On a recent afternoon I rode home from the subway station on a local bus as I do every workday. Looking up from my book for a moment as we passed the high school, I spotted a very old man on a very small bike — child-sized, smaller than my seven year old’s. His knees stuck out like pinched wings and the tallest point of the frame rose hardly as high as his thighs. He rode slowly and I doubt he had any choice, with the tiny bike wobbling and his own wiry frame swaying above it as he pumped himself up the steep hill of the sidewalk in the darkening winter light of near-dusk.
He was only in sight for a couple of seconds, just long enough for the bus to slide by, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever see him again or if I do, around town, I doubt he’ll again be on that bike in that spot in that particular gray cast of weather and time. I might spot him somewhere else and not know it, without that whole scene to recognize him by. It was a perfect moment, though: a whole story captured and crystallized in one glimpse, piquing my curiosity about who he could be and what brought him to being a grown man on a child’s bike in the center of town on that particular day. Was he headed to the bank, or the library, or bar? Had he fixed the bike for a grandchild and gone out to test the repair before giving it back, or was he simply taking a ride on a bike of his own?
It’s the stuff of fiction, the lives we glimpse in peripheries of our own, whether those we observe in mysterious passing or those we pull from thin air. But when we pull those lives to the center to tell their stories, what do we put in their place? Too often it seems to be nothing, making so much of the fiction I read feel claustrophobic with no sense of other lives mattering at the edges and no impression of a world deeper and wider than those parts inhabited by the central characters we’re asked to attend to. Fiction can show us an individual, idiosyncratic mind, or at least the semblance of one in the tangled, rambling, multivocal chaos of our own thoughts in lieu of the tidier, deliberate narratives we’d like to imagine our intentions and actions to be. Outside ourselves, though, there are so many others going about actions and intentions and baffling, beautiful lives of their own, riding tiny bicycles uphill and yelling hilarious non-sequiturs of half-conversation into their phones on the bus and — because those others aren’t always human — chasing each other in circles as three squirrels are doing outside my window just now. Perhaps none of those amount to much narrative potential apart from being cast as metaphors in the shadow of a more dominant plot, but I want to be reminded of those active edges when I read stories.
Or watch them, because I can’t help wondering in every action movie: what happens to the anonymous drivers whose cars smash together when the hero and villain race through in a destructive chase? Or the broken neighborhoods left behind after the hero and villain throw bombs or fireballs or whatever their weapons of choice. We never linger long enough with our camera eye to see those collateral damages tallied; we never see those drivers and their passengers — their children, their pets, their spilled cups of coffee and broken bones — emerge from crashed cars. We never learn if their insurance covers the damage and injury, or if they lose jobs and opportunities and miss weddings of favorite nieces after the crash makes them late to wherever they’re headed. It would be hard to suspend disbelief well enough to enjoy the car chasing action at all if we were reminded so many lives had been wrecked along with the anonymous vehicles. Those films wouldn’t work if we had to consider the people who clean up the mess and live with the consequences and loss in the background of the more dramatic scenes we’re meant to focus on exclusively, never mind the quagmires of denied insurance claims and downward spirals of ongoing misery the action might cause. But there’s a lot of life at those edges, too much to be simply erased by the speed with which our hero’s car races away.
I can’t say I’m a fan of Austin Powers, but that film includes two of my favorite moments in cinema. Almost includes, I suppose, because both were cut from the U.S. release and only offered as deleted scenes on the DVD. Each of them follows the violent death of one of Dr. Evil’s henchmen, the first crushed by a steamroller and the second “decapitated by an ill-tempered mutated sea bass.” Each scene shows the bad news being broken to his family or friends, revealing the wider networks those marginal characters exist in and that they were individuals rather than abstract scraps of collateral damage. The scenes are played for humor, of course, because it’s that kind of movie. But they’re inherently, unavoidably sad (maybe that’s why they were cut?) and pull the rug out from under the genre’s conceits. Or, to be more accurate, the genre being parodied, because imagine how much less enjoyable and escapist James Bond or Jason Bourne’s exploits would be if we had to think about the trail of garage and hospital and funeral bills behind them.
That kind of attention to the edges, a disruptive attention that makes the periphery no longer peripheral at all but powerfully central, is one of the qualities that puts J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence among the best novels I’ve read in a long time, if not ever. In far more earnest and poetic fashion than Austin Powers, Ledgard takes seriously all the lives in his novel, from the ostensible protagonists — a would-be couple separated by distance and circumstance — to terrorist kidnappers to deep ocean microbes. The microbes matter no less to the novel and no less to the reader (at least to this reader) than the humans do. That’s not because the human lives are devalued but because Submergence keeps us mindful of the long view of time and the broad view of life. The novel leads us to ask why we are so focused on the “love story,” or on the suffering of one or two short-lived humans, when there are millions of other living things in the world, many of which are suffering and surviving in their own ways, all of which are as deeply fascinating and rich and worthy of our attention as human politics and romance. I’ve seen Ledgard refer to his desire to write what he calls “planetary fiction,” an intention I feel most keenly in that sense of time and scale and of treating all life as significant whether at the anthropocentric center of our expectations or on the more complex margins of the story he seems to be telling.
I hoped to bring a similar kind of attention to my own novel Fram, by acknowledging the lives and stories that fall by the wayside of stereotypically macho, action-oriented genres like spy thrillers and Arctic explorers’ accounts. What’s going on elsewhere to make those exciting quests possible? What are we not being given as readers in order to keep us turning pages? Real polar explorers were supported by their partners in any number of ways, as Kari Herbert writes of in Polar Wives: The Remarkable Women behind the World’s Most Daring Explorers, either in person or from a distance. But the lives of those women were no more defined by absent men than their husbands’ were defined by pure rugged individual toil despite the presence of support staff. Those women existed — and this is so obvious it hardly bears saying — entirely in their own right, as did everyone else who allowed those explorers to be “self-made men,” the Matthew Hensons of history. Not locked away for years at a time awaiting their returning conquerors in passivity, but busy being alive. As entrenched in their own stories as the families of Dr. Evil’s henchmen or J.M. Ledgard’s microbes.
As were the indigenous locals explorers employed or exploited to steer them across the ice, or in the case of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North to play the role of “noble savage” for southern audiences unlikely to ask who “Nanook” really was as he comically gnawed on a phonograph record, an iconic scene I’ve inserted into my own story in reconstituted form. Not to replace one voice or view with another but to remember, always, that there are more stories than we can tell at one time or fit onto one page. We’re always going to leave some untold or unsatisfying as we rush past them in the pursuit of narrative tension and fulfilling plots and rapid page-turning. The least we can do is to keep a reader aware other stories aren’t being told as a consequence of the one we’ve chosen to focus on and how we’ve chosen to tell it. That a desire for action and excitement, and the tidiness that serves them so well, often results in overlooking the extended outcomes of stories for the sake of narrative satisfaction. An erasure, perhaps, that flows off the page into culture at large.
It’s frustrating sometimes, for many of us, to be reminded of the stories that matter apart from our own and that we might be complicit in pushing them out to the margins. Anyone who has followed news of Ferguson and #GamerGate and so many other painful public narratives in recent months already knows how difficult those conversations can be. But so what? The difficulty is our sign it matters and that we need to get better at it. Considering the stories we tell and how we tell them is one place to start, even if it frustrates readers or even distracts them, and perhaps there are ways for us to write that make such frustration and distraction meaningful. “Planetary fiction,” as Ledgard calls it, but we might also call it humane and attentive. We might call it mindful.
There are novels like Wide Sargasso Sea and Wicked and Mary Reilly that retell stories we know from new angles, and there are whole worlds of fanfiction letting new voices speak, as Anne Jamison’s recent book Fic demonstrates so well. But it’s the voices that speak from the edges of even those stories that interest me most, the further possibilities even retellings create, and the ways our attention might always be split between the story we’re being offered and awareness of those we are directed away from by the necessity of moving ahead. It’s not that we are somehow required to tell every possible story — though perhaps, at its best, social media is getting us closer in its banal, beautiful way — or to tell stories other than the ones we’re personally, mysteriously drawn to tell. But maybe doing better at reminding our readers and viewers there are other stories that might be told instead will encourage more people to tell them, to move the edges into the center, and encourage those in positions of influence to offer a platform without dismissing them as stories “nobody wants” while leading others still to listen to them with more attention.
Image Credit: Flickr/Dyrk.Wyst.