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My Life with the Wave/Particle: Scientific Fabulism in the Work of Octavio Paz and Kellie Wells

What can’t happen is a bigger category than what can. Storytellers seem to have figured this out early on–the bigger category has more range, more room. That’s why we have stories about people who became stars, and cats that talk, and fish that walk, that have far outlived the finely nuanced realist tale of the bison hunt gone wrong.

Fabulism is fun.

Entertainment value aside, though, fabulist stories that have withstood the test of time have done so because they tell a kind of truth. Out of all things that can’t happen, it seems, there are a few things that genuinely reflect what can.

Two stories have brought that home to me recently: My Life with the Wave by Octavio Paz, and Secession, XX by Kellie Wells.

Paz tells the story of a man who falls for a wave, apparently on vacation. Because she cannot be dissuaded in her affections for him, the narrator of the story contrives a way to take her on the train, by pouring her into the water cooler. Hence, the following scene:

image via SuperPunch/Judy Kirpich

If Octavio Paz were alive today, perhaps he would write, "My Life with the Wave/Particle." Just a thought.

“This man put salt in the water.”

The conductor called the Inspector:

“So, you put substances in the water?”

The Inspector in turn called the police:

“So, you poisoned the water.”

The police in turned called the Captain:

“So, you’re the poisoner?”

This is funny because it’s absurd for this game of “telephone” to escalate so quickly, because absurdity seems endemic to bureaucracy. But the real fun occurs when the wave finds her way to the narrator’s home, despite his brief detainment–the Captain poured her into the steam engine of the train, she was blown high into the atmosphere, and the wave found her way (perhaps as a fog?) to the narrator’s house.

Here the narrator’s home becomes a kind of swimming pool/aquarium, which precipitates (yes) some profound moments of sensuality that relate closely with the human experience of swimming.  But the wave clutters his life with seashells and trinkets, and eventually requires the company of some prehistorically ugly fish that arouse the narrator’s jealousy. She rages at him as only the ocean can, sending him running (perhaps to his man-cave?) in the hills. When the narrator returns to his home, the fire is out, and the wave has turned into an ice-sculpture. “Unmoved by her weary beauty,” he gives her to a waiter friend, who promptly cuts her into chunks of ice to deposit in buckets where bottles are chilled.

The metaphorical dimensions are clear–the woman is an ocean of emotion, so to speak, profoundly different and nearly incomprehensible to the man, as changeable as a wave. Then there’s that whole influence-of-the-tides-on-bodies-of-water-and-the-bodies-of-women-thing, etc., etc.

But I think there may be another metaphorical dimension lurking below this one. Because it’s common knowledge that we are, all of us–men and women both–composed mostly of water. Water, in all its metaphorical and emotional dimensions. A momentary shape in space are we, composed of H20 and a handful of stardust, like so much flotsam and space trash, not unlike a wave.

The physical truth, in this way, is fabulous.

Kellie Wells gives us a bit of this in a story from her collection Compression Scars entitled “Secession, XX.” This is a tale told in tandem columns, newspaper style, by two narrators who happen to be joined at the hip, literally. Which is to say, they’re conjoined twins.

Over the course of the story, XX (the girl) and Y (the boy) share their lives: the way she largely dominates him, possessing the stronger personality from the very womb, when she corralled the two X chromosomes for herself and tossed ‘it’ (soon to be ‘him’) that single, lame Y chromosome.

photo via public domain

"He squeezed his eyes closed and forced his thoughts to stack themselves vertically, pretended lateral dominion, tried to imagine what it would be like to be utterly alone."

This dominance continues throughout their lives, with her signing their postcards from summer camp XX00, not as a sign of affection, but rather indicating herself on the left and him on the right, his presence denoted by absence. Still, the two are close emotionally as well as physically, dreaming each other’s dreams and even sometimes caressing the other’s face as he/she sleeps “as intimately as congenital disease.”

As the two hit puberty, they each have a crush on the same boy–and when said boy falls for Y instead of XX, she feels “suddenly and irreversibly annulled.” Which gives rise to:

“Rutherford B. Hayes, nineteenth president of the United States, was referred to in the press and by resentful partisans as Rutherfraud because he’d won a narrow and contested electoral majority but had lost the popular vote, and this is suddenly how I feel: fraudulent, in command only by biological fiat. I managed to corral more cells than my brother, more fleet than he even in gestation, but now I feel a revolution percolating inside me, the fundamental goo of self quarreling with itself, a cellular uprising, and I understand that no matter what bone anyone throws me, I will lay my head on my brother’s shoulder and think, ‘It is too cold to stir.'”

So much in this story revolves around the ludicrous (and fabulist) proposition that these two began to assert their proto-personalities in the womb, as a mere zygote. And yet, most of us have known kids who seemed to possess their distinct character from the get-go. Who can say where the personality actually begins?

The fabulist truth is, we were all zygotes once. We all developed one way, and not another, and those “decisions” influenced who we are now in ways that are both subtle and profound. What is impossible in this story tells us something about what is possible.

Interested in this concept of scientific fabulism? I’ll be teaching a class on this very subject in Portland on August 3rd at the Willamette Writers Conference entitled Speculative Fiction: Tapping the Imaginative Dimensions of the Scientific Paradigm.

Join us!

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