I’m fat, mostly because I read a lot, and you can eat while you read. I blame my parents, really; once they discovered that I was the only one of their progeny with any interest in words or edumacation (and therefore, by extension, the one who would have enough money to support them when they were old) they encouraged my reading habit by buying me endless quantities of both books and food, so that Moby Dick, in my Cheeto-stained fingertips, became something like a live-action roleplaying experiment in preventable diseases.
But part of the blame has to go to the people who write fantasy novels, because I’m not the only one apparently obsessed with literary food porn. Take The Hobbit, for instance; I’m pretty sure there was some stuff about rings and goblins, but mostly what I recall is a lovingly detailed fifteen course meal including three cheese dishes. Also, I seem to recall Tolkein rhapsodising at length on waybread, which inculcated in my adolescent self a craving for baked goods, which is why a normal meal for me consists of another person’s normal meal, and then two or three loafs of artisanal bread, which is why they had to invent a new numbering system to measure my blood sugar.
Not to mention that scene in Hawk: the Slayer, where they’re eating beef and cheese and onions and the barbarian shares his with the dwarf. That scene still makes me hungry. That was Hawk: the Slayer, wasn’t it? Might have been Beastmaster. One of those interchangable 80s Conan ripoffs.
Okay, I’ll admit that my book-induced hunger pangs might be a case of taking from an experience what you bring to it … which segues nicely to my next topic, which is the Death of the Author, and not from coronary artery disease.
The Death of the Author, at least according to the five minutes of lit-crit theory I can usually get through before passing out, basically says:
neener neener wurds don’ matter, we can pretend what we want hahaha
I’m not really fond of postmodernism myself; it’s generally be my experience that no matter your personal belief system, bad code still won’t compile. Similarly, antibiotics work – and homeopathy doesn’t – and clapping your hands for the Alternative Medicine fairy will not make the reverse true. There may not be an Objective Truth, but there is certainly correct and not correct, and Huckleberry Finn does not have much to say about post-colonial feminism, nor bauxite mining in Uruguay, and anyone who says otherwise is more interested in political activism than literature.
On the other hand, here are some pictures of Disney princesses in Fallout.
Just the fact that we can use phrases like “Fallout universe” implies there’s some mental construct that exists beyond the actual words on the page. Larry Niven calls them “Playgrounds of the Mind” – the rules and laws by which our hypothetical worlds operate, and a book is an entry ticket to that playground.
But more than that – any story, poem, song, or work of art interacts with the audience’s personality and history, so that what I imagine when I read Kay Ryan’s Turtle isn’t the same as anyone else; for one thing, I picture turtles with jet packs.
Or take, for example, Vallista, by Steven Brust.
Now, the Vlad novels are already basically the drunken love child of Zelazny’s Amber and the Food Network, so you can imagine the angst I have whenever I read one without also having immediate access to an all night cafe.
(Which is also one of the things I love about them – how many other fantasy characters have opinions on the poetry they read? It’s those little details that make a world feel lived in. Other franchises try to do that with encyclopedic extended universes, but Brust does more with one restaurant than Star Wars does with three prequels.)
But Vallista, for a change, isn’t about food – it’s about the lack of it. A pivotal plot point in the story is Vlad’s discovery that the kitchen in the castle has never been used. For me, that is the central image in Vallista, and it ties together all of the mental imagery that I took from that book and into my life.
That might, at some deep English major contextual level, be metaphorical of something or other, but at the not-very-deep level where I live, it’s because at the same time I was reading Vallista, we were remodeling our kitchen at the casino, which means that for a day, and around the same time I was reading Vallista, our kitchen was likewise empty.
Also, we cut back our prep counter by about a foot, so the kitchen appears a lot bigger than it did; big, and shiny, and empty, just like the castle in Vallista feels big and empty, even though there are people living there.
Vallista, for me, is about emptiness, and echos of the past spilling over into the present, and things unfinished. Oh, and construction accounting.
Now, the question is – is that because it’s what Brust intended, or are those the themes I picked up on because I personally am obsessed with empty, lonely places, and have spent too much time in old server rooms and vacant buildings? Would someone else think it was mostly about family, or even creepy demon children who remind me of Christina Ricci? Would it remind me so much of a haunted house video game if I didn’t play video games?
But it’s not just the images we take from a work – literature shouldn’t be static. Whenever I enter an invoice from our cafe now, I think of Vallista; as I check down the various itemized entries for their appropriate codes (napkins – cafe supplies, non-edible; limes – bar items, edible) some part of me is still living in that story. When I visit my friend’s house renovation project, those two worlds come together – the art of concrete and foundation, and the art of numbers, and now Vallista is living somewhere in my head in a place I don’t think Brust could have imagined.
And that’s true of every single person who reads that book. Or any book!
The beautiful thing about science fiction and fantasy is that it makes that experience explicit – fans take those worlds and make them their own, and then we have Fallout fan movies, and poetry about video games, and of course, we have cosplay.1
But I’m still not admitting the postmodernists are right; I don’t think you can dissociate the author from the meaning. I don’t know what, if any, the deeper meaning of Vallista is; while I have occasionally been accused of being shallow, I don’t read to seek out topics for English dissertations. I read because it makes pretty pictures in my head. The more I learn about writing, the more I think a writer’s job is to provide those worlds and images.
Or maybe not. I’ve been told (usually by my therapist) that I’m not like the other children. I don’t know. What I do know is, whenever I think of Vallista, I will think of an auditor doing a cost estimate on an empty, haunted kitchen before leaving to get some chicken nuggets2.