Paul Park’s Hidden Worlds
Jul 13, 2016
16 Min read time
Paul Park’s fantasy troubles the line between fiction and reality.
There are writers whose biographies—the life stories they tell themselves about themselves—are an important force in their work. And there are writers whose private lives are largely irrelevant to what they write. Probably no one can write entirely beyond the pressure of his or her own life, but certain authors possess a reputation for work that could never have been written without their particular experiences: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Malcolm Lowry, and W. G. Sebald come readily to mind, although there are many others, more of them the nearer we come to the present. But the writers of works now generally classed as “genre”—thrillers, horror, fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, romance—more rarely put their lives to use in their craft. The reason of course is that writers who attempt to insert their own selves within the constraints of planetary romance, international spy chases, or battles for the fate of the galaxy risk bathos.
Paul Park’s new collection Other Stories complicates these truisms in interesting ways. Park is not a realist or “mimetic” writer. His first science fiction/fantasy series began to appear in 1984; he has written other-planet science fiction and a historical fantasia about Jesus. For much of the past decade, he has been creating a four-volume epic set in a reimagined fin-de-siècle Europe charged with magic and dream. But his shorter work in this new volume is infused with fragments and perspectives drawn from his own and his family’s life, despite the fact that these stories are in no sense directly autobiographical or naturalistic. Brief afterwords to each story make the connections apparent, or at least conjure them up. Several raise the question of whether in order for the fiction to have its full effect the biographical material has to be known—if the man himself, even, has to be known. This approach inevitably raises the stakes for both writer and reader: What does the writer gain by meshing his fiction with his life? Will readers be interested or will they turn away? To me, when well deployed, the meshing creates an odd and interesting tickle of uncertainty, a quality that differs from the plain autobiographical of, say, Proust. It is fiction become autobiography even as the autobiography becomes fiction.
In an interview with the science fiction journal Locus, Park describes how these metafictions arose: “A lot of things happen in my fiction through a process of accumulation rather than design,” he reports. “For example, I had loose characters wandering around in my stories and I hadn’t named them yet, so I gave them the name Paul Park as a placeholder. For me, naming characters is almost the most artificial thing you do in fiction. You have a character and you think, ‘Is this Joe Doakes? Is this Francesco Bellesandro? Who is this?’ At a certain point I just called a lot of them Paul Park. . . . When I started to publish those stories it was natural for people to make some connection between the character and the author because we had the same name.” Well, yes. He then came to see how interest could arise when readers came to believe that they could see traces of a real life—of his, Paul Park’s, real life—even in genre or “extremely mannered” fiction.
Is Park’s explanation itself a metafictional dodge? To arrive at an answer, we must look at Park’s earlier work, which, I suggest, is not only a resounding success by the standards of genre fiction but also in the larger realm of writing.
• • •
Park’s first three novels, the Starbridge Chronicles, are set in a world where seasons last tens of thousands of days and a pervasive, death-oriented religion supports a vast militarized power structure. There is an Earth, but it is sideways from our own: it has an ancient hereditary monarchy, great castles, mounted soldiers, but also photographs, pickup trucks, cardboard boxes, gallows, cigars, perfumes, automatic rifles, and monastic orders. The trilogy—the books’ marvelous titles are Soldiers of Paradise (1987), Sugar Rain (1989), and The Cult of Loving Kindness (1991)—does not have the simple forward drive of fantasy epics of the Tolkien variety, nor the sort of endpoint to which stories such as those aim. There are dozens of characters, none precisely the hero. All are constrained by their places in the hierarchy, capable of cruelties they can hardly acknowledge because of their rank, and yet open to sudden transformations and escapes. Instead of a quest or a conflict that forms a thread through the imagined world, it is the oppressive richness of the world itself that is gripping: it is as though the writer’s attention is inverted from the usual focus on people and events and turned instead on the inert mass of the surrounding and pervasive civilization in all its particularity. Much of the time, the characters do little but ponder these same things, before a spasm of action takes them. Their actions often produce unintended results, or come to nothing and leave them as they were.
Park’s invented worlds are the raisons d’être of his books, as essential as the plots.
When I first read them, the books struck me as an ideal kind of fantasy: one that was largely, in some sense solely, about an invented world—a world whose intricacy equals or surpasses that of our own, whose laws can’t be entirely known but whose physical and social circumstances cause complex lives to be lived. A world like the one we inhabit, which science fiction and fantasy writers call “shared”: complex, irreducible, indifferent or hostile to human success. When teaching works of fantasy and science fiction, I sometimes ask students to read accounts of real civilizations and cultures in this shared world, from Vodou societies to North Korean totalitarianism to Romani social practices and Tibetan religion: I want my students to see that invented worlds should be at least as elaborated and rich as the ones we humans have actually created, though they rarely are.
After the Starbridge Chronicles, Park went on to write a series of freestanding novels before returning to the task of multivolume fantasy, and this second series surpasses even the first for richness and complexity. It is called A Princess of Roumania (note the spelling), as is the first volume, published in 2005. In the taxonomy developed by John Clute, the great scholar of the fantastic, that first volume qualifies as a portal fantasy: people pass out of the shared or common world into a different one via a portal or gate or other egress—a wardrobe, in C. S. Lewis’s tales; a rabbit hole and a mirror, in Lewis Carroll’s. Park’s setting at first is a college town in the Berkshires, recognizably Williamstown, where Miranda, a girl of twelve, lives with her adopted parents and hangs out with her one-armed friend, Peter, and her racier girlfriend, Andromeda. She was born in Romania, and her adoptive parents took her at age eight from one of the hellish orphanages of the Ceaușescu era. She came with a few possessions, one of which was a book, written in Romanian, seeming to have come from some long-ago time of wealth and luxury. It, and a bracelet of tiger’s heads and a few coins, had been given to her new parents by the orphanage.
Books as portals aren’t unusual in fantasies; it is a kind of primitive metafiction whereby a character in a book can escape into a book in the book, and find it real. Park leads us for a time to suppose that this is what will happen to Miranda, that in the book she will find her real home. But a strange gang of punk teenagers speaking Romanian steals the book from her and throws it into a bonfire. Instantly the pleasant world of Massachusetts—the Price Chopper, the art museum, the nice old houses and college—vanish. Miranda and her friends are in a different America: the real, untamed America. We come to learn that Massachusetts and our twentieth century existed only in the book, a haven to keep Miranda safe, created by her alchemist aunt Aegypta Schenk von Schenk in the great and powerful state of Roumania far away. Miranda doesn’t merely travel from the common world to a different one, like Harry Potter; instead, the common world was never real, and now is irretrievably lost.
Miranda’s two friends, Peter and Andromeda, are still with her. They turn out to be companions assigned by her aunt to protect her, and only seemed to be American teenagers. Peter is Pieter de Graz, a seasoned soldier; Andromeda is a dog—though that is not all. All three will struggle to remember the Massachusetts they lost, but now for them America is a vast woodland, barely touched by Europeans. In time they are captured by Roumanian scouts sent to find them, and they begin a long hard trek through the wilderness toward the Albany trading post, the ocean, and Roumania.
Interwoven with their journey are scenes set in Great Roumania, where several parties use occult means to track Miranda’s progress. The Baroness Ceausescu discovers a book like the one burned in the false Massachusetts, a book detailing a history of Roumania she rejects, full of Nazis and Soviet armies and a different Ceausescu regime, gloomy and squalid. Her Bucharest is the grand capital of a multiethnic country in which the events of our twentieth century have not happened. North Africa (“Abyssinia”) is the source of technical innovations and scientific progress, the British Isles and France were destroyed by a massive tsunami long before, there is a tsar in Russia and a sultan in Turkey, temples to Venus and Diana are the cathedrals and basilicas, and the many religions of our world are—wonderfully, strangely—conflated and deformed: “[Ludu Rat-tooth] told the story of Jesus of Nazareth, how he led the slaves to revolution on the banks of the Nile. Afterward he led his armies into Italy. He crucified the captured generals before the walls of Rome.” His warrior queen, Mary Magdalene, brought the Gypsies out of Egypt—so the Gypsies believe. Below this world is the hidden world, from which occult powers spring and humans are subsumed in their archetypes.
Such transmogrifications are common enough in alternative-world novels, though the extravagance and specificity of these is striking. What makes A Princess of Roumania unique is that the inventions are not dealt out only to drive plot, or as decorative background against which to set Miranda’s adventures. Rather they are the raison d’être of the book, as essential—perhaps more—than the course of the action.
A writer’s constant production of things—clothing and buildings and foodstuffs but also thoughts, momentary sensations, variations of sunlight and weather—is what makes the world of a fiction real. Such details are the metonymic medicines of actuality. In realistic (“mimetic”) stories and novels, they have value only if they make actual this family home, this city, this job, this restaurant, this love affair. Those things that do not mirror our world in ways that further the reality of the fiction are effectually nonexistent.
Fantasy literature is different: much of what the author provides is particular to an invented realm while at the same time familiar, having symbolic rather than metonymic power that abstracts readers from their surrounding actualities. Reading Park’s books has the peculiar effect of recalibrating the reader’s sensibility. Afterward most other fantasy-realm series seem to contain too few such elaborations, loading all their power into events, quests, and conflicts that savvy readers have encountered many times before. Park’s A Princess of Roumania series—to a much greater degree even than the Starbridge Chronicles—is as dense with worldly detail as the great realist novels. It is like reading Robert Musil or Marcel Proust or late Henry James, not because it at all resembles the works of these authors but because it makes a similar demand on the reader’s attention and powers of appreciation, with an equivalent risk of surfeit: facing such baroque constructions, you, or at least I, can only read for so long before having to pause.
• • •
There is no doubt that a certain inspiration came to Park from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, which basically initiated the current young-girl-born-to-greatness mode. Park may have borrowed from Pullman the animal forms that inhabit his characters and escape from the body at death (though such inner forms have further life and purposes in the hidden world). But Pullman’s narrative is as unsurprising and off-the-shelf as his world is imaginative and new. It progresses—as does Tolkien’s—by a steady alternation between scenes of threat, danger, discomfort, and ignorance and scenes of warmth, relief, and intimations of resolution. Each scene is like a brick put in place in a growing edifice, whose shape and reason become clearer and clearer to us.
There is no such rhythm to Park’s series. Some of the most memorable scenes have little to do with the dynastic epic, or Miranda’s evolution into the long-awaited “white tyger” who will save her nation from German hegemony. A long episode in which the wandering Pieter de Graz is falsely accused of an inconsequential murder and brought before a grotesque Turkish magistrate, who forces him to participate in a wrestling competition or be executed, is Kafkaesque in its intensity and absurd detail, yet effectively comes to nothing. It is among the most haunting scenes in the work, in the way dreams haunt waking life.
Park’s continuous production of small and large details about Great Roumania—the nuances of ethnic difference, the names of officials, hereditary and military titles, architecture, interiors, food and drink, hierarchies of speech, an almost hypnagogic flow of imagery—has the net effect of making A Princess of Roumania read like a highly researched historical novel. In fact one of the pleasures of the book is the recurrent remembrance that these things never did and never could have happened. This weird authenticity extends to the people: the Baroness Ceausescu is unmistakably evil, yet maintains a belief in her own basic goodness—that she is alone and helpless and does only what she must. It is strangely touching.
The most complex and puzzling character in the series is the heroine, Miranda Popescu, whose nature is a mystery to herself and whose actions in the world of Great Roumania are for a long time tentative and irresolute. She behaves, in other words, like an American teenage girl reborn in these impossibilities, having lost everything—a refugee, in effect, with a young person’s shallow allegiances and inability to be entirely whole. For a long time, she suffers more than she acts and follows more than she leads. Some readers have expressed impatience with this, and yet it is realistic in a way that is rare in this kind of fiction, in which removal to a different world is usually represented as a test to be passed, invariably with dispatch. Miranda’s body grows by leaps: in this realm she has years suddenly added to her age, so that by the end she is no longer a teenager but a young woman. Her soul-growth is slower, though, swelling finally to greatness at the conclusion, when she is offered a choice of realms, and takes the harder.
There is a key to understanding Miranda that can be found in the “real” world, though. The second volume of A Princess of Roumania, The Tourmaline (2006), is dedicated to “Miranda, of course”; it is easy to find out that Park’s daughter is named Miranda and that she was born a few years before the series was begun, which makes her about the age of Miranda Popescu at the time of the last volume. Moreover Park was born and lived in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where much of the first book is set. A dedication to a daughter who shares her name with the titular character, in a novel set in the town where author and daughter lived and that he causes to vanish like a dream—all that suggests a fascination with a darkly witty form of autobiographical metafiction. And in fact, Park’s subsequent work has moved far and fast in that direction.
His next substantial publication, All Those Vanished Engines (2014), contains fictional versions of himself (a character writes a novel that Paul Park has written for the Dungeons & Dragons franchise) and various relations, including ancestors real and imagined that he places in a post–Civil War America invaded by aliens. And it includes an anti-history of the titanic machines housed in the buildings of the former Sprague Electric Company in North Adams (a few miles from Williamstown), which now comprise the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, for which Park wrote an interactive exhibit about an alien spaceship. These elements echo A Princess of Roumania’s endless transformations of our world, but bound closely now to the author’s real life. In fact I have wondered how much the impact of these newer works depends on the reader’s knowledge of Park’s life, since they no longer seem to exist entirely independent of it.
“I don’t want to think too hard, in this context, of the parasitic nature of the writer’s relationship to his or her subject,” Park says, in an afterword to one of the stories in Other Stories, a remark that suggests he thinks about it quite a lot. These fairly lengthy afterwords, placed together at the end of the volume and written specifically for it, stand at a distance from the stories they explain or account for but often interact with them as well. One of the stories, “No Traveler Returns,” is dedicated to a dead friend, Jim Charbonnet, “who was going to help me with the ending.” This same dedication appears in A Princess of Roumania. The note to the story relates Charbonnet’s death from cancer in 2003 in Mississippi: “Looking back, I don’t understand why I located it in Boston and New Hampshire, when in my heart it is so obviously set in New Orleans and Southern Mississippi, where I wrote it. The text takes on—for me, at least—a strange double quality for that reason.” Charbonnet was famed among his friends for his elaborate fairy tale–like inventions, which Park adopts—though he knew Charbonnet only after he’d ceased to tell those stories: “I’m sure they were nothing like this.”
Park’s story begins at Charbonnet’s deathbed, becoming a series of fanfold adventures involving yetis, mad monks in Tibet, beautiful women from his friend’s life and characters from his fairy tales, battles with evil angels in actual places Park had once promised to accompany him to, on and on in continuously collapsing narratives. The story can’t be separated from the dying, then dead, then not dead dedicatee endlessly appearing and disappearing through its ramifying courses: “Hard to imagine moving out into that punishing sun and finding my way down off that high plateau, and breaking through that well-defended gate to Danville, New Hampshire, where my friend was dead.” The story would lose much of its hilarity and emotional power without the actuality described in the note.
It is common for a reviewer familiar with his subject to recommend a book of stories as a sort of tasting menu before embarking on the author’s big work. Witty, original, and beautifully written as many of the stories in Other Stories are, though, I think the way to read Park is to begin with A Princess of Roumania. Afterward there will be room for all the rest. Unless the reader is the sort who, having finished the four volumes, will want to immediately begin again—or, because it is that kind of work, to simply open anywhere and start to read, and be taken up in a world as thick as her own but not her own.
July 13, 2016
16 Min read time