Stories within stories within … how many withins are there in this story? There’s the story Jim tells, which is the primary one in the Sandman story called “Hob’s Leviathan” — as with all the Worlds’ End tales, at least up through this one, it is a story-within-the-story. But there is also the stowaway’s story, which is told within Jim’s story and so is a story-within-the-story-within-
There are also identities within identities. The important characters in Jim’s tale are as much like nested dolls as the tales are. For reasons of magic and prejudice, the characters must hide their identities, and thus hide some of the stories of themselves, stories they can only share with each other. Jim has agreed to tell the stories he’s told to the strangers at The Worlds’ End because he doesn’t believe his audience is real — he claims to think he is in an opium dream, a fantasy, a story shared only between a narcotic and a mind.
Everything is hidden, and yet for us, the audience, everything is revealed. We know, it seems, all the secrets of these stories and these identities. Jim would only allow that to an imaginary audience, and so we become the dream of the story itself. Within what Jim thinks is reality, neither we nor the travelers stuck at the Worlds’ End can exist. If we and/or the travelers exist, then Jim is wrong to assume he is suffering from too much opium smoke, and he will be seen by no-longer-imaginary people as either insane or a wonderful liar. Or, rather, he would be seen as such if he were in a rational world that obeys the laws of science and the evidence of history as we understand such things. But something tells me that the travelers do not all inhabit such a world, and so even the most empirically-minded of them might find Jim’s story credible. Some of them might even themselves have seen sea monsters, immortals, and women passing as men.
Meanwhile, what is left to us is what is left to any audience: belief or disbelief.
All narrators are unreliable, all witnesses untrustworthy, because even the most perceptive human beings tend to see mostly what they expect to see. Psychologists have made careers of chronicling all our cognitive biases. Jim, Hob Gadling, the stowaway, and anyone else with a secret that needs some disguising benefits as much from expectations as from elaborate subterfuge. By dressing in typically male clothing and doing work that is socially restricted to men, Jim seems obviously male. He tells his audiences, though, that he was born female. Hob Gadling, however, is not fooled.
“There are,” Gadling says, “things you get to recognize, given enough time.”
It’s not merely time, though — it’s experience, too. If Gadling had lived 500 years in an unchanging society, one where cultural norms and fashions never shifted, he would be less likely to have noticed that Jim is different. Gadling says, “You’re not the first lass I’ve known in my time was passing, nor even the fiftieth,” and this suggests not only that he has lived a long time, but that he has experienced a variety of environments. What is known and unknown, said and unsaid, revealed and unrevealed depends very much on the standards of the time and place. If you have an ability to live in various times and places, standards don’t seem so standard anymore.
This has all been on my mind perhaps because shortly before reading “Hob’s Leviathan” I saw the new movie Alfred Nobbs, in which Glenn Close plays a 19th century British woman who has lived most of her life as a man and has come to identify as a man. One of the things I found most fascinating about the film — and there are many things to be fascinated by in it — was the power of clothing to regulate social expectations. Alfred and another woman who is passing as a man are not, to our eyes, particularly difficult to spot. I fear some viewers will hold this against the film, saying, in effect, “I knew he was a she the moment I saw him, so how could everybody in the story have been fooled?” Most viewers of the film, though, live in a time and place where standards of dress are at least somewhat less gender segregated than in 19th century London. It never occurs to most of the characters in Alfred Nobbs that a woman would wear men’s clothing and do men’s work, and so it doesn’t take a lot of disguise for the characters to pass.
Hob knows this. “Some of it’s the voice,” he says when Jim asks him how he knew the truth, “and some of it’s the hands, and a lot of it’s learning to see what you see and not what you think you see, if that makes any sense.”
Seeing what is real is sometimes a matter of learning to unsee. In Alfred Nobbs, it is a small child who seems to see through the disguises, or at least to perceive them as disguises. Perceived reality is an agglomeration of habits and prejudices, ones children must develop through experience. Naive eyes sometimes see the most.
Surfaces can be just as real as what lies beneath them. We don’t (most of us, at least) go around checking each other’s chromosomes or genitalia before making a gender judgment. We go by what we see on the surface. We trust what seems to work. And even though a glorious, impossible monster occasionally rises from the depths, we make our way across the waters of life without knowing a whole lot about what lies beneath.
Perhaps the real depths of reality lie in our stories and dreams.
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.