In Lacan’s mirror stage, an infant looks in the mirror and sees itself as a coherent, capable whole. That joyful instant of recognition is actually a misrecognition; the infant is not in fact that whole yet; it’s a vision of what will be. Or of what the infant imagines will be; Lacan’s point is that the image is false; the vision of coherence is not really a coherence to come; it’s a fantasy. Moreover, the future imagined coherence creates a past imagined incoherence. Part of the misrecognition of the mirror stage is the illusion of a stage, the dream of chronology. The future adult self is created simultaneously with the past child self; identity comes into being at the same moment as a past non-identity comes into being. The self as a chronology is an invention; the past, like the future, is a fiction.

The child, therefore, is precisely a fiction; it is a character in a novel, with a made up background to go with the made up narrative. It shouldn’t be surprising, therefore, that a number of novels that are especially interested in reader identification or mirroring deliberately thematize the mirror stage (or at least an imagined version thereof.) For example, Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Identity semi-famously opens with the main character getting a crack on the skull and forgetting himself. The reader, therefore, enters the novel just as the character does — bereft of a past as of a future, seeking to piece together a coherent self which extends backwards as well as forwards in time. Similarly, in Rick Riordan’s fantasy quest novel The Lost Hero, the main character, Jason, wakes up on a bus with no memory of how he got there. More, those around him (his girlfriend and his best friend) do remember him, because the gods have altered their memories. His past is (within the book) actually false; his story is (again, within the story) actually invented. Entering the book is entering a meta-fiction; to read is to falsely identify with a character whose identity is false. The fiction is really fiction, so your identity (as hero) is all the more thorough in being true to its falseness. You are lost, and are therefore the hero.

Octavia Butler’s novel Fledgling works in a similar way. The novel opens in media self — the first person narration does not know who it is; identity comes into being all at once, without a past or a chronology.

Again, the effect of this move is to put you in the same place as the character — you are linked to the protagonist through joint ignorance. Neither of you knows yourself. In the Bourne Identity and Lost Hero, this is used as an excuse to provide you with a default, standard-issue protagonist self — you become a deadly assassin (with a heart of gold) or the son of a God. In both cases, the fantasy fiction self is white, male, and heterosexual; the image sets you up as the iconic cultural mainstream.

Butler does something rather different. As you read, you discover that the fictional self you are building in the mirror is a black female child who also happens to be a vampire. Though it takes a while to figure it out, the first thing “you” do in the book is kill and eat a friend (to help you heal your wounds); shortly thereafter, you find an adult male, sleep with him, and suck his blood. In this instance, then, the child looks in the mirror and discovers that it is a black female monster, cannibal, murderer, and pedophile. The imagined self is an other; the created past is a nightmare — at least if you’re the supposed male heterosexual white male reader of the Bourne Identity.

That’s really the most interesting part of Fledgling; following the opening revelations, the book is mostly devoted to filling in details about cool vampires, a task which is ultimately as mundane as Ludlum’s genre spy story or Riordan’s video-game-esque fantasy battle set-pieces. The implications, though, are interesting. The imagined self, is, after all, not the self; that thing in the mirror is a thing, some simulacrum wearing your form (which didn’t exist before it wore it.) Who you are is a fiction, which could be a dream of empowerment, but could also be a dream of alienation and monstrosity. And Butler neatly points out that which is which is not necessarily all that obvious. For a black queer woman reader, couldn’t Jason Bourne, the violent white mass-murderer with a gun, be the monster, while the subversive super-powered vampire is the vision of coherent empowerment? One person’s joyful empowerment fantasy can be another person’s nightmare of self-alienation — especially since the one person and another person are just fictions; somebody else you devour to climb into your story, which had already always started without you.


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