Walking Dreams, Mark Wallace’s recent collection of eight intriguing short stories, leaves the reader questioning reality and intrinsic notions of perspective and point of view. The stories are sometimes exercises in literary acrobatics where dreams, in both senses of the word, serve as the jumping-off point.
Wallace’s characters look at things aslant. Their altered perspectives are a refreshing change from what can be found in most short story collections whose typical, primary redeeming value is simply in the turns of events and how the tale wraps up. “The Flowers,” as the first story in the book, is a light introduction to what follows, and therefore functions well as a starter piece. It involves a shifted point of view in which the main character, as in most of the stories, experiences a fractured sense of self, and eventually a duality of identity (think Fight Club).
“A Walk in the Park” takes the shattered viewpoint one step further by repeating portions of a scenario, each time changing things slightly while moving backward in time as the story progresses to open up a multiplicity of possibilities. Not quite a “choose your own ending” tale, the reader is presented with a pastiche of possible outcomes and is asked to interpret them as a whole (how do they mesh to form one cohesive story?) Contradictory as it might seem, the flow and pacing in “A Walk in the Park” is expert and piquantly timed, with a rhythmic repetition of phrases adding texture to both the story and its language.
Similarly, “Ecstatic Fritz” allows room for play in the outcome, again suggesting that the story is whatever the reader makes of it. Fritz is an ethereal entity whom we are never completely sure exists at all. One section begins, “Or Fritz sits in the grass among purple wildflowers…” then continues, “Or he walks down a concrete wall between the two sides of a freeway” (55). The narrative becomes nearly a reverse of Waiting for Godot; the characters will spend the whole story not waiting, but searching for someone who may never be found. But the reader is always conscious, while reading, that this is only a story, and Fritz only a character; as in “The Betryal,” where “he, too, is made in his own story,” and “is the telling as much as the telling is his” (64).
Other stories, like “Design for a Chair not a Chair” and the title story, “Walking Dreams,” explore the sense of loss felt by those who have let their dreams (in the sense of goals), slip out of reach. What results is inevitably a sense of futility, isolation and loneliness, cast alongside a sense of fragile reality, where “the world [is] a prison of dreams” (100). The stories do not dwell in the realm of despair so much as they are written to the point of questioning the way things are and could be.
“Design for a Chair not a Chair” is one of several stories that hover around perspectives of the creative mind. There is, again, the questioning of a reality hatched from alternate possibilities; from this comes a metacommentary on the craft and structure of creative endeavors. Wallace writes:
Only to the uninformed are the necessary functions of the chair obvious. Maybe your work will prove that there is no such thing as a chair, or that there has never been a chair until now. There is no such thing as the chair you have made until you have made it. All chairs are equally possible; only one chair will result. (40)
Additionally, ownership of the chair (for “chair,” think “craft”) is attached less to its creator than to those who ultimately make it theirs; after all, it is the end-user who sits in the chair daily, breaks it in, and assumes a gradual ownership.
“The Painted” is another example of metafiction, where Wallace describes the satisfaction inherent in the act of creation, in which, inevitably, “[s]o much is being risked” (83). The act of painting itself is a miniature revolution: altering the blankness of an untouched canvas is an act of defiance. Where “Design for a Chair not a Chair” posits that the creation belongs more to the user (reader, viewer, sitter) than the creator, here, the painting controls its own outcome––even has an authority over the painter: it will become what it needs to be. In this is the insinuation that we “own” the places in our imaginations, but once released, they take on lives of their own, learn to walk and talk, and eventually, fly the coop. It is this process that is the most meaningful, that gives meaning: “…you don’t exist until you paint, [and] what you paint becomes what you are” (90).
The author makes the point throughout that dreams are what uphold us, help us to know who we are and give hope a foundation. With a less capable author, the point could easily be made too directly and come off sounding sentimental. But Wallace manages it deftly, illustrating his points rather than making mouthpieces of his characters or scenarios, so that by the time the conclusion is reached, it does not feel forced. This may be due in part to the author’s style, which tends toward the avant-garde or experimental, but rarely becomes inaccessible.
The exception to accessibility is “Amanda Running,” the epigraph of which pegs it as “a fable.” Calling it a fable opens up possibilities for the author to skew reality. In the case of this story, it is perhaps skewed beyond sense. In keeping with the overall theme, there is a questioning of reality and possibility. However, by story’s end, it comes off more like an exercise for the author, whose leeway in playing with multi-dimensionality expands due to the fact that it is a “fable,” and unfortunately, ends up sacrificing meaning.
Wallace doesn’t just tell an interesting story––he tells it in an interesting way, finding new and unexpected methods of presenting the tales. His characters are often pensive creatures who risk being drowned out by the city, which is always “full and alive,” and where “loneliness is only an impression carved out of the hard wood of a world in motion” (60). People are as much the stories they tell as the stories they tell are theirs; Walking Dreams serves to extrude the avant-garde notions in these stories––which may be, after all, only dreams.