The Critics’ Corner
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What Is the Hidden World?
And Why Can’t We See It?
The questions in the title are precisely those that might be asked by Chris, the heroine of Eleanor Lerman’s “What If There Is a Hidden World That We Can’t See?” The story has occasioned some discussion. I’ll summarize it in question and answer format.
Chris’s surfboard is bumped three times. What bumps it? Curious readers want to know!
That’s precisely the point: readers want to know because they are curious. Chris is not curious, quite the contrary: she is so afraid of the unknown that she sacrifices her only remaining pleasure in life and retreats to the beach, even though no harm has come to her. Chris’s reaction establishes a tension between her and the readers that will last throughout the story.
Is this a ghost story?
The story resembles somewhat the film Ghost World, which was based on an existentialist comic book about teen-age angst. The film’s 18-year old Enid seems to be a young Chris. At the end, Enid "escapes" from her ghost world on a seemingly non-existent bus. Or, perhaps, the narrative “hook” of the surfboard bumps might be reminiscent of Stephen King.
Indeed, Chris reacts with superstition: she interprets the bumps as signs of some unknown menace. But the story does not take place on some supernatural plane, nor does it evolve into a horror thriller. We can conclude only that Chris’s surfboard bumps are strange natural coincidences.
Is the story Magic Realism?
Whatever bumps Chris’s surfboard is merely mysterious; that’s realism, but it isn’t magical. However, the story does seem to qualify as Magic Realism by Jack’s intervention.
Who is Jack? Chris first notices him when she is at work. He seems to have a distant, searching look. He reappears and, finally, in the tavern scene, Chris has Bobby invite him over for a conversation.
Jack knows too much. He calls Christine by her full name, even though he hasn’t heard it. And how does he know about the incidents with Chris’s surfboard? His unaccountable knowledge lends credibility to the moral:
What if there is a hidden world that you — we — can’t see? That is, until we begin to. I think that doesn’t happen until we disconnect from what’s familiar to us, from the things we thought we were tied to but, for one reason or another, aren’t anymore. Sometimes that happens in a flash. Sometimes it takes... years.”
Bobby speculates that Jack might be a space alien, but we quickly see that the idea is a joke about a common trope in modern literature. Rather, Jack is otherworldly but nonetheless real; he’s an angel in the literal sense: a messenger. He tells Chris what she needs to know. It can be summed up bluntly as: “Stop being so wrapped up in yourself. Look outward and see the real world.” That’s how Chris can become Christine.
Might Chris be an avatar of Meursault, in Albert Camus’ L’Étranger?
Chris is resentful and alienated. She doesn’t like anybody very much, and she only tolerates her friend Bobby. She observes minute details in her life that are not necessarily connected. We know that she has undergone a form of mid-life crisis as a result of losing a well-paying position. She’s reverted to surfing and has a low-rent apartment and a minimum-wage job.
Both Chris and Meursault have friends but can hardly be called friendly. Chris keeps Bobby at arm’s length, and she’s unaccountably defensive when she meets Jack in person. Meursault and his friends hardly seem to know each other. He is often bored, sometimes painfully so, but his attitude is mainly one of indifference.
Chris and Meursault have one thing in common: a love of the sea. Chris’s love of surfboarding we know. Meursault is more complex: he feels painfully out of place in the world except in the morning and evening. When he’s swimming, he floats as if suspended between earth and sky, and he loses track of time.
Chris resents losing status and, consequently, disdains or distrusts the people around her. Meursault is practically the opposite. He is neither resentful nor alienated. Nor is he down and out. He alludes once, briefly, to thwarted ambition, but it seems inconsequential — at least to him. Ask him what he does for a living and he’d shrug and say it isn’t important, just like everything else.
If Meursault isn’t alienated, what is he? He’s just plain alien. As the title of his story implies, he is a foreigner in his own country, as though he were a tourist who understood neither the language nor the customs. Chris is more a “displaced person”; she does understand what is going on around her. But her self-absorption and self-pity alienate her from it.
Both Chris and Meursault are keen observers of mundane details and people, but they see them in very different ways. The important thing for Chris is how she feels about what and whom she sees.
The important thing for Meursault is that he appears to have no feelings at all. He can spend a weekend on his balcony, watching people come and go. And he makes a scrapbook of newspaper advertisements as a kind of “found art,” pictures accompanied by a script that holds no meaning for him.
How do the stories conclude? Are they similar in any way? Is Chris’s saying “Boo” to the “blondies” the same as Meursault’s shooting the Arab?
The blonde posse treats Chris and Bobby in somewhat the same way as Chris has treated Jack. But Chris has learned something: her playful “Boo” to the aggressive group applies Jack’s lesson. She challenges them to see the world outside themselves, to realize that she is a real person, not a stereotype — neither others’ nor her own.
Meursault shoots the Arab because the sun glinting off the knife is like an attack and is more than he can stand in the overpowering midday heat. The incident precipitates a long process of emotional awakening in part II of the novel.
The ending could hardly be more powerful. In Meursault’s final evening, he realizes why he has always referred to his mother as maman, “Mom,” rather than ma mère, “my mother,” despite having neglected her. And he wills his death to be a sacrifice that gives meaning to life. As Camus himself put it — somewhat wryly — he is le seul Christ que nous méritions, “the only Christ we deserve.”
In the context of Magic Realism, an angel brings Chris to a new understanding. In a thoroughly realistic story, Meursault achieves that understanding on his own.
Copyright © 2015 by Bewildering Stories