STORIES FOR A LOST CHILD and Frames that Vanish

Posted on Wed, Aug 15 2018 10:35 am by Allison Wyss

Image text: Reading like a Writer with Allison Wyss


In Carter Meland's Stories for a Lost Child, a teenage girl reads a packet of stories written by her grandfather, who she has never met. Among other things, the stories are about time-traveling astronauts, Misaabe (Bigfoot), and her Anishinaabe heritage.

Storytelling frames quickly become a motif of the novel—they are persistently established and then dissolved. Borders are built of time and distance, disbelief and emotional trauma, but fingers reach through those borders anyway. This motif occurs in the big frame of the girl reading the stories, as well as inside and among the stories she reads. It happens in the very form of the book—stories that simultaneously stand alone and cohere, that exist both inside and outside of the covers of the book-object. But then another kind of magic occurs when we ultimately wonder if the frame between the world of Stories for a Lost Child and the reader (me) is dissolved as well.

I’ll first look closely at the first story-inside-the-story and how it hints of that transitional sense of reality. Then I’ll speculate about how it sets us up for the more radical border dissolution that happens later.

The story immediately plays with ideas of magic and metaphor.

I don't speak Anishinaabemowin, the language of our Anishinaabe ancestors, but I know a few words, and the words I know may once have made me invisible. On the other hand, it may have been bird magic that transformed me for those few seconds. Either way I disappeared.

"Bird magic" seems like the flashy (poof!) kind of magic, but the invisibility caused by language is less certain. It could be literal magic or it could be a different type of disappearing—the erasure caused by displacement and oppression. Or it could be both at the same time.

But because the narrator himself questions the type of disappearance and magic, the reader is made comfortable with uncertainty. It becomes a known problem, and we trust the story to eventually address it. Thus we are set up for ambiguity, but also settled.

The story quickly cashes in on that set up, but this time in a way that unsettles:

Trusting the creature's sharp senses, I looked up at him and spoke under my breath, "Boozhoo, makade-mashkikiwaaboo." I hoped the black-feathered sky-surveyor would see the aptness in being addressed as the black hot liquid I mix up out of a jar.

Inspired by my attention;

startled by my ability to haltingly speak in a comprehensible language;

and/or offended by my words, the bird took wing and became liquid for a moment, a black dash across a white ceiling. Drawn by the blue earthlight dropping through the sky holes above, the bird sped into the deceptive glass and spilled to the floor twenty feet away.

There's a magic-metaphor slipperiness there that is created through purposeful ambiguity.

The bird is addressed as coffee—the "black hot liquid"—immediately before it becomes it. Then, look at the way the language slides from "take wing" to "became liquid" to "black dash," each image melting to the next. "Take wing" is more poetic than literal. Of course it means to fly, but it also makes us think about the wing, the physicality of the bird's body. It makes the bird a solid object, first, before it liquefies, thus emphasizing it. "Black dash" can only be taken literally if the bird is actually liquid—I see the coffee flung (dashed) from the cup, splashing against the "white ceiling." Words like "spilled" and "deceptive glass" play with the liquid and the invisibility, too, but what do they mean?

Does the bird literally change from solid to liquid? Or is it metaphor, a lovely and poetic image that describes the bird's movement? I think we're supposed to understand the image both ways at once, as a magical transition and as a beautiful way to describe a non-magical happening. And I think that careful and specific ambiguity moves us into a particular type of brain space.

Because I can interpret the liquid both ways, my mind flashes, briefly, to a place of wonder between the world of magic and the world of metaphor. If there is a border between the "real" and the "magical," I'm inside that border. I become the border.

But that's not quite right. My explanation assumes that the real world is separate from the one of magic. It might not be so. It might be that the real world has magic too. Or, it may even be that there are as many real worlds as there are people/characters to perceive them and that many of those worlds, certainly, contain magic of varying degrees.

In any case, when Meland positions me, as reader, between the magical and the metaphorical, or perhaps not between but in both spaces at once, I can feel the edges dissolve, that the worlds are the same.

Why is this so interesting to me? Well, let's think about those storytelling frames I mentioned. Magic-metaphor fluidity mimics the fluidity of world to world, realism to magical. Frames dissolve. When we jump between inner frames, we forget the first one of our world and book world. Maybe jumping deeper is also jumping back out again.

When we pick up a book and start reading, we enter the framework of the book. Inside this book, the character picks up a stack of stories and begins to read, pulling us inside a deeper framework. So what happens when we step out of that deep one? To which world do we return? A momentary uncertainty reminds us it's all frames—even the one outside the book—and all frames are imaginary. It disrupts the false sense many of us carry that there is only real and unreal, and that all things must be firmly one or the other.

Let me put it one more way. We know the world as real because the book is unreal. But if the inside book is unreal, it makes the outside book real, and so the world outside of that—our world—is unreal. And also the exact opposite. It all collapses.  

In this book of slippery magic and metaphor, Meland makes frames, borders, and edges disappear. It's all magic, it's all metaphor, and it's all real.