Marianne Moore once wrote that poetry consisted in “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” which is perhaps as good a definition as any. I’d say it applies to fiction as aptly, if not quite as vividly. What is it we are doing when tell our tales but constructing careful falsehoods that embody the truth of our lives?
A novel, even a short story, comprises an elaborate scaffolding supporting a false front, like a movie set’s Midwestern street, thin walls whose doors nevertheless open to a real world in both directions. Though you know there’s nothing behind the wall, you walk into a bar or a hardware store or a police office and find real lives, if not real people, simulacra living through their very real pains and pleasures, which in turn become yours.
And when you walk back out again, into the real sunlight, you notice that though nothing can have changed, nothing is the same, and you have stepped into a different season of your life.
If there is magic in the world, it doesn’t inhere in puffs of smoke and whirling transformations, but only this: that with words we can create a rich and busy world in each other’s minds and blend it with the material world our bodies live in, so that both exist simultaneously and add grandeur to each other. Every sensation is endured by the skin and bones but perceived at last in the mind. We can build honest truths out of the scraps of literary lies.
The Judaic creation story begins with just a word. And for creatures of the mind such as we are–and even the dullest among us is a most cerebral beast–for us, the word is god.