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Fic Rec Wednesday: Madwomen in the basement

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Today the Dot begins a new series designed to showcase some of the best fanfiction on the Internet. Fandom will talk about how fanfiction “transforms” the original canon, but the media tends to focus only on “badfic,” the worst of the worst. The Daily Dot will try to rectify that by reviewing some of the best fanfic we’ve seen and loved around the Internet.

"i am the hero of this story"

by electrumqueen

The fandom for Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending film Inception is divided into two parts: the mostly male side that congregates at forum-based sites like Nolanfans, and the largely female side that produces fanwork on LiveJournal, Tumblr, the Archive of Our Own, and elsewhere.  While the male side tends to be characterized by cult worship of Nolan and his films, the female side has largely skewed towards exploring the world of Inception and questioning many of its central themes—like the overtly sympathetic viewpoint the film holds towards the protagonist, Dom Cobb. (Spoilers ahead!)

electrumqueen’s brilliant two-parter is a story that falls into the category of Inception fics that utilize the trope "Mal woke up." This body of fic dares to believe that Cobb’s wife, Mal, was right all along; that Mal, Cobb’s wife, was right when she told Cobb their "reality" wasn't real, and that when she jumped she woke up from the dream. That’s how electrumqueen’s first fic, “i am the hero of this story (don't need to be saved)” opens:

It isn't the fall that's terrifying, so much as the sound of it, the wind wrenching past her skin, whipping her hair into her face and her mouth. Just before she hits the ground, she thinks, what if. She thinks about Philippa and James; she thinks about Dom. She thinks, what if I never see you again. But the concrete is rushing up to meet her, and she breathes in, forcing herself to know this world is not real and:

She opens her eyes. His eyelashes are the first thing she sees, steady and dark and firm; the rest of his face slowly blurs into focus, lines familiar and beloved. She lies still for a moment, listening to the sound of herself breathing, and then she says his name. Dom, she murmurs, and her mouth is dry so it comes out warped and she tries again, desperate. Dom.

He isn't moving, muscles slack with sleep. The stubble on his chin has grown longer than he likes it, weedy and patchy and sparsely long.

From here, the fic focuses on the turmoil of Mal’s life as she attempts to deal with the confusion of her new life and find ways to wake Dom up. In the process, electrumqueen not only critiques the characterization of Cobb but the way the film demonizes Mal:

"All right," she says, "what do you want."

[Arthur’s] eyes widen. "I—" he says. "Mal—"

"We were experimenting," she says. "We went deep, three layers. I woke up, he didn't. It won't happen to anyone who isn't stupid."

"Mal," he says. "Are you all right?"

She stares into her glass, tosses it back. The wine hits the back of her throat hard. "Of course not," she says. "He wouldn't come back with me." She thinks, I let a train run over me for him, and he wouldn't jump off a goddamn building.

Mal comes alive in grief and determination and strength in a way that I've rarely seen in any fanwork. To quote a reviewer of the fic on LiveJournal, “Mal is so real, so strong, so perfect, so much the woman we wish Nolan made her in the movie.”

While “i am the hero” was written as a standalone in 2010, the author recently updated it with an equally marvelous followup, “the end is the beginning.”

Where the first fic is told from Mal’s point of view, “the end is the beginning” shifts through the point of views of each of the peripheral characters in the film, as Arthur slowly gathers them around Mal to convince her to rescue Cobb. electrumqueen progresses through their point of views by focusing on their respective relationships to Cobb and Mal. She starts with the passing acquaintance, Yusuf, and moves closer, through Ariadne, Eames, and Arthur, who each have their own different reasons for agreeing to do the job, but who are all ultimately united by Mal’s presence and her grief—which touches them all in different ways:

"By your particular skill set," Eames says very carefully, emphasising the consonants in a way that makes him sound murderous, "you didn't mean forging; you meant my ability to kill."

Arthur looks up, unabashed. "Eames?"

"You know that I won't blink, I’ll pull you out. I’ll pull her out."  I’ll leave him in limbo to rot and I won't think twice about it.

"Oh," Arthur says, absent-minded, the sun falling on his eyelashes. "Yes. You didn't know him, not like we did. It wouldn't—I wouldn't be able to. She wouldn't either. Ariadne's not skilled enough. It had to be you."

Eames thinks: You needed someone you could hate.

It’s not like he was under any illusions, doing what he does: he's what people need, not who they want.

But.

It’s like waking up: it hurts.

More than just “questioning the canon,” as many fanfics hope their work will do, electrumqueen’s fic series actually breathes new life into less developed parts of the story, and in particular into the cardboard cutouts that inhabit Cobb’s world in the film. In Inception, only Cobb is fully-realized and three-dimensional; in “hero of this story,” Cobb is the cipher and everyone else is flesh and blood—Mal most of all.

Far from being the demonized madwoman in the basement of Cobb’s subconscious, in this series she gains agency and life and vulnerability. In the first fic she takes control of the narrative and makes it all her own. In the second fic, while Mal doesn’t actively control the point of view, everything—and everyone—revolves around her and her actions in much the same way they revolve around Cobb in the film. It’s a complete, subtle role reversal, a feminist exchange of power dynamics that positions her as the extractor, and Cobb as the rogue projection lurking at the edges of her subconscious. In electrumqueen’s fiction, it is quite literally all about Mal.

In other words, transformative fiction at its finest.

Art by Jason Reed