Tem’s fantastical memoir The Man on the Ceiling, about his wife Melanie. And Melanie’s character, in one of her narrative turns, tells us how a strange and lost man did one night climb through her bedroom window, only to flee when she awoke. The Tems describe their book as “loosely autobiographical” (the book’s jacket adds a parenthetical “maybe” to the common descriptor “A Novel”) and we can guess that this episode may be one of those that are, as the word is typically understood, true.
Given this starting point, a more creatively blinkered author or pair of authors might have left the “man on the ceiling” as a minor aside, a passing nightmare to be commented on and then dismissed. We would instead be holding a straightforwardly autobiographical account of the Tems, of the love and anxieties they have for each other and their family, likely titled “The Man in the Window.” And everything in that account would be true. But such a mechanically truthful account wouldn’t be the whole story, or the whole truth.
There are of course limits to the written word: we can seldom know, much less share, the whole truth. But we can approach it, and it is in approaching the truth that the man on the ceiling (and The Man on the Ceiling) become our guide. The man on the ceiling is the sort of quintessentially fantastic creation that, in Ursula Le Guin’s impossible phrase, puts into words what cannot be put into words. But to attempt an approach: throughout the Tems’ accounts of domestic joys and tragedies, the man on the ceiling serves as a representation of the imagination’s need to represent what we imagine as meaningful units of Story.
In a book that includes a section on the importance of names, it is telling that the book’s name is the naming of the imagination. Melanie’s man in the window is a creature of “simple physics,” a collection of biochemical processes bound by gravity. In those terms, his mutters are only “nonsense,” his actions “not meaning me anything.” It is the man on the ceiling who represents how “we make things mean.” The gravity-defying man on the ceiling is impossible, obviously so: a creation of imagination. And it is our imagination that encodes positive possibilities for the future into stories we call hopes; our imagination that coalesces negative possibilities for the future (of which death is but the most obvious) into discrete units of story called fears. Our imagination stories the past as individual memories. It stories a house into a home; a stranger into a spouse; legal and biological relationships into a family. The man on the ceiling may be an angel or a demon, as the Tems variously suggest in their narrative, but in the end both identities amount to the same truth: both are “masks of God” (echoing Joseph Campbell), representations of the transcendent. The man on the ceiling is a “necessary angel,” of meaning, of sense-making.
Aren’t ghosts nothing more than angels with wings of memory, and vampires angels with wings of blood?
Ceiling incorporates many types of storytelling. The book is divided into eleven thematic sections with titles that include “Naming Names,” “Telling Tales,” “Down the Dark Stairs,” and a phrase repeated often throughout the book: “Everything We’re Telling You Here is True.” The third section, “The Man on the Ceiling,” is closely based on the Tem’s year 2000 novella of the same name that won the Bram Stoker Award, the International Horror Guild Award, and the World Fantasy Award. The other sections, and thus the majority of the book, are new. At different points these sections incorporate both fiction and non-fiction; The Man on the Ceiling is a mixture of fantasy and horror, an essay on where fantasy and horror come from, a family memoir, a how-to book for aspiring writers, and perhaps most abidingly, a snapshot of family life in contemporary America.
It is this last that marks the primary change between the original novella and the new book. The original “Man on the Ceiling” (now most readily found in Datlow and Windling’s The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror: Fourteenth Annual Collection) was an obsidian knife of a story, knapped down to a raw and beautiful universality. In contrast, the new sections situate and ground the book firmly in early 21st century America. Many sections take familiar scenes of Americana as their starting point: sitting down to a family dinner; a visit back to the old neighborhood; a family road trip; the death of a pet; telling stories to grandchildren; a restless night in the large family house. The authors then riff on these scenes, giving their imaginations rein to make connections, add meanings. The road trip — where “the route coincides with the map only occasionally and, even then, deceptively” — becomes a metaphor for the imaginative journey of creating a family (the Tems’ children are all adopted, but we come to realize that Melanie and Steve have conceived them all the same), and then a metaphor for creating a story. The death of a pet becomes a ghost story, and an essay on why we tell ghost stories. A collision between two small planes near the Tems’ Colorado home becomes the man on the ceiling’s defiance of gravity (he is “out there, on the ceiling of the world, masquerading as … the wingtip lights of a doomed plane”), becomes, for post 9/11 America along with much of the rest of the world, a symbol of the looming uncertainty and fear of raising a child at a time when planes do fall out of the sky.
The impact of the additional sections on the original novella is nothing less than a fundamental transformation. “The most disturbing thing about the figures of horror fiction for me,” writes Steve, “is a particular vagueness in their form.” Yet the additions to the novella sufficiently name, shape, and ground the man on the ceiling so as to dispel a large measure of his vagueness. If the original novella was based in the affective language of horror fiction, the new book in both form and content captures — indeed literalizes — the more ambivalent theme of “making a home in the weird” that I noted in the Interfictions anthology of recent interstitial fiction. The Tems certainly realize the magnitude of the transformation, from the questioning of “A Novel” to their word of choice to describe their account, a “testament.” Their story has become a self-conscious work of contemporary social observation. It is something we could imagine as the product of a more humanistic Milan Kundera (who shares a similar obsession with gravity), except that the Tem’s novel has the layered redundancy of a distinctly collaborative construction. The change from the universality of the novella to the novel’s grounding in the zeitgeist acts to highlight the Tems’ understanding of the present: how difficult and scary, how impossible and necessary, it is to love in the 21st century; and the kinds of stories we require to do so.
Steve…starts saying the words even though he doesn’t have the words, he says the words, and they listen and even though he has no idea if they understand or even if they hear but at least they listen, as he says how it is to be here with them, as he says how it’s been, as he says his testimony, of who he was and where he stood and what it was like to be here searching for the words.
All this largely works because the Tems have crafted a believably honest book. The expanded, sectional nature of the new edition does lead to passages not so much irrelevant as extraneous, artifacts of the Tem’s need to fill spaces with tellings and explanations, with connections and meaning. But as this is precisely what the book is about, we are inclined to forgive them. As careful readers, we suspect that the characters of Steve and Melanie are to some unknowable degree both more and less than the authors themselves. (Given the subject matter, it would be surprising if the Tems did not ever engage in the storying of each other, as well as themselves.) Yet the book’s frequent refrain that “everything we’re telling you here is true” adds an implicit assurance: the we. The we asserts that everything here has been seen and verified not just by the characters of Steve and Melanie, but by the thing called “the Tems” that exists behind the characters, between the real people. What the Tems write may not be the whole truth, but the believable manner and form of its construction let us suspect that it approaches the truth.
The most truly horrific segment within The Man on the Ceiling occurs as we approach the end of the book. The maybe-novel has so far been narrated by Melanie and Steve. Then, a sudden shift of perspective: we’re in the head of one of their children. The immediate sensation is one of profound invasion, a breach of trust that a parent would use a child so to tell a story. But then we pull back and realize that of course people imagine stories about those they love, that such imagining in the face of never knowing the whole truth, of never having full control, is one of the necessary attributes that make a good parent, or spouse, or storyteller. The fantastic imagination has ever provided a chronicle of all that humanity cannot know or control. With The Man on the Ceiling, the Tems have created an entry for our time in that chronicle.
Matt Denault has never lost the seriousness of a child at play—especially when it comes to reading. He lives just outside Boston.