Some years back, in the fall-out from the dot.com bubble-burst and the death of my grandmother, I sold my suits in a yard sale and took off for Mexico, where I spent six months immersing myself in a broader spectrum of reality than is customary in the U.S. and immersing myself in places where this reality is a given. My days and nights were populated by both the living and the dead, and nobody thought that was weird. I spent a night, for example, in a hacienda that was so haunted from the days of the Mexican Revolution that eight of us, all adults, climbed into the same (big) bed for the night. Given that a man, hanged during the Revolution, was still dangling from the rafters in the corner, we hoped to rest easier together. None of us could see him, but we didn’t doubt that he was among us. The man’s presence was legend and had been confirmed by a friend’s five year old on a prior visit. The child had asked his mother, without a note of fear in his voice, “Mommy, why is the man in purple swinging in the corner?”
I also did not question that my grandmother had generally been with me since her death. On occasions, she made her presence tangible as when, on el día de los muertos, a kitten scaled the courtyard walls, two stories up and then down, so that she could plant herself under my window in the middle of the night to howl for my attention. Since I ignored her, she scaled the walls again and climbed in through the skylight of the bathroom adjacent to my room to await my awakening. Nor did I question, that my grandmother left me a few months later on a remote beach in Costa Rica, where I had gone for a dawn surf. My grandfather had foretold it. When he was dying decades earlier, he had said to my grandmother, “When I come back, I want to be a doodlebug, and I want you to be Mrs. Doodlebug. We’ll spend our days on the beach.” As I pulled my board out of the surf, I found doodles in the sand. The beach was full of doodles made by doodlebugs. I said good bye to my grandparents, and I did not feel my grandmother’s presence again until a few years later, when she summoned me in a dream to her former home for a visit on the eve of my birthday. We played Scrabble and drank lemonade. Then she sent me off to catch a train for Berlin and told me to finish my business there. Good advice. That relationship was on its last legs anyway.
In the U.S., we live in a context that tends to define reality in terms of the tangible, and often, for that matter, in terms of the financial. If we can’t count it and count on it, then it’s not really real. We default to a reality defined in terms of the bottom line, and this practice crops up in our vernacular all the time, even when we are talking about non-financial matters. Perhaps needless to say, I find this reality too narrow for my experience and my tastes. I favor a broader spectrum of real. Even though I’m constantly monitoring a rarely sufficient bank account to make sure that my broader spectrum of real doesn’t include debtors’ prison, my heart’s not in the accounting. My heart is blissfully wandering farther afield, which accounts for both my love of the holiday, el día de los muertos, and books like Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.
El día de los muertos, the day of the dead, is celebrated in Mexico and is a time to welcome the spirits of loved ones back for a good visit. It landed this year last Tuesday, on November 2nd, which was also election day in the U.S. My celebration of the holiday coincided serendipitously with reading The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and I had the pleasure of mapping the novel’s reality, which includes the living, the dead, and the parallel, onto my own reality, which included conventional U.S. real things like voting and refinancing the house and conventional Mexican real things like visits with a host of dead people and other spirits. It was a raucous week, and it has led me to consider questions about narrative possibility and how we define and construct reality in and with literature.
As I see it, narrative possibility happens in a story when, through the magic and craft employed by the writer, the character(s) discover new options for their lives. We might think of this as another way to think about Joyce’s concept of epiphany. Narrative possibility also occurs when via the character(s)’ examples and the writer’s craft, the reader discovers new options for his/her own story. Narrative possibility, then, can occur both within the story and within the world in which the story is read and experienced. As such, it provides or creates new vision, new ways of seeing and understanding, and thereby expands reality—even if the new options are not immediately possible in the tangible world. Literature needn’t be functional to be valuable, but I think that the literature I value most is, indeed, functional in that it affirms the broad spectrum of reality that I intuit, or perhaps even more pleasurably and helpfully, it broadens the spectrum even further.
This year, as I toasted my spirit friends and family, courtesy of Murakami, I also wandered around in a contemporary Tokyo that I had not previously accessed, whether through studying Japanese history and culture, watching films, or visiting the country. With his novel, Murakami took me to the bottom of a well and through a wall and off to find a cat and a lost love. There I found a previously missing heart of things that feels expansive, which is useful in a time when the narrowly defined reality in the U.S. continues to contract. Although the expansive heart of things that I found in Murakami’s novel is not as tangible as my prior understanding of contemporary Japan, or even of myself, it feels far more real than what I knew before. Murakami’s gift to me. This gift, a gift I’ve been receiving from books since I learned to read, is what keeps me reading. For that matter, it is also what compels me to write. Reading and writing have the power to reveal the real beyond the tangible. And, when the tangible is not very palatable, I’m particularly grateful for reminders that it’s not all that there is.
originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on November 8, 2010