The Big Idea: Skyler White
Angels and demons and neuroscientists, oh my! Skyler White’s got ’em in her novel and Falling, Fly, and she’s not afraid to use them. She’s also not afraid to go deeper and look at what those angels and demons mean — not just in the literal sense of being angels and demons, but what these creatures might represent in the zeitgeist… and to her as an author. And now she’s here to lay it all out for you.
Through a weird quirk of timing, the collective unconscious has bubbled up several fallen angel books recently. With one much, much bigger than my debut novel released in the same week, it’s tempting to poke the fallen angel blister here, and hypothesize on tumbled ideals as my ‘big idea’. But to the extent I’ve had any success as a writer, it’s come from writing the things that scare me, so I want to go a little bigger with The Big Idea, because mine is something I’ve been worried about.
My big idea is a bit of a dirty word. It’s archaic and medieval and I’ve spent the last two years concerned some editor or critic will paste it to my work, and I’ll be branded with it. The word is “allegory.” And, shamefully, I love it. I love mythology and Aesop and Orwell and Dante and god help me, I love Pilgrim’s Progress. I love it more than 80’s power ballads and musical theater and every other unsubtle, un-ironic guilty pleasure I’ve got. And I know it’s wrong. I know writers’ ideas must serve their stories. I know story arc and psychological realism are paramount. Nothing may be allowed to interfere with the pleasure a reader takes in a good story well told. The writer’s prose needs to step aside. The writer’s ideas need to move on back.
I’d like to say it was courage or rebellion that put me in opposition to the prevailing wisdom that allegory is naïve, primitive, and inherently didactic, but it was a less noble, more selfish impulse. I had a question I needed to explore, and fiction was the safest battleground to test myself against it. So I’m outing myself here: and Falling, Fly has an agenda. I have an ulterior motive. It’s not a political or moral agenda, and I didn’t have a lesson I was trying to impart, or an answer I wanted to teach. What I had was a question.
The question came out of a game I was playing with a group of friends who had all read Lynda Barry’s wonderful One! Hundred! Demons! and were experimenting together with naming our own personal ones. I was working on a portrait of a capitalist/addict demon who’s haunted me for years, called “Too Much is Not Enough,” and wound up with a single, simple question: what is desire? But it’s a simple question with a fractal edge. Why do we want what we can’t have? Is feminine desire different from men’s? What takes wanting away from a healthy, motivating need for nourishment or experience, and makes it an addiction or craving that cannot be sated? Can sexual hunger be translated to ice cream? What happens if the standard of living or parenting style delays practice or even experience with being denied? What does it mean if the sexiest thing a woman can hear is “I want you,” and she becomes what is desired rather than who desires? The only way I could think of tackling such a complex-but-simple question, short of continuing to muddle through my life-as-experiment, was through story.
Stories allow us to model different realities, to step into different skins, to try-before-you-buy different ways of being in or looking at the world. Some writers make models nearly identical to the world I see out my window. Through close observation and astute description, they offer a nearly photo-realistic experience of someone else’s life. Allegory sits on an opposite ledge. In allegory, what we see every day may still show up on the page, but it’s standing in for something we can never photograph. Even with the best CGI. Allegory isn’t about how acutely you can render the impossible in fantasy or the frightening into horror. It’s about what the magic and the monsters mean.
Allegory allowed me to look at the nature of desire from multiple angles and explore not only its different manifestations, but how they interact with one another. It let me introduce Olivia, the fallen angel of desire – the platonic ideal of desire in its corrupted, corporeal form – to Dominic, a neuroscientist to whom desire is reducible to neurochemical signals, and make them fall in love. With allegory, the son of a wealthy philanthropist can be a bit of comic relief and also a study in money-as-creative-force and privilege as a stultifying or even decaying state. But allegory also let me go ‘meta’ and create parallel story-worlds. In one, my symbolism is overt. A character can “mainline the memestream,” and what he creates in that parallel manifests in the other, more familiar one. I had a tremendous amount of fun playing across these worlds and with the ‘third rail’ of actual reality outside the story. I also found it an incredibly rich framework upon which to structure a plot.
But if an exploration of desire was the magical idea, allegory was the monster. I wanted to use the power of symbolism, but keep it obedient to the characters and their story. I wanted to invoke layers of meaning, but not burden my words. I don’t know if I pulled it off. But I know I want to.