Essay on Heirlooms (Chapter 5 Extra)

Another approach to “the secret history of objects,” as discussed in Wonderbook.

When I was growing up, my dad had a family heirloom that fascinated me: a small tobacco pipe with a glass-covered pinhole in the side. If you looked through the hole you could see a microfiche-like photograph: four rows of stern-looking men and women, along with names and other information in German or Dutch. My dad explained that the photograph depicted a group of dissidents from before World War I. My dad didn’t know whether it had been a “hit list” for the secret police or used by the radicals to keep track of their own. But those kinds of details didn’t register with me then. For me, the pipe was a compelling oddity, a window that delighted me because I could look through a tiny hole and see so much.

Over the years, though, I kept thinking about that pipe—my mind just wouldn’t leave it alone. Then, while working on my noir fantasy novel Finch, it resurfaced as an heirloom of detective John Finch’s father. Finch’s father is a mysterious figure with shifting allegiances between various factions in my war-torn imaginary city of Ambergris.

In the scene in my novel, Finch is shown the pipe as a child, much as I was shown the real pipe by my dad, but with the added layer that through the device of the pipe Finch’s father is trying to communicate something about his real role in Ambergris that he cannot state directly without endangering his son. Finch looks through the pinhole and he sees “A whole map of the known world. There was a dot for Ambergris. The line of the River Moth…The Kalif’s empire covering the west beyond the Moth. Exotic city after exotic city marked in that vast desert, the plains and hills beyond.” But my made-up pipe also has a pinhole on the other side, which shows “Black-and-white photos of twelve men and women.” His father tells him, “The owner of this pipe ran a network of spies. The map…is really a code. It tells the owner something about the spies whose pictures you’re looking at.”

A secret history of the world. A topography of the imagination in which cities become shorthand for people’s lives. For me, writing fantasy has always had that element. Each novel has contained autobiography tied to setting—details that are taken directly from both the exhilarating and mundane aspects of my life, my past and my family’s past. Do readers see those elements as personal, as transposed from reality? Probably not in most cases, and it isn’t necessary for reader enjoyment.

But it’s this hidden element, this strand of subtext, that, unseen by readers but felt by them, breathes life into fiction and is especially important for fiction set in imaginary places, which might otherwise be so disconnected from reality as to become meaningless. A novel that isn’t anchored to some aspect of the human condition, to some universal aspect of our disparate experiences, is usually a novel inert and lifeless on the page.

This subtext also acknowledges that what’s private is also public, that the world beyond one’s immediate experience has an impact on you and thus your fiction. As a kid, the pipe represented a potent possibility for adventure, a sense that the world was deeper and wider than I could then know. It also represented a bonding experience with my dad. But as an adult, it became a different kind of mystery, with a different set of questions. Who were these people trapped inside the pipe? What had they lived for? What had they been willing to die for? Slowly, the political mixed with the personal, and yet I didn’t want the real answers. My mind was seeking fictional ones instead.

I found them in writing Finch. The novel is set in a failed state run by a dictatorship that doesn’t understand the people it is governing, which results in both absurd and tragic consequences. Although Finch has a noir mystery plot wedded to a surreal fantasy element, the context, the setting, the lives of the characters, are informed and shaped by the last eight years of U.S. foreign policy, from 9-11 and Ground Zero to occupation to torture to suicide bombings.

Writers often mention the need to get distance from events in their personal lives to include them effectively in fiction, but I find a similar need to get distance from historical/political events. Without that distance and the transformative power of the imagination, a fiction writer risks creating unsubtle polemic or introducing the didactic. Writing in a fantastical setting helps me, as it immediately changes the paradigm, the context, while retaining the intellectual arguments and questions, tone and texture, of the original events.

To me, then, this fantastical place continues to be highly personal in a way that encompasses the political because the political, the historical, always takes a toll even on those of us on the sidelines. You cannot as a writer remain unaffected by that, even as you sometimes can’t see how to write about it. Ambergris allows me to write about it. Fantasy allows me to write about it. That prism is like putting my eye to the hole in the pipe and seeing this fragment of another world that’s still part of our own, no matter how distant in time or space.

The truth is, Ambergris has always been porous—there’s no barrier between me and it, and thus no barrier between it and the world. The world is continually being received by me—horrifies, moves, elates, bores, and changes me—and, in a very organic, a very intimate, way, Ambergris is continually being colonized and redrawn in my imagination as a consequence. There are no maps of Ambergris because there can be no maps of Ambergris, no matter what an image in a pinhole tells you. In Finch, Ambergris is a beleaguered city, linked by psychic distress to places like Baghdad, Beirut, even occupied Paris during World War II, but what will it be tomorrow?

Originally published in the LA Times.

finch image