Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Universe as a Fuck-Up


If you should happen to experience two or more catastrophic events within a short period of time, say a filling coming loose in a tooth or some automotive expense, or some bureaucratic jumble connected with any of your major interests, your response would be close to reflexive.  “Now what?”  you would question the Cosmos, as though you believed the Cosmos was even aware of you and had an agenda against you.

Even though you do not believe there is a personal Cause and Effect, you live in a culture that in large measure does.  Even though Jesus Christ is not high on your list of cultural icons, you on occasion utter his name as an imprecation, a near mutter that has nothing to do with the man himself or even the status attributed to him.  Once again, your response is reflexive and culture based.  Your response would have no overt religious intent.

The reflexive outburst, “Now what?” is one way of addressing the unexpected, some explicative such as “Jesus Christ,” with exquisite emphasis on all available syllables is another way of responding to the surprise or unanticipated event that has any degree of negative implication.

Small wonder the unexpected is such a choice tool in a writer’s kit.  The unexpected is an excellent enhancement of the travails, complications, risks, and accelerated nuisances hovering over the agendas and plans of individuals in Reality and in story.  Robert Burns knew well of what he spoke when he observed how ”The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley.”  They surely do.

The unexpected is the proverbial—or dramatic—fly in the ointment; it is not only what can go wrong, it is what in fact does go wrong.  If you were serious about what you were doing, you’d have more stories of individuals trying to make their way against human misadventure but also against an adversarial circumstance where in addition to some individuals, the universe was also a fuck-up.

There are indeed other cultures than the one you were born into where individuals on what appears to be a wave of good result (frequently referred to as “on a roll of good fortune”) become concerned about the unexpected arrival of—what better way to say it than the unexpected.  This produces an attitude where, when there are too many good times, when things appear to be going too well, characters become prickly, waiting for the unexpected to strike.

Unanticipated pleasures are not referred to as the unexpected; they are variously called miracles, grace, even happiness.

When there are long stretches between misfortunes, we begin watching for signs, more and more anthropomorphizing the surrounding structure of culture, history and event, waiting for a judgment from an unseen force we call God or The gods or Whatever.

The moment you allow God or the gods or the fates or the furies or Whatever into the sandbox, you have cosmic bullying, which may not be something we can control as a species, but it is surely something we can blame and even resent as a species.

You neither have to believe in nor write magical realism to regard the unexpected as a formidable literary force.  Some events—many events—in Reality occur because they are manipulated, planned, engineered, bought, ordered, and otherwise causally nudged.  All events in story are causal.  Reality may not be deterministic, but drama is.

Determinism will welcome the unexpected with open arms; it is the prodigal son returning, the long-lost relative paying a surprise visit, the literary equivalent of Ed McMahon arriving with a big fat check from Publishers’ Clearing House.

In a new twist of poetic justice ending, a bad guy who is about to be brought to some form of poetic or actual justice may at the last minute get away, but a good guy cannot be saved by the turn of the unexpected.  The good person has to manufacture his or her own outcome.  Witness that fiery protagonist of Sophocles, Ms. Antigone.  Hers was not the ending we’d have wished for her, but it was dramatic and it was tragic.

There is much to be learned from the unexpected.  We as writers must not allow ourselves to be controlling to the point where we don’t allow the unexpected into our narratives, where we stand a chance of learning from it.

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