Fable by Charles Yu

★★★★★ (5/5)

Read the story here

Once upon a time, there was an angry guy, who hated the story he was in.

What an incredible and heartrending story. “Fable” by Charles Yu captures the essence of adult life, its individuality and parenthood, longing and responsibility, apprehensions and shortcomings – all portrayed against the backdrop of some fantastical medieval land and time which is rife with magic and curses, swordplay and cottages.

But what kind of story could the man tell? The man wasn’t a good enough storyteller. He’d had a kind of allegorical thing going for him once, but he’d lost the trail. No map, no legend. He no longer knew what stood for what.

This is a story about a man trying to discover his own story and where he fits in it. To the therapist, the man retells his life-story as a fable. Once upon a time there lived an ordinary man who was not adept at fencing and decided to become a lawyer when what he really wanted was to become a blacksmith. After tending to an ailing mother for a long time, he decided to marry the plainest girl in the village, a candlemaker’s daughter. Together they lived a happy, quiet life until they were cursed with childlessness.

And the man loved his wife. To the extent that he knew how to love, anyway. 

A few years later they were blessed with a special needs boy whom they both loved and cared for. The man couldn’t fathom what was to become of his life and if this was all there was to it. He starts to distance himself from his wife and child whom he loves unabashedly but in the process of searching for his identity he is withdrawn from them. The story ends with the man searching for a trail back home – a metaphor for self-discovery (or the beginning of it).

When he was five, the lawyer-blacksmith’s son said, Dad is my best friend. He said this from very far away, from a place deep inside himself. The man could barely hear his son. The boy was sitting on the ground and looked confused, and from his mouth came a terrible sound. An old sound, a pain trapped in there. 

This is a story of the commonplace man who is doused with daily routines of life. Out of this ordinariness emerges an everyday hero who struggles not with dragons or quests but with the questions of existence and meaning of life. For our hero, the man, meaning of life lies within his family and the reality he experiences.

That’s what fairy-tale heroes do. They become government lawyers. They buy groceries. They shave their son three times a week, and feed him pudding, and sing to him once in a while.

Heroism is to be found in the heart of every man and woman who have suffered tragic blows from life yet they choose to endure and intend to make something of their short lives. The man comes in conflict with the goal of his life, his wife encounters mental distress and addiction and their son struggles with physical handicap. How is one to traverse through life’s trials without guidance?

They would never fire him, he knew. He could have a job there for as long as he wanted, doing land surveys on local fiefdoms. Dividing up the realm for lesser lords and vassals, assessing taxes on men far richer than he could ever dream of being. Drawing a steady stream of copper into his accounts. A stable life, a life for his family. That was the right thing to do.

Here the story makes its concrete point: one is one’s own guide. The man must start anew with a new-fangled map, create his own story and lead it to whichever end he aims for. The story brilliantly fuses notions of fate and free-will. Fate intended him to father a special child, to spend a portion of his life in stalled careers, but free-will grants him the choice to not abandon his family and conceive a new pathway out of the woods.

But the man was coming to understand that his therapist was not going to let him out of this exercise until he had navigated his way along (1) an emotionally honest path to (2) an unexpected (3) yet inevitable destination. Whatever that meant.

This is a remarkably crafted story, so simple and subtle but with a powerful message of courage and endurance. A highly recommended quick and beautiful read for catharsis!

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