The dream sequence
Last fall, I went to a wonderful exhibit in San Francisco featuring sculptures, collages, and videos by artist Wangechi Mutu. Because we went on a weekday afternoon, it wasn’t too crowded, and my friend Anisse and I were able to linger up close with the chimerical, often imposing, sculptures of Mutu. Mutu talked about inventing his own mythologies with his work; as a result, the hybrid deities she fashioned out of bronze, clay, earth, and gemstones were newly strange and fantastically haunting. It was one of the best afternoons I’ve had throughout the pandemic, and it was the one I desperately needed, that brief period with the world invented by an artist producing some kind of magic that helped sustain me through many less charmed days.
I have long believed that fantasy, art and fiction – the desire, that is, to imagine other ways of being – are essential to any life I want to live. I also had times when I lost faith in this belief. During the early part of the pandemic, like many people, I felt compelled to be so vigilant that almost all I could read was the news. Every day, barely sleeping, I went from title to terrifying title. I’m a novelist and I couldn’t read fiction. What use was he, I thought, if I could miss him at a time when I needed him so badly?
But the disappointment was short-lived. The ability to read fiction returned, and what a relief it was, a gift beyond measure, to find that I could go to bed late with a novel again. Being able to spend an entire Sunday reading in bed, so drunk on words that I would finish one book, drop it, open the next one on my bedside table and keep going.
People often defend the social utility of fiction – in books and other media – by arguing that it can enhance our ability to feel empathy, while some argue that multitudes of fiction lovers have done a lot of wrong. Both lines of reasoning make sense to me – fiction expands the imagination and won’t cure evil by itself – but I’m not here to discuss how uplifting it can be to read. I believe that this expansion of our imagination is powerful and useful, urgently (consider the many fascist efforts in the United States to ban the books of marginalized people, think of the power of these books), but that is not what which pushes me towards fiction.
What pushes me there, it is rather the pleasure. It is joy. Losing myself in a novel – or a film, a show or a painting – is one of the greatest joys I have known. And like so many people, I ran out of joy. In this broken and glorious world, said William Blake, “Let every particle of dust exhale its joy”, and I am with it: I believe that we are built for joy, and deeply sustained by it, in need of it as to love us.
Meanwhile, I watch the news and read about war, rising tyranny, violence, and increasing depredations of our rights, and there is little cause for celebration. In California, where I live, a terrible drought continues; I check the forecast, which predicts more devastation, and am filled with alarm, grief and fury, not joy. No pleasure.
So I read novels. I buy books of poetry. I’ve spent giddy nights watching an entire season at once for shows like Kind of or The chair or squid game. It’s such a pleasure to get out of my head, away from my troubles. However, I am not ignoring the news or neglecting my communities: part of the way I was able to resume reading and writing after the pandemic hiatus was by promising myself that I would do more for them. others every day, after which could I please have the time with the fiction, with the pretending that I craved? In short, I bribed my anxiety, calming my inclination to think that if I stay scared every minute of my life, then I will protect the world from further harm. Which is, of course, not the way the world works. This vigilance does not help anyone, so I continue to bribe myself and seek as much joy as possible, knowing that this leaves me more to give.
A question that often comes up is how one can care about fiction, invented fantasy, in a time like this, when you could say times have been tough for a lot of people for a very long time. With and despite the tribulations, we have always insisted on telling and listening to stories, and on the necessity of art. Getting lost in other worlds to better find yourself.
Photographs by Richard Phibbs
Styled by Mary Kate Boylan
Hairstyle by Brent Lawler for Act+Acre. Makeup by Vicky Steckel for Mehron Makeup. Grooming by Losi at Honey Artists. Nails by Kayo Haguchi for Chanel Les Vernis. Sewing by Yasmine Oezelli. Scenography by Todd Wiggins for MHS Artists. Filmed on location at Weylin in Brooklyn.
In the top image: On her: Max Mara trench coat ($6,590) and dress ($7,590); Salvatore Ferragamo Pumps ($775); Munnu The Gem Palace necklace. On him: Officine Générale jacket ($695) and pants ($420); The Row Turtleneck ($1,290); Crockett & Jones shoes ($725). Globe-Trotter Toiletry Bag ($1,445).
This story appears in the May 2022 issue of City & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW