Where's Mary Sue When You Need Her?
Where's Mary Sue When You Need Her? is a fanfic by Scissors MacGillicutty. A shaggy-dog story that depends as much on Daria fan culture as knowledge of the series, it follows a day in the life of its author, as he chaperons Stacy Rowe around his native New York, writes a old-style script fic under an assumed name, and then crosses dimensions to Lawndale where things really start to get weird for him.
Despite much initial acclaim, the author now considers this story marred by repetitive exposition throughout, confusing and unnecessary discussions of self-referentiality in art at crucial points, and half-digested analytic metaphysics in the mouth of an impossibly off-canon Daria at its end. After some sober reflection, Daria fandom agreed, and the story won a CRAPPIE in 2006. The tale is online at PPMB, but the author plans numerous revisions.
Certain readers (i.e., cyde, The Angst Guy) disagree with this sentiment, and cite this tale as a masterwork of extreme angst-fic. The depiction of "Mad Dog" Morgendorffer and his poisonous legacy is especially good, with its cascade of disastrous consequences for the Morgendorffer family. The shock ending is very satisfying. A tour-de-force of upended character stereotypes and lurid secret agendas, and an amazing metafic and self-insertion as well.
Numerous readers, some of them appreciative, found the final two chapters confusing. The confusion comes from the theory of being, or ontology, that Daria articulates in the penultimate chapter, and from MacGillicutty's experiential verification of it in the final chapter. Since the author has yet to produce revisions that will give a better explanation of the ontology operative (and keep Daria more in character), he feels obliged to give an explanation of it here.
The Problem: the Ontological Status of Fictional Characters
A fictional character is by definition non-existent: there is no winged horse Pegasus, there never was a Philip "Pip" Pirrip, or at least not one whose life experiences are identical to those of Pip in Great Expectations, and a search for a Daria Morgendorffer identical to the one portrayed on the series Daria among the quick and the dead will be in vain.
At the same time, people have no qualms about saying these figures "exist in the mind," without any explanation of the terms "exist" and "mind," thus causing all sorts of confusion. For example, Richard and Roger may view the same animation cel from Daria the television series and Richard will conclude from it that Daria the character is slender, while Roger will conclude that Daria the character is chubby. If Daria the character "exists in the mind," but actual minds disagree as to the details, which mind is right? Is slender Daria or chubby Daria the real Daria? Stipulating that there are as many Darias as there are people exposed to the show only increases the problems with the assertion that a character "exists in the mind." If each Daria is distinct yet legitimate, the Daria of the show loses any claim to priority over these other version, and one does not have to be a blinkered prescriptivist to see the problem with such an approach. Much of the pleasure and therefore legitimacy of alternative universe Daria fanfiction comes from the frisson between the series and the alternative universe created by the author, and without the priority of the series, that pleasure evaporates; hence the worthlessness of arguments against fic that is "too AU" or "too off-canon." But against stupidity, the Gods themselves struggle in vain.
These are just consequences of a general problem with any name N whose referent has an unclear ontological status. The American philosopher and logician W.V.O. Quine summarized the problem thus:
Suppose now that two philosophers, McX and I, differ over ontology. Suppose McX maintains there is something which I maintain there is not. McX can, quite consistently with his own point of view, describe our difference of opinion by saying that I refuse to recognize certain entities. I should protest, of course that he is wrong in his formulation of our disagreement, for I maintain that there are no entities, of the kind which he alleges, for me to recognize; but my finding him wrong in his formulation of our disagreement is unimportant, for I committed to considering him wrong in his ontology anyway.
When I try to formulate our difference of opinion, on the other hand, I seem to be in a predicament. I cannot admit that there are some things which McX countenances and I do not, for in admitting that there are such things I should be contradicting my own rejection of them.
It would appear, if this reasoning were sound, that in any ontological dispute the proponent of the negative side suffers the disadvantage of not being able to admit that his opponent disagrees with him.
This is the old Platonic riddle of nonbeing. Nonbeing must in some sense be, otherwise, what is it that there is not? This tangled doctrine might be nicknamed Plato's beard; historically it has proved tough, frequently dulling the edge of Occam's razor.
—from "On What Is" in From a Logical Point of View by W.V.O. Quine
In summary, saying that a name N has no referent will provoke the rejoinder that to speak of N and to be understood means that N has a referent, but not one that exists in the ordinary senses of the word.
It's obvious why this would be troubling to a philosopher, but why would it trouble producers and consumers of fiction? Some would say it shouldn't; others would say it doesn't; and I claim both are wrong. The solution to this problem in fiction is so well-established that people fail to realize that it is a solution, and to this very problem: the solution is to stipulate that there are multiple real universes, and these universes are populated by fictional characters and alternate versions of them. MacGillicutty (the character, not the author) takes this solution as true until Daria disabuses him of it in the penultimate chapter of "Where's Mary Sue?"
The Solution: Fictional Characters as Unactualized Possibilities in a Single Real World
The solution in the story is a theory that Quine attributes to a "Wyman" and rejects in his essay:
Pegasus, Wyman maintains, has his being as an unactualized possible. When we say of Pegasus that there is no such thing, we are saying, more precisely, that Pegasus does not have the special attribute of actuality. Saying that Pegasus is not actual is on a par logically with saying that the Parthenon is not red; in either case we are saying something about an entity whose being is unquestioned....Wyman, in an ill-conceived effort to appear agreeable, genially grants us the nonexistence of Pegasus and then, contrary to what we mean by the nonexistence of Pegasus, insists that Pegasus is.
—"On What Is", Quine
However, what Quine finds philosophically objectional about this theory is what makes attractive to MacGillicutty (the author, not the character):
Wyman's overpopulated universe is in many ways unlovely. It offends the aesthetic sense of us who have a taste for desert landscapes, but this is not the worst of it. Wyman's slum of possibles is a breeding ground for disorderly elements. Take, for instance, the possible fat man in that doorway; and, again, the possible bald man in that doorway. Are they the same possible man, or two possible men? How do we decide? How many possible men are there in that doorway?...[I]s the concept of identity simply inapplicable to unactualized possibles? But what sense can be found in talking of entities which cannot meaningfully be said to be identical with themselves and distinct from one another? These elements are well-neigh incorrigible. —"On What Is", Quine (emphasis added)
Per Quine, granting the existence of unactualized possibles leads to an infinity of entities with neither well-defined boundaries between them nor individuating properties to isolate them. Different entities may occupy the same space at the same time, while a singular entity appears in different places at the same time. The philosopher Quine may find this repugnant, but MacGillicutty the author (not the character) finds it appealing. Thus instead of traveling to another world, MacGillicutty the character (not the author) becomes receptive to any chains of events for unactualized possibles in the single, real world.
For example, in chapter eight MacGillicutty shoots Jake and Daria shoots herself. Yet not long into chapter nine, MacGillicutty the character notices
...a flicker of light that resolved into Daria and Jake sitting at the table, Jake going through paperwork from Raft, and Daria reading the Lawndale Sun-Herald.
“$15,000 a semester? We could all take a helicopter ride for that kind of money!”“Guess I'll have to set up a pushcart and sell some of those left-over hot dogs from Basement Bob's, huh Dad?”
which is a variant of the opening of chapter seven, "Once at Lawndale." These are not ghosts or hallucinations: it's another possible chain of events. Likewise, when MacGillicutty later sees Jane put her head in her hands only to see
when she raised her head, it was Daria's face I saw, and suddenly the kitchen was the Morgendorffer kitchen, and then it was Daria who said, “But I guess it was the money that finally won me over to Jane's way of thinking. I mean, Mom was making good but not great money, while Dad was spending it, and I'd be damned if I didn't go away to college—”
the focus of his perceptions have slid from one chain of events to another.
Note that these are all objective, not products of the narrator's mind, but sense data coming to him. As Quine notes, such a universe is "overpopulated" and a "breeding group for disorderly elements," both cognitively—such as multiple inconsistent Darias and Janes—and morally—witness amoral drug-dealing Daria.
The difficulties of following such a narrative consist in having to knowingly suspend many of the tacit assumptions of ordinary sense perception. We do not expect multiple solid entities to occupy the same space, or for a single entity to appear in multiple locations at once. The theoretic difficulties Quine mentions—"How many possible men are there in that doorway?...[I]s the concept of identity simply inapplicable to unactualized possibles? But what sense can be found in talking of entities which cannot meaningfully be said to be identical with themselves and distinct from one another?"—are no longer theoretical difficulties, but real hazards of sensory overload. The only single continuous narrative thread in the final chapter is MacGillicutty's narration of his experiences being so assaulted, and his attempts to cling to a single narrative possibility.
Finally, this ontology means not only that all the so-called Daria Universes are actually contained in Daria-501, but that infinitely many others are in Daria-501. Roentgen has shown that the cardinality of the Daria Universes is ℵ1, or the same as the power set of the real numbers. Whether all of those universes are interesting is another question, and one beyond the scope of this article.
Links to Chapters at PPMB
1. Hauser and O'Brien
2. Yes, We Have No Diet Ultra Cola
3. The First Thing You Learn is that You Always Have to Wait
4. Bureaucratic Scherzo
5. No Place Like Out of Place
6. Fear and (Self) Loathing in Someplace Like Brooklyn
7. Once at Lawndale (Part 1)
7. Once at Lawndale (Part 2)
7. Once at Lawndale (Part 3)
7. Once at Lawndale (Part 4)
7. Once at Lawndale (Part 5)
7. Once at Lawndale (Part 6)
7. Once at Lawndale (Part 7)
7. Once at Lawndale (Part 8)
7. Once at Lawndale (Part 9)
7. Once at Lawndale (Part 10)
7. Once at Lawndale (Part 11)
7. Once at Lawndale (Part 12)
8. The Last Turn of the Screw
9. No Place Like Out of Place Redux