There is a conversation in Proehl’s road trip novel where two characters are discussing why real cities are never really used in comic book stories. Readers might relate better if I asked: why does Superman live in Metropolis and Batman haunt Gotham City… and not NYC or Chicago or San Francisco? The explanation is that these faux megacities are stand ins for an alternate set of stories where anything is possible, where everything is possible, where the city can be crushed, rebuilt, saved, destroyed, and pummeled again, and no one is going to project their real life fears upon such a disastrous scenario any more than they are comfortable doing. They are lands of stories and superheroes.
The characters in this novel live in the pop cultural equivalent of Metropolis. They are from New York driving across the country on a heartbreaking mission towards Los Angeles, but their world is filled with parallel stand-ins for more familiar elements. The main character is a fading star from a cancelled TV show, a show called Anomaly which never existed but which could have been something (and I kept thinking of it like) Firefly from an alternate timeline replete with a broken analogue Whedon-ish trope. There is an alternate version of Marvel and DC Comics, and the dozens of scatteredly famous properties doing battle (literarilly and financially) on their behalf. There is what seemed to be an Alan Moore-like character who appears mid-novel and does Alan-Moore-ish things. There is an alternate version of Dr. Who and one of the aging actors who played one of his iterations. Yet all of it exists in a parallel, not-quite real, welcome to Metropolis type reality.
And I think this is the point of the story, a story about stories. A Hundred Thousand Worlds is a story filled with storytellers, actors, characters, fans, and the layers that twist and blur their lives into chaotic smudges on an imaginary page. It is a story about the narratives we define for each other, the realities parents spin for their kids, and the efforts of children to define their own non-fiction among the quasi-fictions denoted by adults mired in sorting out their own flailing adventures through the “hundred thousand” potential plot lines of the coexisting layers of unreality hidden in the shadows of unchosen paths.
The story got a bit bogged down in the middle, but generally I liked it… even if I got a bit distracted by real life for a couple weeks in the middle of my read. The characters were genuine, balanced between an archetype serving the themes of the story and likable yet flawed multi-dimensional players who made just as many stupid decisions as good ones. This is a tough needle to thread, I think, and the author did a solid job.
I was having a conversation about alternate worlds of my own the other day. There are times of punctuated change in life or the world, punctuation through which some of the art created for the time preceding the punctuation does not pass. The art created in that time, the stories told, the pictures drawn, all of it envisioned a narrative that made assumptions about people and players, and how the future stretched out within particular parameters.
And then in a blink the world changes, as it is wont to do, and the art that you were reading or viewing or feeling in your heart just days before the punctuation that marks the change, none of it is part of a consistent future narrative that makes sense any longer.
A lot of the books I had lined up prior to, say, mid-January fit into this category. Call it nutty or call it optimistic, whatever, but I’ve been dragging my feet on choosing a new book because books like that are a reminder that the world is more complex than I often need to convince myself that it is, and I do like it when the things I read contribute to a better understanding of my reality than just being more grasshoppers laying heavy in the fields.
So, I settled on something older but something I’ve been meaning to read for a few years. I’m picking up the first in a set of novels by an author who writes more good readable fiction than some literary snobbish folks give him credit for, Stephen King…. I’m reading The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger.