The nature of experimental writing is rooted in the writer’s desire to create works that transcend the literary canon, poetry morphing into prose, prose transforming traditional fiction in order to tell “story” in a new way. The best experimental works indirectly question the canon simply by way of their form. They are trailblazers content to ride on an imaginary horse called “subversion” upon which a writer with pen in hand is saddled. In metaphor the experimental escapes the traditional and the mundane to seep into the reader’s consciousness with the slow burn of a midnight campfire, and fester in the mind of the reader: sharp at first, then colorful in texture, then left behind in traces of hot ash that burn themselves out just before dawn.
The five stories that comprise Mellis’ None of This is Real extend an invitation to readers to pay heed to real-life concerns embedded within a carefully constructed fictional array of coffee and cigarette addicts, psychics and card readers, self-help seekers, writers, mothers of children, and the chronically ill. What all of Mellis’ characters have in common is that they are looking for, or attempting to create, solace in an uncertain world—a world that is politically, economically, and environmentally challenged. A world much like our own.
And, while each story consecutively brings the reader along a journey from start to finish—a journey which has at its heart the journey of the writer herself—the volume’s themes are anchored by the story that shares the volume’s title. None of This is Real tells of writer O, his creative conquests, and the nature of experience amidst a barrage of 21st-century problems.
“He continued to aspire to write an unprecedented, encyclopedic, world-historical novel. But it was increasingly apparent—though he tried to ignore this oppressive knowledge—that new techniques in climate change adaptations, urban agriculture, toxic waste mitigation, soil remediation, foreclosure opportunism, oil spill cleanup, sex, self-defense, clairvoyance, and air and water filtration were considered more pressing than literary innovation.” (13)
Through the experience of character O, the text indirectly questions:
What is this world? How do I perceive it? And, what is my role in it?
The irony with which every writer is faced becomes apparent in Mellis’ pages:
1) I write to make sense of my experience of the world; and
2) To make sense of the real world I experience, I create fiction
The conundrum, then, becomes an exercise in both experience and observation. I create fiction (which isn’t real) in order to accurately portray what is real (what isn’t fiction) in my (real) world.
The skill with which Mellis creates these “fictional” worlds embodies what it means to be immersed within a subject and, simultaneously, to approach that subject from without. She has created her own category of meta-fiction in which writer is both writer and close observer and, in turn, it asks that the reader become a close observer—to the world outside the volume’s pages. As character O collects his folders of material for the novel he is writing, the narrator speculates upon a daunting task:
“How could he improve upon storied truth? The problem was a grass trap every which way he turned: what was the good of imagining reality? And if there was no such thing as time or progress, why keep recapitulating those falsehoods in the form of chronologies? He had learned that women could legally own property and practice surgery thousands of years ago, while as recently as a hundred they could do neither. The moderns were surely older than the ancients. Knowledge came and went like the tides. Diachronic history was chronic; retrospection moved forward; information zigzagged like a dying cowboy. Time itself moved like water. Factual records looked like frightening art when the tide went out on patriarchy, God, and war.” (17)
The question “What is my experience?” is furthered by: “In what ways do I relate to others?” and “In what ways are all people interdependent despite their apparent disparities in class, race, environment, etc.?” The possible answers of these questions dig deep into the dualities that exist within the individual and within the collective. If none of this—our world, our experience—truly is real, as Mellis proposes, then the artificial boundaries that have been erected between dissimilar characters, contexts and experiences, melt away to reveal direct correlations and cause and effect relationships.
“It was as if a decorous heirloom, say, a gray triangle of silk, a scarf that had been passed on through the generations, had fallen unnoticed into a river one day. Carried downstream it got caught on the sharp corner of a creek stone. There it twisted and rippled in the current for a long time, waving and deteriorating slowly, unseen. Then winter came and the silk froze along with everything else, and when the river thawed, the silk was gone, merged with the stone on which it had caught.” (50)
Philosophically reminiscent of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, Mellis’ characters and plot lines exist along a continuum of inclusivity, underscored by a belief that all is one, rather than a machination of interchangeable, Mr. Potato Head-like parts that make up a “collection” of stories in which fictional creatures each play a brief part. Themes of experience, history, politics, patriarchy, and psychology, are woven through all stories in the volume, and Mellis remains an observer of her own characters and the ways in which they reflect the role of the writer. They point out the absurdities that occur by way of attempting to preserve the functioning of social structures and constructs—if even in the mind.
“Not long after they met, O’s therapist, Tiara Scuro, narrated for O the inspiration for her technique…For years I had been removing the ground from underneath my clients, she said. But then I realized that what people really want is exactly what I was trying to subtract: a position, a Patch of Stability, a bit of personal ground in a time when actual ground is inaccessible for a variety of economic and environmental reasons, and in a time when positions, in the sense of steady employment, are scares. So now I offer customized stability through what I call Path to a Position™.”
Are these social constructs absurd because there isn’t any reasoning behind the belief that preservation of these structures should exist? Or are these social constructs absurd because preserving them runs counter to the way the soul functions?
Mellis quotes Adam Phillips at the opening of “Transformer,” the last story in the volume: “The object of fear is a future set in the past.” (77) If we are to question experience, what of history and how we interpret it? What of O’s fictional novel? Are all writers historians—fiction and nonfiction alike? What—if anything—have we learned from the experiences of the past?
“But the past wasn’t fresh. It was not quite how anyone had pictured it. It wasn’t the same. It was no virgin. The past had become distant and jaded. Its painful claims remained indisputable however, for all evil resided there, even the future.” (66)
None of This is Real compels the reader not to remain only as reader, as voyeur to Mellis’ characters and their lives, but, rather, to understand these characters as real, as part of a collective “us.” As writer and reader become one in the same, so do reader and activist, activist and philosopher, philosopher and barista, barista and CEO, CEO and mother of two. Their pervasive synonymy then becomes the only identifier in a real experience that asks: “Without the world—what would I have to look at?” (67)