Fiction Is a Hallucination, Packaged for Public Consumption

Delusional thinking helped Genevieve Plunkett write her debut novel "In the Lobby of the Dream Hotel"

Photo by Matúš Kovačovský on Unsplash

In Oliver Sacks’ New Yorker essay “Altered States,” he describes an auditory hallucination he experienced after taking a handful of Artane pills, a very simple hallucination in which he heard his friends enter his home and sit in his living room while he was in the kitchen making eggs.

“We had had a friendly, ordinary conversation, just as we usually had. Their voices were the same as always—there was no hint, until I opened the swinging doors and found the living room empty, that the whole conversation, at least their side of it, had been invented by my brain.”

Sacks’ description of his drug-induced hallucination is very similar to my own experience with non-drug-related delusions in that mine, like his, feel completely ordinary. Even when they bring me to my knees with humiliation, or send me spiraling into grandiose conspiracies, they still feel unnervingly solid. What is missing in my moments of delusion is not a sense of realism, but that sliver of logic signaling that what is happening is highly unlikely. That little seed of doubt that says, this might only make sense to you.

Here’s an example. In 2016, I went to the grocery store by myself, without my two young children. In the frozen foods aisle, I ran into a neighbor of mine—let’s call him Adam—who I was not close with, but who I had known for many years. I smiled at him, and then, feeling bolstered by my temporarily childless status, decided to try out some small talk. Just the other day, I had walked my two small dogs by Adam’s house. They, as usual, had behaved abhorrently, barking and lunging at his younger but better-trained golden retriever. Upon seeing Adam in the store, I said something like, “I’m sorry about my dogs!”

Let it be known that I am not good at small talk, because I am always anxious that I am taking up too much time, saying something useless or painfully cliche. So, sometimes in my haste to say something—anything at all!—I don’t add enough context.

Adam looked at me like he had never before seen me in his life, smiled politely, and kept walking up the aisle. Looking back, it is clear to me that he simply did not know why I was talking about my dogs, because I had failed to provide any backstory. I might even have come on so strongly with my non sequitur that Adam assumed that I was speaking to someone behind him. But in the moment, none of this occurred to me. I froze and my mind scrambled to provide an explanation for why this friendly moment had gone unexpectedly awry. A twin! said my agitated mind. Adam had an identical twin that lived in the same town and everyone knew this but me. I had been speaking to both Adam and his twin for years, thinking they were the same person. No wonder the guy in the frozen food aisle had no idea what I was talking about; he wasn’t who I thought he was. My limbs went cold with embarrassment and panic: How many times had I made a fool of myself this way? How many other neighbors with twins were out there? I drove home in dizzy despair, already planning the ways I might flee my hometown in shame. 

I have experienced many similar delusions, brought on by stress, anxiety, and the absolute drudgery and isolation that is stay-at-home motherhood. Thankfully, they were only ever dangerous, in the end, to my pride. Each delusion was completely different from the last, save for that electric feeling of this all makes sense, even when some distant ozone layer of awareness suspected that something logically alternative was taking place.

I forgot to eat, I woke up early already piecing together new conspiracies.

When David Bowie’s new album came out, I became obsessed with the song “Blackstar.” I was sure there was a message in it for me, dropped into the lyrics as they were written, but also the lyrics as they existed phonetically. Like the transparent pages of a graph laid together, I was sure that there was a personal epiphany at the intersection of these two elements. For example: Bowie says the word “villa,” but (and this is possibly only significant to the American ear) pronounces it “villar.” In this grain of discrepancy, I found multitudes of possibilities. I found that I could sink hours into the ecstatic mystery of it. I forgot to eat, I woke up early already piecing together new conspiracies. I hid pages of illegible notes—anagrams that I had discovered in the chorus, and potential numerical codes—in the kitchen drawers where my husband would not find them.

In the first draft of my debut novel In the Lobby of the Dream Hotel, I attempted to draw from my experience. Portia, a young stay-at-home mom diagnosed with bipolar disorder, is captivated by a song by the deceased rock star Alby Porter. She listens to his song in her kitchen, on repeat, forgetting all her household duties, so focused is she on one lyric: “E, are we still drowning?” In the first version of this scene, I pulled directly from my own thoughts and feelings about Bowie’s “Blackstar.” I thought it was working wonderfully; after all, I had so much experience with manic and obsessive thinking—why not put it to some use?

But my editor pushed back. She thought Portia’s fixation made her seem too crazy. The logic of the delusion was lost on her, and she feared it would be lost on the reader as well.

Oh, I thought. And the still very inexperienced author inside of me wanted to cry, “That’s how it happened!” But, as any seasoned writer knows, how it happened has never granted anyone immunity.

Dreams are notoriously difficult to write about because they are most interesting, maybe only interesting, to the dreamer—because the dreamer does not need to be convinced of them. In retelling the dream, the dreamer must work extra hard to make it matter to their audience, to create relevance. It’s almost impossible. And yet, so many of us still try.

I feel that the same can be said of fiction in its infantile stages, which is why my editor was not convinced about the scene that was closely tied to my David Bowie delusions. Delusions are dreams. They are made-up stories that tickle our own sense of self-importance—even the most negative scenarios. For example, what was I really believing when I thought that everyone knew about Adam’s identical twin, but that I was significant enough for an entire town to want to keep a secret from me?

My approach to writing fiction, even when adhering to the laws of realism, is highly delusional.

My approach to writing fiction, even when adhering to the laws of realism, is highly delusional. I follow feral impulses and soggy emotional flailings, as if trying to catch a fish with my bare hands in murky water. I follow connections the way a manic person experiences “clanging;” words are linked not by meaning but by sound or feel. For me, whether I am in a clinically delusional state or not, this makes writing easier. If I waited for the meaning of words to arrive whenever I sat down to write, I would never get anything done, so I rely on swells of significance, putting characters and situations together based solely on their wordless magnetism, and on my own illogical and highly suspect internal leanings. Sometimes, this approach is not enough to carry an entire novel, but most of the time it is the only way for me to begin and to persevere—by defying the gravity of certain questions, mainly: “What’s the point?” Or: “Why bother?” It is a delusion from the very beginning to pick up a pen and create something new, thinking that our own private dreams are interesting enough to implore others to work at understanding them.

Still, however valid my editor’s concerns, I kept the part in my novel about Portia’s obsession with the rock star, only I made it more palatable, so as not to force the reader to tread water in my cloudy dream reasoning. The personal thrill of my experiences alone was not enough to support the narrative, so I connected Portia’s mania more closely to her creative desires, treating it as a manifestation of her longing for greatness. It is a writer’s job to strain the story as it’s written. If we do not, then not only are we delusional, but we also risk narcissism.

When I returned home from the grocery store that night in 2016, I asked my husband, sheepishly, if our neighbor Adam had a twin brother.

“Not that I know of,” my husband said.

By then, reality was starting to seep in, my panic loosening its chokehold. “Okay,” I said shakily. But in my heart, I knew that even if I could accept it, I wouldn’t ever believe it. Not fully.

Now, seven years later, and with the clarity of mind to look back and understand that my anxiety was bad enough to cause me to draw conclusions that were not there, there is a part of me that still believes in Adam’s twin, still believes that David Bowie is trying to make contact. Without that belief, I would no longer be able to find stories within myself. And without the stories, and the inflated sense of importance they deliver to my brain, I would not have the courage to write. I would let self-doubt and bewilderment take hold, and the words would fall away with nothing to connect them, no intuitive serum to deliver them. And, in a way, there would be no honesty. What I lack when it comes to the logical or the rational, I have made up for in the mastery of suspending disbelief, of listening to the hidden magnetism of delusion. Fiction requires some amount of reality to capture the reader’s belief, but sustained belief has also always demanded a certain dose of madness. Like Oliver Sacks’ hallucination, which his unhindered subconscious brought to him wholly and involuntarily, there is power in the stories that take hold against the force of reality. The stories that, for better or worse, we cannot shake loose until we have tried to convince the world of them.

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