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.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.