Recently I came upon a startling video of a Japanese woman’s quest to fill her nearly deserted town with life-size dolls that represent the hundreds of people who used to live there. “When I make dolls of dead people,” she says, “I think of them when they were alive and healthy.”
For example, the town’s school closed down two years ago for lack of students, and she has re-inhabited it with pupils and teachers.
It’s what you might call an outsider art project, but on a vast scale, creepy and poignant, a town haunted by silent figures of memory. This video of the artist, commenting on her life and work, blends sweet with unsettling.
But why should this touching short film be so haunting, why do those dolls attract us in such a discomforting way? I’m reminded of one of my favorite essays, “Some Reflections on Dolls,” by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in which he writes about an exhibition of wax dolls of the artist Lotte Pritzel.
Rilke remarks on the sadness of dolls that have no children in their lives. Or, rather, that dolls have no lives without children: “It was their habit, during the day, to be lived unwearyingly with energies not their own.”
And because dolls have no energies of their own, they can give us nothing back but what we invent of them. A doll is “the horribly foreign body on which we had wasted our purest ardor; as the externally painted watery corpse, which floated and swam on the floor-tides of our affection.” Dolls are like us, and yet they are nothing like us. Perhaps this accounts for our disquiet. As Rilke observes, “One is confronted and almost overwhelmed by their waxen nature.”
In some ways, they are like fictional characters still in the process of being fully imagined. We struggle to invent them, to give them the breath of believability. The hard work of imagining and revising our characters can give us the intimacy of a relationship, and, with luck, this intimacy extends to a reader.
As with all intimacies, though, something may go wrong. In my short story “I Dreamt about You Last Night,” (published in The Art of the Knock), Turley, the main character, returns home one day to discover that his wife has left him and their daughter, and she has also left behind her scrawls, painted on the walls, of all the lies he ever told her. In the wake of her abandonment, the daughter searches for attention elsewhere: “Julie turned to her largest and favorite doll, sitting on a chair opposite them. Its grave, porcelain face seemed to listen as Julie quietly asked it for help in the same coaxing tones she used whenever she wanted something from her mother.”
Distracted by his own grief and trying to reassure her, Turley lies idly to his daughter that the doll will indeed talk to her someday. A mistake, because before too long he finds the doll in pieces, the victim of his daughter’s rage at her doll’s stubborn silence. In shame, he takes the doll to a repair shop tricked out as a “Doll Hospital” (these places actually exist).
“The woman took the doll from the box. Its dress was badly torn and the ends of the limbs were jagged remains of ceramic hands and feet. She examined the porcelain head, with its punched-in, loose left eye. “This may be a difficult job,” the woman said. She pulled off the mohair wig, revealing the hollow skull of the doll, and she poked her fingers inside to manipulate the glass eye from behind. Turley found this almost impossible to watch.”
Despite the repair, things will not go well for this doll.
To my surprise, I realized that dolls of all sorts make appearances in my fiction. How odd, to uncover a thread in my work that was always part of the weave. My novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language, starts when a mother begins a game of pretending to be someone else, anyone else, to her young children. But the mother’s private performances become a dangerous descent into multiple otherhood and, too soon, she is lost to them.
The narrator of the novel, Michael, one day finds himself in class watching a slide show his fussy and over-prepared teacher has stuffed with any kind of information about whales, including photos of a Yuquot Northwest Coast Indian shrine devoted to attracting whales. What at first appears to be a crowd of people in one slide proves to be something else in the next slide:
“We were inside the shrine, and now came another surprise: those people were life-size wooden statues, their torsos stiff, their hands and feet stumps. Their openmouthed, flat faces seemed to be shouting out a warning at the approach of trespassers.”
These statues are wooden images of dead whale hunters, and their open mouths are believed to sing songs that can attract whales and cause them to drift too close to shore. Michael can’t get enough of this slide, although he is still unsure what excites him until the next slide:
“Now another slide filled the screen: a close-up of maybe half a dozen statues, their identical, plaintive expressions so much like . . . my mother’s own unhappy features that last terrible day. I blinked back tears at the thought, yet still I couldn’t look away from that wall of faces. And then I knew why: they could easily be Mother’s hidden characters. I longed to hear them sing out keening songs like whales, songs filled with secrets that I would finally understand.”
Finally, my story, “The Pose” (published in Interior Design), is devoted to a husband and wife who, nearing an emotionally estranged endgame in their relationship, begin to relearn how to communicate with each other through a strange figure in the closet that is constructed out of clothes hangers. The husband, Richard, a tinkerer and inventor, is trying to design an “all-purpose clothes hanger.” But when his wife Isabel first discovers this figure, it is still in process:
“Before her sways a peculiar construction of clothes hangers, elaborately fit together into the full-sized outline of a person. But this flat thing doesn’t have a face, only a wire circle for a head, and from its top the hanger hook rises like a question mark.”
Its incompleteness disturbs her, and she can’t help adding her own touches to the figure.
“It’s really just a cartoonish outline. Why would anyone want to fit clothes over something that looks so awkward? Isabel reaches out for one of the wire hands, examines the clumsiness of the circular palm and broad fingers. With some strain she manages to bend a metal curve into a recognizable thumb. Then she squeezes the rest into tapered fingers and goads the palm into an oval. She places her own hand against the cool wire outline: it’s a comfortable fit. Isabel stands up and moves back. Those thighs are too thin, the shoulders too squarish. Gripping the cold metal, she begins to press and pull.”
Before long, Isabel and Richard collaborate separately on the figure, dressing it in the clothes she once wore during their early courtship, the clothes she wore when he first undressed her.
What a fertile landscape dolls offer us, they are mirrors that reflect ourselves, but only if we want them to. And their coming alive ignites something in us, allows us to nurse a present hurt or nurture a budding future self, or reclaim a missing piece of the past. But because these dolls or doll-like figures come alive from without and not from within themselves, they can too easily be abandoned, and then their similarity to us is no longer a comfort, but instead an unsettling mask that fools no one.
The poet and Nobel laureate Wistawa Szymborska captures this alienation well when, in her slyly exhilarating collection of book reviews, Nonrequired Reading, she writes of visiting a wax museum: “That macabre facsimile of life, the rosy cheeks, the half-smiles, the eyelashes, the mustaches, the glassy eyes behind your back, all that dolled-up deadness, maudlin and pretentious—now that was frightening. I felt sick and had to go out for some fresh air.”
Perhaps what is most wrong about the wax face of Prince Charles above is that his expression is following no previous expression, and isn’t leading to another. Our faces are never fixed and are always reacting, revealing, hiding. In fiction, we have to bring the fresh air in and ascribe an inner life to our nascent characters that sets their thoughts in motion throughout the course of a story, we try to do our best to write them out of their masks and make the unblinking eyes blink, encourage the frozen mouth to speak, and put enough of us inside them so that, unlike dolls, they will come alive–for us, and for others.
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