Why I Reread “Paper Lantern”

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Every Memorial Day my grandmother took flowers to the graves of people she had known, military or not. She was a southern transplant, with ancestors that fought on both sides of the Civil War, but she lived in my grandfather’s state, New Hampshire, so the graves she visited belonged to members of his family. Like most children, I didn’t understand her preoccupation with the past. Neither did I understand what seemed a grim preoccupation with her own death, as visits to the cemetery also included her own plot space, and my grandfather’s, reserved and paid for in advance. I remember looking at the empty patch of lawn beside the tombstones of my great-great-grandparents and thinking, “What am I looking at?”

Of course with adulthood the mysteries of time and memory have become contemplations I indulge on a regular basis, and I often return to the writers who articulate these mysteries brilliantly, strangely: who can forget the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse? Laurence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet? Proust’s seven volumes?

In 1995, I subscribed to The New Yorker. I was just out of my tiny, Bible Belt hometown, where no one I knew subscribed to the magazine, where I had never even heard of the magazine. When it arrived the first time I thought it was some kind of magic ticket to a life I couldn’t describe but had always suspected was out there waiting for me. (That has proven both true and untrue.) My first issue featured a story called “Paper Lantern” by Stuart Dybek, a writer then completely new to me. The story starts off with scientists working on a time machine, then going out for Chinese, complete with a beautiful detailing of the Chinese menu. They feel themselves near a breakthrough with time travel, but it’s a frustrating endeavor:

“Try as we might, our measurements were repeatedly off. In one direction, we’d reached the border at which clairvoyants stand gazing into the future, and in the other we’d gone backward to the zone where the present turns ghostly with memory and yet resists quite becoming the past.”

That zone is where much of the rest of the story takes place. On their way back from dinner, the scientists watch as their laboratory and the time machine go up in flames. At this point the narrator is mentally, emotionally transported to another fire, which he and his adulterous weekend companion watched years ago from the rail of a river in Chicago. He had captured the moment—his lover, her air of “aloneness”—on camera, as he captured other points of their complicated weekend together. The story allows this woman, who is unnamed, to speak thoughtfully, articulately, and sometimes abstractly about time and experience. Here she is trying to explain why she cried after the first time they made love:

“You were trying to console me. I know you thought I was feeling terribly guilty, but I was crying because the way we fit together seemed suddenly so familiar, as if there were some old bond between us. I felt flooded with relief, as if I’d been missing you for a long time without quite realizing it, as if you’d returned to me after I thought I’d never see you again.”

Right after this something very exciting happens—sexually, dramatically, road-chase-wise. I don’t want to summarize it, but it involves a threatening, voyeuristic truck driver doing 90 on the I-80. They survive it, their weekend is heightened by it, and more pictures are taken. The narrator remembers all this while watching the fire destroy his time machine—and, we learn at the end, the photographs of that weekend.

Reading this story, like writing any story, it could be argued, is an effort to manage time. And “Paper Lantern” takes this very effort—which is at turns desperate, nostalgic, and peaceful with new perspective—as its subject matter. It’s a story about our impulse to chronicle, which is to say control, what happens to us as well as what has happened and will happen to us. As we know, and the story knows, this control is an illusion we can’t quit chasing. Time, with all its components—memory, anticipation—is like breathing. We attempt to structure and regulate a function that is ultimately involuntary and indifferent to management. But it’s a productive effort, as surely as fire is an event in itself. The narrative arts—those compulsive acts!—unpeel for us the skin of our generic old compassionate situation, sad or joyful, that we’re all moving on through together whether we mean to be or not.

This is Angela’s seventh post as a Guest Blogger.

Image from here.