How about a hand up for everyone out there who has a stack of mostly unread New Yorkers
on your night table (or, as in my case, cascading to the floor and underneath the bed). I really should just get rid of them, but I keep thinking I'll get to them. Really, the only time I go back looking for a New Yorker
article is when it's getting talked about and I want in on the conversation. There's a certain pride, however, in having actually read one of those articles people talk about when it came out. And such was the case with Oliver Sacks' "Face Blind," (August 30) in which Sacks relates the particulars of prosopagnosia, a strange condition from which he suffers that leaves it victims unable to remember faces, even the faces of those they know well.
A few weeks before I read Sack's article, I finished a story I'd been working on since late spring called "New Wife." Thanks to the good folks at St. Martins, New Wife
is now out of quotation marks and into italics, available as an e-book. But back before this stroke of good luck, I sent it to a writer friend who gave me a couple of good ideas to make it a better story, but liked it overall. A few days later his wife contacted me via Facebook, saying that her husband had told her the premise of my story and she wondered if I'd read the Oliver Sacks piece that came out in the New Yorker just a couple of days before. Of course, I had! Well, sort of…
Okay, full disclosure, I didn't read the whole thing at first. Most of those New Yorkers around my night table are opened to an article that was interrupted by sleep, children, life, etc. Most of those articles I never return to. (Don't judge me, or I'll quiz you on the last four paragraphs of Malcolm Gladwell's anti-social-networking piece and see just how well you
Past the point in the article where I'd been interrupted, Sacks describes a similarly unusual condition called Capgras Syndrome. Capgras leaves the sufferer convinced that those close to him have been replaced with imposters. And it's a situation that has a lot in common with the protagonist of New Wife
It's a mixed blessing, this sort of information. On the one hand, it seemed to confirm the aptness of the metaphor I'd chosen for this character at this point in his life. On the other hand, I suddenly knew there was a real condition out there that had its own characteristics and its own trajectory. Was I getting it right? I suspected the resolution to my character's situation, while it made artistic sense to me, wouldn't jibe with the trajectory of a real-world neurological disorder. Did I need to research it now?
It only took a quick search under Capgras in Google to let me know the condition was not nearly as obscure as I'd at first imagined. The Wikipedia entry is here
. You just have to go to the bottom of this entry to get to the part that depressed me. Not only is Capgras well known, it's been used in Richard Powers' The Echo Maker
, a Neil Gaiman story, as the motive for murder in an episode of CSI: NY,
and (most distressingly for me) in a Shirley Jackson short story called "The Beautiful Stranger," in which a woman believes her husband has been replaced by someone else and ends up not recognizing her own home. That sounds waaaay to close to what's going on in my story.
By this point, my lovely little story of which I was proud and which has by this time been accepted for publication was looking pretty obvious and derivative. I was reminded of that feeling just after fiction workshop in grad school when the story you felt so great about when you wrote it feels—even if it went over well—strangely diminished.
If you "Search in this book" here
under "Beautiful Stranger," you can read Shirley Jackson's story, as I did. First impression: Shirley Jackson had way more tricks in her writers' bag than I do. Second impression: It's pretty cool the way the woman believes the false husband knows she has discovered his ruse—maybe I should have done that in mine. Third impression: Wait, something's different from my story here. (Fourth impression, seek out more Shirley Jackson.) In my story the man is startled to see someone he doesn't recognize in the place of his wife, whereas in Jackson's story, she recognizes her husband, then is struck a while later by the conviction that he is not the genuine article. It might seem a slight difference, but I think it's an important one. And let's face it, at this point I was looking for anything to hang on to.
Now I go back to various articles and definitions of Capgras Syndrome (or the Capgras delusion, as it's sometimes called) and notice that this element of the object of the delusion being seen as an exact double is present in pretty much every one. Aha! Maybe my guy doesn't have Capgras Syndrome after all! Maybe no one's written about his particular condition! Maybe, as I thought originally, I made it up!
But what if one of you tells me in the comments section that the syndrome in which someone familiar to you appears to be an entirely different person is called X Syndrome and that it has well-documented stages and prognoses that I got entirely wrong?
Art, like religion, has been battling with science for a long time. Creation myths and literal readings of biblical stories have, in most quarters, surrendered to what we're pretty darn sure we know about how species evolve. But instead of disappearing after their value in explaining the physical world was undermined, these inventions have persisted in folktales and mythologies in which we still find value.
In the 19th century, authors felt decidedly more comfortable letting characters die of broken hearts, rave with prophetic clarity while in the grip of "brain fever," and all sorts of things we wouldn't try to get away with today. And in Shakespeare there's all that talk about the spheres and the humours—all the stuff that he didn't get right be we don't think less of him for. But when Gregor Samsa awakes from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a large bug, we know we're well into the realm of the impossible and don't nitpick the specifics. But where's the line?
Can we still make the case for the purely literary affliction? The simple external manifestation of a psychological state. We know, for the most part, that our real world doesn't work that way. But neither does our real world isolate characters in sensibly constructed beginnings, middles, and ends. I used to teach Cheever's "The Swimmer," and was often asked "Is Teddy insane?" No, he's not. (Though he's definitely very drunk.) The world Teddy exists in resembles ours, but it's keyed to his misperceptions of his own importance and the way he's seen by others. Even time and the seasons bend to match his evolving understanding of his sad situation.
I believe implicitly in this approach to storytelling when it serves the story's purpose. So why did I let myself get bugged by this Capgras thing? Why was I so annoyed when I heard a real condition similar to the one in my story existed? Why was I so suspiciously relieved when I found the sliver of difference between the real world condition and the one I'd made up?
My mother gave me Sacks' most recent book for Christmas—the one from which I understand the New Yorker
essay to have been excerpted. And now it sits atop my night table. I sort of want to read it. And I still sort of fear it.