, harmless appearance of every instant of our lives.” “These movements,” she explains in a foreword, “slip through us on the frontiers of consciousness in the form of undefinable, extremely rapid sensations. They hide behind our gestures, beneath the words we speak, the feelings we manifest, are aware of experiencing, and able to define. They seemed, and still seem to me to constitute the secret source of our existence, in what might be called its nascent state.” As if this weren’t strange enough, Sarraute then relates these “movements” via scenes of people calling upstairs at dinnertime or window shopping or passing their shabby neighbors on the stairs, using such everyday scenes to evoke the inner world. Sarraute went on to write novels and a bestselling childhood memoir, but she claimed these inner movements were what united all her work.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
So Long, See You Tomorrow is a perfect “realism with a hole in it.” The realism is an autofiction about a boy in 1920s Illinois mourning his mother and snubbing a friend whose father has committed suicide (and murder). But in his mourning and regret, the narrator seeks some passage back to the world and life he’d known when his mother was still alive. “The idea that kept recurring to me…was that I had inadvertently walked through a door that I shouldn’t have gone through and couldn’t get back to the place I hadn’t meant to leave.” His reality is a bad Narnia he’s stuck in.
Maxwell’s novel is full of invisible doorways of this kind, between tangent worlds. When the narrator’s father remarries and buys a new house still under construction, the narrator visits the new house after school and plays on the framing, balancing on the beams and passing between the wall studs, performing something metaphysical or counterfactual as he crosses through his future walls: “I had the agreeable feeling, as I went from one room to the next by walking through the wall instead of a doorway, or looked up and saw blue sky through the rafters, that I had found a way to get around the way things were.” As an adult, the narrator connects that magic scaffolding with Giacometti’s delicate sculpture the Palace at 4 A.M., a spare half-built architecture where, he imagines, “What is done can be undone.”
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin’s hero George Orr has a strange condition: what he dreams beco