How Fiction Explains the World

Since I’ve started to piece together a mission statement—albeit a tentative and poorly articulated one—I might as well keep at it.

Three news items have drawn attention to the social and political importance of telling made-up stories.

1. According to an article in the New York Times, we’re living in the Age of Metrics. More than ever before, we make our decisions only after crunching a bunch of data. Raising a baby, losing weight, dating, walking, quitting cigarettes—all of these familiar activities can be monitored and second-guessed using new digital apps. Why follow your instincts when a device can tell you what to do next? “These services are wondrous,” the article says. “They also risk lumping us into clusters of the like-minded and depriving us of the self-fortifying act of choosing.” No shit. Data is just data. If you think it’s telling you a story—or giving you advice, or predicting your future—you’re simply ignoring the fact that by interpreting the data you have imposed a man-made narrative on the numbers. Like it or not, we live by the stories we tell ourselves, and that goes double for times when we stare at a block of numbers (an inscrutable oracle if there ever was one) and imagine they’re sending us messages that we should act on.

2. New York magazine published seven fictional stories about real political figures. It’s called “The Political Fictions Project.” We love to say that all politics is fiction, and of course we’re fans of this project. But some of the stories work better than others. Those that take a rather literal approach to depicting the lives of Barack Obama, John McCain, and Mitt Romney seem to stagger and fall under the weight of so much public knowledge of their subjects. But a few of these stories work deviously well. Mary Gaitskill imagines a mystical nail salon in Queens where the mistresses of famous politicians (Monica Lewinsky, Ashley Dupré) attend to the wives of the politicians they’ve slept with. Paul Rudnick channels the cracked-out voice of Sarah Palin as she prepares for a family Christmas celebration that will include her nemesis, Levi Johnston.

The best stories in this project work because they step away from dry politics—like what Obama was thinking as he walked down a hallway in the White House on a typical work day—and imagine, instead, an alternate world, or an alternate voice, that casts a strange light on our elected leaders. This is “speculative” fiction in the best, broadest sense: it’s hypotheticals and flights of fancy that reveal the true nature of our leaders.

3. Did you hear the one about the mentally retarded kid who went into hiding on the New York subway system? That was a novel by John Wray called Lowboy. And then it actually happened. Earlier this month, a boy with Asperger’s got upset, ran away, and spent 10 days riding the New York subway. You can’t make this shit up. Except you can, and John Wray did. Not every novel comes true (so far, at least; who knows what will happen in the fullness of time). And we wouldn’t want every novel to come true. (War of the Worlds, I’m looking at you.) But when it does happen, the novel-come-to-life reminds us that good fiction makes speculations (see above) about the world and prepares us to deal with the crazy, otherwise-totally-unpredictable stuff that happens on a daily basis.


One comment

  1. In re #1 – This makes me think of Suetonius when he describes how Roman generals would slaughter chickens before major battles and make decisions based on how the blood splattered. When I read that, I told my dad how funny I thought it was that we lionize this civilization that was run by people who decided what to do because of poultry fluids. And he said that it wasn’t any stranger than people making decisions in their lives based on poll numbers, chart rankings and number crunching. So at least there’s the comfort of knowing that we will seem as silly as the Romans in another millennium or two.

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