When I was a child, I was a big fan of Ray Bradbury. Although The Illustrated Man particularly intrigued me with the notion of a tattooed storyteller, the book really wasn’t different from Bradbury’s other books of short stories. In fact, I had read a number of the stories in other places. The illustrated man, then, turned out to be a conceit to tie a series of unrelated stories together. Similarly, I recently read Sherman Alexie’s Flight, which used time travel as a tool to tie together a group of stories. In both cases, the flagrant use of fascinating concepts for nothing more than binders annoyed me and, in both cases, the saving grace was the authorial voice. Both writers write–and in the case of Bradbury, wrote–beautiful prose.
A man who bears stories as tattoos gives me the chills. Could you imagine if a person were mapped with his own life stories–if you could visually examine the places he had traveled? The map would become so intricate after a few years that it would appear as a blur across the skin. It, then, would have to be read using specialized tattoo reading glasses, and it might be a sign of an intimate relationship if both parties in a couple had the proper prescription for viewing the other’s map.
Maps are marvelous ways of viewing the world. Almost anything can be mapped: streets, topography, geology, fictional worlds, the known and unknown universe. The mind’s neurons can be mapped, and so can complex workings of cells. DNA can be mapped. History can be mapped, by events and personal ancestry and broader people migrations. The structure of time creates a map–time travel books provide endless looping maps of time. In a three-dimensional model, a map might appear as an egg with layers of skin to be peeled back. The universe’s map could very well resemble a matryoshka doll, its parts nested, and a baby deep within the many generations of mothers.
Human emotions and behavior often draw predictable maps. For that, psychologists and philosophers have invented perfectly workable personality typing systems that resonate with people, such that people go about declaring their mapped out types. I’m an INTJ! The map of traits insists I am. Deeper than outward manifestations, in the subconscious, a hidden map waits to be explored. It isn’t as cryptic as it looks in dreams, but dreams are similar to viewing isolated images of a random bridge, a volcano, and a back road that are somewhere within a 1000 square mile quadrant. The volcano might be easy to discover after a little exploring, but that one back road may be nearly impossible to pin down. Nevertheless, a hidden map that is only visible in parts is a map, still, and not cryptology.
Old, very detailed maps often appear as hatch marks and fingerprints when viewed up close, with the scale at a distance. Fingerprints are maps that would be difficult to replicate, and where do they lead, anyway? I don’t know, but if you examined the keyboard I’m typing on right now, you could discover a map of letters used frequently. Perhaps stories are, ultimately, just maps of letters, of the symbols that represent letters that represent speech, which can be mapped as sound.
Ray Bradbury has created lush and magical maps to Martian lands; Sherman Alexie has drawn maps of history and reservation life, of Indian life. Where are the hidden maps of stories? What do those Martian lands represent to the human soul? What do enclosed reservations represent? Time travel used with no explanation, and a magically tattooed man whose drawings tell stories with a given, yet unsuitable explanation, are very simple map jobs. They provide a method for navigating from one place to the next. And, I suppose, that’s what we’re all trying to do in the world, especially those of us obsessed with maps.
Cartographers almost never ask for directions, but that is, unfortunately, an entirely different idea to explore.