The Third Tower

Deborah Eisenberg

Today’s discussion was so good! Thanks to all of you for helping me understand this very strange but very appealing story.

I remembered the Ray Bradbury story this reminded me of: it’s called ‘Jack in the Box’ (hmm!) and it’s about a kid who’s kept trapped and isolated in a castle in the woods. There’s a very memorable scene where he climbs to the top of a tower, goes out a forbidden door and sees the big outside world for the first time. You can read it here.

I think I was also remembering the 2005 film The Island: a severely stratified society with an underclass kept confined indoors and ignorant of the wider world, constantly being shown images of an island paradise that each of them will get to go to someday (which of course turns out to be their doom). It was a summer blockbuster and a little silly, but I enjoyed its aesthetics.

Honestly, I think I had the creepy aesthetics of an amalgam of other stories and films – ‘Jack in the Box,’ The Island, The Hunger Games, Elysium – in mind as I was reading ‘The Third Tower,’ and that was partly why I liked the story so much. I don’t know how the author would feel about this though. Those of you who write fiction – does it bug you that your readers might be bringing in baggage that has nothing to do with your story, or is that all just part of the experience of writing for the public?

Since our conversation, I’ve been thinking about something else Dani said: that Therese is an artist.

What does that mean to you all?

  • Does ‘being an artist’ just mean ‘being creative’? Or does it entail above-average creativity, if we assume that the ordinary human intelligence that gives us generative syntax is itself creative? (Sub-question: Is ordinary human language a kind of art?)
  • Does an artist need to have what Therese has: a heightened capacity to make associations? Or is being an artist more about what Therese produces: a book that others could (in theory) see and interpret?
  • Does art have to include an element of subversiveness?
  • Do artists have to make their art intentionally, or can it be done by reflex/instinct? (You may remember ‘Message in a Bottle’ by Nalo Hopkinson, where some characters thought that a certain kind of seashell was an expression of artistic genius.)

I think this question may come up in Frankenstein too – I’ll be on the lookout.

As always, feel free to comment on what I’ve said here or on any other aspect of ‘The Third Tower’ you want. Thanks!

2 thoughts on “The Third Tower

  1. Nico Mestre

    Our discussion of “The Third Tower” last week was surprisingly relieving. As you mention, this was a confusing story. Right after my first read, I flipped back to the first page and read it again. But our parsing through Therese’s “condition” and Dani’s mini-lecture on the meaning of the title brought me much-needed clarity.

    Whenever I encounter a difficult text, like this story, instead of internally complaining, I assume that the author is merely trusting their readers more than usual. Through our discussion and the more I thought about this story afterward, I’m actually grateful Eisenberg didn’t tell the story simply. Our expectation of clarity and full understanding all the time can be counterintuitive to what I believe is one of the main purposes of fiction: to give us perspective.

    Sci-fi and speculative fiction–which do you think this story is?–especially rely on trusting the reader because within often personal narratives a world is being built. So much of our discussion revolved around why the world of the story looked so grim from the train and how rarely Therese sees the sky, even though those scenes take up so little of the text itself. Perhaps what makes this story so difficult is that, like Therese, we don’t see much of what is REALLY happening. As readers, we’re in the dark–or in the “tunnel”–like her. But, of course, Eisenberg drops hints that we can either take or leave as readers, such as the “fireworks” Therese hears from her room. Are they really fireworks or gunshots and bombs? The question is left unanswered, but, still, I’m satisfied by the ambiguity because it matches Therese’s lack of perspective while in her hospital room.

    Similarly to many of our discussions in LING-214, this story seemed to address the nature of truth. It seems like Therese’s main draw to undergoing the testing is a chance to see the city, which she does not end up seeing. (Is the city even real anyway? Also, did this remind y’all of McComb’s “Toward a Theory of Alternative Lifestyles” when–SPOILER–Peter never makes it into Collider? During the experiments, Therese must repeat the words the doctor says, namely “Tree.” Doesn’t that go against the scientific method–telling your test subject exactly how to respond? Therese’s writing itself has a floaty-ness that she insists lies somewhere between fact and fiction. But does it really…?

    How can this story be applied to our real world? I can think of at least a couple ways… For one, as you mentioned last week, the banning of books! Therese has to hide her notebook and must do her writing in private or it will be taken away. She must literally repeat the words that she is being told and is not allowed to have any original thoughts. (Was anyone reminded of Orwell’s “1984” during those scenes?) Additionally, based on what we see in the story, it seems that only women have this “condition.” The treatment in the hospital, to me, seemed less like treatment and more like “gaslighting”–a form of psychological manipulation often levied against women by men, and a term very much a part of our popular discourse. And that’s just two ways… Can y’all think of others?

  2. Marjorie Pak

    Your comment inspired me to look up the description of Winston’s diary in ‘1984’:
    “It was a peculiarly beautiful book. Its smooth creamy paper, a little yellowed by age, was of a kind that had not been manufactured for at least forty years past…The pen was an archaic instrument, seldom used even for signatures, and he had procured one, furtively and with some difficulty, simply because of a feeling that the beautiful creamy paper deserved to be written on with a real nib instead of being scratched on with an ink pencil.” (pp. 9-10)
    Therese’s book is also an anachronism – “an ancient thing, with its soft, red cover” – and pens are so rare in her world that she has to steal one from the laundry. Like Winston, she finds sensual pleasure in her book and comes close to personifying it: “It looks like it has some tales to tell, hidden in those blank pages. She runs her fingers over the thick, rough paper, as if to awaken it…”
    As you point out, the very act of keeping the diary is forbidden for both Winston and Therese – but only tacitly, which makes it even creepier. (For Winston, keeping a diary was “not illegal…but if detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced-labor camp.”) In both of their societies, private thought (or as Dani called it, interiority) is being stamped out, so keeping a diary is a dangerous, subversive act.
    It occurred to me that, just as we’re curious and confused by Therese’s world, she’s curious and confused by ours. She knows that her book is from some past time, and she wants to know more about that time but there’s no way to get reliable information. (She “thinks she’s heard” about railroads, but “maybe it’s a scrap from a dream – or maybe it’s an error of her brain: maybe there were no trains at all.”)
    Thank you – this has helped me understand why the story *needs* to be confusing: as you said, it gives us perspective. We get to really feel the way Therese feels. And like her, sometimes we have to just resign ourselves to NOT knowing.


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