The Waste Lands:
The Boy Who Lived And Also Died
This week’s chapters of The Waste Lands mean quite a lot to me. I can’t think of another sequence in this book or any other that I more closely relate to than Jake Chambers opening door after door with hopeful anticipation, always certain the next one will lead him back to Mid-World, only to be disappointed each time.
When I was growing up, my favorite books all seemed to revolve around a kid (or kids) like me, living an ordinary life, until they were plucked from the mundanity by the gods of whatever genre the story belonged to, and tossed into a new extraordinary world. Harry Potter is probably the best and most obvious example of this, but countless books have traded on the same trope to varying results. Animorphs, Windlord, and Interstellar Piggy were just a few of my favorites… I never tired of reading about a child who discovers some hidden world, especially if they turned out to be the only one destined to save it.
But as much as I loved this genre of story and the sense of wish fulfillment they delivered, I was never able to fully relate to the protagonists. Even though they were specifically designed to connect with middle grade and young adult readers like me, an irreconcilable difference prevented me from seeing myself in these characters. The kids in these books always resisted leaving reality behind for whatever magical realm they had stumbled into, and they always seemed to resent being chosen for whatever quest or mission they had been tasked with; I, on the other hand, wanted nothing more than to find real magic, and I resented that I never got my letter from Hogwarts.
Now, as he approached the cloakroom, he felt that same dazzling burst of hope, a certainty that the door would not open on a shadowy closet containing only the persistent smells of winter—flannel, rubber, and wet wool—but on some other world where he could be whole again.– The Waste Lands, p. 130
And so, in high school, when I found myself two books deep in my new favorite series and I read about this kid who is teased with a crystal clear vision of his exploits in the fantasy realm of Mid-World, only to be cruelly denied that reality, I finally understood what it meant to have a character speak to me so directly. The feeling of wanting to escape to a secret dimension and go on adventures, and the disappointment of knowing it would never happen were deeply personal to me, and in these chapters I truly felt as though Jake were me and I was Jake.
It’s possible that once or twice I opened a door halfway hoping to find a desert on the other side.
The Year That Happened And Also Didn’t
Reading this book now, I still find myself relating to Jake, but for very different reasons. He is going through the same thing as Roland, but where the schism in Roland’s mind has only split his memories in two, Jake’s divided Ka is playing out in his present. He walks around holding two concurrent timelines in his mind: the reality that was supposed to happen and the reality that he’s actually living in. Can you think of a more perfect metaphor for the predicament in which we all find ourselves this year?
Everything’s gone COVID-19, and every one of us is experiencing this division of timelines. Though we may have had plans for weddings, vacations, holidays, jobs, or simply staying healthy and well, tragically, the virus has canceled all of our plans and we find ourselves living in two parallel timelines: the 2020 that was supposed to happen, and the one we’re stuck in.
The terror ran endlessly on in his mind, making him feel like a rat trapped on an exercise wheel. And when he tried to look ahead to some better, brighter time, he could see only darkness.– The Waste Lands, p. 127
In the timeline that was supposed to happen, my wife and I would be bringing my daughter to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving, where we’d introduce her to my extended family for the first time. My mother’s side of the family is spread out all over the globe, from the U.S. to the U.K., Columbia, the Caribbean, and China, but every year we reunite in Pennsylvania for turkey and Yuengling on Thursday followed by a waffle breakfast Friday morning. It’s a tradition that has been hosted at the same house by the same cousins for the past thirty-five years. It’s taken very seriously (custom t-shirts are made) and it’s never been canceled, postponed, or changed venues. Until this year. This year Thanksgiving didn’t happen.
But Thanksgiving also did happen. In lieu of our annual gathering, we joined a zoom where forty family members met to catch up and celebrate remotely. My wife made a mouthwatering turkey with all the fixings. She even made little apple pie-pockets, one of which I am eating as I type. We let our baby girl try mashed potatoes for the first time and talked about what we were thankful for. And some people were able to keep their Thanksgiving plans—whether safely or not so safely—and make it happen despite the pandemic. Thanksgiving did happen.
Both are true, or maybe neither are, I’m not sure. What I do know is that we have to find a way to merge these two conflicting timelines just as Roland and Jake do. However, our problem can’t be solved by satiating a sex demon or break into a haunted house, which is a shame because that might have been easier than eliminating COVID-19. Unfortunately resolving our disparate timelines might take some time yet, much longer for those who have been affected by the virus directly, or lost loved ones to it.
Until then, we should try to focus on the present that is happening, not the one we thought was supposed to. Like Jake going truant on a sunny day in New York City, we need to embrace the little things while we can and leave the rest in Ka’s hands. Magic actually is real, it’s just hidden in ordinary things. Jake finds magic in skipping school, and in an odd used bookstore. Reading these chapters the week of Thanksgiving has helped me finally find magic in a forty-person zoom chat, in the video of my daughter gumming a piece of turkey, and in this little apple pie pocket. Maybe if I hadn’t been so busy being jealous of Harry Potter when I was younger, I could have found real magic much sooner.