Toward a Theory of Alternative Lifestyles

Theodore McCombs, 2023

Wow, I had so many more thoughts about this story after our class today. So first, thanks to all three of you for helping me reflect on ‘TTAL’ and appreciate some new aspects of the story.

At the beginning of today’s class I said, ‘This story isn’t really about language or linguistics,’ and Dani shared some thoughts about how it might be after all. And after class I thought some more and started to understand TTAL as another story about ineffability.

Nico used the word ineffable last week in our discussion of ‘Amnesty’: the notion of a species that is both ‘many’ and ‘one’ at the same time is something we just can’t get our heads around, can’t describe with language; it’s ineffable. In TTAL, it’s the ‘quantum stuff’ that we (or Peter) can’t quite get our heads around (p. 10), as well as the experience of Collider itself. I think it’s important that Elgin won’t—or can’t—tell the story of the lady with the finches at the dinner party, and that Fran so often answers Peter with monosyllables or silences. And that the writing gets so chaotic when Peter is imagining all his alternative lifestyles (pp. 3-5). Maybe Peter’s insistence on clinging to all of life’s possibilities is also pushing the limits of language in this story.

I’m glad we got to talk about the finches together. We talked about growing up as a process of ‘shedding dead finches,’ choosing one path/self instead of another, because we can’t just keep carrying around all those possibilities forever (as sad as it is to let some of them go; I think Trinity and I both talked about this). Now I see that TTAL is brimming with references to light and dark, bright gaudy colors contrasted with ‘flattening’ blacks and grays. Take another look at the scene in the dark hallway on pp. 11-12, for example. Shivers!

All this brightness/darkness imagery as a way to contrast our earthly ignorance vs. heavenly omniscience reminded me of lots of things, including:

  • “Funes the Memorious” (I mentioned this in class)
  • Story of Your Life – Louise reflects that her newborn infant knows/sees only the present moment; the adult human sees the present as well as the past; and the Heptapods (and ultimately Louise) get to see present, past and future (maybe another kind of ineffable experience).
  • Frankenstein – Dr. Frankenstein goes too far with his craving for scientific knowledge and ends up knowing/seeing too much and creating an abomination. Then the creature himself destroys his own happiness by reading Paradise Lost!
  • The Barbie movie! Have any of y’all seen it? Do you think it’s sci-fi? (I kinda do…) Is the contrast between Barbieland and the real world sort of like the contrast between Peter’s fantasies and the real world—‘alternative lifestyles’ for ideal(ized) womanhood in Barbie, for ideal(ized) gay manhood in TTAL?

Finally, I did a little reading about St. Peter and have some thoughts about Peter as the holder of the keys to heaven, but I’ll hold off on those thoughts here. I’ll just say that the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Peter didn’t get into Collider because he just doesn’t need Collider yet.

2 thoughts on “Toward a Theory of Alternative Lifestyles

  1. Danielle Sherman

    I think this reading has more and more to unpack the deeper you dig into it. After class, Nico and I agreed that there’s so much craft that goes into this piece—it seemed like something meticulously conceptualized and carefully workshopped, something we might read for a creative writing class to learn about form or motif or any number of craft elements.

    Starting off very broadly, though, reading this story made me wonder (again) about the recent popularity of multiverse media. Why this contemporary surge of stories about parallel universes? Nico said it may relate to societal obsession with superheroes, and I think he’s onto something there, but I said I think it has more to do with COVID. The idea of an alternative universe in which this world’s particular tragedies simply never occurred is, I think, appealing for audiences, and appealing for artists too. I’m curious if anyone has other thoughts on this.

    But this story does not present just one conceptualization of an alternate universe; it depicts the idea of simultaneous realities in many forms (meta!). First we have Peter looking into an infinite mirror, multiplying himself into the plural “Peter Kazimirs” named by the first subtitle (1). Soon after, the “muggy, glaring, boiling summer” of Miami is juxtaposed against the “grayer, cooler summer in Berlin” within the same sentence (2); this mapping of two distinct places within the same time, the same thought/sentence, effectively creates a dual-reality we might think of as being, in a sense, multidimensional. A similar phenomenon occurs when Peter sees the construction cranes of Berlin and describes it as “a city of perpetual reconstruction, building and rebuilding itself” (18). Like Peter, the city of Berlin is constantly trying to change itself: its “building and rebuilding” fractures it into multiple versions of the same concept, resulting in several and simultaneous Berlins.

    In the Literary Theory class I’m taking this semester, I recently read about Viktor Shklovsky’s theory of enstrangement/defamiliarization, through which he qualifies art as something that brings content out of the realm of automatic recognition and into the realm of critical perception, as if the audience is seeing something for the first time. We definitely talked about this concept in terms of the concepts within “Amnesty”, and I think defamiliarization is also happening within this piece’s language. I love, for instance, when Peter stands on the beach and recollects “moments when the universe reached him slowly, as if blunted, when the crowd’s damp heat and slurring backbeat fattened the seconds into little rooms he could live inside… the hot heavy night pressed down on him like a microscope slide” (13). The metaphoric enstrangement of turning seconds into “little rooms” and atmosphere into a “microscope slide” is—in Shklovsky’s view and in mind—so weird, and thus so artistic. I’ve been wondering whether, if Shklovsky equates defamiliarization with aesthetic quality, he would consider sci-fi (in which defamiliarization is quite common, as we’ve seen) to be a higher art form than more conventional genres like literary fiction (where, arguably, less defamiliarization takes place). That flips on its head the common perspective of literary fiction as high-brow art and genre fiction as low-brow art, which I find intriguing.

    Also, yes, I do see the parallels between this story and the Barbie movie after Dr. Pak pointed them out! But if the Barbie movie depicts the exile from Eden (Barbie lives in an idyllic land until she acquires knowledge and so must leave paradise for the real world), is Peter trying to return to Eden (Collider)? Or is he already in Heaven and being denied entry into Collider actually saves him from the Fall? That might be a whole other discussion post—I’ll end mine here.

    1. Marjorie Pak

      Thanks for this excellent post, Dani.
      I thought the current interest in alternative realities might be attributable to certain kinds of social media – the kind that encourage you to ‘curate’ your life-story and obsessively check other people’s, so you’re always worrying about what you’re missing out on. Ted Chiang has a lovely story about a related kind of technology called ‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,’ also published in the NYTimes as ‘Better Versions of You.’ I have a copy if you’d like to borrow it.
      I’m glad you noticed that line about the cranes in Berlin – these details are so rich. The thing about the overhead water-pipes too…
      It’s been many decades since I read Shklovsky, but I remember him making me think about the difference between poetry and prose, and the idea that poetry uses language itself to achieve defamiliarization (where prose doesn’t, necessarily). Your comments here and in class (e.g. about the ‘glass-boned’ birds) make me think you’re noticing that McCombs’ writing is more ‘poetic’ than, say, Octavia Butler’s or Ted Chiang’s. All three authors defamiliarize our world by presenting alternative worlds, but maybe McCombs tends to use language itself to kind of heighten this effect – what do you think?
      I started reading ‘Uranians’ yesterday, and WHOA. It’s so good but so disturbing – more disturbing in some ways than ‘Amnesty,’ even though (or perhaps because) it doesn’t seem like it should be at first sight. And the main character is a poet! I have extra copies of the book – anyone who wants to borrow it, just let me know.


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