Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What Is This Thing Called, Love?

inevitability--the story-governing certainty that something will go wrong; a presentiment that circumstances surrounding one or more characters will worsen; the likelihood that a character who is given a menu of choices will select the one most probable course for disaster.

Fred has decided to attend a ten-year reunion of his college graduating class. Still smarting from the painful break-up of his marriage, Fred is thinking the reunion might be a place to reenter the relationship market. By the time the evening is over, Fred has been given four email addresses of former classmates, all of whom he considers attractive, all of whom have hinted their willingness to let him take her home. They are all attractive, each in a different way. They are all bright, each according to her particular interests. Aroused and lonely, Fred makes his choice. Most readers will recognize the landmine Fred will have stepped on as a consequence of his choice. Most readers will know that the one Fred chose will be afflicted with a rusted-out Honda and have at home a cat with a urinary infection. Moreover, she will cry loudly at unexpected times, and want to know from Fred why people cannot learn to be more respectful to one another. Not that any of these qualities are of themselves disastrous, but to Fred, they are complications he does not think he needs. As such inevitability goes, Fred will have subsequent contact with the other three former classmates who signaled their availability, finding each in her own way borderline remarkable. But the added inevitability is that Fred is drawn to his first choice and is last seen advancing to her apartment with a large container of rust remover and a copy of Cat Care For Dummies.

Inevitability makes no distinction in gender. Nicole, herself still uneasy from a painful break-up with a man who was compulsive to the point of arguing with her about the only proper way to allow toilet paper to spool, has gone to the same reunion as Fred. She has urged herself to go, thinking the experience will be good for her, even though she knows in advance that she will leave that night with the one man in the entire gathering who will be the most disastrous. Indeed, the individual Nicole chooses can't wait to get her to his place in order to show her his collection of breakfast cereal boxes, including his prized Wheaties box with the still florid image of Duke Snyder smiling forth. The evening ends with her moodily watching him as he pours bowls of corn flakes for both of them.

Although inevitability takes human psychology well into consideration, dealing as it does with such tropes as victims, compulsions, ego, avocations, and the very nature of individual identity, inevitability is causality and consequence writ large. It is the dramatic distillation of forces observed in reality but often buried under an array of distracting signs and misinterpreted biological responses to stimuli. All it takes to trigger in the reader the awareness of inevitability is for one character to ask another, "You'll wait for me, right? We'll be married as soon as I finish grad school." Not to mention one of the most famous of all story tropes, the all-purpose, one-size-fits-all "Is this safe?" which could relate to robbing a bank, a sexual encounter, crossing the street in the middle of a block, risking savings on a business venture. Yet another inevitability catcher: "I'll be right back," and not to forget: "I'll call you."

Why, oh why did Colm Toibin's character Tony, so deeply in love with Eilish in Brooklyn, plead with her to marry him in a secret civil ceremony before returning to Ireland for a funeral? Why, he did it to add considerable depth to both characters, and to introduce the worm of inevitability into the apple. Who among Toibin's readers did not suspect that Eilish would experience a heavy pang of temptation while away from Tony.

Inevitability is like the black keys and the white keys on the piano; the composer knows which to designate and when to produce the most plangent results.

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