BoysGirls by Katie Farris
1957. France. Roland Barthes publishes "Myth Today," in which he explores myth as a semiological system full of signifiers and metaphors. The essay offers explanations of how we've used myth to express language, how myth and language -- dear cousins -- serve as records of human thought and an expression of understanding. "What must be established at the start," he writes, "is that myth is a system of communication, that it is a message... The function of myth is to empty reality: it is, literally, a ceaseless flowing out, a haemorrhage, or perhaps an evaporation, in short a perceptible absence."
2011. San Diego. Katie Farris gives us BoysGirls, a book of modern myths, all jarring (though beautifully), stretched seemingly with no effort from a girl with a mirror for a face to a boy with one wing. The boy wants to fly and asks the Inventor of Invented Things to invent him Love in the form of a second wing. Remnants of the stories of Daedalus and Icarus, and even Narcissus, scattered throughout, Farris's tales rest close to our understanding, sitting with us as we learn of them by firelight.
Take, for instance, the girl with a mirror for a face, the first of many girls we meet. "Mise en Abyme" is her story: "People are forever falling for the girl with a mirror for a face. And why not? They think, not unaware of the irony. Of course, one has to be careful in direct sunlight. But imagine: if stranded on a desert island, who could resist the siren song on a desert island, who could resist the siren song of the girl with a mirror for a face? Rescue would come posthaste!" We already know what this stands in for. We already know that the girl with a mirror for a face teaches us of our vanity -- she is kind, happy to be loved, though naive enough never to learn that it is ourselves we love. Imagine dressing for dinner in the presence of this girl; imagine visiting the beach or seeking the denial of a blemish. She is our favorite Other.
"Myth is neither a lie nor a confession," writes Barthes. "It is an inflection... it transforms history into nature." And Farris, here, has crafted her unheard stories so intricately, with so much care, that we feel as if we ought to have known them for years. As if they'd been given to us from another generation. The boy who wishes to fly, for example, like Icarus, leaps only to find himself wrenching from the painful touch of the wind. He is a "halfway boy," writes Farris, and he is one who finds himself standing on the beach always trying to flee it by flight. "Times are hard for dreamers, people whisper, watching him. He would like to turn back. Not a dreamer, he would tell them. The dream."
What Barthes stresses, and what should not be forgotten, is that myth is a metaphor. It is always a metaphor. And this metaphor signifies of the necessity of myth. That we need metaphorical language to explain some of our most basic human needs speaks to the importance of reaching for the nonliteral. Our fables teach us, at times, more about what it means to be ourselves than realism, and to neglect the myth of the past or the present is to neglect our need for metaphorical speech.
Farris reminds us of this need in giving us stories that teach us of vanity, of hope, of shame, of courage, seamlessly interwoven with explanatory images (by Romanian-born Lavinia Hanachiuc) that help these stories become reminiscent of the fairy tales we learned of as children, of Hansel and Gretel's descent into the forest, or even of Snow White's apple-gazing. We know these stories in our hearts, and they've taught us lessons of right and wrong, trust and mistrust, and of the origins of storms and seas:
He is an inventor of invented things -- light for instance: the printing press, three different types of scopes (micro-tele, and laryngo-). He invented collard greens and beet greens and dandelion greens; olive oil and sea salt and finely aged vinegars decanted into elaborate systems of spouted and handled glassware; he invented soft sides of risotto, sweet forest mushrooms, knew how to change chemistry into biology, though he soon forgot.
Farris has crafted, molded, sculpted stories that will enter our consciousness as effortlessly as tales of Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm, because we already know them. And if Barthes had believed that myth "has the pretension of transcending itself into a factual system," Farris's stories have come with no pretense. They are humble. Fluid. Introductory in a manner that professes only innocence -- and with this innocence comes belief. And belief, we know, is all that's required for myth, modern or not, to grab us tightly and carry us up into the sun.
BoysGirls by Katie Farris