In this week’s New Yorker

June 18, 2011

another eye opens has been on hiatus for a few weeks, while I’ve been in Germany teaching a workshop. But I’m back and blogging with a vengeance!
The Summer Fiction issue of the New Yorker features a cover by David Hockney (above), drawn/painted on his iPad, and another good sad story by George Saunders called “Home.” But the most remarkable thing in the magazine is Aleksandar Hemon’s Personal History essay, “The Aquarium,” reporting in Joan Didion-like detail about his nine-month-old daughter Isabel’s excruciating and successful battle with brain cancer. If this emotionally upsetting narrative is the A story, there is a fascinating B story having to do with Hemon’s three-year-old daughter’s response to the situation:

“It was sometime in the first few weeks of the ordeal [of her nine-month-old sister’s treatment for a brain tumor] that [three-year-old] Ella began talking about her imaginary brother. Suddenly, in the onslaught of her words, we would discern stories about a brother, who was sometimes a year old, sometimes in high school, and occasionally traveled, for some obscure reason, to Seattle or California, only to return to Chicago to be featured in yet another adventurous monologue of Ella’s.
It is not unusual, of course, for children of Ella’s age to have imaginary friends or siblings. The creation of an imaginary character is related, I believe, to the explosion of linguistic abilities that occurs between the ages of two and four, and rapidly creates an excess of language, which the child may not have enough experience to match. She has to construct imaginary narratives in order to try out the words that she suddenly possesses. Ella now knew the word “California,” for instance, but she had no experience that was in any way related to it; nor could she conceptualize it in its abstract aspect – in its California-ness. Hence, her imaginary brother had to be deployed to the sunny state, which allowed Ella to talk at length as if she knew California. The words demanded the story.
At the same time, the surge in language at this age creates a distinction between exteriority and interiority; the child’s interiority is now expressible and thus possible to externalize; the world doubles. Ella could now talk about what was here and about what was elsewhere; language had made here and elsewhere continuous and simultaneous. Once, during dinner, I asked Ella what her brother was doing at that very moment. He was in her room, she said matter-of-factly, throwing a tantrum.
At first, her brother had no name. When asked what he was called, Ella responded “Googoo Gaga,” which was the nonsensical sound that Malcolm, her five-year-old favorite cousin, made when he didn’t know the word for something. Since Charlie Mingus is practically a deity in our household, we suggested the name Mingus to Ella, and Mingus her brother became. Soon after that, Malcolm gave Ella an inflatable doll of a space alien, which she subsequently elected to embody the existentially slippery Mingus. Though Ella often played with her blown-up brother, the alien’s physical presence was not always required for her to issue pseudoparental orders to Mingus or to tell a story of his escapades. While our world was being reduced to the claustrophobic size of ceaseless dread, Ella’s was expanding.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: