Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Social Contract as Applied to Characters

A recent conversation about the increasing number of front-rank characters who are disagreeable got you to thinking about the shift in literary demographics.

Agreeability is something we do when we are with friends or clients or students, or when we are out performing the errands we associate with survival in cities.  Depending on what kind of demographic we live in, our agreeability index has an automatic default somewhere around polite.  

You recall once, some years back, saying "Excuse me," when you'd brushed against someone on Fifth Avenue.  The individual, as you recall, stopped, turned, and asked, "You talking to me?"

Your own response, "Yes, I was asking your pardon for having bumped you."

"Buddy,"  the man said, "where are you from, cause you sure as hell aren't from here."

You'd spent enough time, off and on, in New York, to understand how this "conversation" did not have much longer a life.  You were quick to observe the same was true of him; his act of returning your apology was every bit the outlier your apology was.  Turns out he was from Truro, Massachusetts, thus you'd actually had an exchange of sorts with him.  "Been there, once," he said when he learned where you were from.

 You were able to say the same thing about Truro.  "Didn't like it," he said, learning where you were from.  "Didn't like Truro,"  you said.  Then you both shrugged and, because streams of foot traffic were edging around both of you, moved on into your streams of walking traffic.  One or two more exchanges and you might have suggested a quick beer over on Third, two foreigners to Manhattan, but not to the Social Contract, not a trace of Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo in The Midnight Cowboy in either of us

Unless we are among individuals we are close to, agreeability is set low, a tad above recognition for consideration as a minimum ante in the ongoing game of the social contract.  When we are in the composing mode, we are much more apt to give characters that Ratso Rizzo edge, which is more than a little bit a quest for mere recognition,

Characters do not set out to be heedless in their transactions; they become burdened with obligations, real and imagined.  They become beset with an ongoing need to perform financial calculations in their heads, wondering when and if "the money" from some source is going to appear in time to meet a particular need.  Once you established the present length and route of your evening walk, you began slipping into what you call the interior routine of it, wherein you know where to turn and even how far along you are, all the while working at the solution of some interior problem, a story, a lecture to give, a book to review, a reminder that this week, Sally seems to be amenable to bacon once again, do you need to visit an ATM.  After two incidents of nearly colliding with another walker, you resolved to find a solution that would keep you in the outer rather than inner moment.

The solution was right there in your cell phone, a built-in camera, a reason for extending outward, looking for small details to photograph.  Trouble is, you've pretty well documented your walk route, so now, you need another route.

Characters who could once focus almost entirely on the details of the story they were in no longer have such luxuries.  They are now beset, considerate to a degree, but not much beyond.  Just before you'd reached your exact halfway mark at State and Sola Streets on Friday night, a man stopped you.  "Hey,"  he said.

You were so close to rudeness.  "Hey, yourself."

"Aren't you the book review guy?  I thought I recognized you."

You stood, nodding, pleased with yourself for not displaying any of your magnificent potential for rudeness.

"I need,"  your interviewer said, "a good book for my wife."

Hearing this caused a complete change in the way you felt about the man.  For one thing, he reminded you of a couple you'd seen at breakfast earlier in the week, him with his Wall Street Journal, folded the way your father folded his morning newspaper at breakfast, reading the columnists, arguing with every sentence they'd written, turning to you or your mother on occasion.  "Listen to what this lunkhead says about labor unions."  Then he'd read an offending sentence or two.  "Do you understand the gravity of what he's saying here?"  

Thus warmed by thoughts of your father, you were able to cringe at the first impression of the couple, her with her tennis outfit and clanky bracelets and cell phone, him with is WSJ.  They seemed somehow bordering on ugly and disagreeable, until it was time for her to leave, whereupon his hand snaked out, grabbed her wrist, spun her around for a hug, which she not only tolerated, she encouraged.  They were no longer ugly or disagreeable; they were affectionate.

These are the things you hope to see, on your walks, in yourself, in your work, things not entirely comfortable for you until that last, extra beat, where humanity joins the picture.

You gave your "fan" a title of a book for his wife, and for the rest of the walk, you felt as though you'd sent a love note to someone you didn't know.

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