Thursday, June 3, 2010


There are matters in life--questions, really--that are all but unanswerable; some wiggle room is left for a tentative "Well..." trailing off into the abyss of the unknown, the unreckoned, the inconceivable. In story, someone has to come along with the observation "That won't do. There's got to be an answer," transforming story immediately from the quotidian to the tense, dramatic, zip file of fiction.

Today, as you sat in one of your favorite corners of your favorite coffee shop, trying to get some traction with a book review that did not want to grant traction, you overheard such an unanswerable question, rising out of conversation like pure ectoplasm in a seance. "People on the other side," a sincere-to-the-point-of-matter-of-factness said, "help us over." The same voice quickly abused you that the Other Side could mean anything other than The Spirit World. Before this individual's companion could frame the question stretching its elephantine trunk, the speaker said, "You'll have to trust me on this," thus removing from the table any hint of rationality. Those of us who are big on faith have no problem with the Other Side, with God, possibly even with the Republican party; these things are articles we believe in because of some internal rumble that could be anything on a spectrum that has its alpha at acid reflux and its omega at God. I know there is God because I have this feeling.

Story doesn't so much go after those who have faith or, indeed, believe there is a God in whom they most surely believe as it is, to borrow freely from Biblical lore, the scepticism of the Doubting Thomas, wanting proof. The demand for the tangible propels the story to some conclusion, either one that demonstrates, yes; there is a God, or the no, in thunder of the refusal to accept anything so fanciful.

I can't answer that question is an option in a political debate, a science lab, or an on-line dating program. Story will have none of it; unless there is a force powerful enough to drive someone to discover the answer, the good stuff in story would never be told. We would rather have the wrong answer in story than no answer at all. Reality is another matter. We even agree through manipulation of CW, conventional wisdom, how wise it is to admit the unanswerability of certain questions involving probability or lack of sufficient data.

That word, data, immediately conjures up the traces of sound argument and a logical pursuit to get at the bottom of things. We want data rather than information in story because data, by its very sound and the elitist way it is distinguished from stuff or information, transcends the two worlds of the made-up and the reality going on at a given moment in a given place. A city may be located a mile above sea level and we will accept that as a relative fact, but for the mile above sea level to be in some precipitous mountain range where most access is a chore, the information changes it to the point where we are gasping for air even as we read.

Because of our human wiring, which is in some major way given to curiosity and eavesdropping, we want answers, and we will continue reading until someone gives them to us.

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