The Structure of Reality in The Letter

It is easiest to approach The Letter as if it were almost two distinct games, one from the mundane world and one from the realm of science fiction, though united by common themes of adulthood and familial connection.

The beginning sections of the game are calm and reflective. We follow the narrator as he is returning to his childhood home after many years of absence. Through his eyes we see, not how much is different, but rather how little has changed in the rural world, and yet how much he has changed in the way he sees it. A flashback establishes the death of his father as the defining moment of his childhood, and the mysterious letter he carries no doubt relates to this long-absent figure in his life.

This section comes to its conclusion with the scene at his father's grave. As he carries his mother home, recognizing how light and frail she has now become, he both reconnects with his estranged family and steps fully into adulthood. From now on they are still mother and son, but precisely who is the caregiver and who is the dependent is now much more ambiguous. A new phase of life is beginning for them both, catalyzed by this visit home.

The piece could easily have ended there, actually, and perhaps should have, since the tone was consistent, the imagery strong, and character development reasonable. The theme is that of a transition that we all must go through eventually, as parents age and children take on new responsibilities in life, and it's a message worth reading.

Instead the game continues on to its main plot. After an accident on the steps of the shine, the narrator finds himself apparently tossed bodily back in time, to the days of his childhood, and in fact is soon discovered by his own oddly precocious 8-year-old self. Awkward introductions abound as he is brought home to meet younger versions of his mother and still-living father.

He forms new connections with them all, acting as the older brother he never had, and understanding the father he never really knew. But eventually he finds to his horror that his future self was a participant and even an indirect cause in his father's unpreventable death, and the crucial letter he had kept for years upon years was actually written by his own hand.

The central plot element of this piece, a self-consistent time loop in which the same characters play multiple roles at different stages of their lives, has a long history in literature. In American science fiction, Heinlein tackled this theme in "—All You Zombies—"1 and his earlier "By His Bootstraps"2, and Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself3 is another good example. In foreign literature, Lem's The Star Diaries also contains an excellent story4 where multiple versions of the protagonist are the only characters present at all. And the theme has even showed up in modern popular culture, through several Star Trek plots and a yet more similar family-twisting episode5 of Futurama.

In this particular case, the treatment has some unique elements. For instance, the method of time travel — falling down the steps — is certainly intended to inject some uncertainty into whether he actually experienced these events or only hallucinated them while unconscious. (I'm quite amused that the narrator apparently watched too many sitcoms involving amnesia. The cure for an injury-induced phenomenon is clearly to injure the person in the same way again!)

His experiences in the past likewise had a dreamlike quality to them, as no one really acts realistically. His parents in particular seemed to have figured out his identity early on but made no big deal of it despite the clearly fantastic nature of the event. The narrator himself wasn't really paying attention to the situation he thought he found himself in either: he had ample time to figure out the date and perhaps warn his father of his impending doom, as any reasonable person would do when given an opportunity to change a tragic event in their past.

And of course there is the slightly strange element that the narrator apparently had no memory of a mysterious stranger sharing his own exact name who befriended him just before his father died and left soon afterwards. In a normal self-consistent time loop, this would be a necessary piece of the puzzle.

Basically the feeling is that all the other characters knew they were in a story for the narrator's benefit. They had roles to play and lines to read, and the only things that truly mattered were the insights he gathered along the way and took back with him to the present.

So we are left with an uncomfortable choice. Given the unreality of some of the scenes of the past, a dream interpretation makes more sense than taking them as literal truth. But if they were all the narrator's imaginings, why would he cast himself in the role he did, rather than as a bystander in the accident, and was this what his father was actually like? Perhaps the events of his piece come from some realm intermediate between fact and fantasy, where elements of truth are woven together with dreams in order for the narrator to finally find his place in his family and in the world, as he did.

29 November 2008
Edward Keyes

Works Cited

  1. Heinlein R. "—All You Zombies—". Fantasy and Science Fiction: March 1959.
  2. Heinlein R. "By His Bootstraps". Astounding Science Fiction: October 1941.
  3. Gerrold D. The Man Who Folded Himself. Random House: 1973.
  4. Lem S. "The Seventh Voyage". The Star Diaries. Seabury Press: 1971.
  5. Groening M et al. "Roswell That Ends Well". Futurama: 9 December 2001.