Funny how you can always tell a cult by who gets to have sex. In “Always,” by Karen Joy Fowler, the unnamed narrator is warned by her mother: if only the pastor is having sex, it’s a cult. When the narrator and her husband come to Always and discover exactly that about Brother Porter, she just shrugs her shoulders and says, Okay, definitely not a religion. As for the sex itself, she primly keeps it off-screen.
So why were she and Wilt so eager to pay $5,000 each in 1938 dollars for the privilege? Brother Porter can make them immortal. (Oh, really?) Being immortal, the narrator makes some interesting observations about art being about death and photography being about moments that will never come again. When a favorite dog dies, she mourns not only his death, but the deaths of all the other dogs she might have. No matter what happens, she never loses her faith in Brother Porter’s gift. A true member of her cult.
This is a well-written story, but I like my fantasy more unambiguous. I’m more interested in how the use of first person maintains that ambiguity.
The narrator tells her story in a conversational tone. In a few places, she directly addresses her audience, saying: “I can’t tell you how old Brother Porter was,” “I’ll get to that,” and (most intriguingly) “Here’s the part you already know.”
However, if she is speaking to an audience, there’s no indication that she is getting interrupted or questioned. It doesn’t seem to be a letter, as there’s no date or salutation. Instead, there are headings dividing the story: “How I Got Here,” “How It Went On,” “What Happened Next,” and “Why I’m Still Here.” So it most resembles a personal essay or magazine article.
Of course, the reason to use first person is it gives you an unreliable narrator. You are hearing what the narrator believes, and she really, truly believes she is immortal. You receive a picture of how a person would live if she thought she was immortal. I, for one, feel sorry for her.
One of those stories about immortality that implies we’re happier being mortal.
Tomorrow: A story about a peculiar kind of resurrection.