A Long Walk to Nowhere

This week I went to London for a job interview with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. While I was in the capital I stayed with a friend from my old job. While there, she introduced me to a TV program called Castle, which stars Nathan Fillion as Richard Castle, a thriller writer who gets involved with a genuine murder case as a result of it taking inspiration from his writing. It was the pilot episode of the series, and Fillion was in the role of a wise-cracker to the ‘straight-man’ of Stana Katic but overall I enjoyed it. There was one segment that stood out to me though, where Castle is unsatisfied with the identity of the killer and goes on to crack the case because ‘the reader wouldn’t buy it.’ An adage that is perhaps too often wheeled out is that ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’ It is no consequence in the real world whether anyone believe something happened, because it happened. Except, that isn’t the case. Humans are creatures of narrative logic. We like things to make sense and, more importantly, we have a drive to make sense of the things that happen to and around us (There is an excellent section in China Mieville’s ‘Embassytown’ that goes in to this, and I had the opportunity to ask him about years ago).

On the train to and from London I had the opportunity to do some reading: “Murder in Ancient China: Two Judge Dee mysteries” and “Nelson Mandela: A Life Reported” two very different sort of books. The stories in Judge Dee follow the formula for a mystery which is first revealed with a simple answer, then a more complex one that ties many threads together and creating a consistent narrative digestible to a reader; NM:ALR is a collection of the Guardian and Observer columns from 1953 to his death (and shortly thereafter). Though the events of life resist it (Mandela was a freedom fighter who was also an aristocrat; he brought peace but didn’t reform SA; he fought apartheid and was friends with dictators) the collection are framed narratively so we can make sense of them. Further than that though, we get an inkling to how even Nelson Mandela, who fought the great cultural narrative of his time (racist SA structures) also created a personal narrative to condone association with people like Gaddafi: he supported the ANC during the anti-Apartheid struggle.

I am not a psychologist, so my interest in this process is purely from a writing rather than life perspective. Taking this statement – people interpret events in a narrative frame – as an axiom, how can this be used in writing? I think, like in a mystery novel, the initial answer is the least satisfying, that being that because humans frame things are narrative we should adhere to narrative standards. I think the potential arises for something much more interesting if we entertain the notion of reflectively deploying the narrative urge within a story. An analysis of the epic from of the Iliad and Gilgamesh, for example, found that they were (putting any questions of quality aside) more relevant to life because things just happened and the characters responded to them, seeking explanation in the fates and the Gods. This was contrasted against regency novels where all events are linked to the narrative. Perhaps in writing we should sometimes allow in an unexpected event and then show the characters scrambling within themselves to contextualise it within their own stories.

This also calls to mind the words of Foucault in ‘Society Must Be Defended.’ In the collection of transcribed speeches, Foucault outlines a system where politics is the pursuit of wars that grown cold (an inversion of Clausewitz’s statement). Of more relevance is the idea (that Foucault would develop seperately) of competing narratives or ‘knowledges.’ There is the perspective of the victor, which becomes the state narrative, but there are also the other peripheral narratives (in Foucault’s examples, the stories of the conquered) that endure in subaltern narratives. It is an illuminating theory – though I should note it has been and continues to be used for reactionary purposes – that can again be applied to writing as a character struggles to contextualise what has happened with what they believe to be true, and in a broader context what their life is about. An interesting project, perhaps ideally collaborative, would be to come to an event and write about it from differing perspectives. Rather than just rest on someone experiencing the events differently, one could also explore the life that has led to those differences. To use a brute-force example, two characters are confronted with a gun, one of whom is familiar with firearms, the other is not or is primarily through secondary media.

To finish I think that humans like to imagine their life as a progression, a story going in a direction. That is a fiction we construct, for good and for ill. It might be worthwhile to examine the process by which we esteem things enough to be included in our personal ‘story.’

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