My Superpower is a regular guest column on the Skiffy and Fanty blog where authors and creators tell us about one weird skill, neat trick, highly specialized cybernetic upgrade, or other superpower they have, and how it helped (or hindered!) their creative process as they built their project. Today we welcome Kip Manley to talk about how knowing he doesn’t know a damn thing relates to City of Roses.
There’s this proverb, and you have to imagine I’m opening a drawer as I say this, in the cheap pressboard desk between us, and I’m pulling out a bottle with a little green label, and a plain white paper cup, and where are my manners? Would you like some, too? Rye whiskey, but you know what they say: makes the band sound better. I don’t know how it got such a reputation as rot-gut. Is it really such an acquired taste? Maybe it’s just that it’s hard to make well, and bad rye’s just that much worse than bad scotch, or bad bourbon. Anyway. Ice is in the bucket there, if you like, and would you look at that: there’s a second paper cup, just for you.
Where was I? — Proverb, right. Goes like this: them as know don’t say, and them what say, don’t know. Which, I mean, forgive the veneer of vernacular, I get folksy sometimes when I drop some science, but the point is this: you’re gonna talk to a lot of people, up and down this shelf, this hall, whatever, all these urban fantasists, or contemporary fantasists, modern fantasists, indigenous, to use Attebery’s term, except maybe we don’t because it’s not without its problems, the magical realists, except let’s leave them off to one side, maybe, these people, you’re gonna talk to them and they’re gonna come off as, you know, likable, personable, a little sarcastic maybe, bit of a smartass, but that’s the quintessential modern, contemporary, urban narrator, right? Eight million stories in the naked city, hoo, boy, let me tell you, been there, done that, world-weary, jaded, and they stole this voice from reams upon reams of private eye mysteries because, you know, urban, contemporary, and who’s gonna argue with success like that? But, and we’re zeroing in on what I’m getting at, to be that jaded, to be that weary of the world, you have to know something of it, or make like you do, and whether it’s the secret magic hidden in the everyday you know or the open weirdness of a world just slightly askew they’re gonna tell you all about it just to show that yeah, they’ve been there, they’ve done that, and every werewolf likes this, you know, and they never met a vampire that didn’t do that, and there’s this one thing you can do will trip up a ghost and as for magic, well, magic, and here what you have to imagine is me holding up my hands, a shrug, a shake of my head, something that isn’t a smile pinching off the corners of my mouth because words fail, you know? Words fail.
Them what say, don’t know. Not really.
Another shot? More ice?
Magic. –Let me set the proverb aside a second and tell you something about magic. –You’ve heard it a lot, or you’re going to, that one of the things that magic depends on, hinges on, is names. True names. You know someone’s true name, the name they keep a secret way deep down inside, and you have power over them: three letters designate God for me, or thee, as the man says, and whether you get this idea from von Hardenberg or Crowley or Le Guin, there is a kernel of truth in it, but also of bullshit, because it’s magic — magical thinking — and all magic is bullshit. And what this bullshit occludes is the very real damage that a name, that naming does to you, and to whomever it is you’ve named, or who has let you name them — because once that name is fixed in place, it’s all you’ll ever know of them, or of the relationship that might actually have ever been between you.
Which is maybe why magicians, true magicians, are chary of true names — not because of what you might do to them, if you knew theirs, but of the harm that might be done to you if they allowed themselves to think that maybe they knew yours.
So them as know? Don’t say.
But that’s just me, and who am I? What do I know? Telling you all of this. Why am I telling you all of this? Because. Because I can tell by the look in your eye that you maybe don’t want your mysteries neatly solved, everything lined up, pinned down, painstakingly labeled, and every shade forestalled by the same weird trick. –You want the older, colder stuff, that cruelly can’t be solved, that raises the hair on the back of your neck, that words fail in the face of. And me? Words fail me, all the time. That’s my superpower: that I don’t know a goddamn thing, and that I know that I don’t know — which is what makes all the difference.
I’d pour you another, but there was less in the bottle than I thought. Hang on, I’m sure there’s another around here somewhere, and at this point you should imagine me opening another drawer in that desk, and the rattle of a lone pencil rolling along the bottom of it.
Kip Manley is not a pseudonym. His webserial, City of Roses, recently concluded its first major story, collected in two volumes available through all the usual outlets.