Characters don't need to become better people by the final page of a book, but I do hope they change. I read to experience another world, and characters are often most tangible when they undergo transitions.
In some books, that change is an actual physical transformation. Characters stop being human, and become transfigured. If the writer is successful, they pull the audience into that metamorphosis. Here are three books about characters not bound by their bodies.
Fables begins with adults in a superstitious small town following an old wives' tale: "take an orphan child hunting, you will return with threefold the bounty." The orphans sneak away, and are soon not merely lost, but changed. Their cries are the "sounds of the whippoorwills. The nightingales became their mothers, and pheasants usher them to winter quarters." Fables only becomes more surreal. A finch flies into a kitchen and helps a woman and her daughter mend lace, underwear, and a handkerchief. Grackles sing the "cries of the damned" over "neighborhood maples and unnaturally green lawns." Mischievous ghosts inhabit the town. Residents "walk out of their homes in the morning and do not return." Goldstein's ability to smoothly move from the mundane to the mysterious makes me question my prosaic surroundings. I might not move an inch, but I feel taken elsewhere.
D'Erasmo's third novel, a modern-day version of Ovid's Metamorphoses, includes an ominous epigraph from the poem: "Heaven was no safer." There is little safety in the book, which follows the life of Gabriel Collins. His mother "believed in other realms, a reality beyond this one." She reads Greek mythology to the boy, who seeks to understand why his father left the family, wondering "Why is it that people get so much bigger when they disappear?" Gabriel grows up to write newspaper obituaries. He suffers mysterious wounds, and ultimately, cancer. Upon learning of his diagnosis, he says "I could feel the feathers moving under my skin, pushing their way up," mirroring the transformation of his favorite mythological character, Tereus, a king who turns into a bird. In the novel's final chapters, Gabriel travels to Mexico in hopes of finding his father, and joins a commune. In preparation for a ritual, he dons enormous wings, "the biggest sign of all that I was doing the right thing." D'Erasmo's novel leaves me emotionally disoriented. I feel transported to a curious, frightening world where we are more than our bodily selves.
Whenever rain interrupts a sunny day, I think of McKinney's nightmarish and beautiful poem, "Summer Storm In The Animal Graveyard." West Virginia's poet laureate from 1994 until her death in 2012, McKinney created elegiac verses set in pastoral Appalachia. A careful craftswoman, her poems contain subtle, unique touches. In "Truckstop," a waitress "blooms" from behind a counter as "coffee / spurts in its throttle." McKinney did not write fantastical poems, but her attention to natural rhythms allows them to feel like otherworldly hymns. I am drawn to the evolving first person in her writing. She shifts from the voice of a woman in her 20s to an anthropomorphic narrator, and in doing so, creates an out-of-body reverie for a reader.
Out-of-body experiences are often said to occur when a soul departs a physical body. Yet these three lyric books create an alternate route toward that feeling, a way for words to transform us while we remain alive.
Nick Ripatrazone is a staff writer for The Millions. His latest book is This Darksome Burn.