M. C. Escher, Wordplay, and Tessellations

escher_sky_waterM. C. Escher once said, “My work is a game, a very serious game.” I chose this as the epigraph for my short short “Metamorphosis” because it too is a sort of game. The goal of which is to make meaning arise from a set of arbitrary rules.

The piece started off as a kind of visualization. You’re walking down a long hallway. You select a door and open it. What do you see? I saw a lazy lion who looked up–and beyond that, a masquerade ball–and beyond that, the ocean. The telescopic nature of this scene intrigued me.

So I fleshed out that initial impression in images and words: bare breasts elevated to nervous heights, tittering laughter, the memory of music; “through the window, the Atlantic Ocean stretches, and yawns.” I say both images and words because some of this is the sort of sensory information the brain uses to make us feel like we’re actually seeing and experiencing a scene. (If you’re interested in the neurocience behind this little trick, may I recommend Lisa Cron’s excellent book, Wired for Story.) But some of this is also wordplay, orchestrated not to create the illusion that all this is real but to remind you that it’s not.

Could I continue to create something that seemed real, but at the same time did not? As writers, we take risks in asking questions like this. Because experimental writing can be cool, but often adds up to, well, so what? We don’t read to see writers showing off. (At least I don’t.) We read to make meaning.

Nevertheless, I persisted in this folly, and in so doing, invented a kind of game, bound by the rule of reuse. Which is to say, in each subsequent iteration, I attempted to recycle as many images and words from the original scene as possible, altering them slightly each time, the way Escher did in his “Metamorphosis” (pictured). The ballroom becomes a seaside attic, which becomes a diner in a library;  the lazy lion becomes the rug, which becomes an astrological sign, Leo; a lady’s folding fan in that masquerade becomes the ceiling fan in the diner.

Other transformations are more obtuse. A mask from the masquerade becomes the head of a lion, stuffed, its mouth stretched wide, “a kind of mask”; the face of a mannequin, too, is a kind of mask; as is the face of the man drinking coffee in the piece’s final forms, “oddly immobile.” Those bare breasts at the masquerade ball become a young girl’s apple cheeks, even as she flirts with the “bust” of a manequin. And in the final scene, it’s the bust of the waitress that intrigues the young man, reminding him of “some Elizabethen maiden in a painting he’d studied in school.”

Beyond images, I also tried to recycle as many words and phrases as possible. You’ll find variations on brass handle, lazy, colors, stretches, yawns, apple, roar, rug, memory, ocean/sea, cowlick, and (appropriately enough) making believe throughout the piece. My goal was to use up every image, every word, as much as possible while still retaining the illusion of fictive reality.

In this way, I find this piece more than superficially akin to Escher’s tessellations–those series of drawings he created in which ostensibly lifelike animals fit together in what is clearly an abstract grid. I chose “Metamophosis” from that series because, unlike some of Escher’s other tessellations, the beasts in this drawing change shape before your very eyes.

Of course, all of this is well and good and geeky. But so what? This piece sat on my hard drive for years because I couldn’t answer that question, nor could I complete the piece. But for some reason, when I opened it up a few weeks back, I could see my way to the end of it–could see too how the words I’d recycled thus far might be used to suggest real lives and real emotions for the two characters there at the end, the waitress and the man in the diner. And in its final sentence the piece almost seemed to be talking back–he’s the one, like me, playing at being an artist, while inside her, as in all of us, the real business of the human heart, like the ocean, roars.

It’s a game, albeit serious. Does it manage to take on that mysterious quantity, meaning? Does it manage to turn base metals into gold? I don’t know. You tell me.


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