I will fight anybody in a parking lot who doesn’t like this story.
Near the middle of this story we get a sort of stream of consciousness look inside how the main character feels when he’s in public with his disabled son. He feels them looking at him with sympathy, but not wanting to get too close; nobody wants to “catch” what they have. And he’s angry about it.
I started thinking about how we talk about people like the narrator and his wife as heroes, but look at what a toll it is, look at how it hurts them, look at how confused and angry they are. Yes, being a hero is hard – that’s a core role – but it’s not something we all really want. Do you, after reading this, feel you’re up to the challenge of the narrator and his wife? Slaying a dragon would be easier.
And that’s the fun here because we get all the fantasy trope style writing – mages and witches and maidens – but spin it to talk about what a heroic life is really all about. We fantasize about being heros, we watch TV about heroes and superheroes, but we never really think how hard it actually is, how unglamorous it is, how much of a toll it takes.
But we can empathize because these heros are just as fragile as the rest of us, just as self conscious, full of just as many dreams and failures.
And the story also deals with the lives we construct for ourselves. The narrator here tricks his maiden (in a very clever but cynical way) into marrying him, but it’s part of the story he’s trying to create for himself, a story he wants to believe in – and so it’s not fully cynical. Here the language of fantasy is used to parody a very serious thing we all do, to forge a reality for ourselves, and one that might not be what we planned on.
Then there’s the angle of how popular fantasy is (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones) and how we want to escape this mundane, suburban world for something Tyler Durden would approve of from Fight Club, a world of action and meaning, not fake constructed lives of lawyers and contracts. Yet there’s a reason it’s called fantasy. And how well would we survive in that fantasy world? Could we really kill a dragon? Probably not. So we just try to get by.
There is also something between the lines here when he talks about never being as well off as the lords (the rich people who get promoted over him). We measure success in dollars and square footage, we see heroes as fabulous, but (and this is like a fable in the meaning of it), the real heros are regular people with extraordinary circumstances thrust upon them.
We need more fables, to be honest. I think we’ve lost the appetite for being told morality tales. Not that people long ago admired the morally appropriate people – we’ve always loved gossiping about the rich – but I feel we think being told what’s right is not something we need anymore, though we really do, and even more so as adults. A fable is not just for kids, because like the son here we are always children, we always need to learn, and we will always need guidance.
But more than just a fable, more than just the writer here using the old fantasy trope to juxtapose our modern struggles with epics of “lore”, is that this story is framed with the very real psychologist who is asking him to tell her his story. And he has a hard-time of it so he uses this language to try to wrap his brain around his life because he’s just an ordinary person who can’t find the words that a hero’s bard might have ready. And we all do this, we all rely on cliche language and saying to express how we feel, but they’re never good enough – those stories we give ourselves – because they’re for someone else, or at worst not genuine. And here the narrator is forced to tell his story in his words and he struggles to know who even he is, just like his son. Raymond Carver wrote about this very theme many times; here it’s just done more playfully but with no less talent.
There is some wonderful writing here, too. I loved how one of the first words (and probably one of not many more he’d ever know) is “sorry” because he heard it so much from his parents. That was heartbreaking and said more about that relationship and household than pages and pages of dialogue.
I also liked how there was a sort of hopefull ending, too. Of course a fable or fantasy story usually does and so it must here too, but because this story is so close to reality, so honestly sad (in the way reality is sad and lonely), that it gives us some hope leading back out, that not all is bleak and that even the worst can be endured, even if it will always be difficult.
This is not a cynical story, it’s realistic. It’s the most realistic fable I’ve ever read, and it’s wonderful.