Slaughter on 5th Avenue
A Game of You is the first Sandman story of which I had any prior knowledge before plunging into it. That’s because the introduction to the book is written by Samuel R. Delany and was included along with two other essays about Neil Gaiman in Delany’s 1999 collection Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts and the Politics of the Paraliterary.
I’ve spent much of my life reading Delany’s work, and Shorter Views is among my favorites of his books. Indeed, it may even be the place where I first learned of The Sandman, because the only time I remember hearing Gaiman’s name before that was when a friend remarked that some British comics guy named Neil Gaiman would be writing an episode of our favorite TV show, Babylon 5, back in the 1990s. When it aired, we both liked that episode, but neither of us were comics readers, and at the time that was all we thought he did, so we didn’t seek out his other work. Our loss.
Or maybe not, because it’s really been a joy to discover Sandman in adulthood, free of the passionate pressures of late adolescence — in some ways, I suppose I miss those days when we’d watch Babylon 5 and our assessment of its merits or weaknesses would color the rest of our week with either joy or rage; would, indeed, influence our entire view of humanity, and make us think the most important thing in the world was how well our favorite characters were developed, how surprising the story was, how thoughtfully the backstory expanded. I think I like serial stories much more now that I have learned to detach myself from them enough to keep them from either making or ruining my day. They can be a world, not the world, not my world.
Having read Delany’s introduction (a few times over the years, in fact), I knew a little bit about A Game of You before starting Chapter 1, but not enough to really affect how I read it, although I did respond most immediately to an effect Delany comments on: the absolutely thrilling movement and composition of the first three pages. The scene is narrated, with text boxes over images that begin from a wide distance and move in, in, in. We start from whiteness and slowly gain more darkness until we turn page two and suddenly all we see is black. For anyone who has developed a sensitivity to the pacing that panels provide, it’s a powerful prologue.
The pacing of panels is a unique feature of comics, and one Gaiman and his collaborators exploit masterfully throughout the series. I have been thinking recently about how to describe the feeling we find in such pacing, how to put words to what is a wordless effect, because I’m a teacher at heart and I get antsy when I can’t explain things. (Yes, I’m often antsy.) I’ve just finished using Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell in a university course, and I think I mostly failed to convey to the students my astonishment at the book’s visual structure, especially in moments where repetitions of images and small changes amidst the repetitions create the feeling of music … but with silence. The effect is somewhat different in the first pages of Chapter 1 of A Game of You, since the words weave through the imagery, but it’s the same premise, especially on the third page: our eyes collect the image, hold it, then add it to the next. It’s not enough to simply glance at the page and understand what is happening, to know that we are moving closer and closer into the cave where these voices come from. To really appreciate this page, we have to go slowly, deliberately, carefully, cultivating an almost synesthetic effect. The effect is not the same as a film, which moves at its own pace, although, if anything, it’s closest to a freeze-frame (the stunning end of The 400 Blows comes to mind), or like Chris Marker’s film from (mostly) still photographs, La Jetée. But with books we move at the speed we choose, faster and slower as we desire, and part of what the panels do is structure that desire.
Such desire is most vividly affected in Chapter 1 when Martin Tenbones is killed by the police. It’s a ghastly moment, made especially ghastly perhaps because he looks like a kindly, loving creature out of a Dr. Seuss book. To see him shot down, then bleeding in the street, is traumatic not just for Barbie, but for readers, too. Or, at least, for this reader — while I can watch all sorts of mayhem against humans and humanoids without any sense of nausea, I struggle with representations of violence against animals. (I still shudder when I see the cover of the novel Where the Red Fern Grows, which I read probably around age ten. A scene at the end with injured dogs scarred me for life.) Some deep part of me wants animals to be protected from the carnage humans produce, but of course, we slaughter even more animals than we do our own kind.
Look at how the scene is played out. The top third of the page contains the only words (Martin calling out to Barbie, “Princess? My princess?” and a police officer screaming, “Fire!”). The top third contains five panels, the last three of them quite narrow. We first see Martin from the back, with his head turned to us. The next panel moves to a more distant view from above, showing us the police surrounding him. The next two panels are the narrowest, and portray Martin in movement. Then we get the police officer from the side, his rifle perfectly vertical in the center of the panel. The middle third of the page is one entire panel of its own — Martin shot through by a crossfire of bullets. The bottom third of page contains two panels that echo the first panels: a close-up of Martin’s face, now with one eye closed and blood coming from his nose and mouth; and a view of Martin from above, lying in pools of blood, police and bystanders around him, Barbie standing tall right at his head.
It would be easy enough to gain the information from this page quickly, with just a glance to the center panel, but lingering on the page allows the full horror of it all to sink in. The pencilling and inking by Shawn McManus and coloring by Daniel Vozzo are strikingly simple and affecting. The page starts in tense stasis, explodes in movement, and returns to stasis — no longer as tense, but saturated with shock.
The second panel of the page gives us the first overhead view of Martin, and it’s a panel mostly filled with white. The sidewalk and street have only a few lines to distinguish them from each other, and all the figures are the same shade of yellow. The final panel on the page is a somewhat closer overhead view; the sidewalk and street have more definition, the figures are differently colored, and the blood is terribly red.
As the first three pages of Chapter 1 moved from white to black, now we have the movement from white to color, from lack of definition to definition — from the world that is called “The Land” at the beginning of the chapter to the world that is called “New York” on the fourth page.
It’s just the beginning of this story, so we know very little. Our brains have been stuffed with hints and portents.
A game has begun.
Lullabies of Broadway
The second chapter of A Game of You begins with Hazel coming to Barbie’s apartment to get some advice: Hazel reveals that she is pregnant, and doesn’t know what to do, because she knows more superstitions about pregnancy than facts.
Such ignorance seems odd to me for a woman in her subculture in New York City, and strains credibility a bit — not so much that Hazel thinks standing up during sex is an effective method of contraception (plenty of people, to their regret, have believed this), but that Hazel thinks a pregnancy test requires killing a rabbit. That’s more something we might expect to hear from a stereotypical character from Deepest Appalachia than from a lesbian in Manhattan.
But stranger things have been known to happen. Hazel’s ignorance about her body and about the basics of human reproduction serves to make us, the readers, suspect that she is not the brightest person to walk through these pages, but it also shows the power of myth.
Somewhere along the line, Hazel heard that standing up minimizes the risk of pregnancy during heterosexual intercourse. She probably heard it from a source she considered reliable, and without any evidence to the contrary, she accepted it. Her own inclinations were not toward heterosexual sex, so it wasn’t something she had to give much thought to. Her schooling must have lacked adequate sex education, as so much schooling does, and whatever else she was told about sex didn’t contradict in any strong way her belief that standing up is just as good as a condom.
Sex remains a realm of many mythologies, because mythologies grow especially baroque where the desire to know something is at least as powerful as the obstacles to knowing. For many people, sex is something hidden, something vaguely shameful, something that polite society doesn’t talk about. It sprouts vast gardens of euphemism and repression. On a purely logical level, this makes no sense — most humans possess some sexual drive, and this drive has allowed us to be fruitful and multiply with extraordinary success; it’s a basically biological process, utilizing body parts that are hardly exotic; and the various ways humans can gain sexual pleasure are many, but not infinite. Thus, talking about the mechanics of sex shouldn’t have any inherent oddity, grotesqueness, or shame — no more than should my admitting that I am currently typing these words with my fingers on a laptop computer, a rather common activity using body parts most people posssess, aided by a technology common to many people of my class and region, a technology that allows the propagation of words.
But sex has been coupled with morality in a way typing has not, and so it has gained mythologies, because it is no longer a basic biological activity, but an activity people want to imbue with meaning, to wrap in ritual, to make mysterious by hiding from view. The discourses and mythologies of sex have also been powerful tools for creating and controlling ideas of normality, health, and goodness (see Michel Foucault’s three-volume History of Sexuality for a taste of some of this). Hazel’s pregnancy is just one product of her culture’s need to keep pragmatic talk of sex underground, whispered at best, not shared in any public way, and most especially hidden from children — whose inherent innocence is mythologized as at least partly an innocence of sex, leading to the construction of virginity as purity, a construction that has been destructive to the health and happiness of many women throughout history, since women have been the people most thoroughly burdened with expectations of virginal purity.
We see other mythologies in this chapter, much of which is devoted to dreaming. Some of the most striking dreams offer images of corrupted goodness. Weirdzo No. 1 is a nightmare version of Superman, with truth, justice, and the American way now transmogrified into something from one of the Saw movies. He exists to torture Wanda about her transition from male to female, determined to force her into a surgery she doesn’t want, determined to make her body conform to the narrow either/or choice of male/female. “So what you am?” Weirdzo 1 asks, struggling with subject and verb agreement. “A man or a woman?” Yes, those are the only choices! “Whatever you am, we make it better.” The binary must be enforced!
A nightmare, indeed.
And then there’s Hazel’s dream of her child. The baby has been dead for seventy years. It has an autopsy scar, but is otherwise “perfectly preserved”. Hazel puts it in a crib with Foxglove’s baby, which is beautifully alive and well. Or, rather, it’s beautifully alive and well until Hazel’s baby starts moving, then reveals a massive mouth of fangs, and proceeds to chew Foxglove’s baby to shreds. “Then it will come for us,” Hazel thinks.
Even more than we mythologize virginity as purity or human bodies as only male or female, we mythologize babies as innocent. We gaze upon them and believe we feel their goodness radiating like light from an angel. Superman should not be a monster, sure, but babies should really not be monsters. (One of the most disturbing novels I’ve ever read is Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child; it plays with just this idea, to devastating effect. And the sequel, Ben, in the World, complicates everything.)
Things are seldom what they seem, however, as we discover at the end of this chapter with Thessaly, who has seemed to most people around her like a harmless nerd. This does not appear to be the case. Barbie hadn’t exactly seemed like princess material, but the chapter ends with her ready to lead a quest.
Perhaps we will discover Hazel to be more than she seems: smarter, more resilient, and not the mother of a monster. If she’s lucky, her dreams will not come true.
Bad Moon Rising
Our characters awake from the bad dreams of the previous chapter and enter a nightmare reality. Chapter three presents one of the essential, unavoidable moments in any fantasy story that mixes a world that lacks supernatural elements with a world where the supernatural is present and accounted for: the moment where the characters must reconcile the actual and the impossible. In the first pages, Hazel and Foxglove think they have woken into a world where the laws of the universe are closer to the laws of physics than the laws of fairy tales. Thessaly, a voyager from a rather different realm, enters their apartment and ushers them into a world of disturbing, bewildering magic.
Wanda struggles the most to reconcile herself to the new reality, and points out that Hazel and Foxglove “just fell into it. Like it was all natural as anything.” She is also the character who has most clearly had to fight assumptions about her own reality: when some people find out about her transgendered status, she ceases to be a “real” woman in their minds, and is “really” a man. The discourse of authenticity is nasty and narrow, useful only to people who possess the power to control what is or isn’t considered “real”. Whenever someone sets out to police someone else’s authenticity, there are only two possible roles: cop and criminal.
But realities of all sorts remain slippery in A Game of You, and Wanda is no more or less a real anything than the world she woke into is more or less real than The Land, or, for that matter, any of the realms of the Endless. Confronting the slipperiness of the real world outside herself causes Wanda to muse on the reality of the world inside herself. Hazel and Foxglove “fell into” the new universe with the same ease they apparently fell into their gender identities, while for Wanda, neither is easy. She says, “Maybe I’m not the woman I thought I was,” a thought apparently caused by her stereotypically “feminine” queasiness when Thessaly cut off George’s face, popped out his eyes, tore out his tongue, and nailed it up beside a poster of Barbie on the apartment wall.
Wanda not only has to deal with the woman she thinks she is, but with the woman or not-woman other people think she is. She is the least dressed of the characters in this chapter, and so Hazel, who in the previous chapter showed little knowledge of human biology, here points to Wanda’s pantied crotch and says, “You’ve got a thingie.”
A thingie?! Hazel’s brain apparently stopped gaining knowledge somewhere around age seven or eight, because she not only doesn’t seem to know the word penis, she also doesn’t seem to know, or at least want to use, common slang: cock, dick, etc. Or perhaps she doesn’t know what to call a protuberance in panties, and because it’s part of a woman, she doesn’t associate it with the words for the male organ. Wanda is a woman in Hazel’s mind, and therefore she can’t have a penis, cock, or dick. She has something less defininable. A thingie.
Wanda replies, “Hazel, didn’t anyone ever tell you that it’s not polite to draw attention to a lady’s shortcomings?” Wanda does not question her female reality in the way that someone for whom femaleness equals the absence of a penis would — she refers to herself as “a lady”, not “a supposed lady” — and yet the thingie is not a protuberance of pride for her, it is a “shortcoming”. But everybody has shortcomings. (Of course, the discourse of macho authenticity tells us that a Real Man doesn’t want to be short in either his penis or its comings.) In polite society, we don’t talk about our minor flaws, especially if they don’t interfere with other people’s lives, and there’s no reason to believe that Wanda’s thingie is getting in anybody’s way but her own (if even that).
There’s a certain irony embedded in Wanda’s diction: the statement that “it’s not polite to draw attention to a lady’s shortcomings” is the sort of thing we might expect to find in a 19th century manual of etiquette. It emits a distinct odor of obsolescence. Men, of course, are not subject to such rules, for few men are ever expected to be perfect or pure, unlike women. Under such a taxonomy, Wanda becomes a Real Woman if we are reluctant to speak of her flaws in polite society. If her flaws are open to discussion, then she is a man.
If only life were so simple! The dusty archness of Wanda’s statement conceals anger beneath irony. Anyone who does not fit into the basic standards of their culture’s gender norms must defend their identity — their subjectivity — against the objectifying gazes of people who fit more comfortably into those gender norms. The body (not the person) becomes an object of fascination. The fascination often mingles with revulsion, and revulsion leads to violence: the offender must be disciplined by enforcers who are certain they know what is Real (which is to say “natural”, which is to say “good”). Violence against transgender people is shamefully common, and even in some of the most liberal, open, and democratic societies the Earth has ever known, trans people are not equal before the law.
Wanda bears some brunt of that in this chapter. She is, after all, the least dressed of any of the women here, and so her body is the one that everyone (readers included) gets to see the most of. Her state of undress is what allows Hazel her impolite comment. It may be that Hazel routinely looks at people’s crotches, but Wanda’s lack of clothing makes it seem more forgiveable — how, after all, could Hazel miss seeing the thingie? We, too, then, may feel less guilty about our own voyeurism, a voyeurism channeled through Hazel’s.
We should feel guilty about that voyeurism, though. We have joined in objectifying Wanda, in making her genitalia more important than any other part of her at that moment. Whatever her body looks like beneath her clothing really doesn’t matter if we are not sleeping with her, or not attending to her medically, the only two circumstances where I can think of an at least vaguely legitimate need to know the details of her protuberances. And yet so many people want to know, and think, at some level, they have a right to know.
Wanda has worse things to worry about in this chapter, though, and ends up guarding Barbie while the other women go off to fight the Cuckoo. By the last page, she seems to have accepted the world’s new-to-her weirdnesses (not that she has much choice, since those weirdnesses don’t seem likely to let up). She tries to wrap it all in a story and an (inauthentic) accent, making it into a bad movie, but she doesn’t convince herself. Arguments about what is real and what isn’t aren’t much use to her right now, not when everybody’s gone off on a fantasy quest and a face nailed to the wall wants to talk with her. Whether real or an illusion, authentic or inauthentic, this is the world she has woken to, and the stakes seem high enough that she simply must deal with the universe as it is.
Beginning to See the Light
There’s plenty to think about in Chapter Four, the first chapter primarily set in The Land, that place of mysterious wonder and terror where animals talk and Barbie is a princess. There’s plenty to think about, but after reading this chapter, my thoughts kept returning to one subject: the deaths of main characters in stories.
I’m not sure whether we’d qualify Wilkinson’s death in this chapter as that of a main character, since we had only just gotten to know him when he was murdered. But, like most of the characters in A Game of You (whether in The Land or New York), he was vivid, interesting, and likeable. I was looking forward to spending more time with him.
But unless we encounter him in some other realm, it’s unlikely we’ll be spending much time with Wilkinson again, alas. By the end of this chapter, the characters from The Land who are loyal supporters of Barbie are either dead or, in the case of Luz, have revealed themselves to be turncoats. We were prepared for this early on — the third panel of the first chapter gives us our first glimpse of the Tantoblin’s corpse, and a major event of that chapter is the slaughter of Martin Tenbones. One of the most powerful elements of a story that has become, for me at least, one of the most affecting tales in The Sandman so far is its constant destabilizing of our fairy tale expectations. It’s especially effective because of the play of the visual style against the narrative. The Land and its denizens could come from the pages of a favorite children’s book — which makes the moments of violence especially unsettling, because though of course many children’s stories are full of violence and terror, I don’t know of any that dwell on the bodily details of violence to the same extent as A Game of You. The deaths of characters in children’s stories are often sad or pathetic, sometimes emotionally wrenching, sometimes disturbing, but how often do they put the gore and pain of violence front and center? We don’t merely see Wilkinson get his throat sliced open, we see his body on the ground afterwards — throat a gaping wound, blood dripping from his mouth and pooling on the ground, a spear pressed through his chest. It’s not just shocking, it hurts.
Wilkinson had seemed set to be important to the story’s progression, and the surprise of his murder adds real complexity to the tale; it’s also what got me thinking about the tv show that is known in the U.S. as MI-5 and in the U.K. as Spooks.
I must confess, I’ve become addicted to this show, mostly because I’m a sucker for spy stories (they appeal to some sort of deep and probably shameful wish-fulfillment fantasy in me). In the first few seasons, I was impressed with the producers’ and writers’ willingness to kill of main characters — not just important characters in an episode, but the actual main characters. From the earliest episodes, the message seemed to be: Nobody is safe. I liked a lot of the characters and enjoyed having them visit my television, so the knowledge that they could be tortured or killed at any moment added a level of suspense that I’ve seldom experienced with such shows. Of course, there are diminishing returns, and MI-5/Spooks suffers from this; after a while, killing off the main characters becomes unsurprising and predictable, a grotesque tic.
A Game of You is much better than that, achieving what a formulaic tv show can’t: a shift in narrative that may even lead to a shift in genre. What had been a quest fantasy, full of familiar tropes and tribulations (the explicit references to Lord of the Rings and The Wizard of Oz show that even Barbie knows the kind of story she’s in), has now become something else. What that something else is, we don’t know yet, and for all we know the quest may resume, but it’s not going to resume in the same way, because the fellowship of loyal adventurers is shattered. And shattered beyond just a single death, such as that of Boromir at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring; no, Barbie is on her own here — imagine what would have become of Frodo without Sam. Or Dorothy without Toto. And worse, if, moments after Dorothy arrived, all the Munchkins had been torn to pieces by flying monkeys.
While most of Chapter Four takes place in The Land, the brief scene in New York with Wanda talking to George’s reanimated face powerfully continues some of the ideas of gender and identity that have been central to that part of the story from the beginning. (Note, by the way, the marvelous artwork of page 113, where the top and bottom panels on the left rhyme George’s face with Wanda’s.) Since Wanda is among my favorite Sandman characters so far, I’m completely on her side in her argument with George, and if he’s right that the Moon and the other gods are total biological determinists without any sense of the complexities of gender identity, then I’ll take Wanda over the gods any day.
As I write this, there’s no Moon in the sky, but she’ll stop hiding from me one of these nights, and once she glows brightly enough, I think I’ll head outside with a copy of Kate Bornstein’s book Gender Outlaw and read it for a while in the moonlight. Even the gods need a bit of enlightenment now and then…
Over the Sea to Sky
What is most immediately striking about Chapter 5 of A Game of You is how bright its first pages are. Aside from the strong blue and orange of the curtains and furniture in some of the panels, and the red ribbons in the Cuckoo’s hair, these are pages dominated by whiteness and weak colors. The effect suggests incompleteness and possibility, like a child’s coloring book that has only occasionally received the child’s attention.
The colors gain vividness as the story progresses and Barbie begins to understand what The Land is, who the Cuckoo is, and the nature of her relationship to both. The story we have been following from the beginning of this book comes into focus, and some of our suspicions are confirmed: there is, in fact, a close relationship between The Land and New York, between one reality and another, but it is trickier than we might have suspected, for the denizens of The Land are members of Barbie’s childhood imagination. They were her tools of escape, her buffer against dullness. The Cuckoo claims that boys and girls fantasize differently: boys have complex power fantasies, but girls just want to be princesses. Awkward, nerdy boys imagine their secret, true identity is a superhero; girls just imagine themselves as lost princesses. Thus, Barbie.
The Cuckoo is not a reliable source. (Once again in A Game of You, a character who is manipulative and untrustworthy insists on essential differences between males and females.) Within the Cuckoo’s template, Barbie then is as normal as a girl could be. But she’s not normal or abnormal; she’s a construction of her own dreams. Martin Tenbones, Wilkinson, Luz, and Prinado were all her childhood toys — but so was she herself, as the Cuckoo points out by holding up the Barbie doll.
We might think that everything will be fine now that it’s all be revealed as a figment of Barbie’s imagination, but the story is not so simple. There’s a fine metafictional tradition of characters taking over control from their authors, and Barbie is subjected to that here. The Cuckoo doesn’t want to simply be unimagined. She wants to be free to explore beyond the bounds of The Land, and she doesn’t want to be subject to Barbie’s imagination, or the actions of the characters Barbie’s imagination controls. She needs to kill the author.
Meanwhile, the storied land known as New York is getting blown to pieces. The winds of change in The Land seem to be blowing hurricanes into other lands, as if the chaotic energy of one realm can blow through borders. Wanda saves the mysterious homeless woman we’ve glimpsed in previous chapters, Maisie Hill, from the gusts and brings her into the apartment. I suspected now and then that Maisie was some sort of Magical Negro but that may not be the case. It’s impossible to tell what her purpose is yet. Clearly, she serves to show Wanda’s compassion, and to show that sometimes the least cosmopolitan folks are the most open-minded, but I must admit I find the character a bit forced, a bit sentimental, sort of like the singing homeless people in Rent. Given how tricksy A Game of You has proved itself to be, though, I should probably reserve judgment until the end, because it’s entirely possible that this story-about-stories still has a lot to tell us about stereotypical characters and the desires that construct them.
The Sandman shows up in the final pages in some of the most striking images we’ve yet had of him: all angles and edges and ink. He is clearly not from this Land. He adds complexity to the tale as we know it by revealing that the Land did not originate with Barbie, that instead it has a long history, and has been a site for many fantasies ever since, it seems, it was first populated by a woman named Alianora.
Thessaly’s decision to bypass the Dream King by way of the Moon turns out to have been a bit of a mistake, for she has stranded herself and her compatriots now. Thessaly’s knowledge was incomplete, and her desire to be both a protector and avenger has led her astray. The mess she made in New York is only getting messier, and the last two pages are filled with maelstrom and catastrophe.
And so we move from the insipid, insidious cuteness of the Cuckoo to the horror of the apartment in New York falling in on itself. The stories have become unmoored, they have crashed against the skerries. Good deeds and best intentions have led to destruction, and all seems lost.
But one chapter remains, and redemption may yet be possible.
I Woke Up and One of Us Was Crying
A Game of You ends with aftermath, and once again in The Sandman, the center of the story is revealed to be somewhere other than where we might have thought it was. Early on, it seemed the focus of the tale would be the troubles of The Land and the quest to destroy the Cuckoo, but while the troubles and quest were certainly important to the plot, they don’t seem now, to me at least, to carry the weight of the story’s concerns.
At Wanda’s funeral, Barbie says, “I realize that I’m already beginning to forget what Wanda looked like. Is identity that fragile? The thought scares me.” It’s notable that Barbie links identity to a memory of physical presence here, because Wanda’s identity has been reclaimed by the physicality of her male self, Alvin — forcibly reclaimed. Her parents and family have buried her in her male identity, and they have done everything they could to suppress and erase the traces of Wanda. The worlds of A Game of You are vengefully biological, and the denizens of Wanda’s home town seem like throwbacks, rebels against modernity who will return home to listen to The Lawrence Welk Show on the radio and maybe, if they’re daring, go out to play bingo. They are fates and furies, forces of tradition and conservatism that stand with stones in hand, ready to enforce the most petrified moral order. They fear imagination, they hate change, and they are beholden to a narrow notion of nature.
Barbie’s trip through her own imagination and its nature has helped her define herself and given her a new journey. She thought of childhood as dull and ordinary, but has discovered that her young self contained realms of wonder and terror. Those realms nearly destroyed her adult self, it seems, and had at least something to do with the destruction that befell Wanda.
Barbie owes her life to Wanda and to Maisie Hill, the homeless black woman who wandered through the background until she stumbled upon her destiny as a shield against the falling debris that otherwise would have killed Barbie. Thus Barbie, who could, if she wanted to, be nothing but the prototypical nice white girl, the Girl Next Door, lives while the people forced by life and circumstance to the margins of society die. (Perhaps this story should have been titled The American Dream.)
The reality Barbie now lives in is one at least as nasty as the nightmare of The Land, and she knows it. She rejects the role of the Girl Next Door, and lights out for the territory, as all rebels against the forces of conformity and conservatism must do. Her dream of Wanda as a “perfect” woman shows she still holds on to some belief in nature and its righteousness, but that’s also a result of her good-heartedness. She dreams of a body that would have allowed Wanda to be remembered by everyone as her self, a body that might have let her identity be less fragile. We could all wish this for Wanda, but it isn’t nature that makes identity. Nature is indifferent; it doesn’t play the game of you. Barbie says of her imagined Wanda that “there’s nothing camp about her, nothing artificial,” but camp can be fun, and just about everything worthwhile in life is somehow artificial: created, shaped, performed. (The thread and fabric veils worn by the most proper of mourners at the funeral are no more or less artificial than the veil Barbie drew on her face, they’re just made from different materials, and one is accepted by the culture’s tradition while the other is seen as strange.) Barbie has let the hatred and repulsion of Wanda’s family color her own reaction to the friend she valued for who she was. She imagines forcing Wanda into a form that would better fit the desires and expectations of the villagers, when the movement, we know, should really be in the other direction. Barbie, I trust, knows that, too.
At the end, Wanda exists as pink lipstick scrawled above the male name carved into a gravestone. It’s a lovely image, and a meaningful one — a name that is also a gesture of defiance, a name that glows, written in individual handwriting over the more permanent, less unique letters etched into the stone itself. Weather and time will wipe Wanda away here, too, but she’ll live on in Barbie’s memory as brightly as the lipstick. Identities are not things that can be etched in stone or bodies, strong or fragile, but are instead ever-shifting amalgams of desire and memory and dreams. We write ourselves across ourselves in moments that are serious and silly, terrifying and trivial, eternal and evanescent. Barbie will, I expect, discover this on her journey; she’s already halfway there.
In Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut warns us to be careful with what we pretend to be, because we are what we pretend to be. We can yearn for the baseness of nature, but no meaning adheres there. We waste too much time worrying about who we really are; we are what we are, neither really nor artificially. The traditionalists will never accept that, because their game is played with rigid rules on a narrow board. Their reality is an impoverished one, but they know its borders and they guard them well. Shout out some lines of Wallace Stevens at the borders and the guards: “Let be be finale of seem! The only emperor is the Emperor of Ice Cream!”
Barbie’s got the right idea, I think, becoming itinerant in the world she woke in. It’s no place to put down roots. Better to scrawl your name in hot pink lipstick, better to defy the little old ladies of whatever age and gender, better to remind the gods that we dreamed them before they dreamed us, and there is no rulebook to the game of you.