The Big Idea: Karen Heuler
How to tell the truth in fiction? Author Karen Heuler considered the question for The Inner City, her collection of stories, and in the end drew inspiration from one of our greatest poets. Here she is to explain.
The stories in The Inner City are about the way the world works, about the way people work, about the dodges and twists and sneaky surprises of life as we know it—whether it looks like our life or not. One of Emily Dickinson’s poems goes, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” The slant is what I’m after.
People have confidence in what they see, what they believe, what they do; and confidence comes from a sense of normality. But what’s normal? And what happens when the “normal” is different for you and for the rest of them?
And it’s not so much the outsider/insider thing as it is how strange the Other can be. Occasionally strange and interesting, as in “The Large People,” where a retired office worker finds people growing out of the ground, and follows them into the city where they start doing things you wouldn’t think a retired office worker would approve of—but then again, why not? Why not take note of the newest order of things and consider what it all means? Or just watch it? Those poor people in “Landscape with Fish”—when nature starts throwing them curve balls, all they can do is keep their eyes open. Something new is coming.
No two people live in the same world, and that’s why we have cults—someone beguiling us with the belief that all can be shared emotionally and physically. It can’t. People may come together and try to predict their lives, as in “The Great Spin,” about the wrong people being gathered in the Rapture. Or they may find a new and frightening form of existence in “Thick Water,” but it’s not for everyone. It’s not for most. It involves losing some of the particularities that like it or not make you into you.
And to be honest, you don’t want to be too different; it might attract attention. But my neighbor’s conspiracy theory is nowhere as credible as my own. Their reason for paranoia is not as good as my reason for paranoia. In fact, there is “The Inner City” sneaking around and doing things to mess me up. I know this to be a fact. I know that certain things are done just to annoy me—trains pulling out as I run for them; lost Metrocards that magically reappear after I’ve bought a new one; another missing sock. You would think that, if I’ve lost 30 individual socks in my lifetime, I must have found someone else’s 30 individual missing socks, but I haven’t. I don’t know if there’s one person who ends up with all of them. Is this the reason for Sock Monkeys?
Who hasn’t felt at some point that change was getting out of control, that it was going on despite you? Some things you can opt out of; some things you can refuse; but you won’t always know if it was the right decision or not until it’s too late.
So why not get hooked, roped, nailed into a change because, after all, it’s different? We all evolve, going through life in distinct phases, even as our minds and bodies adjust from the clumsiness of toddlers to the grace of adults and then back again. Isn’t there a metaphor for that, for the process of radical change we go through? Like the children in “The Difficulties of Evolution,” who knows what our offspring will become? Or us? Are we ever done with it?
Who knows what we will become? We can fight against it, the modifications of life, until a brilliant mind somewhere crosses a girl with a dog for a new breed of servants. Is that wrong? As wrong as creating a cow out of meat, for instance, and finding it has gone bloodthirsty? What would you do with what you’ve created at that point?
And despite all our advances in science, have we forgotten that things aren’t necessarily right just because they can be done? If it’s possible to breed girls and dogs to get a special servant class—well, should we do it?
Of course we’ll do it.
And of course we have to accept it. But then again, why should we accept it?
There are tough choices here. One explorer on a distant planet finds her team has gone out and gone native in a new and terrifying way; should she join them? A worker finds that a new employee has not only stolen her hair, but is out for her job and much more.
It’s not always recognizable.
Sometimes you can see something coming—but when it gets near, it’s not exactly what you thought it would be. The Rapture approaches, but who will be blessed? Your wishes are granted, but are they what you wanted? That doubt, of course, is in the nature of wishes as well as of life—there’s a catch somewhere, a little bit of snickering, if not downright buffoonery.
We ask for something, and we get it slant.