Many of us obsessive readers experience fiction as a further dimension of our everyday lives; we roll along twin tracks. On this track I am travelling to work for the day; on this other, today, I am on my way to Paris, to drink wine at an outside table, with Jean Rhys. I can’t imagine living a single-track life with only one journey – the literal one – up on the departure boards.
Because I read fiction, my life is a house with secret doors into other houses. This house I live in is solid and real with practical everyday use; the other houses are metaphorical, but no less essential to me. The poet Kei Miller speaks of how, when his mother died, he had to build a room in which to grieve; a space into which he could walk in and out. My metaphorical houses have rooms for grief, for joy, for adventure, for love, for sleep. Each piece of writing marks out its own space in my imagination. Poetry is especially rich with metaphoric potential: novelists can dip their cup in poetry’s waters again and again for refreshed imagery, for new ways to articulate abstract ideas and complicated emotion.
These metaphorical spaces – these fictions, novels, reading and writing – open up my life just as metaphors themselves open up a text to us. A metaphor for metaphor: metaphor is a hinged device of two halves: the familiar image and the new idea. Good metaphor renders the unfamiliar familiar; it tells us about something new, through gesturing to something old. Novelists use metaphor to illuminate their ideas and to cast a spell on readers, so that we more easily mistake imagined events for real ones; we recognise characters as old friends; in someone else’s hopes we catch sight of dreams we too may have had. And yet the pairing of those two hinged elements – the described thing and the describing image – should be surprising enough to bring unexpected use and meaning to both.
Somehow, we have worked metaphor into our everyday lives; its uses are not confined to fiction. When someone dies, our language is alive with phrases which are designed to ease the pain we feel. Some of those are sentimental tropes of little value; but we can gain great comfort from metaphor, from giving visual or physical form to feelings and hopes. In suffering a loss, how comforting to picture that which you have lost in a form you can carry in your arms. If a person goes missing from your life, why not picture yourselves together, like one Russian doll inside another doll, small enough keep in your pocket? Indeed, without metaphor, it would be difficult to access the full spectrum of our emotions. How does a manacknowledge that his heart is broken if he restricts himself to literal language only?
Metaphor may be essential to surviving everyday life, but today let us celebrate that more powerful enchantment that fiction weaves. Let’s champion the novels that explode our perceptions of existence from the inside and change our perspective entirely on what life can offer. An author of mine is writing a novel in which time unwinds, back to a day before a Terrible Incident, in order that it can be undone. In our favourite novels, ordinary boys and girls slay dragons; we shape-shift, we leap into paintings, we sail through history, we meet our forebears, we live multiple lives, we collide with our doubles, we fly on magic carpets.
Let us give thanks to the writers who give shape to these metaphorical lives for us; we become stronger and more joyous when we live in your rooms, when we hurtle down your tracks. Long live the fantasy! We will treasure your metaphor in our metaphorical hearts. Read on! Write on! Superheroes all.