Mefisto in Onyx
"...the horripilating centerpiece novella, ''Mefisto in Onyx,'' which describes a black telepath's meeting with a white serial killer on death row, is a reminder that Ellison has not lost his capacity to convey stark, staring psychosis." - New York Times
Review by Carol Ann Sima (1994) | Langerhans page
This novella is part of the book SLIPPAGE. -- Moderator out.
Welcome, one and all, to S.P.I.D.E.R. Discussion #17:
Mefisto in Onyx
Let us begin with the ending. Given the discussion surrounding the ending of "Jeffty is Five" that's taken place in recent days, it behooves me to practice full disclosure: I saw the ending coming. About mid-way through the story. A strange sensation, to be sure, but not an unpleasant one. Mark me: This novella is a finely-crafted piece of writing that is a pleasure and a challenge to read, but I knew what was going to happen part-way through the book, the first time that I read it. Anyone else have a similar experience with this?
There, that's that said. Now, in recent days, it seems like a pattern has emerged, with regards to Ellison's stories, at least the ones under discussion here.
1. The piece under review is about something deep and meaningful, but everyone thinks it's a simple little tale.
2. The piece in question is a lovely, simple little tale, and everyone is trying their damnedest to read something deep and meaningful into it.
I would respectfully submit that we have a new category of story with Mefisto in Onyx for our discussions. To wit, this story raises more questions than it answers, but that appears, to me at least, to have been the story's main narrative purpose in the first place. The story itself, while being far from a simple little tale, does revolve around one crucial theme, however, represented in one single sentence, of absolutely breath-taking clarity:
I have always been one of those miserable guys who couldn't get out of his own way.
Irony is a staple in Rudy Pairis' life, and it shines through in the character-driven narrative, with an all-encompassing force.
Small disclaimer here: I believe that we all bring our own worldviews to the table when reading any piece of literature, fiction or non, and I freely admit that I brought mine to this one. So let me take a stab at explaining how I interpret the story personally. As with all opinions, mine is only informed by having read the story in question, and by living the life that I've led.
Systems that are traditionally established to combat different forms of prejudice, be they based on gender, race, sexual orientation or other, lesser, physical differences, still carry with them the core tenet that there is a difference to be oppressed in the first place . With me so far?
The thing with the systems designed to redress these injustices are that they carry with them the inherent, unshakable faith that the actual discrimination taking place is real. In some cases, this is true. However. The part where things get screwloose is where the faith in that belief leads those very systems of redress to be structured in such a way that the system itself actually feeds in to the discrimination taking place, instead of eradicating it, by forcing those who the system should be helping to believe that they are perceived as inferior in the first place.
In other words, they come to believe that their physical differences actually do "make a difference" in how they are perceived/how they go about living their lives, and that they must therefore live as though they are under the spectre of constant oppression, even when they are not. Overcoming this ingrained and overwhelmingly "accepted" worldview is Rudy Pairis' greatest triumph. The bleakest of ironies takes form in the fact that he has to become "not Different" in order to finally be able to "get out of his own way".
That's what personally grabbed me about the story, when I first read it, and whenever I read it again.
Now. When this story was first discussed, there was some speculation as to what took place "after" the story. At the time I pooh-poohed this, saying the story itself was a self-contained universe, as all good stories must be. However, on rereading, I really do hope that part of Rudy's getting out of his own way involves eliminating the "I'll run myself down before anyone else can do it" problem. Mind you, it's a problem I'm still working on myself, so that's probably why it resonates so deeply with me. Although I'd like to think I like myself more than Pairis likes his reflection in the mirror, covered with Spanning's face or his own. I mean, deep down, Pairis clearly has a quite pathological dislike of himself, something I didn't realize fully until this last reading.
Other than that, whether Alison and Rudy-in-Spanning's body got it on or not, is irrelevant. The important questions the ending raises are more stuff-of-life posers, such as:
If psychopathology is indeed based on miswired neurotransmitters, or fucked-up brain chemistry, will Rudy's "shriking" into Spanning's physical body make him subject to the same psychopathology as well? Or will his brush with the pseudo-psychopathology of the false memories Spanning planted in his brain "protect" Pairis from going down that path again?
More existentially, even though Rudy is a tad screwed-up on the dysfunction spectrum, is he still morally upright enough of a soul to resist peeking into the memories left behind in Spanning's head? (Because, you just know, if Spanning's the representation of murderous intent from Cain, all the way down through the ages, there've got to be some pretty ripe memories left gestating in there.) Or, again, will his taste of madness while waiting for execution protect him from that? I would answer yes.
Other questions: Will the change of habitat result in a permanent "getting out of his own way", or will it really come down to the stuff Pairis' soul is made of, in the end?
This story raises many questions, not so much about the colour of the skin adorning it, but of the mutability and instable nature of the fickle human heart(soul). Which is, I think, intended to be the point.
Of course, the characters couldn't be who they are, and the narrative wouldn't unfold as it does, if Spanning and Pairis weren't physical opposites of each other. But a part of me still wonders if Ellison was tempted to use the same device he employed in Paladin of the Lost Hour, to such great effect:
One of these men was black. The other was white.
Of course, that's pretty much what you get in the end, anyway, with the reversal. Which might not be a reversal at all, if you consider Spanning evil (darkness) and Pairis good (light). Which speaks to the preconceptions some facets of society (thankfully now dwindling) have, in that Pairis would be considered evil, wrong or bad, in his own skin, when he's perfectly innocuous, and no harm to anyone, save himself. Whereas Spanning, evil incarnate, would be (and is, when he has control of Ally) the good ol' boy of pure-driven innocence, a lot of which is based on his looks. Pairis thereby "inherits" the assumption that he is now automatically assumed to good and innocent and pure, etcetera, merely because of his looks.
Another question: Will Rudy be tempted down the same path as Spanning, now that he has not only found another of his "kind", but killed them as well? Or will finding another shrike fall to nothing on Pairis' list of priorities? Maybe not, if he thinks there's another shrike with the same kind of evil that was in Spanning's head, still running around loose.
Well, that's about all I can come up with, for now. Anyone else?