Sunday, November 10, 2013

Things That Go Wrong

A major theme in much American literature is the way things go wrong, plans don't materialize, expectations are unmet, things striven for not achieved.  In some cases, the very thing that goes wrong may be likened to the American Dream.

Steinbeck, to name one American Nobelist, wrote what you consider one of the most perfect novellas on the subject, Of Mice and Men. In what you find a hidden vein of satire, Steinbeck takes on California, holds it forth as an example of the American Dream, then shows it in failure via The Grapes of Wrath.  

Although many critics say William Faulkner had no sense of humor, you'd counter that with the more obvious examples of Spotted Horses, a stand alone novella, later combined into a longer work The Hamlet, and his last published work, The Reivers, in which you see a direct connection to another thirteen-year-old boy character, Huckleberry Finn.

Things could not have got any wronger than the travails of the corpse of Addie Bundren, on its way to burial, in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. But somehow, Faulkner managed to find a way in subsequent titles.

Some novelists and their works play out this theme of things going wrong as the background against which other, more personalized activities take place, say Richard Ford's recent Canada, or Louise Erdrich's most recent, The Round House.

One writer in particular, Cormac McCarthy,seems to have taken up this theme as his modus operandi, notable in ever so many ways in such works as Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, The Road, and No Country for Old Men.

In many of these, such as The Road, civilization has gone wrong.  In No Country, a drug deal has gone wrong.  Now, in McCarthy's latest work, an original screenplay, story itself appears to have gone wrong, most of the characters emerging as individuals for whom it is difficult to see any reason for concern, and much of the dialogue between these characters going well beyond what you'd expect persons in such circumstances to say.

If you look at the matter through a close-up lens, most stories will reveal themselves to you as ending where they do because, were they to continue, some new thing would go wrong, wanting to be righted.
The nature of all story is for a thing to go wrong or amiss or awry.  Indeed, a major American storyteller, Willa Cather, saw this phenomena in action by her deft handling of the closure in your favorite of her novels, My Antonia.  

Cather's narrator, a man from the same place and generation of the eponymous Antonia, has clearly foundered in a disappointing, loveless marriage, in a way paying him in some kind of justice for having married for position instead of love. The ironic subtext of the narrative is his regard for Antonia, pure respect and the unspoken admiration of love.  But for him to have married her would have turned a narrative of noble stature to a formula most associated with the comedic ending, where everyone is married at the end, and all live happily ever after.

In its major sense, the term "rhythm system" refers to birth control.  Another way of looking at the rhythm system is to see all real it (and thus life and its events) as tidal, waxing and waning, in and out, going well and going wrong.

The more fragile persons you see about you in reality or read in fiction have yet to come to terms with this ebb and flow, considering themselves fated, doomed, destined.  In a larger, cosmic sense, they may have little choice in the outcomes of their chosen paths, but they have had some choice and they have the option to embrace an attitude.  They also have options for changing course, modifying, experimenting.

The stronger individuals are those who have factored in the reversals and things gone wrong in their projected courses in all aspects of the life's journey.  They are able to stand taller in the face of weal and woe, to do the things humans do best, endure, strive, form incredible relationships with animals, love other humans, write books, read poems, listen to music, watch sunsets, and go on sandwich-less picnics.

It took you some considerable time to learn that story and things going wrong walk together, hand-in-hand along the narrative pathway, stopping on occasion when each finds something to show the other.

We live by story, die from and by it, and read it to our dreams at night.

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