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This is not a pipe

October 16, 2009 |  5:19 pm

In Off the Shelf, our series of essays by writers on writing, Jeff VanderMeer ("Finch") begins with a pipe his father owned:

When I was growing up, my dad had a family heirloom that fascinated me: a small tobacco pipe with a glass-covered pinhole in the side. If you looked through the hole you could see a microfiche-like photograph: four rows of stern-looking men and women, along with names and other information in German or Dutch....

As a kid, my father's pipe represented a potent possibility for adventure, a sense that the world was deeper and wider than I could then know. It also represented a way of bonding with my dad.

But as an adult, it became a different kind of mystery, with a different set of questions. Who were these people trapped inside the pipe? What had they lived for? What had they been willing to die for?

The pipe is more than just an inspiration for VanderMeer's fiction; for him it represents the way a fictional, fantastical world is nourished by our tangible one. As VanderMeer suggests, perhaps it can't really survive without it.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Rene Magritte's "The Treachery of Images (This Is Not a Pipe)" on exhibit at LACMA in 2006. Credit: Robyn Beck / AFP /Getty Images