In G1. Fireflies Leo joins Jay on the path to the monastery of Sheridan. Leo is abrasive as always, but he finally leaves to wander the mountainside alone. I’d like to talk about Leo in this section, as I’ve given a lot of thought to his portrayal.
If I’m doing my job as a writer, I can make people believe anything. I’ve already thrown my protagonist into the afterlife using hallucinogenic centipedes, and that’s pretty fantastical and surreal, but ultimately harmless. That’s the kind of journey which makes it worth building a magic circle and inviting people inside. But to take advantage of my audience by blind-siding them with propaganda would be dishonest, and dishonesty robs writing of its power. My political messages should be earnest and genuine.
As outlined in the commentary to E4, Leo represents the recent swell of ultra-toxic branches of the ‘alt-right’ in the American cultural subconscious. He’s a coward who hides his intentions behind feigned obliviousness, but shows his true colors when he thinks he’s among like-minded company. In this section he’s astounded that Jay is actually visiting monks and not just using the monastery as an excuse to steal drugs to sell back in America. Leo argues his drug-smuggling is an extension of a family tradition of smart business decisions, and sets off to steal centipedes even though Sheridan has made quite clear that centipedes are of vital cultural and religious importance. He swears using language too colorful to print.
I could probably make Leo a much more damning criticism of neo-Nazis and no one would mind. The suggestion that neo-Nazis and related offshoots use vague economic claims to disguise casual xenophobia and justify exploitation is hardly revolutionary. Still, I thought it was important to temper my portrayal here. It would be easy to make Leo a stereotypical skin-head, openly bigoted and buck-toothed and hailing from the Appalachians, but pulling those punches presents my story as a more even-handed take on current events—and that appearance of even-handedness is vital to my role as a story-teller. (In a later commentary I even deny Leo is a neo-Nazi; he just lacks the self-awareness to understand how he comes across.)
Eventually Leo will have another chance to explain himself, and then he may show more of his unsavory side. Until then, for fairness to the opposition, I try to raise my political concerns without looking like a bad political cartoon.
Leo claims to be a self-made man because he climbed mountain without a lantern. Perhaps he says this to deride Jay for his friendship with Michael the tour guide, as Michael procured Jay his lantern in return for his friendliness in comparison to Leo. But Leo’s claim of being a self-made man doesn’t ring true: he had a jar of fireflies to light his way, and he didn’t even collect the fireflies himself. He even expects Jay to help him carry his luggage up the final ledge, and still claims to be self-sufficient. Despite the claim, he’s quick to blame others for his life’s difficulties, as he bemoans the trouble he’ll have finding centipedes after Jay frees his fireflies. (Remember, he blamed his wife for dragging him to Sheridan. He can’t even be responsible for his own alibi.)
Speaking of fireflies, the image of jarred bugs flailing for air is a disturbing one. People aren’t normally so squeamish about dying bugs, but fireflies have a romantic connotation. Also, crickets and centipedes are associated with religion in Akayama DanJay, so trapping fireflies for light seems like abusing religious doctrine for personal gain. Freed fireflies lighting the trail to the monastery signifies the power of natural religious illumination to guide humanity to knowledge. Trapping fireflies to steal centipedes signifies the potential for religious power to be perverted by those who wish to warp the natural order to suit their own needs.
At the same time, the cramped jar of fireflies reminds me of cramped ships crammed with slaves for trade, or other such affronts to humanity. Under that interpretation, Jay breaking the jar to free the fireflies gains new meaning.
I censor Leo’s final swears for three reasons. First, it lets the reader imagine what cultural boundaries Leo is transgressing. Second, it keeps Leo from being too much of a straw-man; I’m not pinning an egregious phrase on his character to decry him for it. Third, it shows that Jay has stopped caring about what Leo says. However, I pointedly let Leo ‘snigger’ where I would have had him ‘snicker’ in other sections, because it felt like a clue to Leo’s subconscious, or Jay’s view of him. I considered using the word ‘niggardly,’ but that would be too on-the-nose in a section where I’m trying to watch my step.
Anyway, I hope this commentary reveals something about my writing process. I think writers should purposefully control the thematic meaning of their work, because otherwise, they might imply something they don’t mean. Next week I’ll share some inspirations for the lecture Jay will hear in the monastery of Sheridan. Keep eating your worms!