Thursday, January 21, 2016

Story: The Way of All Contentious Flesh

The moment a character in a story says "I'm certain of the outcome," or even a more moderate, "There, that should fix it," readers in their turn can be certain of forthcoming disaster.  Readers may not be able to pinpoint the precise nature of the disaster, but they know from experience with story the dramatic consequences of odds-on favorites, of over confidence, even of diluted consequences.


If things proceed in neat orderliness for too long, the story becomes attenuated, gives up the ghost, transforms into a generic narrative, which is not in a good position to hold our attention.  Even if we have had little or no orderliness in our life, we turn to story for the relief of watching others cope with chaos. There is possibility for schadenfreude if we note that the characters in story can't cope with chaos as well as we.

We readers are also aware on some level of an observation of near Newtonian scientific reliability, wherein things are not always what they appear to be.  In fact, things in story are never what they appear to be or they wouldn't make their way into story, they'd be warming the benches of early draft.

In a conversation this morning with a friend about the inevitability of uncertainty and unreliability in story, you were thinking about Werner Heisenberg rather than Walter White Heisenberg, and his vision of complementary variables, by Erwin Schrodinger's metric, the measurement of sub-atomic particles is chancy enough for a physicist that the thesis could be well applied to story.  Not too long ago, you intact made that observation in a book you wrote about story.

There is also the matter of Erwin Schrodenger's cat, the particular sort of ambiguous outcome so favored within story, involving a good deal of suspense about whether a cat placed in a particular surrounding will survive a journey.

These are the sorts of ambiguity and uncertainty we all live in, regardless of the historical time in which we have lived.  These are also the conditions and circumstances men and women who make their way through the corridors of story must venture on some sort of regular basis.

Each time we enter a short story or novel, we are entering the terrain of surprise and uncertainty.  A few centuries back, many stories were resolved, which is to say put to rest, when the most unlikely of the dramatis personae was revealed to be the long lost heir to some estate or legacy of considerable wealth. This character's hopes for a less paycheck-to-paycheck life were fulfilled, making marriage with that special, upper-class, someone a possibility.

Story evolves in some tangible relationship to enlightened social values, thus what was once thought of as miscegenation is now considered enlightenment, same sex couples may adopt children, husbands stay at home to balance the checkbooks while the wife runs for political office.  And wins the election.

As a consequence, our expectations of stories published this century have greater expectation of surprise, radical departure, and some stretching of the social fabric. You read many of the things you read now in expectation of this stretch.  If you do not see hints of its explosive presence, literary equivalents of IEDs as it were, you stop reading.

You relish the notion of things not being what they seem, pushing at the boundary markers to the extent where you like the notion of things not being what they seem becoming even less of what they seem.  Thinking about such things in the abstract in this manner makes you examine the things about you that are not what they seem.  

This, in turn, causes you to think this is a delightful way to go about constructing a character.  The question comes to mind, Are you happy with such a large cohort of things about you being what they seem?  Are you, in fact, predictable?  If you are, how long have you been playing the game of pretending you are not, knowing all the while, or at least a portion of the time, that you are quite a lot what you seem?

The significant way out of this conundrum is the awareness that you are a range of possibilities, a representative of the Parliament of You, comforted by the notion of the possibility that at any given negotiating session during which the aggregates of you decide on singular action, your present self might surprise you by becoming the desk-pounding, name-calling cohort who has to be escorted to the door by the sergeant-at-arms aspect of you.  Thus you are charged with removing yourself from the proceedings whence, outside, still smarting from the vitriolic force and language with which the sergeant-of-arms you ejected the dissenting you, a thought comes to you and you say with all sincerity, "Those sons of bitches.  I'll show them a thing or two."

And you wonder, which things or two you are going to show them.

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