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.
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.