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Once when I was young I delivered to myself an impressive inner monologue, probably while showering, comparing growing up to exploring an enormous Baroque castle. One of those palaces with a million doors that led to a thousand rooms in a hundred different wings, with all sorts of secrets hiding within: kitchens, courtyards, libraries, ballrooms, water closets. You are free to explore with the caveat that you can only move forward, and with the twist that every time you open a door, a random number of other doors in other parts of the castle will lock themselves up forever. In some cases that won’t matter–you were never going to go in the direction, and most rooms have more than one entrance anyway–but in some cases some very nice rooms and even some entire wings would be closed away from you forever.
I don’t remember the context at all, what made me think about it. I can’t even remember how old I was, which particular shower I was standing in. I just remember the image, of life as an endless number of possibilities, and how aging gradually reduces the option until eventually there are few, if any, paths left open, and what’s left is your life.
The fiction I wrote then tended to reflect this. I favored sweeping narratives, where we meet our protagonist as a child and follow the twists and turns of an imaginary life to a surprise conclusion.
Maybe as I’ve gotten older and this process has happened to me–doors and rooms and entire wings locked away from me forever, even though my options remain good and broad–my interest has turned. Maybe I just needed new things to think about.
I imagine now–not as a metaphor for life, but as an image that stays in my mind when I think of my fiction–a person who just had some sort of life-threatening accident. A car accident, or industrial accident, or something similar. Something that could have been deadly but wasn’t. This person takes a breath and realizes that he is alive, somehow still breathing and thinking and everything is going to be okay.
Except that his leg is gone.
Life will continue, but it will never be the same. And of course a new leg (or arm, whatever) could be acquired, modern medicine being the miracle that it is. You’ll get used to it, and forget you ever had your own natural limbs.
But at this moment, the realization that whatever error you made–pressed the wrong button, sneezed while driving, forgot to put on the shoes that didn’t slip, whatever tiny error it was–it will now have life-long consequences. Just like that. If only you could turn back the clock a few seconds you could do the tiny little thing that needed to be done to prevent this from having happened. No big deal. It’s not like trying to restructure your entire life, changing your parents and the time period where you were born.
We’re talking about one little thing. One tiny little thing, which if you could just change it, you would be on your way home now, all your limbs intact.
The doors in the castle are closing all the time, and you almost never notice. But this one, this one has slammed right in your face. You saw what was on the other side, and you can’t have it.
This is the space where my fiction exists now. Not sweeping narratives, but the moment when my characters realize that the version of this which they have taken for granted is all over now.
My researchers preparing to unplug Ada, for example. Or Tom Grand realizing that he can never speak to his children again. Justin Marlowe seeing himself in his mirror, face-down in his own blood.
Today (not on this blog, at least not yet) Alison Britten will lie in bed while her family celebrates at a restaurant, so panicked she is almost unable to breathe, because she had come to understand that her body has betrayed her–inside of her there is something that will destroy her world for good. It already has, in fact. It’s just that nobody knows it yet.
I don’t know where that image, of losing a limb, comes from. But for better or worse it’s where my mind keeps turning as I sit in my office and tune in to my little friends and their ever-changing lives.