Paper Lantern by Stuart Dybek, 1995
The magic trick:
The outer shell story
Yesterday, we looked at “If I Vanish” on the SSMT blog. Today, we break down a similar, if even richer, story. “Paper Lantern” follows “Vanish” as the pretty-damned-amazing double-shot that concludes Dybek’s Paper Lantern collection, and though “Lantern” predates its companion piece by 12 years, the two work very well together. Both deal with memory and the past – doesn’t every Dybek story? – by using photographs as a central image.
There is much to discuss with “Paper Lantern,” but I’m going to focus on the introductory framing device. There isn’t much story there per se. But that’s not the point. The intro allows Dybek to present his central themes through the narrator’s lyrical musings about the nature of the past, present and future. The intro sets up some of the story’s key symbols – the time machine, the fire and, of course, the paper lanterns. And the intro provides the extra layer of time and experience that trigger the past. Everything is connected; everything is random. What a concept! And that’s quite a trick on Dybek’s part.
Try as we might, our measurements were repeatedly off. In one direction, we’d reached the border at which clairvoyants stand gazing into the future, and in the other we’d gone backward to the zone where the present turns ghostly with memory and yet resists quite becoming the past. We’d been advancing and retreating by smaller and smaller degrees until it had come to seem as if we were measuring the immeasurable. Of course, what we really needed was some new vocabulary of measurement. It was time for a break.
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