Story notes for "The House of Illusionists" and the question of art
Nearly two years ago, in the wake of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, I sat down to write my usual bimonthly blog post of short story recommendations. And I wrote this:
“I don’t know what good a story does. I don’t know what a single poem or song can do.
I don’t know, I don’t know.”
It’s twenty-two months later, and I still do not know. But—quite apart from the chaos and darkness of this present moment—I have never known. Since my teens, I have asked myself this question: “What good is fiction? What good are books and stories? What do they do?”
I know what stories have done for me. I know the light and comfort that books and art bring into my life. And I also fear that it’s all frivolous. I think of Keats’ letter to a friend, where he compared poetry to “a mere Jack o’lantern to amuse whoever may chance to be struck with its brilliance." (Letter to Benjamin Bailey, March 13, 1818). I wonder if he's right in that sentence. I wonder if a protest song has ever stopped a war. I think a book is useless against bullets.
I still want to believe that songs and books are worth something.
I wrote “The House of Illusionists” as a way of wrestling with these questions. To me, “The House of Illusionists” is about, yes, a house of artist-illusionists, caught in a terrible war and in increasingly desperate straits. But it’s not only about war and magic; it’s about the power and limits of art. The question of art’s truth.
“Beauty is truth,” is another thing which Keats wrote.
If you read the story, I hope it brings a little beauty into your day.
1. I do not know the answer to my own questions and I likely never will. Readers have interpreted my story in different ways. I welcome them all.
2. If you, too, are wondering what the point of stories is, read this beautiful essay, "The Shape of the Darkness as it Overtakes Us," by Dimas Ilaw. This is a writer who knows something about darkness and grasping the light that stories can bring.
3. Also read the essay, “On Becoming an American Writer” by Alexander Chee in his collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. An excerpt of this essay can be found here at The Paris Review for free. But it’s only an excerpt, and the full-length essay needs to be read for its full brilliance and power. (Buy his collection; it's wonderful).