In "Meditation 17," John Donne says that "God's hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another" with such poetic beauty that, reading it, I forget what a terrifying idea that actually is. Do I really look forward to being fully known? If I could be assured that I would be fully accepted (something the Bible does assure, but that I have a hard time believing), I would long for it. In Daniel Wallace's Big Fish, Edward Bloom wants acceptance from his son, but can't bring himself to open up to him. He has been fabricating stories about himself all his life, and refuses to turn his back on them.
His son William asks him to just have one completely truthful conversation with him before he dies. At various points it seems like he might be finally opening up, but the seriousness gets shunted off the tracks into some silly joke. William grieves not only for himself but for his father's sake: "Beneath one facade there's nother facade and then another, and beneath that the aching dark place."
The stories that Edward tells all make himself out to be the hero. He subdues a giant, saves a little girl from a mad dog, buys a town to preserve a simple way of life for its people. Edward is safely able to tell these stories because he spends so much time on the road while William is growing up. "The very idea of coming home at the same time every single day made him just a little nauseated," so he travels, and when he comes home, he tells stories. William reflects on the times when his father was away: "I'd say I missed you, if I knew what I was missing." His father is gone most of the time, and when he comes home, he brings a false sense of who he is.
Daniel Wallace has hit on an archetype that must resonate with every father and son who reads the book, the father who feels that he must be judged by his own son. Men have a wild desire to prove themselves, and it is ther sons who can see through them, to see clearly when they are posing. The most sincere thing Edward says to his son is actually a question: "As a father . . . do you think I did a good job?" All of his insecurity is wrapped up in the question. The sad thing is that he wants the affirmation without the honesty, as though the words themselves, "You are a good dad," were "some sort of password" into the afterlife.
Ultimately Big Fish leads the reader to think about his own lies and their effects on his relationships. Don't we really want to be loved for who we are and not for some facade we are throwing up? We're such posers! Beyond that, the book makes us question our idea of reality because so much of it comes through stories others tell. Edward's deathbed scene is told four times. The first three come in chapters entitled "My Father's Death: Take 1," "My Father's Death: Take 2," and "My Father's Death: Take 3." These all seem to be the same very realistic, unsatisfying scene told over again in slightly different ways, as though William is trying to find something good in it, but can't. Then the book ends with what seems like the real deathbed scene, "My Father's Death: Take 4," but it veers off into a wildly mythical, truly wonderful ending, worthy of one of Edward Bloom's stories. It's as though William has decided that his father might as well die the way he lived, and one has the impression that his children's children will hear this version.
- Jon Carter
- I am a high school English teacher who loves to read, and I'm passionate about finding quality books for my students to read. The reviews on this blog will reflect what I am currently reading and sometimes what my students are reading. The books that appear on the list are ones that I think would be of interest to high school students, are age appropriate in content and difficulty, and in some way tap into eternal truths. Most are classics, but some are just fun, popular books.