Monday, October 13, 2014

Parallel Worlds, Parallel Plots

Already read The Chronicles of Narnia, the Out of the Silent Planet space trilogy, and Til We Have Faces? The Dark Tower and Other Stories, says editor and one-time Lewis secretary Roger Lancelyn Green, will complete your experience with all the known fiction of C. S. Lewis. The collection may complete the catalog of Lewis’s fiction, but the items in the collection are not themselves complete: two of the “stories” are unfinished novels. In fact, all of the entries seem unfinished in a way, like first drafts. Now granted, C. S. Lewis writes a pretty fine first draft. But the short stories in the set as well as the chapters of the second novel are all unusually brief; they lack the depth of detail and character we know Lewis could provide. The conversations mostly provide exposition, and the narration mainly supplies plot. But then all these items seem experiments based on an idea or plot twist, so perhaps history and Lewis's fireplace left us only the bare minimum necessary to get the main idea across.

The theme and tone of some of these experiments might seem a little surprising to someone expecting more of Lewis’s apologetic, allegorical, or moralistic writing. In “Ministering Angels,” for instance, he explores the idea that the only women who would want to go to Mars for the astronauts’ – er – social needs would be failed prostitutes. (Interestingly, Lewis seems oblivious to the idea that the astronauts of his future might themselves be women.) This story, however, is the only one in the set to reach an explicitly Christian theme, as one of the astronauts begins to imitate Jesus’ merciful dealings with practitioners of the world’s oldest profession.

“The Shoddy Lands,” very interesting but perhaps a little cruel, explores a jump into the mind of a vapid girl who sees trees only as green blobs and other women only as moving blocks with fine clothes. If the story has a spiritual theme, it is the latent message that we none of us appreciate the fulness of the wonder of creation. “The Man Born Blind” again barely hints at Lewis’s theological ideas only if we accept Green’s helpful suggestion that the story goes with the essay “Meditation in a Toolshed” and its discussion of seeing light vs. seeing by means of light.

“The Dark Tower” – what is the proper way to format the title of an unfinished fragment of a novel, by the way: italics or quotation marks? – which takes up the bulk of the slender volume, is a weird tale that starts out like a Wells novel, with the great scientist revealing to his colleagues a machine proving a strange new theory. Or so he thinks! Dr. Orfieu believes that human memory and visions result, not from stored impressions or from imagination, but from actual, direct perception of the past and future. All he need do is locate the area of the brain that does the sensing of other times, reproduce its material, shine a light through his artificial organ, and start watching the past – or maybe it’s the future – unfold on a screen. But what he and his circle observe involves a society led by pallid men with stingers on their foreheads who turn the stingerless folk one by one into automatons by piercing their spines. How could this be either the past or the future of the human race? Mysteries! The plot thickens when one of the characters, Scudamour, sees on the screen, first, his own double and then his girlfriend’s. He runs toward the flickering image and finds himself, his consciousness that is, in a stinger-headed body in the other world.

Soon afterwards, the draft breaks off. Green hypothesizes that Lewis eventually would have had Scudamour (1) decide that Otherworld Girlfriend is a better person than the one he knows and supposedly loves, (2) find a way to bring her back to his original world, and then (3) discover that she is actually a person from this world who, as a small child, found herself strangely transferred to the parallel world, while the real Otherworld Girlfriend took over the body in this world, grew up in it, and eventually developed a relationship with Scudamour.

Does that make any sense? I’m afraid it doesn’t. But I had to explain that much in order to say what I wanted to say about the other unfinished novel, “After Ten Years.” In this yarn, Menelaus climbs out of the Trojan Horse and locates Helen, the woman for whom the Greeks have fought for ten long years, only to discover that she is not the most beautiful woman in the world anymore, but instead a somewhat overweight, less-than-lustrous, middle-aged woman. The passage of ten years, after all, does sometimes do such a thing to human bodies. We don’t know exactly how the Spartan lord’s disappointment plays out because the draft suddenly jumps to a later time and to the land of Egypt, where the now-victorious Menelaus hears (Lewis takes up a twist of Euripides here) that the gods didn’t really let Paris take Helen to Troy. They made a copy, an eidolon, of Menelaus’ wife and sent the fake over to Asia with the Trojan prince. The real Helen, the beautiful Helen, Menelaus is told, has been hanging out in Egypt all this time. The Greeks have fought for a decade over an illusion.

Lewis’s efforts stopped here. With no more to go on, Green theorizes that his famous friend, had he finished this book, would have put a twist on Euripides’ twist, revealing that the beautiful Egyptian woman was in reality the eidolon, and that the frumpy version was the real thing after all. It surprises me that Green didn’t notice the link between his two theories. Isn’t this really the same as the proposed plot of “The Dark Tower”? Boy loves Girl. Boy sees Girl in distant place. Boy goes to distant place to get Girl. Boy finds out Girl is not Girl. Then Boy discovers that Girl is actually Girl after all. It makes perfect sense for C. S. Lewis. It’s even essentially the same as the plot of yet another Lewis book, The Pilgrim’s Regress. (Why didn’t Green include this in his supposedly exhaustive list of Lewis’s fictional work?) The Pilgrim, if I remember correctly, sets out from home to find Truth only to discover, like Dorothy Gale, that what he truly sought was the home he had rejected in the first place. Seen in this light (or should I say, by means of this light?), the two unfinished novels become Christian tales, since the journey of rediscovery Lewis retells several times is a spiritual journey ending in Christ.

Now that I think about it clearly enough to write about it, I guess I’ve recreated the plot myself. I picked up The Dark Tower and Other Stories thinking I would read some little-known Christian fiction by one of my favorite authors. Then I found myself surprised and slightly disappointed with space-traveling trollops, stinger-headed tyrants, and faceless fashionistas. But in the end, I decided I had found what I was looking for to begin with.

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